A fine spring day, a man, a video camera, a ruckus


HAVRE DE GRACE -- It is early May of this year, a spring day in Baltimore. Leonard Kerpelman, to whom controversy clings like lint to a cheap suit, has ventured onto the campus of Frederick Douglass High School with his video camera.

His mission is an innocent one. His wife had graduated from Western High School, as Douglass was then known, in 1946. But more has changed in 50 years than the name of the school, and soon Mr. Kerpelman encounters some of the less-appealing sights and sounds of the new era in which we live.

The head talks

"Hey, [Obscenity]," calls a talking head, leaning out of an upstairs window. "Take my picture!" The head vanishes, and Mr. Kerpelman proceeds with his videotaping. But before long three other presumed members of the Douglass undergraduate community greet him with similar language.

Now, anyone who knows Leonard Kerpelman at all will find it hard to believe that he was truly shocked by this discourtesy. Thin-skinned he is not. In a long pugnacious career as a lawyer for various unpopular people and causes he has surely been addressed as Obscenity before.

But shocked or not, he was certainly irritated. And he did what irritated people, in the lost age of literacy, used to do routinely. He fired off letters.

Angry Leonardgrams went to Rose Backus-Davis, the Douglass principal; Walter Amprey, the city school superintendent; and Kurt Schmoke, the mayor.

Man the faxes!

None of these answered with the celerity or the humility that Mr. bTC Kerpelman expected, and now, months later, he has given his complaints new life by faxing them here and there and taking them to the talk-radio airwaves.

In doing so he has taken pains to imply a racial dimension to his coarse treatment on the Douglass campus. He is white, after all, and the students who taunted him were black -- as are the officials to whom he complained.

As Baltimore's white population continues to drain inexorably away, the Kerpelman anecdote seems just another example of racial polarization and cultural rot.

The trouble is, although there's nothing to applaud about the behavior of the Douglass trashmouths, the racial angle in this instance is probably 90 percent baloney.

Impartial rudeness

The four rude students at Douglass didn't call Mr. Kerpelman a white obscenity, they just called him an obscenity. There's no reason to think they would have been any more respectful to another stranger, whatever his race, who stepped onto the campus with a video camera.

Nor is there reason to think that the four nasties speak for a majority of the students at the school, or that those in charge there are insensitive to the feelings of visitors. Even Mr. Kerpelman says that the faculty and security people he spoke to while on the campus were uniformly polite and helpful to him.

It's certainly a fact that being visibly different from almost everyone around you can be unsettling and even intimidating. Black Americans have been telling white Americans that for a long time, and can be forgiven a certain impatience with white Americans who confess to feeling uneasy in black neighborhoods, even the most stable and law-abiding ones. But experiences like Leonard Kerpelman's reinforce that sense of unease.

High spirits

Perhaps Mr. Kerpelman shouldn't have complained. Perhaps, as some of us might have done, he should have shrugged off his unpleasant encounter on the Douglass campus and put it down to a combination of bad manners and springtime high spirits.

Or, if he still felt bound to complain to somebody, he might have been more tactful. It surely didn't help his case to address the Douglass principal as "Dear Miss/Mrs. Hyphenated-Something."

But tact, and suffering in silence, are not part of the Kerpelman approach. And by blasting back, and by reminding us of what we've let happen to old standards of acceptable behavior, he has done the community a small but significant service.

In the days when Mrs. Kerpelman attended Western High, if a student had sassed a visitor, obscenely or otherwise, there would have been hell to pay. Parents would have been notified, and a parent, probably a father, would have taken prompt corrective action to supplement the school's response.

Now, though, parents are harder to find. In the nation in 1994, nearly one-third of all births were to unmarried mothers; in the 50 largest cities, 48 percent; in Baltimore, 67.8 percent.

A principal of a city school trying to contact the parent of a student in trouble is lucky to reach a grandmother.

It takes a village to raise a child, Hillary Clinton tells us. But Leonard Kerpelman's tale is another reminder that some of our larger villages aren't doing the world's best job of it.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 9/12/96

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