Category Archives: Private Musings Gone Public

The First Time I Understood Racism: A Tale of Two Kellies

None of the characters in this story resemble these women but it does just scream 1980s.

None of the characters in this story resemble these women but it does just scream 1980s.

Back in the day, we called these "boom boxes". Everyone had them, but for some reason we were more annoyed when kids from the base or from Boston blared them. There were no iPods to mix n match your music tastes in the 1980s.

Back in the day, we called these “boom boxes”. Everyone had them, but for some reason we were more annoyed when kids from the base or from Boston blared them. There were no iPods to mix n match your music tastes in the 1980s.

This is called a vinyl record. The most popular record at this time was Michael Jackson's Thriller.

This is called a vinyl record. The most popular record at this time was Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

yellow plastic from and green plastic frog

I ran a stock photo search for “race relations” and this image came up.

Let me first establish the scene and the characters.

It was my junior year in high school, English class. Bedford High School, Bedford, Massachusetts. 1984 or 1985.

My two best friends, Kellie P. and Kim T., were also in the class. This was a rare occasion and the fact that we all loved the teacher and the subject matter was icing on the cake. We were not part of the “in crowd”. Not popular. Not cool. Well, Kellie P. actually was cool in the precise meaning of the word, able to manage her emotions and assume stoicism without seeming stuffy. Kellie P. was the hardest working of the three of us, easily making the honor roll every semester. She was less likely to talk in class, and unlike me completely unlikely to discuss with anyone how smart she was. Yep, now you know something about me and Kellie P. Basically I talked in class if I was confident that I had something really smart-sounding to share with my classmates for their own benefit. Kim was the most talkative of us. On any subject, in any setting, Kim had no fears of engaging in conversation, and she had an admirable talent for it. As I recall, we didn’t sit together in this class. Maybe the teacher arranged us in alphabetical order? I don’t remember.

Oh, yeah, we were all white.

The teacher was Mrs. H. I usually didn’t have opinions about teaching quality except for my English classes because it was the only subject I cared to apply myself in. Mrs. H. was interesting to listen to, fair-minded, and encouraging to all of us to share and speak up. Mrs. H. was A-OK.

She was white too.

Somewhere else in the class was Kellie L. A cheerleader, best friends with another cheerleader in my homeroom, and prone to obnoxious interruptions while other people were talking. Where I was determined to sound smart, Kellie L. was determined to just sound. To be heard above everyone else. As far as I was concerned, the “L” could stand for Loudmouth.

Oh, yeah. Kellie L. was black.

So yeah, Kellie L. was just this typical popular kid in my book, willing to act out to show that cool kids could do that but otherwise a conformer to her crowd. Sometime during that year, I remember sitting in homeroom, probably reflecting on how my mother is right, homeroom is a stupid ritual and they should just take attendance during first period. Kellie L. and that best friend I mentioned, Courtney, come bouncing in, I mean literally bouncing on their toes, straight up and down like pogo sticks, and singing. Something. I don’t remember the song; I just remember thinking, “Hunh. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the cool kids let go like that.” It was something Kim, Kellie P. or I might do just to get a reaction from the other two.

Courtney won’t appear again until the end of the story. And she doesn’t even know that she has a role in my version of the story at this writing. Any way, she was friendly with my older brother and thus she and I were on a friendly basis. When I saw this spontaneous outburst of raucous singing, I silently gave the credit for it to Courtney.

Oh, yeah, Courtney was white.

The other thing to understand about Courtney and Kellie L. is that they were “base kids”: they lived on Hanscom Air Force Base. That will come up again later in the story too.

So place and characters are set: English class, junior year. Me, Kellie P. and Kim. Kellie L. I don’t remember what the discussion was about, pretty sure it was a book or a short story, and my friend Kellie P. raises her hand. And gets called on. And proceeds to share her thoughts. I remember being very excited that she did this, and wanting to radiate out silent support because I knew talking about her thoughts in front of a large group probably wasn’t easy.

And then the Loudmouth ruined it. I don’t remember what Kellie L. interrupted with, but it was loud and not very pertinent to the class discussion. Or maybe it was? Whatever the case, I thought to myself, “Oh, Kellie, just shut up.” Except I didn’t just think it. I actually said it. In a loud stage whisper. Just unconsciously muttering under my breath but I could tell the whole class heard it because everything just stopped for a full beat.

After class, Mrs. H. called me over to her desk and said that eventually, when I was ready, I would have to apologize to Kellie L. I nodded solemnly but in my book I was just given a free pass to never “be ready.” Loudmouth popular kids had been disrupting me for 5 years and never apologized. Why should I?

The incident followed up by verbal sparring between Kellie L. and Kim on several occasions, outside of class, never during it. As our group’s conversation queen, Kim was the only one who could match Kellie L. loudness for loudness.

In the spring, our English class took a day trip to Salem, Massachusetts as part of our reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. On the bus trip home, I sneezed. And for some reason Kellie L. found that to be an opportunity to direct an obnoxious comment my way. Lord only knows what she said but Kim immediately shot back a response. I wasn’t really paying attention because I was all inside my own head remembering a bullying incident in junior high in a different school system in Connecticut that also started with a sneeze. Whatever.

When I drew my attention back to the present, the shouting match was continuing and Kim was threatening bodily harm to Kellie L. Who, it should be noted, responded with threats of her own. But for some reason hearing Kim take it this far brought race to my attention. Not Kim and Kellie L.’s race but mine. I couldn’t define it at the time, but I somehow knew that original incident in class had a racial aspect due to the simple fact that race existed, regardless of whether any of the four of us believed race was a motivating factor or not.

I wrote about it in the journal that we had to turn in to Mrs. H. each week. The Monday after I turned in that journal, Mrs. H. called me to her desk while the class was working on something and asked me to go to the library and just wait there. It is a testament to my esteem for Mrs. H. that I simply complied. I didn’t feel that I was being sent there as a punishment, because, I mean, it was the library. Plus Mrs. H. would have told me if I was in trouble.

So I went, and sat, and waited. Kellie L. walked in and I immediately understood. I was ready to apologize. Instead, Kellie talked about all the ways she felt like an outsider. She explained that her father was a four-star general. So she didn’t always fit in on the base because officer’s families live very different lives than the families of enlisted personnel. And a top officer’s family is very different from any other officer. There was, and is, a tremendous pay gap in the military. A General’s kid is wealthier; her father has power over the lives of every parent of lesser rank on the base; military officers are more likely to have college degrees than enlisted men, and they often come from economically privileged backgrounds to begin with so culturally their children have different advantages and different futures in store.

So: Kellie felt like an outsider on the base because of her father’s rank. She felt like an outsider with her civilian friends because if you subtracted the black kids from the base, and the black kids who were ‘bussed’ from neighborhoods in Boston, Bedford was about 95% white. She felt like an outsider with the black kids from Boston because she had lived in suburban and rural areas her whole life.

Also, families of enlisted kids move around more and thus are more hesitant to make friends with civilians because they know they will leave eventually. This is less likely with someone whose father is in the command ranks but Kellie had other reasons for expecting to have to leave Bedford.

Even among other officer’s kids, even the black officer’s kids, Kellie didn’t always fit in because of her roots. She explained that her family is “high society” in the West Virginia area where her family was from. She showed me a picture of herself at a black cotillion. I have not mentioned yet that Kellie L. was beautiful. Tall for a girl of 16, with supermodel looks. It was the first time I had seen someone our age in formal evening wear and I thought the picture was breathtaking.

Kellie said that at the end of the school year, her parents were sending her to her grandparents in West Virginia for her coming out season. She would be presented to black high society at her coming out ball, and would spend her senior year at a finishing school before going on to college.

I knew all about coming out seasons and the balls that went with them because of all the Victorian literature I read. And Gone With the Wind. I was gob-stopped. Kellie was living the life of Scarlet O’Hara while I was Jane Eyre. And, like Scarlet O’Hara, she was determined to defy societal expectations and be heard.

She said that once she moved back to West Virginia, she would cut all ties with Bedford. She wasn’t thrilled about being a southern belle, hated the whole idea, but would do what was expected of her and maintaining ties to her old life would only make that harder.

A year later, and I am back in homeroom reflecting that homeroom is a stupid ritual and since seniors with a B average could leave campus if they didn’t have class, we should be allowed to show up whenever our first class started and just check in at the office. I had pulled my grades up during my junior year just to earn this privilege.

One cheerleader called across the room to Courtney. She wanted to know if Courtney ever heard from Kellie L. Courtney just shook her head silently, sadness in her eyes.

“Wow,” the cheerleader said. “I never thought you guys would ever stop being friends.”

* * *

I can’t stop the story there because then I would be speaking to Courtney’s state of mind and not mine. It’s a writer’s thing.

Sometimes I wonder which Kellie I was really talking to in my head when that stage whisper flew out of my mouth. After all, Kellie P. had found a way to be heard in the way I was always striving for: to sound smart. And she was pulling it off gracefully. But that doesn’t matter. The whole class could see that my words had a chilling effect on Kellie L., not Kellie P., who had already been silenced by L’s outburst.

Twenty-eight years of experience since that time; classes in African American literature and feminism; and some stumbling friendships and acquaintanceships with African Americans have enabled me to articulate how race fist in to this.

I was a lonely and bookish white kid who wanted to be heard but didn’t have the social graces to pull it off. And in one moment long ago, I told a well-liked, socially confident black child to shut up. I was motivated by jealousy because Kellie L. found a way to be heard, and possessed enough social currency to pull it off.

But words and actions are three-dimensional things: how the recipient experiences them matters. As an adult I have had no patience for sexual harassers who say “I didn’t mean it that way.” I detest the non-apology apology: “I am sorry if I offended anyone. It wasn’t my intention.” If you’ve hurt someone you have a responsibility to learn their perspective, to validate it, and above all to let them be heard.

I am grateful to Kim for continuously pushing at that initial incident until the onion layers were peeled away. I am grateful to Mrs. H. for showing some class when it happened and when she read my journal entry. I am now the age she was then, and can appreciate the social graces it takes to manage a classroom of teenagers who all want to act out and who often find a way to do that.

I am grateful to Kellie L. for letting me in long enough to understand her better. Being unpopular gives you some freedom to wear your heart on your sleeve, and so the roots of my own otherness were already known: shyness, awkwardness, and a back brace. During that last senior year, many popular kids came up to my friends and me to tell us we were lucky: we could just be ourselves. They were frustrated by the expectations and peer pressure their friends put on them, and it was funny to us how many of them came from the same circle and said the same thing about each other.

If only some teacher would have just sent them to the library . . .


Twelve Days Without A Mother


This post was first published on March 23, 2011.

In the twelve days since my mother died, I have learned that my mother was greater than just the sum of her parts. She wasn’t simply a mother of eight children; she was a mother eight times over, playing a unique role in the lives of each of us whom she gave birth to.

This revelation began to dawn on me when my father asked me to write a memorial booklet for the funeral, containing memories from each of the eight siblings. It grew to include most of the grandchildren, and all of the husbands, wives and partners. I learned many things I hadn’t known. She made Easter outfits and other clothing for the older children. Like me, she loved Janis Joplin. Yet she died without either of us knowing we both admired the same artist. She gave my sister her first set of oil paints.

The revelations continued as we all gathered to hear her final wishes. First, there was The Secret. We all knew there was something in my mother’s family past that she did not want to talk about. I began to get an inkling about it years ago when a family friend with a penchant for genealogy “discovered” that my mother’s father had been married before and had children from that first marriage. I knew just from the look on my mother’s face when he told her that this wasn’t new information to her. I also knew without asking that she was not going to talk about it.

So over the years I played a game with myself: what was The Secret? Had her mother and father had an affair? Had her father gone back to his first wife, or had he really died when she was ten? Finally, my father felt we could all handle the truth: her father had never divorced his first wife, and her parents had never been married but had lived happily for ten short years before her father killed himself during the Great Depression.

After this revelation it was time to decide, as a group, how to dispense with all the possessions my mother had brought into the marriage and many others she’d acquired along the way. I learned as much about my father as my mother in this process, because it soon became clear that there is a stark difference between what my mother is willing to save and what my father is willing to keep around in what is now his home.

Ironically I have become the keeper of my mother’s sewing machine, sewing baskets, and all the sewing notions. I say ironic because I don’t exactly sew myself. I mend things. Sometimes I mend the same garment four or five times before finally releasing it from my misery. So I can never acquire too much thread, needles, and buttons. I have a book called Sewing For Dummies that I have consulted more than once to find just the right stitch for a new mending job.

If my brother hadn’t told me my mother used to make clothes for the children I would have completely misunderstood the wealth of sewing equipment I inherited. While I was growing up, my mother earned a college degree at the age of 49; worked as a substitute teacher, an Avon salesperson, and a secretary. She took us to plays and concerts and the beaches on Cape Cod. She did not sew, although she did teach me how to use a sewing machine. I now know that her lack of sewing activity was due only to the amount of time devoted to doing everything else. By the time she retired, arthritis was gripping her hands. It was only when I started sorting through her sewing basket that I understood that she was giving something up by not sewing.

At least 25 pairs of knitting needles. Lace basting fabric in pastel hues, jewel tones, and earth tones. A wooden tool for pressing creases. A metal board with magnetic tape stuck to it. Boxes and bags of  buttons. The button collection I can understand; you have to buy a set of 20 randomly-matched buttons just to find one that you can use. You don’t part with buttons without a fight.

It took me a couple of hours to go through each item in the three-tiered, double-sided sewing basket. During that time, I thought about how my sister had told me that she serviced the sewing machine six years earlier at my mother’s request. My father joked at the time that my mother would never use the machine, and when I heard the story I thought my mother was like me. Prone to starting things without finishing them. I think now that there was more to it than that. As I sorted through the sewing collection, I thought of a woman who made suits for her children, collected seam-basting fabrics, and acquired exotic wooden implements for making creases. I think my mother had the sewing machine serviced with every intention of going back to her projects, but her arthritis had other ideas.

I think about this seamstress-mother as I twirl a silver ring with rhinestone “diamonds” around and around on my finger. I think about the woman who collected so much jewelry that her three daughters grew bleary-eyed trying to sort through it all on one too-short afternoon. I think about what different people my parents are and were. My mother saving everything from sewing notions down to a Red Cross certification card my brother earned when he was twelve. My father urging us to take everything away, from that Red Cross card to framed pictures of ourselves.

My parents argued a lot over things. I used to think it was just marriage-fatigue, but in some ways it was the essence of their differences. My father wasn’t just griping about clutter; he really, really doesn’t like clutter. My mother wasn’t just carping about discarded bits and bobs out of routine; she really, really, needed to know the things she valued were somewhere safe even if it was hard for others to see the value.

During the last twelve days, I have thought a lot about my mother’s love of color, her loud and hearty laugh, and the deep sense of shame that seemed to simmer beneath the surface in every interaction. Now that I have learned the likely source of that shame — her unmarried parents — I am both saddened and awed by the burden she kept to herself in an age where most people probably wouldn’t give two hoots who her parents were or what they did or didn’t do.

As the days turn into months and years, I know I will have many more insights about my mother and her relationship to her. It seems like there could never have been enough time to truly know my mother in the way she deserved to be known. But perhaps it is not too late to learn a few things about myself.

Finding Peace Within By Making Peace Outside


This post was first published on December 26, 2012.

This year has been one of making peace and refurbishing broken bonds. I have been making connections with people I had cut myself off from, or been cut off from, for decades. This Christmas season, I spoke by phone with an old friend who I’d feuded with years ago. First came the unbidden realization that I wanted to connect with this person. The angst about whether they would want to talk to me, or that the conversation might be difficult or awkward, simply was relieved from me. Somehow, I found the will to accept whatever consequences came from reaching out.

If this person, who was very dear and very close to me through our difficult adolescence, had chosen not to talk to me or had met my overture with silence, I was at peace with that. If they responded with acceptance and a mutual desire to renew our friendship, so much the better. But I held no preconceived expectations and it made all the difference. The words I needed just came to me as we talked; I had no plans ahead of time.

The issues that once divided us were substantive and real, but I can see now that my responses to them at the time lacked compassion and love, and respect for our friendship. Ironically what had festered inside me for a long time leading up to our final “break up” was the sense that the special bonds of our friendship were weakened by events that now seem like a normal part of growing up and breaking away. Yet when I was put to the true test, I did not factor that special relationship into my calculated decisions. I did not look at the full picture of the place my friend was in emotionally, even when she pleaded with me to do so. I responded with a 20-year temper tantrum, yet she responded to my overture with simple joy. What a blessing.

This morning I feel that I have washed myself clean of this cluttered past, like I can stop punishing myself in small ways and take care of me and connect to the world without falling apart. More importantly, I have the capacity to be a friend on whatever terms are available between us and I don’t need to direct those terms or have a road map handed to me.

This friend and I have decided on a specific form of contact: snail mail! I will send her a card so that she will have my return address, and the card will have my email address so that she can send me her email address — this was the product of a spontaneous plan that precluded having time to simply exchange addresses over the phone. I think the reality is that we were simply making a commitment to a “step two” in our contact chain.

Since I am airing my private affairs in public, I cannot let an opportunity pass to portray how bullying in our culture played a role in this friendship. We have many things in common: quiet natures, reading, writing — we would have found each other’s friendship regardless of our social or familial situations. But it has to be said that bullying from some peers also bound us together, sometimes too tightly for either of us to breathe. My friend and others in our circle recognized before I did the need to branch out to make connections separate from each other; as we grew up and our peers did the same, each of us found some connections that were the products of our own efforts rather than our group. I told myself at the time that I understood and respected this new reality, but in truth I rebelled in a vengeful way. I once believed that we were “destined” to be friends forever. The truth is the friendship is and was a garden and it was up to me to tend it, guard over it, and make it  a safe place to return to when the day’s travels were over.

Today I have cleared away the frost from that garden to find that my friend has been doing the same; we may have been hoeing and plowing in separate patches of the field, but the seeds are in place for wild flowers to grow.