I’ve come a long way in my thinking about people who are “different” than I am. It has taken me five decades to realize the way I think may not be the wrong way after all.
I was born on this planet to an older couple (in their 40s) who lived in a small community outside a larger city in central Illinois. That meant that the only “diversity” was whether you lived in town or on a farm, whether you were a Lutheran or Methodist, whether your father was a “working man” or a “suit”. Different had nothing to do with color of skin or religious convictions…there were no non-Christians (unless as some people believed, you were Catholic or you were “unchurched”.
I was the one who was different. I lost my mother before I was four. I had to wear glasses which became increasingly thicker starting when I was eight. I started gaining weight after third grade and was quite round off and on the rest of my life. (Can we say yo-yo?) I was asthmatic and had several bronchial infections each year causing me to miss school and social events. In seventh grade I developed pitting acne which lasted for the next four years. All of this made me extremely self-conscious and I climbed into a shell. How does this lead to a conversation about diversity?
I was starved for love and friendship. If anyone wanted to be my friend, I was open to the idea.
I had no contact with people whose skin was dark. Occasionally when we went to town I would see well dressed black women walking down the sidewalk and I would stare. I didn’t know what they were. My aunt would grab my arm and pull me along. “Don’t stare! Just ignore them,” she would admonish.
When I was thirteen I became a volunteer at a local hospital. We would take breaks and sit in the same room as the maids. I honestly could never tell them apart. All I saw was brown skin.
It was that summer that I had my first skin to skin encounter. I worked several different areas of the hospital but my favorite was pediatrics. There was a small year old black boy in one of the cribs. The toddlers were all kept in the same nursery. Day after day I would go from one crib to another talking and playing with, rocking, and feeding all the white babies in the room. I could feel the eyes of the little boy follow me every time I was there. I avoided him because he was black. He was different from me.
One day I entered the nursery and he was screaming. He looked so pathetic. I did my usual tour of the other cribs. He didn’t stop crying. He stood there holding on to the railing of the crib, following me with his pleading eyes. No other adult was in the room. Finally, I couldn’t take it any more. I lowered the side on his crib and took him into my arms. He stopped crying immediately. To this day, that contact had such a profound impact on my emotions I can still feel his chubby arms around my neck and his tear soaked face burrowed into my shoulder. The feel of his curly hair is right there on my chin. I felt all the resistence and fear drain from my body. I fell in love with that little boy right there and then.
When I applied for my last teaching job, it was for a position in an inner city school. When I was asked about any educational experience I had with minorities, I truthfully stated I went to an integrated high school and college. The interviewers didn’t ask how integrated. There was a state hospital in my home town. A doctor and his family moved there from “the islands” somewhere. The daughter attended my school. We never had any classes together. I would only see her occasionally while passing in the hall. But she did integrate the school.
My freshman year in college I went to a large university outside Chicago. There were two black girls on my floor, Diane and Bea. Within a few days, Diane and I became friends. There were few freshmen on our floor and the older ones already had their friends. The Chicago girls tended to flock together. Once again I was the outsider. I liked Diane. Why she gravitated towards me, I didn’t really know but I didn’t care. A couple of weeks after we met we walked over to the nearby small shopping area. As a car passed I heard a young man’s voice yell out, except that I really didn’t hear exactly what he said. I just heard laughter coming from inside the car. Diane just kept walking and I soon forgot about it.
The next day in the dorm one of the other girls came to apologize to me. She had been in the car. She told me what the guy had yelled. “N***er Lover. I had never heard that phrase. From that point on, for the most part, Diane and I for the rest of the year were friends only with each other. I was the white “N***er Lover” and was beneath the rest of them. Once more I was very lonely and isolated for being different. But Diane was a good friend. She was a little rowdy to my reticence and did stretch the truth now and then (her affair with Bobby Orr who didn’t even join the Black Hawks for eleven more years!)
At Christmas time Diane invited me to Chicago to spend some time with her and her family. She lived on the near South side of the city. When I asked my father, we reallly didn’t discuss it, but he said no to the idea. I was “wanted” at home. In November of that fall term I was introduced to a young Jewish student. He was a genuine “nice guy”. I didn’t have many dates with him but I did go to a Hanukkah party. I had potato latkes, brisket, and chala among other dishes. I was persuaded to learn to dance the hora. None of this wonderful, festive fun would be understood by my family.
Another day to clean out and fix up my house. You wouldn’t believe my porch. My neighbor volunteered to come over with his power jet. The porch and sidewalk look brand new. I hope you feel they are welcoming you.It’s too nice in the morning to sit in the attic. Come share my view of the world as long as it lasts. Namaste. Attic Annie