In the early 1950s, Mr. and Mrs. Winne moved themselves and their two young boys to the north Jersey town of Ridgewood, located just 20 miles west of New York City. Besides being within easy commuting distance of Manhattan’s corporate headquarters where Mr. Winne, the up-and-coming executive would work, my parents chose Ridgewood for the quality of its schools, allegedly the best in the state. My brother and I, later balanced by the addition of two sisters, would find nothing about our education to dispel that assumption. We all went on to college as did 85 percent of the 600 people in my 1968 graduating class of Ridgewood High School.
The realization of just how privileged I was came rushing back to me this September when 150 or so members of the RHS Class of ’68 gathered for a reunion. The highlight was a school tour led by the vice principal and several very sharp junior and senior students. This VP was a decidedly different breed of cat from the one who patrolled the corridors with an iron fist in my day. Instead of busting into smoke-filled boys’ rooms to round up the miscreants, this one was conversant with the latest educational methods that included an open campus, student phone apps, and swipe cards that securely let students and staff into the school. Yet, in spite of what the students told us about Ridgewood’s 100-plus clubs and activities, frequent field trips abroad, and what is now a 93 percent college entrance rate, the threat of violence stalked the hallways in ways that it never did in my day.
Peeling off from our tour group to use the nearest restroom, I came across this sign stuck to the wall next to the toilet:
Ridgewood Public Schools Bathroom Lockdown Instructions
- Remain Calm
- Remain Quiet
- Lock Yourself In A Stall
- Pull Your Feet Up Higher Than The Stall Wall
- Wait For An Announcement That The Lockdown Is Over
My God, I asked, is this what kids today have to prepare for? As a teenager I can recall filing into the school basement and being told to sit on the concrete floor and place my hands on my head, as if that would protect me from an all-out Soviet nuclear attack. One difference between then and now is that our civil defense drills were primarily designed to reinforce our loyalty to the fabricated logic of the Cold War and the military industrial complex. My fears then were grounded in a strategic global paranoia, while today’s Ridgewood students – and most assuredly those of Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Parkland – are founded on their lived reality of a deranged classmate taking them out with an NRA-approved assault weapon. Francesca, my group’s student tour guide, told us that over half of RHS’s students participated in last February’s walkout held in sympathy for the Parkland victims and support for the emerging student anti-gun advocates.
High school reunions are meant to be celebrational, a happy affirmation of our shared youth and prosperous adulthoods which for many of us now included a comfortable retirement. But the evening’s dinner and dance, though filled with sweet remembrances and some less-than-sexy boogying, commenced with a stark reminder of the injustices that our privilege allowed us to escape. The oh-so-white Class of ’68 had a total of 9 members of color. When a long moment of silence accompanied the reading of the names of our deceased classmates, I realized that 4 of those 9 were among them, even though the total death rate for the class was only 5 percent. Statistically significant? I’m not sure. But meaningful? I think so.
A few days later I found myself in Jacksonville, Florida where I was researching my next book. Jacksonville is Florida’s most populous city and the nation’s largest by land area. Nearly one-third of the residents are African-American and about 60 percent are white. I’m driving through the city’s vast Northside that is largely black and lower income – and mostly one massive food desert – but filled with amazing people and projects that are trying to bring health and affordable food to the area. One of those people is Ju’ Coby Pittman who is the CEO of the Clara White Mission, an award-winning nonprofit that serves Jacksonville’s homeless and veterans with numerous programs including a culinary arts training program and a 14-acre community farm. Another recognition was bestowed on Ju’Coby just this July when she was appointed by Florida governor Rick Scott to fill a Jacksonville City Council seat vacated by a former city councilperson who is now under Federal indictment for fraud and corruption.
My rental car’s outside thermometer reads 94 degrees, its humid, and my AC is not keeping up. I pull into the farm and pass a couple of acres of nicely tended greens and beans before I find Ju’Coby waiting for me in her much better air-conditioned vehicle. Since the farm has yet to build an office – a recent city grant will improve the farm’s infrastructure – we converse in her car for over an hour. While she’s optimistic about the progress the farm is making toward becoming a major source of fresh produce for the neighboring community, she was extremely distressed by her first 74 days as the city councilwoman for the surrounding 8th District. “I was shocked by what I heard from some teenagers I met in school,” she tells me. “One of them said, ‘We can buy guns like ‘tater chips. I need to carry a gun to protect myself and to get respect.’” She went on to relate a conversation with a teenage girl who told her, “I can’t get help from my mama because she has the same problems I do.” If those conversations weren’t enough, one of her tours took her to the city morgue where she found four dead black teenage boys. Ju’Coby was down, but not out, telling me, “There’s a lot more good around here than bad.”
I believed her and the others I met who are fighting to keep their children out of the morgue. I believed the Ridgewood High School vice principal who told us alums how school officials are keeping this beautiful school safe for the joyful pursuit of learning. And I believed that the hearts and minds of my classmates were stung by the disproportionate loss of their classmates of color. Here’s to justice and safety for all! May that dream one day come true.