Pedro Lugo's healing message of love and peace

MICHAEL OLESKER

December 05, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

In this dim little hallway at Hampstead Hill Middle School, Principal Margaret Wicks draws a time line in the air.

"Those things," she says, and then her voice halts for a tick of the clock.

Nobody has to ask what she means by "those things" -- last spring's Patterson Park baseball bat clubbing of Pedro Lugo that electrified the city, the daily trashing of this Southeast Baltimore neighborhood that went on for years while nobody in power paid attention, and the bitterness in the streets each morning and afternoon between students and residents.

"Those things," Margaret Wicks says. "They were BMW."

"BMW?"

"Before Margaret Wicks," she declares.

She came here with a reputation: Don't get her angry. She was principal of prisoner education programs at Eastern Correctional Institute in Somerset County, so the word quickly went around that the school system was bringing in some prison guards to control the kids at Hampstead Hill.

"But you're a fraud," somebody tells Wicks now.

"I am?" she says.

"Yes," a visitor says. "You're supposed to be so tough, and you're not."

Now Wicks tries to hide a little tissue with which she's been dabbing at her eyes, and she puts a finger in front of her mouth, as though shushing such subversive talk.

"I am tough," she says. "There's nothing wrong with being happy."

A few minutes earlier, she was standing on a stage with Pedro Lugo. He was supposed to be dead by now. Some Neanderthals took his baseball bat from him last spring and beat him with it until his skull was split into pieces.

But Lugo refused to die. He's spent half a year undergoing therapy, getting his body and his mind back together again. And he sat on a stage at Hampstead Hill now, and this big auditorium was filled with hundreds of kids who have written him letters, sent him drawings, all with the same message: We're sorry for what happened, and we're pulling for you to get better.

"I'm happy to see you again here," he told the kids. "And I love you, no matter what color you are."

That is a sweet message of peace in a community where race has undercoated so much of the tension coming out of Hampstead Hill, and when Lugo was wheeled back to his place on stage, the kids in the auditorium erupted with applause.

And then came Margaret Wicks. There had been noise in the auditorium earlier in the morning, the normal din of adolescents with energy spilling out of every pore in their bodies. But now the place grew silent, the way it does when nobody wants to get into trouble with the boss.

"Let's hope that the healing that the community needs, that the children need and the staff needs, can now begin," Wicks said in a voice that began to falter.

From the first row of the auditorium, you could see something glistening on one of her cheeks now. She paused for a second, started to talk, then paused again. "We've suffered along with you," she said. "There's more good than bad at Hampstead Hill. The children here have suffered. Let the healing take place."

And then, suddenly, she was putting down a hand-held microphone and leaving the stage, her hand over her mouth, headed for a safe area where nobody could see her.

She was still there a few moments later, putting a tissue to her eyes and whispering so ferociously to herself that you could hear it from a distant doorway: "I didn't want to cry. I didn't."

So many tears have been shed over Hampstead Hill Middle School, but maybe now a time of healing can begin. Community activists keep up steady pressure for calm at open and close of the school day. School officials and the mayor's office have shown sensitivity where once they seem oblivious to any problems.

"We have our bad days and we have our good days," Margaret Wicks said. "Listen, these kids have suffered. I know there have been bad feelings in the community, but these are not the children who beat Pedro Lugo. But it was Hampstead Hill that took all the weight."

A few months ago, Wicks told her English teachers, "Have the kids write letters to Pedro Lugo. Tell him how we feel." When Lugo, overwhelmed by the letters, asked if he could speak to the kids, he was quickly invited in.

"I wanted to see everyone here and say thank you to everyone here," Lugo said in a quiet moment after his speech. He smiled broadly, and when he struggled to find words, a family friend, Carlos Lopez-Rodriguez, translated from Spanish.

"This is the most remarkable family," Lopez-Rodriguez said, pointing to Lugo and his mother, Leocadia Lugo. "There's never been an expression of anger or revenge through this whole thing. I've never seen anything like it."

Standing next to her son, Leocadia Lugo said in Spanish, "We got a lot more than we deserved. The cards and letters, and now to see the happy expression on my son's face."

Pedro Lugo looked up at his mother and smiled. Somebody asked him if he felt uncomfortable coming into the school, and he quickly shook his head no.

"I love everyone," he said. "I'm not angry. God help me. And God help them, too."

That's a nice place for everyone to begin: with Pedro Lugo's love, and a sense of everyone starting clean after a long and bitter time.

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