Sep 16, 2009

Racism


1971 in Wichita was a time of racial tension like everywhere else in the nation. It was the year that I was bused to Ingalls Elementary at the corner of 10th & Grove, in the middle of a predominantly black neighborhood. I was in 6th grade and it was my favorite year. I loved my teacher and my Mom taught first grade downstairs at the end of the long Kindergarten/First Grade hall. All those tiny people in Room 119 looked at me with awe as if I was the coolest girl ever. I loved being near my Mom all day. One of my best days came the morning after someone had been shot near the corner I worked crossing patrol.  Wearing my orange Crossing Patrol sash across my flat chest and the hand-held Stop sign in my authoritative grip, I was acting tour guide of the dried blood stain in the street.

It never occurred to me to be afraid that morning, or any other morning. Recess on the playground, walking out to one of the four corners for crossing duty twice each day, getting into the car or the bus after the last bell, I never felt in danger. My Mom had been teaching at this school for years and nothing bad had ever happened to her. She must have been scared after the shooting but she never let on.

I had two best friends that year. One was Leanne Ogle. She was skinny like me, but brunette. We'd get to school and trade left shoes so we'd walk around all day with mismatched matching pairs. Hidden in our desks from the watchful eye of Mr. Schneidewind were the people we made out of Bugles corn chips, glue, yarn and googly eyes. Sometimes Leanne came to my house after school. We'd ride the bus to my neighborhood on afternoons my Mom left school to go to her second job at Lewin's Fine Women's Wear in the mall. A few times I'd go to Leanne's house on Fridays so I could spend the night. My other friend was Sadie. She was chubby, not like me, and had black kinky hair that shined. Sadie came to my house once that I remember. She gave me a poster of a woman with a parasol sitting in a boat on a serene lake surrounded by willows. She said it had reminded her of me. She and I put it up with tacks on the only wall in our unfinished basement that wasn't concrete. I kept that poster for years, remembering what it felt like to be loved by someone as kind and sweet as Sadie.

The following school year I attended Truesdell Junior High, or as we called it, True Hell. Truesdell was within a couple of mies from my house, so this time it was the black kids who got bused to us instead of us to them. I think I was afraid most of the time. Afraid I'd forget where my locker was. Afraid I'd forget my combination. Afraid I'd fail Spanish. Afraid of gym class where I'd have to unclothe my frighteningly thin, prepubescent body in front of girls with breasts and hips and change into the ugly green bubble shorts and matching short sleeved shirt. Everyone said I looked like a toothpick stuck in an olive. I hated 7th grade.

Truesdell was the loneliest and most crowded school I'd ever been in. There were hundreds of students and I missed my Ingalls friends. I missed having a friend to share shoes and Bugles with. I missed knowing my classmates and having friends. Leanne was running with different girls and we hardly ever saw one another. I didn't have the one close friend that I needed in this giant hormone infused rat race. And then I saw Sadie. She was the most beautiful thing I'd seen all year; a serene, beautiful lake surrounded by willows. I greeted her with open arms and a smile so big my face hurt. But she didn't reciprocate. Her greeting was restrained and cool. She had a painful kind of sadness in her eyes. We saw each other a few more times in the halls, but something was different and she never wanted to stop for long. I thought she had just made different friends.


One day during that in-between class rush in one of a dozen long hallways, classes miles apart, hundreds of students all rushing to get where they needed to be before the dreaded bell, I felt a !Thwack! on the back of the head. Turning to see who or what, as I continued in my rush to get to class, I saw a girl much bigger than I was. She had 3 or 4 friends attached to her and they were all laughing at me. This big girl, with hate in her eyes and a face I did not know, had hit me. I had never been hit before and shock, embarrassment and fear all flooded up but there was no time to think about it. I had to get to class. Every day after that I expected to be hit again. I became more afraid, not knowing where or when that girl was waiting to jump out and beat my skinny body into a pulp. I didn't know this girl and her posse of friends or why they hated me but I did fear them.

Colors were everywhere. The pale white skin of my Spanish teacher's complexion. The ugly green of my gym uniform. The blue of the lock whose combination I feared would allude me. The browns, blacks, whites, tans and olives of the skins of the hundreds of students at True Hell. We were just different colors, like everything else in life. But those differences were just as natural to me as the different colors of the rooms in our house. Cars, books, flowers, trees and bugs were different colors. It seemed obvious that people would be different colors, too. Then I spoke to Sadie one last time.

It was in a different gray, long, student-filled hallway between classes. Sadie walked up to me. "Shannon, I can't be friends with you anymore." A sharpness stabbed my heart and it grew heavy with a weight that was new to me. I'd had plenty of painful moments by the time I was 12. Plenty of pain. My pets dying, my Dad leaving again and again, the loneliness of being the youngest. But the words she spoke next added a new, pressing weight to my heart and pushed me forever away from my innocent view of color. I came face to face with the ugly, irrational, stupidity of racism. "I can't be friends with you because I'm black and you're white." Looking at the sadness in her face, I also saw fear.   Standing less than 15 feet away behind Sadie, was the girl that had hit me and her backup singers, glaring at me and at the back of Sadie's head. They had scared her too, and in order to survive this school, this True Hell, she had chosen to do as they said and get rid of her skinny, blond and very white friend.

As I thought about writing this piece this morning in my bathroom with the blow dryer pointed at my now brunette head, I realized that the last moment with Sadie still makes me sad and I miss her. I think the tears that I push back now while I sit at my desk aren't for Sadie or for me, but for a world that I believe should exist and doesn't yet.

Racism still comes in all the colors. With the advances in science over these past decades, you think we'd all know by now that none of us are exactly the same color, while at the same time we're all made up of the same exact stuff. Race still becomes a conversation during elections. Color is the blame for countless hurts and failures. A kid in my son's school started a teacher-sanctioned "Southern Gentleman's Society" a couple of years ago. Most of the kids understood that was really KKK Light, but this kid with his affinity for the confederate flag, has convinced all the teachers and administration into letting him start his little 'whites only' club. What do I do with that. What do I do with the injustice and stupidity. What do I do with my outrage. I feel as helpless as the day I realized that I was white and there were people who hated me because of it. I hated 7th grade and I still hate the day Sadie's fear mixed with the tension of the times and I was forced to see that something big, ugly and powerful lived and would probably not breathe its last in my lifetime. But it was also the day that my black friend saved me from any more harm. Those girls who hated the color of my skin never bothered me again.

1 comment:

Tanya O. said...

Thanks for sharing. It reminds me of my own "Stacie" experience in the 7th grade.

Children don't hate naturally. Hate is taught. And it scars us for life. I was bused to a predominately white junior high school on the "other side" of town. I was the smartest kid in my class, reading at a 12th grade level. I tutored kids in my class and wondered why there were white kids in 7-4 taking remedial reading and tons of black kids in 7-8 with no chance of a decent education. I wondered why I wasn't in 7-SP (honors class) with my grades, why there were no black kids in 7-SP and only one in 7-1, one in 7-2, two in 7-3 and three in 7-4. But there were nearly 30 black kids in 7-8 and no white kids. I wondered why the kids I tutored in class called me nigger and through acorns and rocks at me when me and other black kids as we boarded the city bus to go back to our side of town.

Fights broke out on that bus as black teen age boys took out their frustrations on other black teenage boys.

It's sad that hate is taught and differences are feared. The busing experience in Brooklyn, NY from 1983 - 1986 could have been a wonderful learning experience a true melting pot experience. Instead it was writhe with racial slurs and distrust. It wasn't all bad, like Sally, she was another friend, only at school though. Sally was tall like me but she was blonde and I had black curly hair. Sally was 14 when we were in the 9th grade. She would talk about having sex with her 27 year old boyfriend in the shower. I was 14, but I knew that was wrong, that it was statutory rape. I don't know what happened to Sally, Richard, and Stacy and the other kids at JHS 275. I do know that the lessons about race haunts me to this day.

It lingers in corporate America as an only one. In the many neighborhoods I have lived in, in Syracuse, NY, Whitehall, PA, and Houston, TX were my neighbors called the police on me simply because I was black. They told the police it was because my music was too loud or I closed the door too loud, or I was talking too loud, or some other lie.

Hate is taught and is perpetuated by stupidity. Like you said, we are more alike than different. And if we could see past those differences life would be oh so much better.