Thursday, November 28, 2002

'Be Thankful For What You've Got'

Things you regret; things you're thankful for. Back in the early 70's, 8th grade, Miss Davis my teacher had proudly put up her Black History Month display on the bulletin boards, huge banner proclaiming "TO BE YOUNG GIFTED AND BLACK". It looked great - artists, poets, freedom fighters, etc, - their pictures and bios displayed on large multi-colored construction paper. As I took my seat, one of the other students nudged Miss Davis, looked over in my direction, and whispered something. I didn't think much of it until later in the day, after going to other classrooms for other classes, then returning to my homeroom with Miss Davis. The banner had been changed. Now it read "TO BE YOUNG GIFTED AND BLACK, and WHITE" Oh crap. I was so embarrassed. Perhaps horrified is a better desription.

It was the early 70's, my family lived on the South Side of Chicago ("the baddest part of town" as you Jim Croce fans might remember), and the neighborhood was going though "the change." When we first moved there, it was an all white neighborhood, moving into a cute house my mother had grown up 5 doors down from, always hoping to some day live there. Then the first Black family moved in, a nice quiet middle-aged couple with no children. Then the panic set in, the whisperings about when people would be moving (not if), my parents seeing their friends less and less for no discernable reason to us kids, not at first. The Catholic school I went to had been all white when I started in kindergarten, but by 5th grade, there were only 5 white students in my class, and by 8th grade, I was the only white kid in my class. My brothers had moved on to high school, my sisters (one grade younger) were in some experimental small school. My best friend was black, and was taunted for being my friend. Needless to say, some of the kids weren't nice to me ("honkey" being a popular word in the early 70's), but overall it was still a good school, the teachers were great, and I didn't miss my old friends who turned out to be bigots. Our parents never explicitly talked to us about why we stayed, even after the loss of all of their old friendships. And I didn't always tell them about every little incident at school, and this one bothered me.

For whatever reason, somehow I had felt lucky to have been given this opportunity, not to run from "the change" in the neighborhood, but to stay, meet new and different kids (you can imagine the hairstyles, I'll have to share a class photo), and one of the best things was kids bringing their records to school, and even singing pop songs in church - even the nuns got into the "making it relevant" movement, and one of my all time favorites was Be Thankful For What You've Got. Anyway, I just remember thinking "oh, Miss Davis, you shouldn't have done that, its okay, I understand, don't ruin the message just to try to make me feel ok...." but I never spoke up, 13-year-old me. Many years later, home for the holidays from college, I told that story to my parents, how bad I felt for not speaking up, but how happy I was that they were wise enough to have us stay put in our neighborhood, despite how hard it was for them, and sometimes us kids, and give me those memories and amazing lessons about life.