When I was about five years old before my brothers were born, my mom routinely babysat other kids to earn extra money while she stayed at home. Most of these kids were around my age, and we’d have a good time playing together. In many ways it was like a practice run for being a big brother, a welcome respite from the general isolation I often felt tucked away at home with my mom.
One day, my dad took me and one of the boys with him while he ran errands. Back then, even running errands with my dad was great fun since he was rarely awake when I was, so I was pumped to ride in that old, blue Ford Maverick with one of my friends. I thought that car was so cool with its slick, black vinyl seats and rumbling engine. Dad always drove with the window down, even when it was cold, so that he could flip the ashes from his ever-present cigarette out of the window, so I got the visceral effect of the wind blowing through my hair in the back seat way before I’d get the experience driving myself.
Over the course of running errands, we ended up at Canton Drug in downtown Canton. My friend and I stood at the pharmacy counter while my dad picked up a prescription. As is typical of young boys feeding off each other, we were acting up and dad had already hushed us once, so we stood as silently as we could, restless energy wracking our tiny limbs, while dad finished his transaction. About this time, an old, black lady walked in through the door and ambled past us on her cane. She had that grandmotherly aura about her, but age had taken its toll as she was hunched over the cane and moved very slowly. Each step seemed painful, and she had the misery on her face to prove it.
My friend and I watched her for a moment, and then, he turned to me, as if I hadn’t been paying attention, and said very loudly, “Look at that n—-r.” If I had heard that word before I didn’t remember, but even at that young age, I could feel the air getting sucked out of the drug store. Conversations behind us fell silent. The old woman stopped and stared at us with an intensity that frightened me. She ambled over to us and got close to my friend as she stuck her gnarled finger in his face. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but she told him that she was a black person, not the epithet he had used. Once she thought he understood, she simply walked away. I heaved a sigh of relief.
Whether my dad had watched what had unfolded, I do not know, but I do know that he heard the exchange, and he was livid at my friend for his sordid behavior. He stood at the counter, stilted and red-faced, and once he retrieved his prescription, he pulled us out of the store quickly. Back at home he blew up, he proclaimed to my mom that he would never take my friend with him anywhere again as he relayed the embarrassing episode. My friend and I cowered in the living room while dad’s temper exhausted itself as it always did with him stomping down the hall and slamming his bedroom door to take a nap.
That day introduced me to the ugliness of racism. I didn’t understand it then. I didn’t understand that kids aren’t born with those attitudes, that they learn them from their parents. Each generation carries on the attitudes of those before them whether they want to or not unless they make a conscious effort to break the cycle of ignorance.
The South (in the United States) doesn’t have a monopoly on racism. It exists everywhere, in places you’d least expect it. Human nature lends itself to racism. We all tend to like those similar to us. This is true of everyone – black or white. The only difference between a racist and someone who is not is the taming of innate impulses, a greater understanding of humanity that can only be obtained by questioning motives and understanding the fear of the unfamiliar that we all harbor in the primitive part of our brains. That primitive brain gets us in trouble, and nowhere is that id on display like it is in high school.
In that primordial soup of evolving adults where fraught emotions mix with posturing machismo, high school lends itself to the social drama where different ideas clash. Cliques form naturally, and opposing ideas teem at the slightest possible indignity. It’s not unlike the real world, but adults are often weighed down with responsibilities and have less time on their hands. My first eight years of school were spent in the whitest of the white parts of the county. There was no mix of races to speak of at Macedonia. At Cherokee, for the first time for many of us from the farthest reaches of the county, other races were introduced to the student body, and that put racial tension and ignorance on full display.
Unfortunately, some of my most prominent memories from high school aren’t of academic achievements, sporting events, or silly dances, but of racial fights. The obvious minority of black students at the school had to constantly deal with an overwhelming majority of emotionally- and intellectually-stunted individuals incapable of comprehending or accepting the diversity of the world around them. It felt like two tectonic plates bumping against each other constantly causing a destructive wave of motion every time one of them moved.
One such battle played out over the course of a couple of years. I had taken a woodworking class because I enjoyed building things, and while I was trying to design something to build for my mom, one of the dimwitted students in my class used the lathe to build a weapon that he intended to use against a black student. He boasted about it among his equally-witless cronies in class, out of the teacher’s earshot of course. Sometime later, during a lunch period, the student made good on his promise and was promptly suspended for a lengthy amount of time.
I didn’t see the student again until the following year. I had largely abandoned the woodworking classes despite enjoying them and moved on to other pursuits involving fewer dullards. In the fall of that school year, a friend and I were walking to the library among a crowd of students to take some standardized tests. I had walked ahead of him and through the large glass doors of the building without paying much attention to where he was. As I stepped through one of the doors and let it swing back, I heard the crash of glass breaking, and my first thought was that I had let the door slam on my friend.
When I turned around, I saw the suspended student from the woodworking class lying on the floor with a large, fleshy gash running the length of his arm. He had been thrown through the glass doors and the shards had slashed his forearm. Blood poured from his wound and puddled on the worn carpet quickly. He looked dazed and confused, even more than usual, but he jumped up and ran past me as if he were being chased by the killer in some horror movie. I stood there, stunned, but when I looked beyond the shattered glass doors searching for my friend, I saw the black student the delinquent had beaten the previous year, seething in anger and too overwhelmed to pursue the fight any further.
That became one of my most prominent memories of the racial tension that plagued my high school and captured yet another thing that troubled me about the world in which I lived. For me, high school simply became an endurance race. I silently counted down the years and then days until I could walk out of there for good. When I graduated and walked off that football field for the final time in the summer of freedom, as I sardonically referred to it, I never looked back.