Sunday, May 24, 2009

Monday Musings - My First Friend


DEFINITION OF ETHNICITY: eth⋅nic⋅i⋅ty [eth-nis-i-tee] –noun, plural -ties.
1. ethnic traits, background, allegiance, or association.
2. an ethnic group: Representatives of several ethnicities were present.
Origin: 1765–75, for earlier sense;
ethnic + -ity UnabridgedBased on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2009.

This is a true story about wrongly perceived ETHNICITY, as I remember it.

A recent post by Arkansas Patti on her entrance into the public education system, i.e., the first grade to most of us, triggered a number of life lessons I learned, including one in the first grade. By the way, cruise over to the The New Sixty blog of Arkansas Patti, to read her 2-part post about her first grade experience. [FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL, PART TWO--FIRST DAY]

The post triggered my memory of a playground lesson I learned early in my first grade experience, about ethnicity and careless adult conversation influencing children's language and behavior.

To set the stage, I was adopted by a lower middle class conservative Christian family in a small Central Texas town, amid multiple ethnicities, although the majority of citizens were white. The town was segregated, but it escaped the turmoil of other southern and a few southwestern states, probably because there was more than one segregated group. The best adjectives were "equal and separate," but that's not an accurate description, either.

This is a story about ethnicity, not race, as the two main characters are white.

It was 1943 and we were in the middle of the World War II, the war to end all wars....seems history also labeled WW I, the same way--guess WW II was to finish WW I. I remember sitting in front of a beautiful wood console radio/phonograph (78s only), listening to FDR's famous speech after Pearl Harbor.

With this background setting of the times in 1940, I set out to my first year of public school. I had private kindergarten plus some informal home schooling, so I was ahead of many students in my classroom.

However, social interaction was another matter. I was shy and introverted. I was not skilled in playground etiquette. I was the last chosen for Red Rover Come Over, jacks competition, and anything athletic. Give me a sand pile, my dog Snooky, and mud pies. I often played alone, even though I had siblings.

I finally made friends with a little girl whose last name was Rohr, Judith, who also seemed isolated, shy and introverted. The day we bonded in friendship, I skipped home to tell the news to Mother, who was concerned I seemed slow in social interaction. For several weeks, she listened to me regale my conversations with my new friend.
I had a hard time spelling her last name; origins of names was not high on my first grade learning curve. She was to my innocent eyes and mind, like me. We chatted as little girls do, we ate lunch together and hung out on the playground together. I was enchanted to know someone outside my extended family.

My elation and joy ended in tears one day when a playground spat turned ugly. I don't remember the initial reason it turned ugly, but a few participants turned on my friend, calling her a Nazi and Jew hater/killer, reducing her to tears.

My heart broke with hers and I did not understand what the names meant nor remember those words being used at home. I might have heard them on the Philco radio, but not from the lips of my parents.

Crying, I left the playground, not finishing the school day. I ran home, thinking Mother could cure whatever, was wrong. Little did I realize then, she could not solve the world's great social, political and religious problems with a wave of her hand.

She patiently explained to me as best she could to a first grader, the ramifications of war and its effect on the participants and their families. I heard there were other unkind characterizations, like Japs. She also included a few Biblical verses from her vast knowledge of Scripture. She tried to explain there were good and bad people in all kinds of situations.

A whole lot of the conversation I did not understand. She explained I had not made a bad selection of a friend, which was certainly music in my ears. In my distraught, heartbroken mind I thought there was something wrong with my friend and I would have to sever our new-found friendship--at that point my only perceived friend.

She also said the children, using ugly epithets, did not know what they were saying,[ more Scripture], but probably heard adult discussions and repeated what they heard. I was a bit miffed she seemingly took up for them, as I quickly formed the opinion they were "the enemy" for dinigerating my friend.

But one thing she did, stays with me to this day. She immediately called my friend's Mother the same afternoon, saying I still wanted to be friends, and we did not hold such prejudices. She invited the girl into our home. I was thrilled.

Our friendship blossomed as long as my friend attended my school. Later, her home was moved into another district, so she transferred to a different school. Her family moved out of town shortly after the redistricting.

Moving into second grade, I had my friend's unmarried aunt for a teacher. I seemed to have had a special place in the aunt's heart. I believe she knew of the first grade incident.

Thereafter, it seemed relationships, no matter the circumstance, were defined by differences, not similarities.

However, my life as an university student was eye opening and exciting. I attended the University of Texas, a mecca of ethnicities. I had supper prepared for me by a Lebanese man and his girl friend. It was so natural to mix with Europeans, Asians, Africans, etc. I received a degree in Pharmacy and invaluable life degree in intersocial, multi-national relationships.

And I have to confess, I quickly learned I wasn't the smartest cookie on the block. I was routinely outshined by many of the previously mentioned ethnicities!!!


Arkansas Patti said...

Thank you so much for the "shout out" Nitwit.
Your story touched my heart and it showed me the goodness of your heart but also that of your Mother's. What special, wonderful ladies.
I had a similar experience that I posted on Jan 22 but I fear I had a much worse outcome that I am not proud of but learned from.
Thank you for sharing.

Onedia said...

Beautiful post. Brings memories of growing up in the 50's and 60's in El Dorado Arkansas. I was totally confused when a woman shooed me away from a water fountain in the small department store telling me that the "white" fountain was at a different location in the store.

Children are not born hating of finding reasons to find wrong in differences. They are first shown by our own actions and then in their need to fit in their innocence is tainted by the darkness in the hearts of their elders.

So sad.

NitWit1 said...

Thanks, Arkansas Patti and Onedia. I don't want to leave the impression I am a guiltless, lily white sinless twit, but hateful language was not allowed in my home. In fate we were rebuked for using the word "hate." My venture outside my home brought difference and prejudice to my door.

I started to regale my religious belief that in Heaven we will be genderless, transformed to the likeness of the angels [Matt. 22:29ff), (however ever that looks) and how I wish we were that way now. I interpret this as all alike in some manner. We really are all alike: human beings with spirit and soul.

If this somewhat allegorical Biblical language is real, a lot of people are in for a BIG SURPRISE!


Sniffles and Smiles said...

A fabulous post!!!! How wonderful!!!! I love this!!! Thanks for writing and posting it! I wish more people would read this! ~Janine XO

Sweetie Pie said...

What a great post! One of the best things about my K-12 school experience in Arkansas had to have been the fact that I went to the same school as the children of servicemembers stationed at Blytheville (later Eaker) Air Force Base. There were always new and interesting people moving in and out of the community, and I certainly got a more diverse experience than I would have in a more isolated area. I value that so much! It has served me well as I've moved to the east coast to continue my education and to work in D.C., and I've been so happy to meet people from many different cultures along the way.

The things adults say really do have such an impact on children. That's such an important thing to keep in mind. Thanks for your story, and for that reminder!

Glennis said...

Great post, you learned a great life lesson from that incident, I do wish more people learned such a lesson early in life.
As the Beetles said 'all you need is love'.

Pat - Arkansas said...

Wonderful post, NitWit. I was privileged, and very lucky, to start kindergarten with Hispanics (El Paso, TX, 1939)and attend first through 10th grade in New Mexico with a "mixed bag" of other races, Black, Asian, Native American, Hispanic and ???. I'm not conscious of having experienced ethnic discrimination until I moved to Arkansas in 1950. :(