As I walked in to the elementary school, I noticed a man up ahead of me wearing a hat similar to one I own. He was tall, lanky, seemed to know the teachers. He was black. I figured him to be the janitor.
I had to stop and ask directions to the library, where my son and others would be reading some of their award winning writings. I’d thought of asking the janitor, but he was too far ahead of me. Was I ever surprised to see the “janitor” sitting in the section reserved for the parents and grandparents. He seemed a nice chap. But as the room filled up with young authors’ kin, all white, I wondered how he felt amid a sea of Caucasians.
Eventually a white woman — really white, red hair, flushed cheeks — arrived and sat beside him. Very close beside him, with other chairs vacant. Ahhh, I get it. At least I did when their blended-race daughter arrived.
My gaze shifted back toward the students. I spotted a young Hispanic gal staring at the mixed-race family. I wondered what she thought. That sort of thing’s no big deal these days, I guess, especially among Hispanics. Right?
I remembered back when I was in middle school one of the white teachers started dating a black man. This would have been around 1973. That gossip grew long legs and provided fodder for kids, parents, staff, church, etc, for quite a while. But the teacher was a class act and she took it all in stride. Last I heard, they were still married.
One of my first weddings as an officiating priest was between a white woman and a black man. I didn’t try to talk them out of it. But I did encourage them toward the reality of such an arrangement in the South. I felt it might be rough for the children. They were determined; I said “I do” and they did.
The students’ talks were now under way. By the way, my son was chosen from among all of his classmates to present his writing, “My Construction Set”. Each classroom of each grade (he’s in the first) was represented.
It came time for the pretty Mexican gal’s reading. Our area being known for apples, where many legal and illegal aliens from south of the border find employment, I quickly wondered about her home life. She opened her mouth and I was stunned. She was articulate.
I thought how silly — Of course she’s articulate! That’s what this is all about, no? What, did you think maybe she was chosen as the token Hispanic?
Her subject? Martin Luther King, Jr. Here was a girl, perhaps in the 2nd grade, speaking about the 60’s and how blacks and whites weren’t allowed to be together back in those days. As she talked of 1968 and the slain civil rights leader, I cut my eyes over to the “mixed couple” and they were staring and beaming. As she finished, I felt foolish. What a jerk.
First of all, the sole black man in the room was not the janitor. The white woman with the red hair was his wife. And the Mexican gal could write and speak clearly. Well, duh.
Which brings me to my son. He did great! I mean really great! His reading had never been clearer; diction near perfect, volume optimal. I was so proud. As his certificate was presented to him, the lady said, “Maybe someday when you grow up, Basil, you can be an engineer and build houses right here in Henderson County.”
Growing up. Now that’s hard to imagine. But I thought about it, mine that is, sitting in that elementary school library, dressed like a priest. And how I have a long, long way to go …