Tuesday, January 1, 2013

A Small Town In Black And White

HAPPY NEW YEAR! Today I begin a new project on FrancisPage.com: The 30/30 Challenge. The goal is 30 original stories in 30 days. Most will be personal, many will be humorous, but all of them will be episodes I have never talked about before online. I kick things off with a story of a story from my cub reporting days.

Huntsville, Missouri, about five miles west of Moberly and 50 miles north of Columbia, is no hotbed of racial tension, or any tension -- even if Confederate guerrilla leader "Bloody Bill" Anderson did spend a few boyhood days there. But on February 8, 1993, the KBIA newsroom at the University of Missouri got a tip about a suspected verbal and physical assault involving a black high school student and a white teacher. The issue was to come up at the Westran School District meeting.

Fellow college cub reporter Jeanette and I travel up there in her car, gabbing about ourselves and our journalism classes while our station plays in the background, interrupted only by a U2 tape. The countryside has nothing to offer in the darkness, save for an occasional radio tower. Fog forms on the ground, and we hope it wouldn't build.

Rolling into Huntsville, I see a typical, classic Missouri small town. The local supermarket is closed and dark at only 6pm. So is nearly every business on the main drag. Jeanette pulls into a Casey's General Store -- that gas-and-grocery chain wedded to rural locations -- and asks directions to the school where the meeting is taking place. It doesn't take us long to find it.

This is a big meeting. The Westran School Board is set up in the library, and people outnumber seats, crowding between shelves and leaning against the wall. Jeanette and I find chairs in the front row next to a newspaper scribe from Kirksville. One of the TV stations in Columbia has deployed a one-man band who sets up his camera right next to the board's roundtable. He places his lone microphone next to the superintendent... who also happens to be the husband of the accused teacher.

The meeting starts and the board jumps right to the public discussion period. Tape recorders click on, including mine, and the clerk reads the rules. A member of the state NAACP sitting beside me pipes up. She's concerned about the 15-minute per topic time limit, with a 3-minute limit per speaker.

"Is this the official policy?" she asks.

The clerk replied, it is.

"Do you have it in writing?"

The supervisor and the clerk exchange glances, and the clerk goes up to fetch it. A few minutes later, he returns with a pink sheet of paper. He hands it to the NAACP lady, and she peruses it silently as I sneak a glance over her shoulder. She insists the clerk read it again and he does.

A lady named Dimple, mother of the girl involved in this suspected racial rhubarb, gets up and lays out the story. She says the whole incident came about because of a cheerleading rivalry between her daughter and the teacher's daughter. Dimple's daughter made the team; the teacher's kid didn't. As the story goes, Dimple's daughter had been rubbing this in the other girl's face through gossip, and the teacher knew it.

Dimple says it all came to a head during a basketball game, where the teacher spotted Dimple's daughter, then shoved and cursed at her: "I'm tired of this bull---- you're spreading about my daughter." Dimple confronted the teacher later on, and the educator told her she was tired of the gossip. Things went downhill. Dimple says the teacher told her, "Well, I know where your daughter gets her fat mouth!"

Dimple tells the board she wants the teacher fired, but not just to cause trouble. She says the incident, "is not a racial thing." Even so, she still notified the NAACP about it. The NAACP representative who inquired about the time limit gets back up and tells the board this is no game. The organization is filing complaints with law enforcement and civil rights groups as well as the U.S. Department of Education. It sounds like overkill, but she says this wasn't the only time a black student has been assaulted. She claims in each instance, the board "swept it under the rug."

The general public gets its turn. "This is not a racist town," says one woman.

Another woman, black and running for school board, says the whole thing is getting out of hand and the board ought to let everybody work things out.

"You'll get elected," snorts the NAACP representative.

An argument breaks out between the basketball coach and the NAACP rep, but what scotches the public comment period is when another woman uses two disparaging words brought back into the limelight by then-presidential-candidate Ross Perot: "you people." The NAACP rep and her entourage walk out along with Dimple, but not before another woman grabs the frustrated mother's hand and begs her to stay.

"We went to school together!" she pleads.

Dimple wasn't having it. As far as I could tell, the public had already made up its mind against her. Why should she expect anything different from the board? I slip out to try to get a soundbite with one of the aggrieved, but they vanish before I can get to them in the maze of the school hallway. I spot the TV guy talking with the local cops, one of whom is going off about how "the blacks" are dragging the media into the whole mess. He spots me with a mic in my hand.

"Don't you tape me!" he half-shouts.

"I'm not recording," I reply in a nervous appeal. He's got a gun on him, after all. The other cop smiles at me like it's an inside joke.

After the meeting, I walk up to the superintendent for his reactions. His wife isn't at the meeting to defend herself, and neither is the other woman's daughter. He has little to say in his defense: "There's two sides to every story."

As I recorded him, my cheap mic from Radio Shack started to come apart at the head. Either the glue wasn't strong enough, or something about the super's words gave it a conniption fit.

Jeanette and I book it back to the station to put our stories together. I write in the dark, but in my youth and inexperience, a story I could crank out in about 10 minutes today is giving me trouble. I want to be fair. I want to be honest. But I'm grabbing at allegations after allegations, and the key players are missing in action. I can barely write the first sentence.

This is where a good editor comes in. He asks for a wrap -- my voice on tape with a soundbite -- and another story with a bite before midnight. I make the deadline, but I end up staying until 2am while he adds some behind-covering verbiage and other words to keep us out of trouble on a hot story.

I would never venture to Huntsville again, for a follow-up story or anything else. I don't remember what happened to the teacher or Dimple's daughter or to anybody else, if something did happen after I left. I just remember the tension of a small town being ripped apart before my eyes over a cheerleading rivalry that devolved into a racial incident. That's a big story for an amateur with a messed-up microphone.

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