Growing up in New York City was not always easy, but it definitely had its advantages. Beyond the variety of restaurants and entertainments and the ease of getting around, one of the best things about growing up in a city that hosts people from every nation is the fact that it hosts people from every nation. On my block in Queens, in the two story garden apartments, were families with roots in India, Puerto Rico, Korea, Japan, Europe, South America. The subway trains that I rode on daily passed through neighborhoods picking up people of all shapes, sizes, colors. The schools I attended in Manhattan were attended by kids from all over the city. I was surrounded and immersed in “It’s a Small World After All” land every second of my early life. As a result, I learned to look past appearances; truly what Martin Luther King Jr referred to when he hoped that one day we would judge people based on the content of their character.
I clearly remember the day I learned that I was white. I was in third grade, and I had been chosen to attend an experimental school at the District 28 School Board offices in Forest Hills. Of course I did not know it at the time, but the “experiment” was two-fold: mix thirty or forty white and black children from a cross-section of economic standings, and put them in a setting with no teachers or curriculum or goals. Don’t ask…seriously, true story; although as I have searched and researched, there is no record of this ever occurring. All morning we wandered around a large room, doing very little of anything. I remember a bank of speed reading machines and at times I would be so bored I would sit at one and let the sentences zip by. I don’t remember there being books to read or much of anything to do. In the afternoon, we were bussed over to Russell Sage Middle School, where on good weather days we spent our afternoons wandering around the blacktop doing nothing much. I made a new best friend, Diedre, and we would sit and play jacks for hours. I went on the school bus to her home in Jamaica a few times, and I was harassed by the other kids to the point where I had to sit near the driver to feel safe. I just thought they were mean kids. Then one afternoon, another student came over to where Diedre and I were playing to hand me a note: “Dear Maureen, get your fucking white ass out of our school. You cannot play with Deidre anymore. Love, Janice.” As I handed the note to my friend to read, I looked down at my arm, and then I looked at her chocolate brown arm that I had grown to love. I looked up at her face, which had a horrified look on it. She stood up and backed away from me as I began to cry. I took the note to the adult supervisor, and was whisked home and back to my local public school the next day. When my mom asked me why I had never told her I was the last white kid left in the school, I told her that I had really never noticed. This event in my life did the opposite of scar me; it taught me the pain of discrimination based solely on skin color, and helped me decide pretty early on to never judge anyone before I got to know them.
When my kids were small and we were not quite settled, we always looked to live in a diverse area to give them a good social education. We wound up in a small town with diversity in every way: language, skin tones, economics. I can proudly say that my kids learned, as we hoped that they would, to look past appearances. My son attended Caribbean birthday parties that were loud and rocking with family joy and amazing food. My daughters had friends whose families spoke a variety of languages, and they were proud to share their own multi-cultural heritage. My kids had friends who grew up in section 8 housing and friends who had, not a bedroom of their own, but a wing of a mansion of their own. As teenagers they were not afraid to take the train down to New York City and wander around; some of their friends looked to them for security and confidence. I credit their social development directly to our choice of places to raise them- it was made with a conscious decision to seek out a diverse population. It was that important to us.
At one point, before we found our wonderful town, we lived in a community where we were in the minority. We loved our neighborhood, our children’s friends and their families, and the Mexican restaurant down the block where they knew our names. Our children learned to ride bikes with no training wheels at the local park, alongside all of the other families and kids. We were glad our children, who were still quite young, were colorblind when it came to making friends. However, there were rapid changes occurring in the neighborhood that were of great concern to us. Our children were facing growing discrimination each year from some of the other students at their school. My husband and I attended school and district and community meetings, which wound up falling apart amidst accusations of racism which paralyzed any attempt at productive conversations. The small city was dysfunctional and falling apart. It was an economically depressed area which, while we lived there, was becoming increasingly violent. The last straw before I nailed up the for sale sign on the front yard was a mid-afternoon robbery murder just around the corner from our home. Then one day I was walking home several blocks after leaving the kids to play at a friend’s house. Walking towards me was a young man dressed in gangster hoody and low-slung jeans. He was looking directly at me, and I debated crossing the street. I decided not to give in to my fear and walk past him. It was my neighborhood too. We looked each other right in the eye as we approached, and I was not sure what his eyes were saying. As we came to pass, he slipped his hand into his jacket pocket and I tensed up. Out of his pocket he pulled a flower, and without a word handed it to me and kept walking. I stopped with the flower in my hand, and turned and called, “thank you” to his back and he waved a hand. It was with sadness that we sold our beautifully-remodeled home, to this day one of my favorites, and moved on.
The world is home to an incredible variety of cultures, languages, skin, eye and hair color. A sheltered life among one type of culture is, in my opinion, crippling; unless one intends to stay in that community and never leave or have to do business on the outside. Growing up in a diverse population leads to the ability to truly embrace all that humanity has to offer, and the ability to give every person you meet an equal chance. My school building is home a rainbow of cultures, much like the neighborhood where I grew up, and I could not be happier. My students, naturally colorblind at this early juncture in their lives, are developing friendships and social relationships based on whether their chosen playmates share their interests, are friendly and kind, and know how to have fun. That is exactly as it should be.