“The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.”~Joseph Campbell.
I learned to ‘roll flour’ (make dumplings) at Beulah School All Age School, in Jamaica. The girls (no boys) had to help out in the kitchen, taking it in turns to do our part. The technique wasn’t too strange to me. I was an expert in making objects out of plasticene, rolling sausage legs and round heads out of the smelly precursor to play-doh. But Jamaicans are fussy perfectionists. There is a particular method to shaping the flat, round starchy additions to all good Jamaican soup. The women would do the hard work, kneading the dough (large dented basins of flour or cornmeal mix), then we would pinch off a piece and work it round and round in our hands, bending over the edges, keeping them smooth, then giving a final thumbprint (or the heel of your hand) to make a satisfying dimple in the center.
It was a while before I got to taste a cornmeal dumpling. I was one of the privileged, given the rich people choice of the flour variety. But I preferred the gritty texture of the cornmeal, it came to represent my rebellious preference not to be given special treatment. It was only in the last ten years or so that a schoolmate pointed out another way that I received preferential treatment that also extended to those in my immediate group. When we came in late from ‘recess’, playing down in the bush beyond the range of the school bell, the group did not receive the usual and customary punishment (yes, corporal punishment was regularly doled out, stinging straps to palms or legs). The teachers were reluctant to beat the little white girl, so my friends were also let off the hook.
Our childhood is a place of great potential. It may be filled with possibilities and joyous experiences, or it may be a harsh place with few opportunities for genuine pleasure. The children I attended school with often had to complete chores before and after school. The desks would be more than half empty on Fridays; the kids would be needed to work alongside their parents, weeding, picking, harvesting food to sell at the market, or going to the river to wash clothes. If you are lucky you don’t even know that your childhood should be any different, and like all kids, you manage to find pleasure even in the mundane tasks.
Like the dough or the plasticene of my childhood, brain tissue is said to be plastic, easily molded, when we are young. The developing nerve pathways of infants and children create associations, learn to relate images to meanings, grow vocabularies, and model behaviors and responses on the examples that surround them. Whether good or bad, impressions may be long-lasting. Throwaway lines, harsh words, cruel taunts may leave scars in the evolving mind that last a lifetime. The link between a child who grows up in an abusive environment becoming either abuser, or victim has already been established. But the damage may be far more subtle, yet equally painful. There is an old phrase: ‘to damn with faint praise’. Whether deliberately delivered or carelessly uttered, a child may be hurt by the words of someone supposed to be older and wiser. How many of us can recall something hurtful said to us as a child, something that has stayed with us over the years, perhaps spurring us on to prove someone wrong. Or paralyzing us and keeping us in bad situations, as if we deserved it.
I cannot complain. My experiences at Beulah School were invaluable. My friends taught me how to build dolly house (wattle and daub style); where to find the huge leaves that could be used as an umbrella in the rain; to protect myself from the ‘macca and casha’ (painful thorns that jutted out from the bushes); and how to play baseball with nothing but a ball. I practiced my patois on them, repeating phrases and sentences until I was fluent, somehow I thought that made me disappear into the crowd. I was mostly oblivious to any special treatment that my skin color or status as ‘Parson dawta’ brought me. I did not see any big differences between me and the kids I played with. Later on, when the Afro was in style, I would be frustrated, unable to get my long straight hair to do anything similar. It was only when I looked in the mirror I remembered that I was not black.
The greatest gift I received from my childhood and upbringing in rural Jamaica was the privilege of seeing things from the perspective of others who look different from me. It also helped me to understand that we are no different from each other. We may have different cultural practices, may have different values or rituals. We may eat different foods or wear different clothes. Yet beneath the superficial surface we have the same organs and structures, the same hopes and dreams, the same ambitions that drive us.
This week I heard a phrase that made me stop and reflect on my privileged life. The civil war in Syria has resulted in the ‘devalued lives’ of Syrians. The report said that in Syria you are either an activist or a victim. In Africa war has created famine and desolation for millions. Our world is not a fair place. Many of us may have grown up with emotional scars of a difficult childhood, but at least we are here to complain.
On this Friday morning I hope you can reflect on the memories of your childhood with a smile, releasing the bad and holding on to the good. And spend a moment thinking of someone else, someone whose choices have been far more stark than yours. There, but for the grace of God, go you or I.
Have a wonderful weekend Family!