The cost of silence will cost us all
In the fall of 1951 I was in the second grade at an elementary school in suburban Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. My teacher was Mrs. B. ,a stout woman with gray hair and a broad smile. There were about 30 students in the class. The majority were white and there were also several Black students in our class.
The first fire drill happened in late September. Mrs. B. had instructed us on the path we should take to get out of the building through the classroom’s main door that entered into the hallway. Also an interior door was in our room that connected us to another second grade class next door.
The fire alarm went off, and we exited our classroom and went down the hall to an outside door. We were out on the playground for about five minutes. Then the bell rang again signaling that we should return to our classroom, which we did.
My desk was in the first row adjacent to the wall that separated our classroom from the hall. The second graders in the other classroom came into our room from the door to the hall and filed through our room and back into their classroom.
As a Black kid passed through our room, he noticed a stub of a pencil lying on the floor against the wall adjacent to my desk. He bent down and picked it up and continued walking towards his classroom.
Mrs. B. noticed what he had done and she shouted at him, “That’s Norm Ferguson’s pencil!” But, it was not my pencil.
The Black kid replied, “I found it here by the wall.” Mrs. B. took hurried steps in his direction. And she shouted at him, “Liar!”
And when she got to him she hauled off and smacked him very hard in the face with her open right hand. The Black kid immediately started crying and he ran back out of the room and disappeared. I felt awful because I knew he was telling the truth, but I was afraid to contradict Mrs. B. about what she had said and done.
About an hour later there was a knock on our classroom door. The door opened and the school principal stepped in and said, “Mrs. B. may I see you?” Mrs. B. walked briskly out into the hall. I could see two Black women and the Black student standing out in the hall. I thought they were probably his mother and grandmother. Then Mrs. B. closed the door behind her. I thought about getting up and going out into the hall to tell the principal, Mrs. B., and the two Black women the truth about the pencil.
But, I did not. I was again afraid to tell the principal the truth in front of Mrs. B. I knew I should have told her right away when she yelled at the Black student. I felt fearful and frozen, so again I did nothing. If I had spoken out, I might have prevented the Black student from a punishment he in no way deserved.
I am now in my seventies and still have vivid memories of that event. I know I was only in the second grade, but I had two chances to right a wrong and I failed to act in both cases. I’ve learned that I must act-inthe-moment when I’m aware someone is falsely accused. I must speak out when I see a wrong occurring and remembering that incident helps me do that. The cost of silence can be a very high price for more than only myself.