Common Ground

by J. Anthony Lukas

Start Free Trial

By Lisa McGoff's senior year, what changes are seen in her attitudes and those of other students?

Quick answer:

Lisa McGoff has always been an active participant with her mother in the anti-busing struggle and led many sit-ins at school, but by the time she enters her senior year, we see changes in her attitude and perspective that are unfolding due to a set of experiences during the protests and the Bicentennial summer, which shaped her leadership as class president.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families by J. Anthony Lukas shows the growth of Lisa McGoff from a teen follower of her mother’s example in the anti-busing struggle of 197476 to a class president in her senior year showing her own style of leadership.

Lisa reached her senior year after a series of turning points that left their psychological impact. She had been fairly consistent in leading the sit-ins on the staircase of Charlestown High School with her fellow students. However, on April 5, 1976, as the students marched to City Hall, the chance appearance of a black lawyer named Ted Landsmark striding across the square provoked several of them into violence. As Lisa watched in horror, she saw her fellow students attack Landsmark with fists and feet while one of them charged at him with an American flag on a pole that threatened to impale him. Lisa cringed in terror against the wall of the building and had recurring nightmares of the incident for weeks afterward. The moment with the flag became the subject of a photograph called “The Soiling of Old Glory” by Stanley Forman, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1977.

By the time her brother Billy’s class, dubbed “The Last White Class,” was graduating, Lisa felt such fatigue with the years she had spent at student sit-ins and at protest demonstrations that she found she had no desire to return to school in the fall. That summer, however, she was part of an “adventure-challenge” camp in New Hampshire sponsored by Boston University. Here, for the first time, she ate and exercised together with young people of both sexes and both races, concentrating on “games intended to promote cooperation and interdependence” and performing physically challenging activities like climbing, canoeing, and sliding across nylon cables over a gushing river. It was exhilarating, and Lisa discovered the gap between how she had been inclined to think of her African American peers due to ingrained stereotypes and how they were in real life. She made friends and found it tough to say goodbye after only a few days spent in their company.

On her return from this camp, Lisa decided to go back to school, determined to make it the “traditional Townie senior year” of her dreams. She succeeded in winning the election along with a panel of her friends, which set the stage for the rest of her plan.

In the following weeks, Lisa took on a number of other functions: secretary of the Student Council, editor in chief of the yearbook, staff editor of Chip, the student paper, and seats on the Senior Activities, Senior Banquet, and Prom committees. With a hand in virtually every class activity, she was now in a position to work toward the traditional Townie year she craved.

Alongside this, she stopped making regular appearances at the anti-busing protests. She explained to her mother that this was because she was now setting an example for her class, but, in effect, it reflected a deeper choice that Lisa seemed to have made. She was now focused on her life and what she wanted from her remaining school days, not wanting these to be further marred only by memories of conflict and bitterness. In this, she found the teacher she had chosen to be the senior class adviser to be of valuable support. Pat Greatorex helped her raise funds for the senior banquet, prom, and class trip. He brought friends to advise on the yearbook. He confronted a local who had been going around calling him a “n****r lover” by pinning the man against a fence and promising to punch him in the nose if he ever mentioned Pat’s name again.

Another challenge to Lisa’s long-held beliefs against busing and desegregation came in the form of Jerry Sullivan, regarded as Charlestown High School’s best teacher. Jerry questioned the students’ on their perspective of what problems they faced, and some of the well-rehearsed lines Lisa had inherited from her time in the anti-busing struggle started sounding less convincing to her. She was also taught by her only black teacher, Steve Grace, who turned up with dozens of shamrock stickers on St. Patrick’s Day. His simple explanation was:

“Well, you don’t have to be Irish to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Like you don’t have to be black to appreciate Abdul Jabbar or Aretha Franklin.”

By such small but significant steps, Lisa’s ideas had been influenced to the extent that allowed her to make a graceful and significant speech as class president in 1977. Although she was still able to ask a sharp question about busing to the Assistant Staff Director of the Civil Rights Commission in Washington on a school trip days before her graduation, Lisa had achieved a remarkable resolution of conflicts in her own head. Her poise and confidence reflected the rite of passage she had completed as a young protester in Charlestown, 19741976.

“High school was more than fun. It was learning about life. It was learning to keep on going in spite of everything that happened. We will always have this knowledge as well as our memories to use as we venture into the world, into society filled with different people, different problems, and the great unknown.”

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial