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Friday, May 16, 2003 02:20 pm

A Town Without Pity

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Renatta Frazier’s oldest son, Kourtney Mitchell, in his sophomore school photo

At around 5 AM, every member of my family was asleep. Everyone except my mother, Renatta Frazier. She was just arriving home from another long night as a Springfield police officer, another night full of drama and upset.

Crying, exhausted, and cold, she stumbled into our townhouse and exhaled, dropping her bag and belt at the door, too frustrated and fatigued to carry it farther. The day's events scrolled in her mind: slurs and comments, criticisms from coworkers, reprimands from sergeants. I lay silently in bed, listening to her tears, her steps uneven and unbalanced. I tried to go back to sleep but it was hopeless. We went through this every night.

In the morning my mother's eyes were red and swollen, yet she carried on as normal, asking her five children if we slept well and making sure we ate a decent breakfast. She'd check our bags to make sure we weren't forgetting an important book or a folder. We hugged our mom and wished her a blessed day before we set off for the bus stop.

At Southeast High I had to field questions from my curious peers. They were desperate to know all the details about why my mother's face appeared on the TV news the previous night. Why did the talk-radio shows keep criticizing her? Why were my classmates' parents debating her future? My parents had warned us that reporters might show up at school. That made it hard to concentrate.

I went away that summer to St. Louis University for a six-week math and science course offered through Upward Bound. I made good friends and experienced things that will forever shape the way I look at life. Then, on my last day, I was told my family was moving immediately to Rochester, New York. Confused and disoriented by this sudden turn of events, I quickly cleaned out my dorm room and hurried home. Later that day I was told the stress of staying in Springfield was too much for my mom and my family. I had no time to say good-bye to anyone, no time to explain to my teachers why they wouldn't see me in class again, and no time to express my feelings. The next day we were packed and on the road. I used a cell phone to tell my friends I wouldn't see them for God knows how long.

This has been my life for the last year. Imagine having to smile through the embarrassment and shame of being evicted from your home on your 16th birthday. Your parents explain you'll be celebrating at your grandmother's house, where you'll also spend that night. Your sister's eyes are filled with tears, your mother looks as if she wants to die, and your father struggles to explain what happened. Trying to get some friends together to see a movie is out of the question, because your night will be spent retrieving possessions from storage and what little remains unharmed after troopers scatter it on the front lawn. Imagine having to explain this to your friends who expected to celebrate your birthday. You'll have to carry on with school, hiding your feelings as if nothing happened.

The people who did this to my family hated my mother.

It's hard to even describe the difficulty of this experience. Living with your aunt in New York means there are 12 people crammed into one house. Attending a new school means suddenly adjusting to a drastically different culture. Having to make friends is hard enough, but then you have to sleep at night with images of all you've ever known and left behind.

I'm 16 years old, still a kid but growing into a young man, still trying to control my raging teenage hormones and keep up with school work and hobbies at the same time. Ask your children how they would deal with the pain from just one of these life-changing events. They might respond with a blank face or a simple "I don't know." Ask me how I dealt with it, and I'd say, "I wrote." I wrote until my fingers cramped and my veins protruded from my hand. I still found it hard to sleep at night, to pay attention in chemistry class, to study during the evening, and to not break down in front of my siblings. My twin brother Kurtis and I are the oldest, so we've had to stay strong for the others. We had to set an example. No matter what happened, the police department, the media, and the critics couldn't break our morale, or our family.

Now we're moving back to Springfield, and we'll once again have to say goodbye to friends and academic and athletic goals. Yet our family has stayed strong, weathering the storm, knowing there would be sunshine at the end.

Sometimes I lie awake in the middle of the night, eyes clouded and vision obscured, wondering why I am here in the first place. Why did it have to be my family that suffers through this craziness, and how come it's taken so long for justice to be served? Why don't the people, the beasts who did this to us, just admit to the truth and end it now? I wish I could pinch myself, awake from this dreadful nightmare, and return to life as a normal, carefree teenager.

I have no hope of getting a driver's license anytime soon, or of being able to hang out with friends. My nights are occupied with homework and family discussions about the recent developments in my mother's case. Most of the time I'd rather not hear about that case, because it only gives me more sleepless nights, which ruin my next day at school. My soul is just now able to express these feelings to classmates. In group discussions, my body shakes and my voice overflows with distress. Looking into their eyes filled with compassion, I wonder: If they can have empathy for someone they hardly know, what's wrong with people who treat others as inferiors? Why is it that those who so fluently affect our everyday lives can blithely deny our common humanity? What will it take to open their hearts?

These questions have gone unanswered, but I still believe that justice is eventually served. I have seen past the pain and into the future, a future that is bright and filled with the peace and comfort of a society accepting of all people, all races, and all cultures. If we can love, why can't they?

Discrimination is simply derived from fear and misunderstanding. It is a disease, an epidemic that spreads like a forest fire, consuming all who do nothing about it. It's sad that it takes a tragedy to open people's eyes, but so be it. Until we develop the patience, kindness, and will to aspire to a higher level of thinking, we will never reach beyond the playpen of ignorance. Yes, racial discrimination has had a profound impact on my family and those we love, but we will not let that drive our desire towards vengeance and immorality. We will use this experience to grow in understanding and enlighten the souls of everyone. To fall is to fail for a moment, but to succeed is to get back up.

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