In September of 1979, I was scared.
I had accepted a job to teach English to tenth and eleventh grade students at Hermitage High School in Henrico County, Virginia.
Since the fall of 1975, I had been a Title VII remedial reading teacher at Martinsville Junior High School in Martinsville, Virginia.
Making this transition was going to be a challenge. And to tell you the truth, I was scared, really scared.
The faculty and staff at Hermitage could not have been nicer. The English department was very supportive and patient with me.
My curriculum in Martinsville had been a single, pre-planned IBM reading program.
At Hermitage, I would have more homework than my students in prepping for tenth and eleventh grade classes everyday. I used all my waking hours to read and plan, and gradually, grading papers would be woven into that mix.
Interestingly, those tough students in Martinsville had given me an essential gift—classroom management. The discipline lessons learned in my Martinsville classroom helped me transition into my new environment.
Everyone kept telling me, just make it through this first year, and next year will be better.
Somehow, I made it.
I have always felt the American literature textbook used for our eleventh grade students helped me survive.
That book reconnected me with America. In fact, I so cherished this collection of literature that I kept a copy of it.
The editors arranged the textbook into five sections: Examining Inner Struggles, Observing Human Frailties, Crying Out For Justice, Celebrating Independent Spirit, and Probing Values. They used fiction, nonfiction, poetry, drama, and excerpts from longer works of literature to probe their five topics.
My soul was touched.
James Thurber made me laugh. Richard Wright formed tears. Louis Untermeyer’s piece on Susan B. Anthony gave me perspective. And Phyllis McGinley’s poem “Eleven O’Clock News Summary” captured radio news as a war weary citizen listened closely to a broadcast before trying to find sleep.
But, the work of one writer, Reginald Rose, still remains with me. Mr. Rose wove together a powerful television drama— Twelve Angry Men. These twelve men are jurors in a murder case. They must decide the fate of a nineteen year old young man who is accused of killing his father.
Reginald Rose’s career as a writer for television carried him from the 50s into the 80s. He was a much sought after writer, and Mr. Rose actually wrote for each of the three major networks. Twelve Angry Men was his best known play, and it was made into a movie. Mr. Rose based his play on an actual experience he had serving on a jury.
As Twelve Angry Men begins, in the jury room, the twelve men are seated. To get their assignment started, the foreman asks for an initial guilty or not guilty vote. That first assessment found eleven votes for guilty and one not guilty.
The one hold out, Juror #8, is the protagonist. Jurors #10 and 3 are the antagonist. Essentially in that jury room, every piece of evidence and testimony is revisited. Emotions and tension run high as jurors clash. Juror #8 holds firm to his pursuit of fairness, and Juror #10 bitterly counters every point.
In the last act of the play, Juror #10 has a meltdown. His bigot attitude spills out: “Look you know how those people lie. They don’t know what the truth is. That’s how they are. You know what I mean—violent! Human life don’t mean as much to them as it does to us.”
Slowly, the other jurors stand. They move away from the table and turn their backs on Juror #10.
Finally, Juror #4, appalled at Juror #10’s outburst, stands over him. The room is quiet. Juror #4 tells him: “I’ve had enough. If you open your mouth again, I’m going to split your skull.”
Rose gives us no indication that Juror #4 could be pushed to utter such a threat. But, Juror #4 was disgusted.
And as unsettling as the words from Juror #4 were, here is what is scary to me—that play first aired on American television in 1954.
Here we are 66 years later, and we are still wrestling with people in our country who think like Juror #10.
Bill, Bill, Bill, my friend, this is a Hollywood script. You know Hollywood.
Yes, I know it is a Hollywood script.
But, if Reginald Rose was sharp enough to pick up on that mentality in 1954, we should be sharp enough to realize that sadly, the thinking portrayed by Juror #10 hasn’t left us.
What is even more sad is this—that thinking today is dividing us— dividing us in ways that might never be repairable.
Why is that?
Why are we so slow to learn, to adjust, to change?
Why can’t we let go and build ourselves new hearts?
When will able to say to people who are so full of hatred, racism, and bigotry —that’s enough?
In Jeremiah 33, verse 3, the Lord says: “Call to me and I will answer you, and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.”
Lord, I’m calling, e-mailing, texting, to you. I need you to tell me these unsearchable things that I do not know.
I don’t think we can keep living like this down here. I know you have your hands full up in the blue yonder.
Or maybe you don’t.
Maybe, you are counting on us to figure things out down here on our own.
Maybe, your thinking is I have guided them enough, by now they ought to know.
What is it we ought to know Lord? That is why I’m bugging you.
Ok, Bill, here goes.
When you first started writing this post you stated that in 1979 you were scared.
And guess what, Juror #10, and anyone in your world today whose behavior is like his—is scared too.
Yes, that hatred, racism, and bigotry is all grounded in fear.
A fear that is grounded in misinformed history, lack of education, lack of understanding, and a temporarily lost heart.
You want to say enough. I want you to say enough.
But ask yourself this question, “How did you overcome being scared at Hermitage High School that first year?”
Here’s what I recall.
You worked hard, you accepted help from the people who surrounded you, and you don’t know this, but people prayed for you.
Being able to say enough to all of the challenges in front of your country will require hard work.
It will require you and everyone around you to relearn the lost art of working together, and this will require surrounding people who we do not understand with help, support, and love.
And somewhere in there, you need to pray.
In the final act of Twelve Angry Men, Juror #9 states: “It takes a great deal of courage to stand alone.”
I am certain that Juror #8 was scared when he was the only vote for not guilty when the play started. He stood alone.
And, I am certain Juror #10 was scared in a different way. By the final act, his values had been exposed.
Sometimes the courage of our convictions are in conflict.
When this occurs, it is incumbent upon us to do difficult work just like the jurors in the play.
This real life we are in requires the same of us.
We must do the difficult work.
That is the only way we change scared and lost hearts.