Sunday, September 16, 2012

Still Reeling

I apologize ahead of time that this post is a little lengthier than most that I write. However, it’s imperative that I tell today’s story correctly rather than focus on keeping it especially concise.

Originally, I’d intended to break my recent hiatus from posting with a fun little piece about Halloween costumes. As fate would have it, that post will have to be delayed.

Let me start this by setting the stage a little bit. My son’s hero of all heroes is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. When we visited the King Center this past January on Martin Luther King, Jr Day, my little Bear didn’t want to leave first the museum and then the memorial. He wanted to commune with Dr. King all day. On a recent trip to Washington, DC, Bear didn’t want to leave Dr. King’s statue, and he made it a point to read aloud every single quote inscribed along the long wall of the memorial. As Bear’s mom, I am proud beyond words.

As for my daughter, Ballerina, she isn’t quite old enough yet to understand these matters and historic struggles for civil rights. However, from her friendships and from the discussions we do have with her, it’s clear that she would be baffled by someone disliking or excluding someone based on a physical trait.

Yes, my husband and I talk to the kids about these issues, in children’s terms. We ask them if they feel that any skin color or hair tone or eye hue is better than another, and when they answer no, we make sure to ask them why so that they solidify this belief in their hearts as completely as possible.

With this as the backdrop and as a reflection of how my husband and I feel about discrimination of any kind, I will tell you about today.

This afternoon, while my husband took my kids on errands, I took off on my weekly long run. I expected a relatively uneventful, if slower than usual due to humidity, 8-mile run. Because of the length of the run, I started listening to a novel on my iTunes to pass the time.

A little over 3 miles along the trail, I came upon a detour sign and a loose mesh fence blocking the arm of the trail I usually follow. Being curious, and figuring I could just turn around at any sign of real danger, I went around the detour and continued on another tenth of a mile or so until I reached the spot where the trail passes under a road. Signs indicated that until early October the city is doing water line construction, so the portion of the trail under the road is closed.

I have a small fear of underpasses, so I decided not to risk going under. The thing is, this underpass is relatively new. The trail used to wind along another tenth or so of a mile up to the road itself, where a runner, walker, cyclist, etc., using the trail had to wait for a walk light to cross the street to the trailhead at the other side. I felt adventurous and decided to follow the old trail up and over the road.

Just as I was about to continue along, a slightly older couple on bicycles happened along – apparently, like me, they considered the detour sign to be more of a suggestion than a rule. We all spoke for a couple of minutes, and they decided to follow me up the old trail. For the sake of clarity in the story, let me state that this couple was African-American. The necessity of this description will be clear in a moment.

We approached the road, and as we arrived at the spot where the final turn up to the road used to be, we discovered that last length of connecting sidewalk had been removed and trees and shrubs planted along the strip where the paved trail had been, effectively blocking the easiest rise to the road. What was left was a very steep, grassy rise straight in front of us of about twenty or twenty-five feet up to the roadside sidewalk.

The man of the couple and I carefully worked to pull the bicycles up the rise, and when all was secure, the woman gingerly made her way up as well. Did I mention it was steep? It was really steep. I was impressed that they climbed up, and in such good spirits! They didn’t complain about this obstacle. They didn’t wince at the climb. They took it in stride and laughed almost the whole time.

I was just telling them that I’d lead them to the trailhead across the street, when a small, white SUV passed, filled with young men or teenagers – they went by so quickly, I couldn’t tell – and the most hateful word in the English language was screamed out the car window at our little group.

You know the word I’m talking about.

There’s no way you don’t.

I refuse to type it.

Like most people, I can write things and type things that I’d be embarrassed or even mortified to say out loud. But this… I don’t want any effort of mine to produce this word. But you know it.

Of course I have encountered this word numerous times in my life. In movies. On news reels. In history lessons. On talk shows. In philosophical discussions. But I have never encountered it flung as an invective at me or at people I’m with. This is a new experience for me. And hey, I’m Irish with a temper that matches the stereotype; I get furious enough just hearing about this word being used. Hearing it marring the air around me and directed at people in my proximity performed the miracle of simultaneously stopping my heart and sending my blood pressure skyward.

I heard myself yell some impotent remark at the boys as they drove off; what I really was thinking was, “What I wouldn’t give right now for a baseball bat and a red light.” Of course, violence against these fools – or at least against their vehicle – would have accomplished all of nothing, but it was the first response that came into my head, and I felt it through my gut and along every nerve ending.

The man of the bicycle riding couple looked at with me, and with his unwavering smile still brightening his face, he asked, “What did they say?”  I looked at him for a moment to determine if he was only pretending not to have heard… to try to spare me? to spare me what? embarrassment? to spare himself embarrassment? to sweep away anger and not let someone else’s idiocy ruin the day? 

Either way, I said, “I’d rather not say. Let’s move on. The trailhead’s right across the road.” I gave the couple what I hoped was a warm smile that didn’t reflect how shaky I felt inside, and we continued up the sidewalk, chatting about the area and the trails.

The rest of my run was pretty terrible. I turned off the audible book; I wasn’t listening any longer to anything but the thoughts raging through my mind. I tried to grab hold of my anger and leverage it to drive me forward, but the shock of that word and the hatred it reflects invading the day deflated my motivation and killed my energy. And I wasn’t even the object against whom the word truly was flung. Fortunately, the couple who were the targets either didn’t catch what was yelled or were able to rise above it.

To everyone who ever has fought hatred without turning to hatred themselves… my respect, which always has been tremendous beyond description, somehow managed to increase a hundredfold today.

I’m not na├»ve enough to believe that people don’t still use the awful word that was yelled today. I’m not Pollyanna enough to think that racism is dead. But I like to believe that it’s becoming increasingly shameful and unacceptable. I like to think that people “out there” are becoming increasingly aware that varying skin tones and ethnicities should be appreciated and embraced, not hated and feared.  I like to believe that parents are teaching their children to be a better generation than ours and the ones before.

Ultimately, I refuse to let today kill my spirit, but it’s going to affect me for the long haul. What I experienced was so insanely minor compared to what others have had to experience and continue to experience today. And yet it was so powerful, that one word, that one moment. It was a perspective changer.

Even so, to those who tease me about being a bit of an idealist in my view of the world… no, this won’t make me less of one. I continue to be realistic about the world as it is, but I also refuse to stop being idealistic about how I want the world to be. Because being an idealist requires a person to have and strive for ideals. And if people don’t have ideals they firmly believe in and want to strive for, how will anyone ever make a difference… how will they ever make this world a better place?

As long as young men like the ones from today are out there, the world needs to be made better. I’m not sure yet what I’m going to do about it, but I’m working on it. I’m doing my best to ensure that my children not only think differently than these young men but that they also are passionate enough about their beliefs to stand up for them.  I’m encouraging my son’s choice of hero, because not only did Dr. King make a difference but he did so with a focus on peace, education, love and non-violence. Focusing my efforts on my children may be the equivalent of a drop in the bucket, but there are millions of us out there, and if all of us would contribute a drop, the result wouldn’t be just a full bucket… but a flood.

How about you? What are you doing to make the world a better place?

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