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To Hell With Williamsport, Pennsylvania!

Posted by on Jul 9, 2007 in Ed, Pennsylvania | 2 comments

I hate that goddamned town!

Let me give you some background about Williamsport, Pennsylvania. It was once the lumber capital of the world — in the late 1890s. From that era there are still a couple of streets of mansion-like homes known as “Millionaire’s Row.” The town has been in decline since about 1900.

We moved there in 1986, the summer before my senior year in high school. My parents had sold the sleazy motel in New Jersey and bought a brand-name joint in Williamsport.

In the first few weeks I was living in the town, I figured I could handle it for one year and then take off for college.

I knew it was a bad sign when we went to the one Chinese restaurant in town and the restaurant’s waiters and hostess stared at us. The only Chinese person in the joint was the cook and everyone else was white.

I remember thinking, “We’re in a Chinese restaurant — and you’re staring at me?”

Then I was driving down a mountain road and saw a gorilla costume lynched in a tree in someone’s front yard. It wasn’t close to Halloween, either, and the message was clear.

The message became clearer when I realized that there were no black waiters or waitresses anywhere in the entire town. If you were black, you either bussed tables or washed dishes. The black section of town was right next to a highway overpass. And in a town that’s basically been falling apart for a century, the black section was in the worst shape.

Here’s something else about Williamsport, its modern claim to fame, if you will. It is the site of the Little League World Championship every year. The town has held on to that identity with a death grip.

You might know that Asian teams, for much of the 1970s and 1980s, dominated, with Japanese, Taiwanese and Korean champions trouncing their rivals.

You might not know that such a record had whipped up anti-Asian sentiment in the town, to the point where people were in the stands yelling, “Strike those Chinkies out!” during the games.

It was pretty shocking, this town that lived in its own skeleton from the lumber days. Now, racism was nothing new to me. But this was the first time I found it so freely expressed — and welcomed. I didn’t know it at the time, but the local KKK chapter applied for a license every year to rally for the “white” American team in the Little League championships. Although they never got the license, the members still filled the stands and blended in well with the general populace in appearance and attitude.

Still, I thought I could just endure it all unscathed and that I could handle any jerk kids. Little did I know that my staunchest enemy would turn out to be the administration.

If you’re not inside a particular institution — jail, school or hospital — you never realize how much control The Man has over them.

Williamsport Area High School was located on the top of a mountain, with a barbed-wire-topped fence that only rolled back to let school buses in and out.

The first day of deer-hunting season was a school holiday. Also, while I was there, students could stand outside of the cafeteria during lunch and smoke, regardless of age.

With regards to the kids, sure I got some racist comments, but I was too funny to hate and too big to really mess with. I actually made quite a few friends. I was easily the most popular Asian kid in school. Okay, in my year, there was a young Indian woman, and two Asian juniors — a Chinese dude named Herb and a young man who had escaped from Vietnam with his family (and was written up in the local paper). That makes four Asian kids in a school of about 3,000 students.

(I’m amazed by people from California, such as my wife, who tell me about Asian clubs in their public schools.)

I guess all the shit started in the second half of the year when I drew a hammer and sickle and safety-pinned it to the back of my shirt. It was an ironic statement about how we were all forced to conform in a supposedly free society.

This assistant principal, I’ll call him by his initials — PMT, forced me into the principal’s office and declared, “There’s no place for that in this school!” But apparently there was room for shirts that read, “If you ain’t a biker, you ain’t shit,” which the same kid wore two or three times a week.

PMT had a tic, and flicked out his tongue and licked his top lip, when he got excited. Now that he had caught his commie, he was in full lizard action mode.

The principal at the time, now dead, was Wayne Newton — no joke. This Wayne Newton was balding, overweight and tired. He smiled weakly and joked, “Yes, I’ve had some people asking me if you were from Red China.”

PMT forced me to remove the safety pins and even kept my little commie flag.

Then in March, when I didn’t make a deposit for my cap and gown for graduation, he called me down to his office to tell me I didn’t bring in a check.

“I’m not going to graduation,” I said.

“Oh, OK,” said PMT, flicking away.

The main reasons why I didn’t want to go was that it meant one less day of school and I also wanted to piss off my parents.

I wasn’t the only kid skipping graduation by any means. By my count, at least 30 graduating seniors weren’t going. But one big problem for PMT was that I was on track to be the top student in the subjects English and Math. If I didn’t show up at graduation, they couldn’t give out those awards.

Later that month, I found out that I got into Columbia. The local newspaper reported that I was one of a handful of students admitted to “most selective” schools. The others were all going to University of Pennsylvania because they loved their fucking state so much they couldn’t leave.

The National Honor Society wanted to throw a dinner and celebrate us and introduce new members who were juniors and sophomores. I got a notice in school about the event telling me I had to wear a suit, get my parents to attend, blah blah. I laughed and crumpled it up.

PMT took action. He noticed that I didn’t RSVP for the dinner so he called up my parents. PMT said, his tongue likely doing a mean cobra dance, that if I didn’t attend the dinner, I’d be thrown out of National Honor Society. Which was total bullshit, but you know how Asian parents are — any authority figure is not to be questioned.

PMT also told my parents that if I didn’t go to graduation, it could prevent me from going to college. Again, total BS, but my mother still bought it.

Through May and June, PMT called me into his office at least once a week during my computer class (so I wouldn’t have time to write my programs, natch), for some random new threat for not going to graduation.

The worst was when my guidance counselor, Mr. Stackhouse, called me in for a meeting to ask why I wasn’t going. I started talking about how I thought high school should end in an implosion of personal change rather than ending in explosion of a public event. Mr. Stackhouse looked extremely uncomfortable the entire time. When Mr. Stackhouse’s closed door opened, I understood why.

“I’ve been listening outside,” said PMT as he walked into Mr. Stackhouse’s office. “And I’m not hearing a legitimate reason why you’re not going to graduation.”

Mr. Stackhouse had been cool the entire year, but even he had betrayed me when the heat was on.

The last time I ever saw PMT, he had me in his office, called my mother and handed me the phone. For so many years later, I realized that the perfect thing to do was to not take the phone and remain silent. PMT would have to struggle to explain that I really was in the office but I wasn’t talking.

But I took the receiver.

My mother was freaking out, saying that PMT was going to stop me from going to college if I didn’t go to graduation and other bullshit.

In a calm, even voice, I said, “We’ll talk about it when I get home.” Then I hung up.

“So you’re not going to graduation?” asked PMT.

“No.”

He nodded, his head down.

Shit, who knows, maybe if he had begged me to go, maybe I would have. But instead, every meeting he tried to pull a power move on me. I guess his technique was to not show a soft side to a commie.

On the morning that graduation was to have taken place, I reached over, turned off my alarm and went back to sleep.

I spent the summer in the haunted house and then it was off to New York where wearing a hammer and sickle was passé. PMT went on to become head principal.

2 Comments

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  1. G. Suh

    Hey, Ed. So THAT’s why you had all those commie buttons on your bookbag in college! Rock on. Your fellow pinko, Grace

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