It was the sort of spectacle one might expect on April Fool's Day. Outfitted head to toe in white sheets to resemble the Ku Klux Klan, five students at Jefferson Junior High School in Oceanside paraded around campus during a lunch break, a spoof they felt would befit the holiday.
The prank prompted little more than a tittering of amusement among most pupils at Jefferson, a racially mixed campus of 800 students. The flowing sheets, after all, could not conceal the fact that one of the young marchers was black and two others were Latino.
But when news of the antic trickled out to the big world outside the junior high, not everyone was amused. Several leaders of the city's large black community expressed outrage over the incident, noting that it had been less than a decade since members of the real KKK had marched in Oceanside in a wayward display of white supremacy.
Within days, local newspapers picked up on the story and, soon after, television crews were tromping along the hallways at Jefferson, some of them airing reports that featured footage of cross burnings by the Klan in the South.
Eager to defuse "a highly volatile situation," the North County branch of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People urged that Nancy Beckett, the teacher who allowed her students to come to school April 1 dressed like a pint-sized contingent of the KKK, be transferred to another campus in the Oceanside Unified School District.
There was only one problem, school officials said. Nancy Beckett, they said, is not the sort of teacher who deserves such a fate.
Named co-teacher of the year by the students and faculty at Jefferson Junior High School last year, Beckett is known as an innovative, caring instructor, the kind who works hard to expand the educational horizon for her students beyond the three R's.
Moreover, she is a teacher imbued with a deep sensitivity to the problems of prejudice, according to her colleagues. In a cruel twist of irony, it was Beckett's very efforts to enlighten her pupils about the evils of racial discrimination that prompted her class to come up with the April Fool's Day gag as a way to ridicule the Klan.
"I've seen people who are racist, and she's far from it," said Jefferson Principal Mike Walker, who is black. "A lot of teachers wouldn't even acknowledge that racism exists. Nancy acknowledges it and is attempting to do something about it. Yet she is the one who has now been cast in a bad light."
Though Walker gave the teacher a verbal reprimand for the incident, he and other district officials have stood solidly behind Beckett as opposition has mounted, saying the episode has been blown out of proportion by the media and members of the public unfamiliar with the facts of the matter.
'We Could Learn'
"Certainly, she shouldn't have allowed that kind of thing to happen," said Bibs Orr, a longtime school board member. "Still, I can't help but think that perhaps these students are a lot smarter than us adults. They can take the Ku Klux Klan and treat it as a joke. Maybe we could learn something from the kids. They can say to the Klan 'We're not afraid of you. We think you're a big farce.' "
Beckett, meanwhile, has been publicly humiliated. She has agonized over the incident, apologizing to her students, the school staff, district administrators, the NAACP. She has received questioning phone calls from parents. She has even stopped writing checks at the grocery store, for fear that her identity will be revealed.
"It has not been a good April," Beckett said during a recent interview at the junior high school. "Public humiliation is not something any of us enjoy. But my main concern is to not have anything disruptive to the school."
A widow, Beckett has been a teacher for more than two decades, instructing students in public schools, the private sector and at a university in Brazil. She began teaching in Oceanside in 1984 as a substitute but was soon offered a full-time job teaching English communications to students reading below grade level, as well as art and photography.
As part of the curriculum for her communications class this year, Beckett and her students took on the topic of prejudice. To help spark discussion, the teacher recently showed her pupils a videocassette of the award-winning film "Places in the Heart," which features a sequence involving a KKK attack on a black character.
For many of the students, it was their first exposure to the Klan. And the film had a profound impact. During a discussion and a writing assignment, they expressed blanket outrage that such a racist organization exists, Beckett said.
With April Fool's Day approaching, the students in the class began talking about concocting some sort of gag. One black youngster broached the idea of dressing up like the Klan as a way of lampooning the white-cloaked group, Beckett said.