May 20, 2010

In Bingham, Durgin Sweet moves forward

Quimby Middle School fifth-grader stresses acceptance, not mere tolerance

BINGHAM -- Durgin Sweet's copper artwork, displayed in the Quimby Middle School gym, depicts curving shapes inside other shapes, the way music might appear if it could be seen.

click image to enlarge

HEALING: Quimby Middle School student Durgin Sweet is shown Wednesday a basketball court behind the Bingham school, where racial slogans and symbols were etched into the court last week. School officials painted over the graffiti at his feet.

Staff photo by David Leaming

Sweet, 10, of Concord Township, explained Wednesday how he used a pen to form impressions in the copper, to create his ideal design. He made it without anything specific in mind, he said; it's just a random assortment of exploding, whimsical movements.

But, still, one searches for something definite in its design.

Sweet, who is African-American, is also distinguishing himself in other aspects of school life. Around the small school are posters about kindness and the ill effects of racism.

Last week, Sweet saw racial hate language, death threats and swastikas etched into the floor of the basketball court behind his school. The racist language sparked an investigation by Maine State Police and is a potential violation of the Maine Civil Rights Act, the Maine Office of the Attorney General has said.

Since the incident, Sweet has been trying to change how some people in his community view race. He has spoken at every classroom in the district, addressed a support rally on Monday and continues to discuss the matter with family, friends and classmates.

In an interview Wednesday afternoon, the fifth-grader said people in the community need to not just tolerate African-Americans but to accept them.

"I think that tolerance shouldn't really be the word we use because tolerance seems like, 'I don't really like it, but I'll put up with it.' I was thinking more like acceptance, because you not only put up with it, you like it," he said.

"Acceptance, it means not judging people by what they look like but more like what they do, what they are, what they have inside."

There are a "handful" of African-American students out of the 240 students in the district, said Kattie Sweet-Shibles, his mother, who also is the art teacher at Valley High School.

When Sweet saw the racist and threatening language last Friday, "at first I was a little sad," he said. "Then I got scared, knowing there are people who want to hurt African-Americans that badly and will write death threats on the tar of a basketball court just to get the message across."

It was the first time he'd seen such cruel, racist language, he said.

"It just hurts to see somebody writing something about that because, even though I know it wasn't directed toward me specifically, it still feels like it was directed towards me," he said.

Sweet said the perpetrator should know: "It wasn't acceptable because it really hurt me, and it probably hurt everybody in this community whether they were African-American or not."

The racist etchings were removed from the floor of the basketball court with a power sander Saturday, revealing, in spots, the light green color of the original floor. As Sweet and his mother walked around the court Wednesday, they pointed to the various now-clear places where someone had carved the comments, apparently with a stone.

At the center of the court is a circle where it reads in white letters: "This is where championships are won."

The court, owned by the town and used by the school, is where community children come to play basketball. "You could say, to the town, that this court is sacred," Sweet-Shibles said. "The next gold ball winners will practice here."

After what was written, though, "It changes the meaning of the court for many kids," she said.

About 100 people attended Monday's community gathering at that basketball court to speak out against the hate language and to support Sweet. They wrote positive words with chalk on the court, such as, "It's the differences that make us interesting."

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