Yesterday, I took my mother to the doctor. My daughter, Alice, went with us because she doesn’t start kindergarten until Thursday. The appointment ran long. Alice and I had been sitting in the lobby for the better part of an hour when another family came in. This was a grandfather, a mother, and three children, the oldest being middle-school age. A family of that size is sort of like a sideshow going anywhere, what with bathroom trips, preferred seating, and general and boredom. We have three children; I know all too well what it’s like.
A week ago, I wouldn’t have thought twice about yesterday’s events. Today, it means something since the family who came in is black.
Given the current political climate, people on both sides of the color divide immediately tense, wondering if the next person to walk through the door is going to be THAT KIND of person. It can’t be helped these days.
The mother, clearly frazzled by her troop, herded them into the corner while the grandfather checked in. As they passed, I offered a smile and went back to working in my notebook. She smiled back warily as she went through the motions of settling them in while the gentleman went back to be seen.
Alice, ever curious, turned around to look at the kids. She loves little people, and never meets a stranger. The youngest of these children was about her size, and they began the kid-introduction ritual of smiling and waving. The little boy was antsy, and he wanted gum. His mother had peppermints. Alice perked up at the mention of candy, so she offered my daughter one, which made her Alice’s favorite person of the day.
Alice showed her Kitty-Cat (her most prized possession) in exchange. She asked Alice if she was excited to start school. Her little boy is the same age as Alice. They’re both starting kindergarten Thursday. Same school district, different schools. We talked about the late release Monday because of the eclipse. Once the ice was broken, we had a lot to talk about and conversation flowed easily.
About this time, Alice decided she wanted her peppermint opened. So her new friend hopped up and came over to tell her it was hot. He was very concerned about it and watched her like a hawk for any sign of distress.
When he realized it wasn’t going to hurt her, he relaxed. She showed him her Kindle where she was playing some kind of baking game, and next thing I knew, he was squishing up between Alice and me on the loveseat. I scooted over. He snuggled right up against me and smiled. His dimples did me in. Cutest little boy ever. So open and trusting…his sweet face brought tears to my eyes.
From that point on, Alice and Jaden were friends. They played together for over an hour, with only one little tiff. Five-year-olds aren’t great at sharing, and I made her apologize for being rude. He said it was okay and apologized for not letting her have a turn. Jaden’s brother got involved then, helping organize the turn-taking and keeping them on point.
When Mom was done and it was time to leave, Alice hugged Jaden and told him she’d see him next time, which made everyone laugh. She always assumes the best.
I watched these children for over an hour as they played together, oblivious to the social conventions/stigmas/whatever associated with skin color. It didn’t matter to them what they looked like or where they came from. It didn’t matter that their mother has an elaborate hairdo and impressive manicure or that I’m covered in tattoos. What mattered was the very important business of having as much fun as possible.
Watching these children reaffirmed my belief that there is still good in this world. They love whole-heartedly, without reservation or prejudice. They don’t see skin tone as a tool or a limitation. They just…are.
Every child starts out open-hearted and naïve. They’re moldable. What shapes children into the adults they become is what they’re taught. Racism and bigotry are passed from generation to generation, often unconsciously. Children mimic the adults in their lives. They don’t really know how to be people when they’re that young, and they gain that knowledge by observing. If a child grows up in a household where hate speech is the norm, they won’t understand that it’s wrong. They’re indoctrinated into a lifestyle they probably wouldn’t want if they knew what it was when they were still impressionable.
But the cycle can be broken. I’m proof of that.
My father was a good man, but he could be hard. He grew up in a time where the races kept to themselves. He wasn’t outwardly racist, but I was much older before I really understood that he wasn’t exactly open-minded, either.
It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I learned just how many of the neighborhood men I grew up around were legacy members of the KKK. I’d heard my mother mention it a time or two, but I never witnessed the darkness first-hand. It just wasn’t talked about. And being that young, it didn’t really register. The words didn’t mean anything to me. I didn’t see the meetings and hear the worst of the hate speech. Sure, I heard the racial slurs, but I despised those words even then. I refused to say them. Still do. And I don’t allow people to say them around me.
What these men believed wasn’t within the realm of my understanding. It didn’t make sense to me. My father shielded me from their true feelings. He raised me to respect everyone, and to not believe everything I heard.
Those men kept their evil well under wraps, at least around us kids. They were nice to me. Their children were my schoolmates, my friends. I went to their parties, played in their yards, trick-or-treated at their houses. I didn’t know what they were, and I didn’t know any better.
The true weight of that knowledge didn’t really settle in with me until I was an adult. I grew up around terrible people, but I came out the other side with a clear understanding that what they were doing was wrong. I wasn’t like them.
I’m still not like them. It’s why I don’t look back. It’s why I teach my children acceptance and love.
It’s up to us, the parents of the little ones, to change our behavior, to make a conscious effort to show our children a better way, and to allow them to form their own opinions of the world around them.
My daughters will always be taught to accept people for who they are, not what they look like, who they love, or what they believe. They will be taught to understand that those characteristics are not all-encompassing, and they do not define a person. I could have sent Alice to the charter school here in town, but I chose to send her to public school so not to limit her interaction with people from different walks of life. I want her to know that everyone is equal.
I wish I could erase the hatred from their world and let them live the rest of their lives with only love in their hearts. I wish they didn’t live in a world where the president thinks is okay lie and point fingers, to wave a Nazi flag and run innocent people down for daring to disagree. I don’t want my girls to live in a world where I question how many of my friends will assume the worst and disown be because of uncomfortable events from my childhood.
My girls will be encouraged to be fair, to think for themselves, and to do the right thing. They will grow up with the understanding that they respect all others around them. There isn’t much I can do to help those who are hurting and grieving, but I can do my part to make sure the next generation knows how to play fair.