From my front row seat

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Racist Interrupted

It was my very first day of high school as a 9th grader in Franklin, Tennessee.  And it was the very first day for integration in my county.  The year was 1971.

Neither school was big enough for all the students, so the oddly curious solution was for us to spend half a day at the white school and half a day at the black school.  In the middle of the day we were bused back and forth to switch places.

This plan was insanely inefficient.  For most of us, it meant two lunch periods back to back while this time consuming craziness took place.

After my first lunch, I got on the bus for the black school but unfortunately, all my friends went the first half of the day.  I quickly discovered the students were not evenly divided between black and white.  (Wasn't that the whole point?)  The bus was already packed, standing room only - and I was the only white student on the entire bus.  Wow.

Not knowing what to expect, I found a safe place to stand behind the bus driver who was also black.  I tried to look cool, like I hadn't even noticed my present circumstances.  Truth was, I was pretty scared.  Isn't it interesting how we often fear what's simply unfamiliar?

The only other school I had ever attended had just two black students in the entire school - Georgia, who was in my class, and her brother who was in another, also alone.  As I looked across the mass of unfamiliar black faces on the bus, I couldn't help but imagine that Georgia must have felt the very same way I did in that moment.  No wonder she never said a word and always looked so scared.  As I look back now, I'm ashamed I didn't do more to make her feel comfortable.  She must have been miserable in our all white school.

Gripping the pole behind the driver, I steadied my feet best I could as we began our journey to the part of town I had only heard about.  My blond hair was long and straight and the girls around me were absolutely fascinated with it.  As a matter of fact, I was pretty fascinated with theirs as well.  How did they get it to grow in that perfectly round "fro"?  

All of a sudden, without asking, a group of girls began running their fingers through my hair.  They squealed, "Come feel this!  Feel it!"  Well, I didn't like it one bit.  This had to stop.  (My personal bubble is quite large.)

When I'd had enough, I flipped my head around and immediately felt my hair getting jerked and pulled in all directions.  Oh my word, I'm being attacked!  It turned into quite a ruckus - kids yelling and laughing while my hair was yanked out by the handfuls.  Everything was a complete blur as my head got violently pulled back and forth, back and forth, and I was in a lot of pain.  I screamed for help but couldn't imagine who would even come to my rescue.

Suddenly all the violence stopped but not the laughing.  I grabbed my head and slowly faced my attackers, only to discover no one had even touched me.  What?  Apparently, when I twirled my head around to stop them from feeling my hair, I had actually gotten it stuck in the bus driver's stupid fan!  It had gotten whipped into a massive ball of knots.  Fortunately, one of the nice girls helped untangle my hair from the fan that now seemed to possess a good bit of my hair.  There was an enormous rat's nest in the back of my head.  No wonder everyone was laughing.  I'm sure it was hilarious for everyone on the bus but I was humiliated - and yet relieved at the same time.

As I tried to regain some kind of dignity, which was near impossible under the circumstances, I straightened my short little skirt, pulled up my knee socks, patted down my hair best I could, and marched into the black school for the first time, which I couldn't help but notice was behind a tall, metal fence.  Was this to keep people in or out?  (I later learned it was both.)  

The place was shocking.  I could see right away that the black school wasn't nearly as nice as the white school.  But how did this happen?  Didn't the same people pay for both?  It was filthy and needed lots of repair.  It didn't seem right, that's for sure.

As the year went on, I felt like I was seeing the world for the first time through someone else's eyes, and much of it was painful.  Many things were clearly not fair or equal.  And even though there were uncertain, new experiences during that first year of high school in an integrated school (or schools) it taught me some lessons I will never forget, and quite frankly, some lessons I needed to learn.

I've thought a lot about this experience recently.  And this is why:

As I've reflected over our past year at Blue Monarch, there were so many unexpected blessings and miracles.  After all, we expanded our campus with the construction of four beautiful cottages for our graduates.  This increased our population by 33%.  That's huge!  

But that's not all.

There were many remarkable miracles of transformation for our women and their children - countless, amazing things that you wouldn't think possible!  However, there's one specific thing that quickly rises to the top of the list when I think back on 2016.

Sadly, this is not a unique case, but we had a little boy with us last year whose father was involved in the Aryan Nation.  This man was quite vocal with his racist views and had passed these harmful prejudices along to his impressionable young son.  Even the mother wore Aryan Nation tattoos on her chest and at first, refused to open up to our counselor who is black.  (Thank you, Lord, for our counselor's patience, grace, and professionalism.)

But you know what happened over their time at Blue Monarch?  This little boy learned that we are all equal, that God loves each of us the same, and by the time he walked out our door, this sweet child no longer feared or hated people of color.
(Not the actual child)

And his mother?  Well, she eventually changed her own perspective and to this day, our counselor is the first person she turns to when she needs help.

In this day and time, when it's well beyond 1971 but we're still hearing daily news about racism, there is no way to know how differently this little boy might have turned out if he had not learned this critical lesson at an early age.  He may always be challenged through his ongoing exposure to people who feel otherwise, but I have to it possible that a future hate crime was perhaps stopped in its tracks because a little boy and his mother had the opportunity to come to Blue Monarch?  

We may not be able to fix racism, but I'm grateful we have a chance to chip away at it - one child, one mother at a time. 

But the one who hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded his eyes.  1 John 2:11