Sunday, May 15, 2016

I Owe You...a word of gratitude

I get it America.  You're mad as hell and you're not going to take it any more.  Word of advice?

Grow up!

I'm not the only one tired of self entitled, label calling, self centered behavior that is passing for the "new normal".  It's not okay to give yourself a title, then berate everyone who isn't you.  Why?

Because nothing gets accomplished if everyone is living in their own little world and sucking the air out of the room.  Live and learn.

I began my college life at the community college.  We use to refer to it as "High School Plus".   The work was harder than what we'd left behind, but we had the opportunity to learn without going bankrupt...and if we wanted to go home and sleep in our own bed, that was okay too.

I was in the "Work/Study" program which allowed me to pay my own way, so my education truly felt earned.  My hometown wasn't large, but with an Air Force Base, we had a variety of individuals who passed through.  Some of them even stayed.  It made us more like a melting pot than just a traditional southern town.  One of my most important life lessons occurred on that campus.  Between classes.  And I learned how much deeper life goes than what we see.
During my Sophomore year, the T.V. mini-series "Roots" was playing.  I was standing with a group of friends, chatting between classes.  There was Bobby, the Student Body President I'd known since first grade.  His buddy Terry, the 6'4" poster boy for athletes: a kind, handsome, blue eyed, blond who wanted to date but became catatonic around girls.  (Dating Hubby, I was deemed "safe" therefore the exception to his rule).  Juan was a light skinned black kid who believed he was white.  Because he told us he believed he should've been. (Yes, when I was in school it was simple: you were either White or Black). 
We were talking about a committee meeting we'd left when we were approached by Joe.  A tall, broad shouldered black man, he was older than us.  To be honest, his presence was intimidating.  Not because of his color, but because he scowled. Constantly.  He'd glare at you without saying a word and storm off before you could respond.  It probably didn't help that the campus rumor was he was a drug dealer not to be messed with.  Yet on that day he marched right up to us and asked a question, probably not expecting an answer.
"Any of y'all watching 'Roots'?"  he demanded as conversation abruptly died.  "You know, you owe me," he added, looking at us one by one. 
I was shy.  Comfortable with lifelong friends but usually the one doing the listening, not the talking.  I was so taken aback that Joe had even approached a group of goodie two shoes that I just looked at him.
So he said it again.  Firmly.  With authority.
"You owe me."
And then I heard this little voice say, ever so politely, "I don't owe you anything." 
Oh crap!  Was that me?
Joe turned to me, fire in his eyes and asked,"What did you say to me little white girl?"
From somewhere deep inside, probably where stupidity and cowardice dwell side by side, I replied politely, "Unless I borrowed money from you.  I don't owe you anything.  Now my great-great-great-great granddaddy may owe your  great-great-great-great granddaddy an apology and more.  But I haven't taken anything from you."

So what did my trio of male friends do?  Juan gasp out loud like a southern belle who'd been slapped, Terry's expression was stunned horror and Bobby was looking at me as if I'd lost my happy mind.

And then they all took a step back.  A giant step.  Leaving me to face Joe alone as they watched from the sidelines.

Joe studied me for a moment, fully aware my bravado was probably on the verge of wavering after such a declaration.  He took a step closer, looked me in the eye and said with great conviction, "Good for you!"

I stood there, waiting for the "But".  What came next was a lesson I never forgot.

"I have had white professors kissing my black ass all day long.  Apologizing for slavery.  Apologizing because we live in the South.  Apologizing for how cruel the white actors had to be to the black actors.  After the 10th one apologized, I asked him, 'Do you own any slaves?'  When he sputtered that he did not, I replied, 'Then why are you apologizing to me?'  You don't know me."

That's when it hit me.  I didn't know him either.  

Somewhere in the distance a bell rang.  My trio of buddies looked at me apologetically before going in three different directions to class.  I stood there as Joe waved over a female friend.  He then proceeded to tell her that I had stood up to him because I had principles.  That I wasn't swayed by the belief of the masses.  She eyed me suspiciously.  Then my sense of curiosity raised it's silly head and I asked Joe where he was from.  He seemed surprised by that but in the next five minutes I learned he was from the North, (New York.  Or New Jersey?) and was 10 years older than us.  When he was my age, he'd been in the Army, fighting in the jungles of Vietnam.  He was attending school on the G.I. Bill.  He wanted to teach.

Now I understood that scowl.  The things he must've seen at my age.  The things he must've endured.  He was old enough to realize the world wasn't a nice nor fair place, yet he was kind enough to want me to embrace my beliefs.  Little did Joe realize I was his first student.  

As we parted, I said something about going to get a Coke.  Now in the south, that's how we refer to a Coca-Cola.  Joe did a double take and his friend's eyes widened.  

"A soda.  In the canteen," I offered in explanation.  I was so young and naive it never occurred to me that he thought I was referring to his "rep" as a possible drug dealer.

Joe shook his head...in relief.  "Little girl, you scared me.  You didn't seem like the type to do drugs.  Make sure you stay away from anyone that does."

I nodded, feeling silly.  Then Joe gave me a gift I can still access today.

Looking me in the eye, he smiled.  The biggest, most heartwarming grin I've ever seen.  To this day, I can see him smiling at me.  Because he meant it.

"See you around," Joe said, waving as I walked away.  

And each time we'd pass on campus, we'd wave.  He usually beat me to it.  I joked it was because he was taller and saw me coming.  

It took a while for the trio to question my encounter.  I remember thinking they needed to grow up and look past the obvious.  "I stood up for what I believed and he praised me for it," was my only reply. If they couldn't see past what they thought was the obvious, they needed to learn.  First hand.

Thanks Joe, for that gift.  For not embracing a label, or slapping one on me.  For letting us have a moment both educational and personal.  I hear there's a remake of "Roots" about to hit television again.  If you were to say, "You owe me" today, I'd give you the same reply.  I'm not so sure today's generation would do the same.  They'd probably be too busy on their phones to even notice you, start screaming about you invading their personal space or put a hand out to receive a trophy for making time to acknowledge your presence.

I've got your six, Joe.  I will make time to listen in hopes a real conversation begins.  It has to start somewhere.  Why not from the lesson learned from a Vietnam Vet just trying to make the world a better place: in war and in peace.

1 comment:

Ponita in Real Life said...

Good for both you and Joe for seeing how life really is. We have our own issues with our First Nations people and the residential schools the kids were forced into... and the abuse, rape and even death they faced in a place that attempted to smother their culture and language and force them to become 'white'. The things our ancestors (both long past and just a generation ago) have done in fear and ignorance is deplorable and horrifying. But the two of you were able to see how things really were and to move past the crap and forge a friendship. Very lovely to see.