Transformations

Personal stories of growth at Eckerd College

Charlie Stripling '68

"Transformation and Peer Pressure"

I would guess that the two terms in the title of this essay are seldom used together. Transformation suggests a quasi-mystical change in energy field that leads to more effective personhood, while peer pressure is construed as a negative factor that causes people, especially young people, to go astray. But I want to say a good word on behalf of peer pressure, because it was peer pressure at FPC that helped me transform.

Growing up in deep South Georgia, I was raised by my parents as a good Presbyterian with a strong moral code that included respect for the dignity of all people. In the totally segregated society of the 1950's and early 60's, I was also taught that segregation was the law of God and that Blacks and Whites were supposed to stay separate in all ways. For some of my peers, that meant that Blacks were inferior and had no rights. In the way that I was raised, my parents made sure that I did not use racially offensive terms or demean Black people, that I must respect them as people - but nevertheless, that Whites and Blacks must always go to separate schools, restaurants, restrooms, etc., because that was the way things were supposed to be.

When I arrived at FPC in 1964, I knew that the South was a land in racial strife, but I did not have racial issues as an explicit factor on my agenda. I don't remember thinking about whether or not Blacks would be at FPC, although I knew that integration was occurring, very slowly, around the South. Mainly, I was leaving home and going 300 miles away to an exciting new school that would challenge me intellectually, and oh, did I mention that I was leaving home and going 300 miles away, farther than I had ever been in my life and to a part of the county I had never seen.

I was, indeed, seeking transformation from the life of the rural South, but I was not thinking about transformation of my attitudes about race. Then, on one of the first nights at FPC, at a picnic near the pool, we were singing folk songs as a class, when, out of nowhere (or so it seemed to me) the leader started "We Shall Overcome." Even more surprising to me, almost everyone in the class immediately picked it up and began singing heartily, as if they were accustomed to singing that song routinely. As a child of the rural Deep South, I could not sing that song (at that point in my life), and I leaned back and looked around. The only other person not singing, as least as far as I could see, was another freshman from the rural Deep South. He and I looked at each other with a sense that we were out of place. Most everyone else was also from the South, but the South of larger towns and cities, and especially the South of South Florida, which was, of course, nothing like the South of South Georgia.

Nevertheless, I readily grew to love the school and mixed easily with my classmates and the upperclassmen when they arrived, and especially everyone in Kennedy House. I quickly became friends with the late Bob Meacham (Jr.). As we were talking in the dorm early in my freshman year, the talk turned to the movement for desegregation in the South, and it became clear that Bob was a strong supporter of the need for full integration. I replied that although I was opposed to the violence being perpetrated on the protesters, I believed that segregation itself was OK. Bob shook his head slowly but distinctly, not mouthing the words that he clearly wanted to say (NO, NO, NO) but showing his disagreement and displeasure that a fellow freshman at a progressive college such as FPC had such an attitude. He said nothing. He did not have to say anything. The impact of seeing (and feeling!!) his reaction, the reaction of someone I respected highly, jarred me to the bone and forced me to rethink my previous attitudes. I know that this rethinking and consequent awakening have impacted my life from that time forward. That silent nodding was the loudest rebuke that I ever received. It cut me deep inside, and I saw that I was trying to maintain the impossible, the outdated. I could not attend the college that I loved and keep such attitudes, and I knew it in a flash. I never made such a statement again. More importantly, I lost any sentiment to say such a thing. Most importantly, I was transformed by this peer pressure so that I no longer believed in what I had been taught all my life. A few years later I began my teaching career in a predominantly Black school system, and this year I am finishing my career at an Historically Black College.

I am sure that this transformation would have happened at some point during my FPC years. I am glad that it happened early on, and that it happened in the way that it did, in a moment in time that I have always and will always remember.