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She works inner-city wonders through nonviolence.

After five weeks in the classroom, no one was hearing me. I stopped talking and started listening. The kids had plenty to say. They wanted to know where I came from, what I wanted from them. One asked why I didn't live in East St. Louis. "You said nonviolence was about changing places with the other side. You're on the other side."

I shoved my essays on Gandhi and King into my briefcase and searched for what could resurrect nonviolence from the graveyard of theory. I turned to film, clips from "Eyes on the Prize," the documentary on civil rights. I froze the tape on the protester who caused the fireman to drop his hose. He looked tense but not beaten. I released the button. The pressurized water sent him to the ground every time he stood. He fell, crawled forward, fell again. He kept his eyes on the man with the hose. Against orders and threats, the fireman dropped the hose. It was over.

"This man had no gun. He used a different force to fight." I was excited.

"You can't let people run over you like that," Latoya interrupted. "Maybe you could fight like that back in the old days. Not now. That dude lost face. Where I live, they'd whip your sorry ass and throw it in the river." I waited through the silence.

"If they had started fighting back, it would have been a bloodbath. As it was, they won. Without these people, we wouldn't be in this room together today," I said. They stared at me. Anthony, far in the back, had his eyes on another prize -- the black Cadillac with dark windows moving slowly down Summit Avenue. I had to find another way.

A week later, in the dead of night, Anthony took me down to the railroad and showed me how he and his friends stole guns and ammunition from moving military trains. We almost got caught. We stole no guns.

Anthony did not convert to nonviolence. No one did. Changes took place. After the night in East St. Louis, Anthony attended class more often. He brought a pen. He asked for a book on Nelson Mandela. He stopped spending all his energy disrupting class. He had been testing me to see how fake I was, how real nonviolence might be. Weeks after the course was over, he wrote a one-sentence evaluation, "Actions are not always louder than words."

The Marianist Brothers founded the Vincent Gray Alternative High School in 1980. A dedicated staff of brothers, nuns and laypeople serve over 60 kids a year, ages 16 to 24, mostly black, dropouts or toss-outs from the public schools, all survivors of the cultural and economic violence that rages in East St. Louis, described by the chairman of the Illinois Board of Education as "simply the worst possible place in the country imaginable to have a child brought up."

Colman McCarthy, director of the Center for Teaching Peace and a syndicated columnist at The Washington Post, stumbled across the school on a Midwest lecture tour. I joined him that day and found Vincent Gray an enclave of learning and caring.

Last September, I headed across the Mississippi to teach peace in East St. Louis.

An All-American city in the |60s, East St. Louis has since been in steady decline. It has the highest per capita homicide rate in the country. Its most prosperous business that is legal is a chain of funeral homes run by Carl Officer, the former mayor. It is the last place to expect nonviolence to take hold.

Still, the classroom expanded. After school I went with the kids to job interviews, took them to editorial staff meetings at newspapers, attended drug rehab meetings with a woman who, after a long struggle, graduated and got accepted into college. Anthony and two other students began swimming with me at the fitness center. On our way home one night, the police pulled me over in front of the Ritz Carlton Hotel. I was four miles an hour over the speed limit. The policeman checked the car carefully and issued a warning. Three black men in a nice car with a white woman was not desirable in that neighborhood.

Students who had been told they could barely write, started writing haltingly: about jobs, power, war, their fear of the city, what we could do to make it better. They wrote letters to the editor. Their essays got published in The Post Dispatch. They were interviewed on National Public Radio and became the focus of a PBS documentary.

We formed a storytelling troupe and performed for the kindergarten kids at the Catholic Day Care Center every week. Each day they complained it was too much work. Each day I wanted to quit. But they kept coming..

The staff worked to get the kids to school against enormous odds: illness (one-fourth of the students had chronic ulcers or asthma and severe tooth and gum disease); little or no parental support (though some received support from mothers, grandmothers, aunts -- few kids knew their fathers); lack of transportation and day care for their children; no permanent place to live; a parade of family deaths and funerals; part-time jobs that interlaced with school time; doctors' appointments that ate up whole days.

"Is this the class on nonviolence?" Michael asked last spring. He sat down, six feet big with dark eyes, gripping and frightening.

For the first weeks, Michael (a pseudonym) barely spoke. He spent his time slashing a pencil across the pages as if it were a machete. It was through the journal that became a patchwork of the pieces of his life that I came to know him.

He was 17. He had been in prison and had come to like it. He was good at working "the spoils system." He had been in a gang and become the leader. Scars from gun wounds were on his arms and back. He had killed men, be said. Once, for money. He described drug dealers as unpredictable and temperamental.

Then he had learned he was going to be a father. Most men in East St. Louis disappear when they hear this news. He came home. He left the gangs, traded lifestyles to raise his daughter.

Three months after I started teaching him, he was waiting for a ride after school. On the way home, he told me he used to own a good car. He used to bring home a grand a week. Now he had no car, and he hadn't found work. We pulled into his driveway. He lived in a white house, two rooms and clean. No TV. He had just painted the inside. He gave me a tour of the street.

His daughter arrived in the hands of an aunt. "She only knows the joys in life," he said, unbraiding her hair.

He read Malcolm X, King, essays by Day and Gandhi and the accounts of prisoners who used nonviolence in prison. He read The New York Times for the first time, met with Paul Simon when the senator visited Vincent Gray. He asked me bow racism got started.

In nonviolence Michael found something he wished be had been able to learn before he spent years getting scars. "Love makes you do more than hate ever can," he wrote.

This was just one little course. On a shoestring budget of $19,000, it has been successful. Despite the press, the kids' responses, the desire to have it back, there is no funding for next year. Five organizations have turned down requests for grants.

But I hope somehow to go back.
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Title Annotation:Vincent Gray Alternative High School, East St. Louis, Illinois
Author:Raley, Kate D.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Aug 27, 1993
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