By MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard
WEST GREENWICH – The day after Cris Lopez moved to West Greenwich from Providence’s inner city, his former house was targeted in a drive-by shooting. The attackers returned and broke in, climbing through his bedroom window.
“If we were still there, I would be dead,” he says. “It’s so much safer here.”
He has blossomed at Exeter-West Greenwich High School in the ensuing five years, becoming a star on the undefeated soccer team and a very popular guy who calls himself “a social butterfly.”
As someone of Hispanic heritage, Cris is a stand-out in other ways, too.
In a school district with just under 1,800 students enrolled in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, a total of only 109 are persons of color.
That includes six Native Americans, 15 Asians, 10 blacks, 64 Hispanics and 14 who are multi-racial.
The district’s demographics are 98 percent white or, as one school official puts it, “a great big bowl of vanilla ice cream.”
Diversity is relatively rare in this heavily-rural part of the state but a representative sampling of the high school’s black, Hispanic and Asian students say they’re fitting in just fine – especially considering that moving to the woods was a major dose of culture shock.
One came from Philadelphia, another from Yonkers, N.Y., a third from Providence’s inner city and a fourth arrived from China two years ago. All are high school seniors living in West Greenwich.
They miss things like taxis, walking to the movies and ordering food to be delivered.
They are dismayed by cows and chickens, in that order.
They love the feeling of community, family and caring. They like quiet nights with no gunfire. They are athletes, scholars, devoted friends.
“Everybody here knows each other,” says Jeffrey Sarita, who came from Yonkers.
“Cris is so fun,” laughs Jia Liu. The young woman arrived from Quanxi in the Hunan Sheng province of China two years ago with her mother and older sister. While she works on mastering English, she says school is made easier because “the teachers are so nice.”
“The [local] kids have embraced all of our diverse students,” insists Brian Butler, the high school principal. “We don’t have the population of urban, inner city schools [but] the tolerance is overwhelming. No issues of prejudice have been brought to me. The general culture of the school is about respect, knowing ‘I count.’ We foster that sense of ‘you get what you give.’”
Sydney Cooper, who was transplanted to West Greenwich in fourth grade, admits it was hard at first.
“I had lived in the city so I went from one extreme to the other. Here, you have to get on the highway to go anywhere. In the city, I could walk just about anywhere and be somewhere other than the middle of nowhere.”
Sydney’s arrival made some youngsters uneasy.
“I came here in elementary school and people wanted to meet the new kid. Some of them had never seen a black person and were probably scared because of [stereotypes.]”
A member of the swim team who wants to attend college in Florida, like North Kingstown’s Elizabeth Beisel, Sydney confesses she misses the city. But, she adds, “I’m appreciating the country more.”
Cris says, “All my friends in Providence were involved in nasty stuff; drugs and gangs” and were pressuring him to join in.
He admits to being “terrified” by the prospect of tackling the unknown. “I was really afraid. My old school had one white kid. I’d seen [stories about] the KKK on the History channel.
By the same token, his new schoolmates had their own concerns.
“They were all scared of me,” he says. “They thought I was another punk from the streets.”
He won them over with his sunny personality and major soccer chops.
“I eat and breathe soccer,” he says. Although the high school team lost the state championship, he was the MVP and best offensive player two years in a row. “Racism happens everywhere. Once people understand you for the person you are [it vanishes.]”
Jeffrey misses walking to the movies, riding trains and buses and “being in the middle of everything.” As a result, he walks as much as he can on his errands around West Greenwich. When he first arrived, he wandered out back to the far reaches of his backyard – something he’d lacked in Yonkers – and discovered a neighbor’s barn, cows and chickens.
“I’d only seen them on field trips,” he recalls. Fascinated, he walked over to look at them every day. A personable young man, Jeffrey says when he arrived in the school district in eighth grade, “I made friends automatically. After the first week, I knew everybody. They judged me on my personality; I’m happy all the time.
“In an all-white school, you can’t bring us down.”
Superintendent Thomas Geismar declares, “We live in a global society. It’s important for students of all races and ethnicities to understand that. To be accepting of other people, you have to feel good about yourself. There are many wonderful families here who bring up their kids” with that belief.
Jeffrey admits he’s surprised that the transition to a place with few other black children has been so easy.
“I didn’t think I’d have as many friends, but everybody knows our names.”
In a good way, adds Cris.
“They know we can be successful and do things.”
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .