They say that your experiences shape who you are. I still have no idea who ‘they’ are, or how they seem to bastions of such knowledge. All I know is that I am who I am, for better or for worse; that despite my dysfunctional family I turned out more well adjusted than I probably should have.
I only recently realized just how homogeneous the first half of my life was, especially my childhood and teenage years. We moved just prior to the start of third grade. How we discovered what teacher we would be assigned was by looking at the lists that were posted on the glass doors at the front of the school. The lists were divided by grade and teacher. Under each teacher’s name was an alphabetical list of students, last name first and the first five letters of the first name, in her class. This was 1977 and we had no male teachers in our elementary school. In fact, I did not realize that men could teach until I moved and started my new school.
I walked up to the elementary school with a friend to find out who her teacher was. I seen my name on list, as my mother never formally withdrew me from that school before enrolling me in my new school. My name was listed under my favourite teacher’s name. She was everyone’s favourite teacher. She previously taught first grade, this year she was teaching third. I went home and told my mother that I wanted to do my first week of school there where I could see her.
“It will just confuse you,” I was told. I was seven and this was the greatest disappointment I had experienced. I broke down crying, probably telling my mother that I would not be confused, that she was mean, that she did not understand.
I do not know the real reason we moved. I probably never will. The news came after I mentioned the one black student, Tony, that was in my class. He and a few other students lived in an orphanage and rode a bus to school. I had no idea what an orphanage was, or why he lived in one. We were returning from a field trip and we passed the orphanage on the way back and he and a few other kids were dropped off and the bus continued on to the school. When I got home, I told my mother about Tony and the others in my class that lived there, wanting to know what this place was. It was not explained to me at the time, instead my mother expressed shock that there was a black student in my class. A couple weeks later I was told we were moving. My mother claimed it was because our house was haunted and one of the ghosts kept trying to kill my stepfather. She told everyone we knew stories about how he was almost impaled by a large falling icicle on the house and how a rather large picture, that I am almost positive my great-grandmother painted, only fell off the wall when he sat on the couch. This was the work of the ghost, and we had to move. This was my stepfathers house; he never saying anything collaborating or discrediting the stories.
My grandfather found us a plot of land out in the country, forty-five minutes from where we were living, and he was going to build our house. We were going to live with my grandparents while it was being built. It would be confusing for me to attend a week of school to see my favourite teacher, but somehow it would not be confusing to change schools in the middle of the year. My first teacher that year was a friend of my grandmothers. Needless to say, I was not able to get away with anything. My second teacher that year was a woman who probably should not have been teaching. She did not seem to like children much. I would like to think that she enjoyed teaching when she started, but as she became older, and closer to retirement, our eight and nine-year-old shenanigans probably wore on her nerves. More importantly, neither of these schools had black children.
Elementary school faded into junior high, or what is now called middle school, and junior high into senior high. Even in my over-crowed junior and senior high schools that ultimately housed the students of six different elementary schools for our secondary education, things were very homogeneous. Multicultural was defined as Mennonites and the one Hawaiian family that moved to the area when I was in eighth grade.
I was probably eleven or twelve when things started to fall apart at home. Fall apart is probably the wrong word. It was more like a storm came in and upset my life that would gradually turn into a hurricane over the years until my mother and stepfather’s marriage came to an abrupt end. I say abrupt because I was not prepared for it. We were still going on weekend camping trips at the time, and no one prepared me for it. I came home from school one day, and was told that a divorce was happening, that we would be moving and abandoning the house my grandfather built for us.
Two more schools and no black students. A year later another move, this time to another state. It was my senior year and I would attend two schools that year. The first school there were no black students. The second school there was one black girl in my history class. Both her parents were lawyers. I was telling my mother a story about something that happened in class that day and mentioned Leslie, and my mother said something about “those people”.
I remember saying in response, “She’s not like that.” I did not recognize this as racism at the time, but something told me I should never mention Leslie again. I also started getting that feeling that something had been off for years, that maybe that initial move was not because of ghosts but because of Tony. It made me feel uneasy, and guilty in a way that I did not understand. After all, I was only a kid at the time and had no control over my life.
Around this time, I was talking with the one friend that I met in third grade and stayed in contact with. She mentioned something about the Ku Klux Klan headquarters that was less than twenty-minutes away from where we went to high school as if I had known about it. I made the mistake of asking my mother if she knew about it. “Why do you think we moved there?”
Excuse me?! I still did not know the word ‘racist’. Racism was not something that was taught in my overly white school, with its Eurocentric history that glossed over slavery. When one of my college professors recently started talking about The Middle Passage and diaspora I sat there and pretended to know what he was talking about. Here I was, a college student at 49, and had no idea what he was talking about. I spent some time with Google later discovering there was a lot about history I did not know, that was never taught to me.
What was going on inside me was contained by the poker face that I had perfected. I learned early on that it was best not to share too much with my mother, and that when I was told something, it was best not to give a reaction. My mother lacked any real empathy, caring only about how things affected her. I dropped the conversation, picked up my schoolbooks, and went to my room.
Why was my mother hellbent on keeping me away from black people? Was Tony the real reason we moved? I never did buy the ghost story. What was wrong with black people? They seemed like normal people to me. Were they not normal?
There is song called Spider in My Mouth by Fozzy with the lyrics “My life goes by in the photographs / The images that we hide / My ghosts that were once invisible / Now buried down deep inside.” A snapshot suddenly fell to the floor on my memory taken from the hallway of the house my grandfather built. My mother was sitting on the couch watching “Roots” and rooting for the beating of Kunta Kinte. That snapshot is the reason I have never been interested, or if I am being honest, unable to watch the movie or even pick up the book. It was just this week that I put “Roots” on my To Read list.
The dots were connecting but I did not understand the picture they were making. I never asked for an explanation because I did not feel that I could trust what I would hear. I did not want my suspicions that one boy in my second-grade class, who was my friend, was the reason we moved confirmed. I did not want to deal with my mother being defensive, as she was with everything she did not want to talk about, and not give me answers. Whatever the picture was, it was not drawn correctly, and I knew it. I also knew I could not fix it. As I tell my best friend at least once a week, “I can’t art.” I was not in a position, or even capable, of fixing that picture. It was best to set it aside, remembering it and ignoring it at the same time.
Today I find myself wondering how I was oblivious growing up, how nothing seemed amiss at the time. How the homogeneity that was my life seemed normal. I was never told that black people were this or that. I was never taught to discriminate against anyone. I also never witnessed my parents behaving one way or another toward black people. In fact, I never seen them interact with any. My mother took avoiding things she did not want to deal with to an art form, so I am not surprised.
I also wonder how I avoided picking up my mothers belief systems, considering it was the main belief system I was exposed to, and she went through great lengths to make sure that I was not exposed to any other. At times she failed. She disliked my stepfather’s sister. I can only assume it is because she married a man from the Philippines who was a distant relation to Ferdinand Marcos and attended an all-black Pentecostal church. This was a Triple Rock Baptist Church from “The Blues Brothers” church experience for me the first time I attended with my cousin. Maybe that was all the balance I needed. My aunt did not talk about race any more than my mother did. The irony of the church that my aunt attended was their use of Chick Tracts, highly racist publications meant to teach about Jesus done in cartoon pamphlets. I was going through a phase where I was reading everything by Stephan King I could get my hands on, and those Chick Tracts scared me in ways King only wishes he could scare people.
I was bullied relentlessly by my peers due to rumors about my dysfunctional family. That experience also left a mark that I still struggle with sometimes. This abuse was something else that went into that connect-the-dots picture I was trying to assemble. I did not like being treated badly because I was seen as different, because my family was less than perfect. In the hierarchy of the perfect family, we were somewhere near the bottom. In my mind it was not fair that someone should be judged for something they had no control over and treated horribly because of it. That made a bigger impression on me than the racism that I unknowingly lived with. This does not mean that I advocate bullying as a learning experience. No one should be treated that way.
No one should be singled out because they are different. No one should be treated badly or discriminated against because of their skin colour, their gender, their sexuality, their religion, or any other reason that society uses to segregate people to place them neatly in boxes. Boxes are for cats and only milk should be homogeneous.