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The PYRITE Story: Fighting Racism (Part 1 of 3)

Proviso East

The PYRITE Story: Fighting Racism (Part 1 of 3)

For PYRITE’s grand finale here, which probably only seems epic to the select few of us who spent untold hours bringing the finished film to fruition, it hit me that the story behind the story really needs a proper re-telling from scratch. After all the years it’s taken to bring this home, a final summation of how we arrived here is a must. It definitely deserves its due.

So here I’ll simply tell you why I put so much heart and soul into making PYRITE, and why you should care. I won’t go into details of production here, or pre, post, etc. etc. It’s taken a good 15-year journey in total to bring PYRITE to the world, and you’ll learn a ton about that when you watch THE MAKING OF PYRITE in the film’s DVD Extras.

For my story here, I’ll put a laser focus on the why. If you’re at all interested in the subject matter, I encourage you to read on – you won’t be disappointed.  And to that end, I’m breaking the story up into three separate posts, so that it’s nice and smooth (because “sometimes I rhyme slow, sometimes I rhyme quick”).

I grew up in what was, at the time, an almost entirely white town – Forest Park, Illinois. I certainly wasn’t a bad kid, and I spent all my elementary school years at the top of my class. In the 2-3 years leading up to high school, however, I’d fallen into what was somewhat of a norm in our town back then – the tendency to act like a racist jackass.

We had a few minorities in our class, and I was even friends with some of them, but there was a steady diet of racism involved even within those friendships. I certainly wasn’t living up to my potential on the humanity scale.

As 8th grade rolled around, the “monumental decision” facing all families in Forest Park loomed large in my life – do I go to our public school, Proviso East in Maywood, or does my family instead find an alternative.

Proviso East was, and is, an almost entirely black high school in the suburb just west of Forest Park. My mom went there, as did many of my other family members, including a few who lived through the late 60’s and early 70s, when black/white tensions were at a peak.

Whatever happened back then, real or imagined, whatever prefaced my time at the school in the mid-to-late 80s… it left quite a dent in the town psyche. Fear was the operative word, plain and simple.

I think I spent a third of my 8th grade experience subconsciously worrying about what came next. The stories about Proviso were legendary… students being stabbed when going to the bathroom, drugs, gangs, beat downs, murders, etc. etc.

There really weren’t any positives floating around in the rumor mill; instead, we feeble little Forest Park 8th graders only heard tales of terror. You didn’t want to set foot in Proviso East, period, for fear of losing your life.

My parents weren’t exactly wealthy, and I was by no means Catholic, which would’ve made a parochial school borderline unbearable. So in the summer of 1985, I enrolled at Proviso East High School and made my first trip to my new school for registration.

What followed, for the next four years, I believe Shakespeare would’ve classified as “much ado about nothing.”

I still felt the fear, however, many months into my freshman year, although let’s be honest – freshman status at any school can deliver a more than ample amount of fear, especially to one of the “smart kids” yet to find his true confidence.

It took a while for that confidence to finally arrive, but it didn’t take very long at all for me to see just how wrong all the rumors were… and more importantly, to finally see racism for what it is: absurdity.

By the time my junior year began, confidence started rolling in, and when senior year arrived, I wasn’t afraid of anything… I was PROUD.

I was friends with brothers and sisters of all races, our high-level college prep classes were like the United Nations of nationalities, and within a few short years I’d grown so much as a human being – I couldn’t thank Proviso East enough.

In Spring of 1989, less than two months before graduating, Proviso’s principal asked me to speak on a panel in my town, at my old junior high school no less. Parents from all over Forest Park attended, hoping to learn more about the school that scared the living daylights out of their 8th grade children.

The panel consisted of a handful of other local students, all of us invited to tout the positives of a Proviso East education. Little did I know that one night would profoundly affect the rest of my life…

So the 5-6 of us stood on stage, each giving our own little speech on why we appreciated Proviso, and then the audience chimed in with questions. “Silent” and “uncomfortable” best described much of the evening.

Parents asked everything except the one question that truly haunted them – “Will my child be safe with all those black people at the school?”

We touched a bit on safety, we talked about how strong some of the academics were… and all of us on stage agreed – if your child is looking for a good education, they will find it at Proviso East if they put forth the effort.

But make no mistake, the proverbial elephant stood steadfastly in that auditorium. It was a big room, and it required a damn big elephant. And no one, I mean NO ONE, was interested in discussing Dumbo and all the real estate he occupied.

No one, as it turned out, except for me. I sat there listening to all the well-intentioned but useless banter, and realized that we were all paying witness to more of the same – more parents, more children, all about to avoid Proviso East because of the student body’s “blackness”. And it finally just hit me… the answer to this again absurd problem we call racism…


So I did… to the entire auditorium. I told the truth, but more importantly, I demanded the truth from the parents in that room. After a little back and forth, all mildly touching on the racist barrier, I finally hit them with the big question – “How many of you are simply afraid to send your children to Proviso East because the school is 85% black?”

You’d think I soundproofed the entire building and put tape over everyone’s mouths, because that landed with such an uncomfortable thud, I swear I can still hear that epic silence in my ears today. Absolute silence. Then, slowly, one or two hands rose into the air… but nowhere near the number equal to the truth in everyone’s hearts. It didn’t matter though, because I’d found the answer to this problem intuitively, just a moment earlier.


So I pressed. I convinced the parents that we were there for a reason – to find the truth… to get answers to WHY they were about to steer clear of our town’s very own public school. I convinced them that we were in the right place, at the right time, to be honest. And… I raised my own hand, admitting that four years earlier, I too experienced their same fear – the fear that our town had gradually fostered for over two decades.

All of a sudden, the two or three raised hands grew into nearly an entire room filled with parents and children, holding their hands up, admitting to the racial albatross hanging around all of their necks. There it was, in plain sight… the truth. And I asked them to look at the success stories on stage, to stop worrying about skin color, and instead to start focusing on what actually happens at the school itself. We had a breakthrough.

As we wrapped up, I received a standing ovation from nearly all the attendees, for which I had no clue what the hell to do, but I appreciated nonetheless. As we started to disperse, parents came up to me offering their thanks, and at least one of them suggested that I run for mayor when I graduate college (which although of course flattering is still a LOL moment for me today when I think back).

All that because I simply spoke up. I didn’t shy away from the truth.

So just when you think you’re about to read a happy ending, that ugly 5-letter word MEDIA gets thrown into the mix, speaking of truth. I’ll start off Part Two with that tomorrow…


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