It is a clear memory for me as a third grader moving to a new school. It would be my first of many moves between schools. The move was difficult for me with the loss of my first real friendships – friendships that really spanned a third of my life. We had moved from a rural community to suburbia. It would be my most challenging year of school both academically and emotionally. There was no love lost when we moved again before the end of the school year.
But before going into the specifics of my memory, I want to share what brought out this memory. As you know, this past week has been brining out voices raising a cry of injustice. It is a cry that is way over due. And the sad reality is so many of us didn’t understand the depths of the injustice – even those of us who have known injustice. I was reading an article by Bryan N. Massingale, “The assumptions of white privilege and what we can do about it”. His article was quite eye opening for me as I had no idea the depth of white privilege in our society. I was absolutely blind to it. (It is a similar ignorance as the child being raised in an unhealthy home and not realizing until they have the opportunity to encounter a healthy family.) The author’s statement that struck me the most was that all white people have a moment some time in their youth when they realize they are glad they are not black. It is a haunting statement as this is the kind of thought that should never enter our minds as we are all created equal – in the very image of God himself – and should never feel as if we are more or less than someone else.
The other gut wrenching part of his statement was I remembered my moment immediately. It was not a common memory for me; however, it was quick to float to the surface. The memory goes back to being nine and the new kid at school. There was no welcome wagon. In fact, I vividly remember a girl in my class confronting me at recess, “we don’t like you and wish you would go away.” They were just mean kids. Yet, I wasn’t their only target. There was another girl in the class who they singled out even more than me. She was a quiet, reserved girl who tried to stay to the edges. It seemed like she would probably be nice; however, I was too afraid to find out, and I kept my distance from her. I did work up the nerve to ask another child if she was new too. She was not. She had always been in their class. I couldn’t understand why they were so mean to her. It just didn’t make sense. Then it came out, she had a black and a white parent. I had no idea what this had to do with anything, but it did explain some of the names they called her. It was at that moment that I had my first thought that I was glad I was not black because things were far worse for her.
Sadly, the story does not end in that third grade classroom. From suburbia, we moved to the depths of Appalachia. During that summer between third and fourth grade, I spent just about every waking hour outside – except for during the rain. By the time school started, my skin was a deep golden brown. This time being the new kid in class, the other children were oddly excited about having me in the class. There was a black child in my grade who had been adopted by a white family in the area. The children were so excited about me because he could finally have a girlfriend because I was also black. This area of Appalachia was so white that they easily mistook my tan as me being black. Instead of feeling happy about being immediately accepted into the group on any level, I recoiled. The prior year had evidently given me a firm lesson that it was not good to be black. In desperation, I tried to explain that I was not black.
This may seem like a minor story to some. It is not. These situations should never happen. All children and all people should be accepted no matter what they or their parents look like or regardless of their heritage. It seems obvious that the children in my third grade class learned the name calling from their parents. And in the fourth grade class, there should not have been distinctions for friendships or any other relationship based on the color of our skin. My hope is that you will take some time to reflect on your own past and identify the moments that may have shaped unknown privilege or lack of privilege in your life. I hope that through my openness in sharing my memory that you will be able to share your memories as well. As with all buried hurts and lies, admitting that they exist and exposing them to the light is a great start towards healing and change.
Black lives matter. Let’s be part of the solution.
Frequently, when I share stories of my childhood, I get the sense that people don’t believe me. Not that they think that I am a pathological liar. They just can’t seem to balance what I am telling them with what they know of the world. Maybe this is all inference on my part, but I don’t think it is. I do have to remind myself that my childhood experience is unbelievable. And while others have crazy stories as well, most people I interact with have the suburban life style perspective with little exposure to what else is out in the world. We are so used to our developments, apartments, and trailer parks. Of course, that is how everyone lives, right? Not so much, especially in areas outside of the United States, dark places on the edge of large urban centers, and hidden in the deep woods of Appalachia. Though even while I lived in Appalachia where people built porches on small RVs just to build it in and add on another porch, even there my teachers didn’t believe how we lived.
The social workers who drove me home one day after school didn’t believe me either. And they couldn’t imagine that anyone had to walk two miles to get to a bus stop. And who could blame them. Haven’t we all heard the old story “I had to walk uphill two miles in the snow – both ways!” Well, there was definitely an uphill, but it was only on the way home.
These ladies were escorting me home because I had fallen in the creek on my way to the bus. By the time I had finished my walk and the bus showed up, my shoes and jeans were frozen. I remember a feeling of fear as the bus driver had me sit on the floor in front of the heater to try to get my feet warm. So the social workers were taking me home to confirm my story. They probably thought I decided to play in the creek on my way to school. Really??? Truth was, the creek crossed the lane I lived on seven times. The further the lane extended beyond our property the wider it became. The final crossing was wide enough that it had a small foot bridge (a board stretched from one bank to the other). Unfortunately during a rain storm, the board washed away. I must have been the only one to use it so no one either noticed or cared to replace it. I never considered mentioning it. With a running start, I could jump it so all was well except that morning. That morning was on the tail end of a storm and all the crossings were wider. I ran and jumped but didn’t make it.
The social workers had a small sedan to bring me home. I was just thankful for a ride and someone to talk to. Unfortunately, but not surprising, we had to leave their car at a neighbor’s house about 3/4 of a mile from where I lived because their car couldn’t manage the ruts in the road. And there was no way they would be able to cross our portion of the creek where the bank in the road rose about 12 inches into a steep climb. Most vehicles couldn’t get to our place. They hadn’t counted on that. So they had great pleasure gasping up the hill on the final stretch – navigating my off road walking path which could have easily been mistaken for a deer trail. I knew they were already a bit shocked by the reality of my situation. Then we came to the clearing with my home. “This is where you live?!?” They were staring right at it and still didn’t believe.
Why share all of this? I want to ask that we all consider that our sense of normal and reality isn’t necessarily the same as other people. And we shouldn’t immediately assume someone is lying because what they are saying doesn’t fit into our view of the world. With all of my experiences, I am very sensitive to a lack of integrity and lying. I don’t want people to assume I am lying or to be lied to. I don’t want written off just because doctors have no clue how to help me. And I would love if, as friends, we could be real with each other. Life is hard enough as it is. And through honesty and taking down our masks, we could possibly help each other walk through the challenges life hands us.
Another reason to share my story and journey to healing is to give glory to my Rescuer who not only rescued me once but many times and stayed with me even in my anger.
I first met Him late in the evening and my spirit was tormented. There was no safe place, and there seemed to be no hope. I longed for death to rescue me – thinking that was my only hope. I was fourteen. All I knew was living with my parents. They were in complete control of me. I lived in the middle of no where – quite literally. I watched other girls at school drop out due to pregnancy and get married. Next time you see them, they have a kid on their hip and a black eye from their husband. If this is all life is, to trade one tormentor for another, then I don’t want any part of it. But death is scary too. My heart cried out and then my mind (so not to be heard), “Jesus please help me!” It was a cry of desperation to someone I didn’t even know. He was just that guy my parents fought about. Mom believed. Dad hated him. But almost as soon as the thought passed, I felt someone wrap their arms around me. There was no fear at being touched – only peace. Then I realized there wasn’t anyone there and sleep took me. The next morning on the school bus, the years of bottled tears started to flow. I tried desperately to stop and hide them. I needed to hide them – my life and my mom’s life depended on me keeping everything secret. But to no avail. The tears simply would not stop. My only friend cornered me and would not leave me alone. I finally gave in. “You must tell your mom.”
The story goes on from there and not with a “and they lived happily ever after.” More on that later. So why was my prayer answered? Was it because I was just a child? Was it because I called out to Jesus with every fiber of my being? Was it to save my life? I will never know this side of heaven. Maybe He saved me so He could heal me so I could help rescue others. Whatever the answer, I will forever be grateful. And I fought with Him over the next two decades, but He never let go of me. And for that, I love Him.