Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Middle School Years

I went to Westport Middle School for grades 6-8. Westport, as I remember it, was a pretty colorful place. It was also a relatively rough school, although I do not mention those statements back-to-back to connect the two. I do not know how the aggressive behaviors (read: fights) related to race (black vs. black? white vs. black? white vs. white?) or if there was a relationship at all.

But I do have a pretty clear picture of the attendance grid on the gym floor in P.E class.. You know what I mean? When the gym teacher, who has like 45 kids to manage at once, can only take attendance civilly if we are separated out, cross-legged on little masking tape dots, equidistant from one another, and told to be silent until further instruction... I was sitting in my little spot, when I heard from behind me the word, "Cracker."

Yum! Snack time! Who knew P.E. could be so great!

Did I already mention that I was a naive soul? Before too long I realized that it was me who the black girl two grid dots away was talking to and that she was calling me one, not offering me one. My memory says that we did not know one another's names or favorite colors or boy crushes. Acquaintances, we were not. I do remember smiling. Because, that's sort of my thing when I don't know what else to do. And waving, looking into her eyes,  I hollered "Hello." Black-girl-I-didnt-know-two-dots-away looked at black-girl-one-dot-away-from-her (likely her accomplice in the ordeal) pretty confused; they were searching each other's faces for what was next. And there was no next. That was the end of that. I didn't know it, but I think I diffused something. Why were they messing with me? Were they looking for a reaction? Where they hoping to feel some power over a shy, intimidated soul who would shrink and do nothing? Or were they hoping for aggression, excited at their chances to engage in a fight? When I offered neither weakness nor anger, instead nice... there wasn't much else to do.

Again, I know I brought this home to my parents. And AGAIN I haven't the foggiest notion of how they coached me. My guess is that I laid on the nice, with a smile, "hello" and eye contact, ever day thereafter to make it impossible for me to be seen as rude or racist or whatever they deemed as cracker-like.

The reason I tell this story is because it counted as the very first time in my twelve-or-so-year-old life that I remember being part of a REAL, bonified racial moment. And because I learned the power of head-on, looking-someone-in-the-eyeballs, unexpected "nice" in response to a charged moment. I wish I could tell you that I learned those girls' names and sought - at the very least - acquaintance with them. That would have been an even braver and more productive response. Glenn Doyle Melton wrote recently that "fear cannot survive proximity." I believe this. But even though I didn't get closer than the couple grid-dots away during attendance and all I could muster at the time was a smile, "hello," and eye contact, I suppose that counts as proximity when cowering was an option. Even today, when faced with the choice between silent, distant retreat or aggressive, in-your-face rage (the ole fight or flight model), I try really hard to choose neither. Not when the third option of nice proximity is available.

At the beginning of summer, I had a tradition of inviting my schoolmates to an end-of-school-year party in my back yard. We lived in a brick house in St. Matthews, a highly sought-after inner ring suburb to downtown Louisville composed of older, sometimes historic, homes. Although it was modest in size (3 bedrooms), my house's location and charm spoke, "We are well off." I didn't know this for a long time, but we were only able to swing that house because my father's parents had lived in it before we did. We became owners after they passed. All of my neighbors were old and white. I hankered for playmates. When I went girl scout cookie selling each year, since my parents taught me to be respectful to the geriatric community, I had to say "yes" when each neighbor invited me in and consequently satisfy each and every one of their unmet social needs. Lots of Old People = Lots. Of. Stories.

I remember the year Turquoise White came to my party. She was one of my black classmates. I remember her as the most talkative and bubbly soul. Everybody liked Turquoise. And, as far as I could tell, Turquoise seemed to like everybody. When Turquoise's mom picked Turquoise up that afternoon, she lingered for a long time on our back porch, where Mom had set out snackie foods. I only know this story, because Mom retold it lots of times. Otherwise I would be clueless, since Turquoise and the rest of us were busy milking all the play time we had left. My mom had invited Turquoise's mom to help herself to the snacks. And she ate and talked and ate and talked. And Mom kept politely chatting, too. Mom was beginning to wonder if she were planning on staying all afternoon, when all at once she began loading up a paper plate WHILE talking on and on. (It's worth mentioning here that, while everyone loved coming to our house and eating my mom's food, she was NOT a fancy host... I imagine brownies, turkey sandwiches, pickles, and maybe cheetos on display). Turquoise's mom piled high and deep. High and deep. And concluded it with a paper napkin, unfolded and draped over the top layer. Then, finally, off Turquoise and her mom went, perhaps to feed her whole neighborhood. My mom always told this story with warmth. I think she really did think Turquoise's mom was a stitch, just as I had always thought Turquoise was.

The reason I tell this story is because it stuck out to me that Turquoise and her mom were out of their element. I remember it took quite some time (over the phone! imagine that!) to give directions to their family to my house. And that, heck, since it was an ordeal to get there, maybe Turquoise's mom figured she may as well stay a bit. And get a meal in in the process. And maybe one for brother and sister. Although I had several black peers to my house over the remaining years I lived at home (SHOUT OUT TO HIGH SCHOOL TRACK AND FIELD END OF SEASON PARTIES!!!), this might have been the first, and it made me recognized how pale my whole neighborhood looked. I may have gone to a school that taught me the richness of socializing with lots of kids different than myself, but I came home every day to a lot of people looking just like me (except with a lot of wrinkles).

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