First–a claimer. Not a disclaimer! The claim is that Kristine Grant has been a friend of mine for about 15 years. Couldn’t be more proud of that! I can’t disqualify her from the contest based on that–as many of you have become friends through the years as we have run these contests and I logically would have to disqualify all of you: but the word count is well beyond what the contest called for, and though she is not in the running for the prize, her story is one worth sharing.
Some of you may recall that Kristine was a guest judge a few years ago for our contest “A Dozen Roses” won by Laura Girardeau. On a professional level, I have been helping Kristine prepare a manuscript Your Heart–My Words: Write it to Right It, which is the culmination of twelve years writing letters on behalf of people who know that the right words can help them in their relationships, and defer to her intuition, experience as a licensed therapist, and compassion to get those words just right. Here is the recollection of this truly enlightened woman and my friend,(translation: she laughs at my jokes) Kristine Grant:
A SHARPER COLOR
By Kristine Grant
Ugh! Those nuns…always rounding us up, scrutinizing our uniforms, and marching us off to that damned dance class…How cruel they could be! Forcing every 4th thru 6th grade girl to pair up with a fellow student—a BOY. And awkwardly we were forced to hold their hands while trying to follow their stumbling lead all to the tune of some contrived, yet what the nuns deemed as “appropriate” dance music. What were they thinking!
My first shock during this insidious experience occurred when I was forced to dance with David Bowman. I can still see him, a rather pudgy kid with a crew cut, watery blue eyes that winced behind clunky horned rimmed glasses. Both of us in uniform…Me wearing an itchy grey plaid pleated pinafore with a white shirt, white socks, and those awful saddle oxford shoes, (the ones we tried to polish ourselves), and David wearing his white collar, buttoned-down shirt with a juice stain complimented by those belted grey baggy pants not to mention his oxford shoes that clumped along the auditorium dance floor. It was not enough to have to try and dance with this kid, but once, to my absolute shock and horror, that creepy David actually picked his nose while we were dancing and dragged an oversized runny, snotty bugger and … yes … he wiped it on his trousers, then grabbed my hand again! This is the type of horrific social/emotional imprint that decades later, I shall never forget.
Then there was Marco, the fat kid who was always in trouble, and was still recovering from his pencil whacks after he drank all of the “Holy Water” in the church! He thought it would purify his sins …what a weirdo! No wonder the year before, when I was eight years old, my best friend, Christine, and I decided to rub poison oak all over our bodies, just so we could get out of going to school. Well, although it was certainly an itchy, painful experience, (and our bodies were swollen beyond belief), it was a testimonial to our deep disdain for the Saint Catherine’s of Sienna Catholic School experience. Kids are frank and kids can be cruel. Yet, young kids, for the most part, are truly unedited.
One day, I stepped in when I heard a group of kids teasing and mocking one girl, Olivia, who was painfully thin with sharp, protruding knees and elbows, a very pointed nose, and horrible green teeth! I was not the bystander-type or one who stood by while other kids bullied the weaker ones. I remember ordering the bullies to “Quit being mean” as I reminded them that Olivia could not help it if she was skinny and had awful green teeth.
This brings me to the notion regarding first impressions versus what we are told by others and what we consider to be acceptable. Growing up in the 60s in the small town of Martinez, in Northern California, I had not encountered any “black” or African American people until one day, I saw my sister, Carol, who was in the fifth grade—sitting on the school bus with a new student—a black boy. His name was Joseph O’Leary. I had never seen anyone like him before. I remember my mother and my grandmother, (who were both originally from the east coast), discussing blacks in derogatory terms … calling them “Jigaboos” or “Niggers.” I recall feeling rather skeptical about this Joseph O’Leary kid. I studied his features, gazed at his skin color, and puzzled over his kinky hair. I also noticed that he happened to be dressed impeccably. His shirt was always starched, his sweater buttoned in the right holes, and his shoes actually
shined. Once, his arm somehow brushed against mine as we were crossing paths while exiting the school bus. My awareness of this black-skinned boy was heightened. When I asked my sister, Carol, why she liked to sit with Joseph on the bus ride home, she responded simply with, “I like him.”
“Like him?” I queried … “like a boyfriend?”
Carol replied, “Yes … He is the only boy during dance lessons that does not have sweaty hands.”
Fast forward … It is 1975. I have graduated from high school, spent a year away in Hawaii, and allowed my older brother to talk me into “making something of myself” by joining the Army. This was my first up-close and personal encounter with the black culture. By way of boot camp in Alabama, followed by my military occupational training in Fort Gordon, Georgia, suddenly my world was enmeshed with a multitude of negroes, both as enlisted and as officers. I was young, I was spunky, and I met my first black boyfriend, Henry Sweeney, from New Orleans. I considered Henry to be funny, proud, and pretty sexy. I fell in love with him. Three months later, Henry’s wife, a white woman from Switzerland arrived with their three month old baby … I was crushed. At that point, despite all of Henry’s love letters, pleadings, and vowing to divorce his wife, I could not wait for my deployment— to get on the plane, and finally land in Germany.
Well, as fate would have it, I ended up in a small, German Dorf, known as Permasens, located on the edge of a forest near France. Permasens was famous for its shoes, but all the wrong kind. They were Clod-Hoppers! Between the Army uniforms replete with combat boots, my early memories of those dismal Catholic School uniforms, and those ugly saddle shoes…I wondered just how I would be able to endure this rather not-so-charming berg with its sensible, clunky Hansel and Gretel footwear. I dreamed of high heels, glittery sandals, suede boots, satin pumps and the like.
That was not the worst of it. I was soon ushered to my quarters. As I dragged my cherry-red matching Samsonite luggage up five flights of stairs into the women’s barracks, I found twelve unoccupied cots with bedding. I was instructed to choose any “bunk” as no one else occupied that particular room. The very next day, I was informed by the company commander, that I must retrieve all my belongings and move to the men’s barracks at once. Naturally, I was quite amazed by this order. Then it was explained that due to the inordinate amount of “Lesbian” gang rapes taking place in the women’s barracks, it was much safer and therefore mandatory that all the women assigned to my company battalion relocate to the main floor of the men’s barracks.
It was not the awkwardness of running to the restroom down the hall in a bathrobe, while the men gawked as they tried to catch a glimpse of something, just anything. Rather, it was the night terrors that made this Military Post excruciatingly painful. You see, I happened to be the only white woman assigned to this company. There were six black women enlistees and me. Unfortunately each and every night, I was haunted by unharnessed insults, threats, and angry verbal lashings from the other women. Night after night I would lie awake in my bunk, shaking, while listening to such rhetoric as, “That fucking honky white bitch is NOT staying here! … I refuse to sleep in the same room with that ugly white piece of shit! … She will not last…we will see to that! … Do you hear what I am saying, Bitch? You better get your fucking ass out of here…if you
know what’s good for you … I will kill that ugly white trash bitch”…on, and on, and on. More social/emotional imprints, and way too much to bear. As a blonde, former “beach bunny” from California, this was outrageously not in-step with what I had originally pictured my Army career to be. This was certainly not at all like the far flung fantasy of “The Boogy Woogy Bugle Boy from Company B” I had once envisioned. I lasted a week before I had an emotional breakdown in front of everyone. As resolute and tough as I thought I was, I could not stop the tears. Was this my fate? What did I get myself into? What did I ever do to those women?
Thankfully, I was transferred to Kaiserslautern, the largest military base outside of the US. And, there was no available bed for me. So, I was given extra money to rent a room on the economy and thereby live outside of the military base. I consider that my good Karma. I rented a room above a Pizza Parlor and studied the German language.
Fortunately, I met some African medical students. Did I mention they were black? We all became friends, and they actually gave me a Moped they were not using so I could transport myself to the military base and back. The long and short of it, I guess is this: We are influenced by the culture we grew up in. That is undeniable. Positive experiences regarding integration, such as the “Joseph O’Leary” reference, is a good thing. Our experiences do matter and can certainly shape our outlook. Yet bullying comes in all colors. Whether you are a bunch of white kids picking on skinny awkward, Olivia, or a group of young black women, issuing insults and threats toward an only white woman. Or if you fall in love, and it does not work out it hurts, no matter the skin color. And if you find friendship and kindness with others, that is color-blind. It is a gift. All I can say is we can create any story by what we focus on. Innocence is truly a blessing and a virtue. Consider the words my daughter shared with me when she was but two years of age. She woke from a dream. She described her dream as being in a rainbow room of color. And then she said, “Mommy, Kindness and Love are the Colors of my Heart.”