“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” ~ Viktor E. Frankl.
I often wonder what happened to Evelyn. The first school I went to in Jamaica was a private ‘Prep’ school, run by a married couple, both were retired schoolteachers. There was one other teacher, which made for an interesting class structure in the small school. Mrs. G taught the youngest group, while Teacher G. taught the eldest group, so there were gaps that the third teacher could not quite cover. I often joke that I went from reciting my times table in one class, to moving in to a much higher class where all of a sudden I was trying to solve those horrible word problems. ‘If it takes a man and a half a day and a half to plow a field and a half, when will the two trains meet?’ This resulted in me developing severe stomach pains, and I was often sent across the street to see Dr. A. and from there I would go home.
I don’t remember how long I attended that school (it is now a Funeral Home, read into that what you will!), but I happily started to attend a local primary (elementary school) where I was taught age-appropriate content in a class with children my own age. But to go back to Evelyn: she had befriended me when I first attended the Prep school. She was a bit older than me, and decided to take the little white girl under her wing. When she realized that I could read quite well (and had that strangely fascinating English accent), she handed me a book and asked me to read the first page out loud, to a group of children in the playground, before school started. Not only could I read well, I could also read ‘in my head’ and so I scanned the first few lines before I did as she asked: ‘Farmer Jones walked up the path, drunk as usual’. I immediately realized I had been set up. My name was Jones, and though my father was not a farmer, I grasped the connection. So I returned the book to her, said I didn’t feel like reading, and thankfully the bell rang for start of school and I dodged that torment.
There have been times when I have shared stories of my childhood, ones I think are funny and entertaining, with my grandchildren. And realized, based on their responses, that although in hindsight they seem to me to be quite amusing, it is quite possible that at the time the experiences could have been hurtful. Either way, there have always been lessons to learn.
My other friend from my first school (although he is often embarrassed at the memory), was the first person to introduce to me the concept of white privilege, and the heavy weight of colonialism on the colonized people of the world (who all happen to be people of color). He told me his brother had a book that showed that Jamaica used to be a land of great wealth, with gold and silver and diamonds found lying around in rivers (the book had pictures, he said), until the white man came and took them all. Now of course, if you think of the plundering of Africa, the story is not as fantastical as it sounded to me at the time. He was woke before woke was a word, and he was probably not much older than ten.
Although hearing the story must have made me quite uncomfortable, I realize that he had provided a basis for my understanding of the disparity of the world. He had introduced me to way of seeing through the whitewashed version of history, of benevolent White people wandering around the world, ‘civilizing’ it for the good of all. Later on, as the US was facing its own history of racism and oppression, and Black people were demanding to be heard, to be recognized, to be free to pursue their own happiness, I would read the books of liberation authors and learn more about the injustice and evil of slavery, of Jim Crow, of oppression.
I am writing at a time when freedom of thought is under attack, where books are being banned. Where teachers are being told what they can teach, how they can teach it, by people who are less educated and informed than they are. For fear of what? It may have been uncomfortable to my young ears to hear about concepts of greed and theft, but it laid a path for empathy. It helped me to see the world through the eyes of others, to realize that, as they say in Jamaica, ‘Jackass seh di wurl no level’ (the donkey says, the world is not level, or fair, or just).
The other day I watched an old TV show from the late 60’s. Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in was a comedy show, a series of skits poking fun at everything. It launched the career of people like Goldie Hawn (who played the dumb blonde perfectly), and featured guest stars like Flip Wilson, and even Tricky Dicky himself – Richard Nixon. With risqué humor it wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, (I can see my mother frowning at it now), but they also took on heavy topics of racism, sexism and other touchy subjects. As I watched it I wondered where that world had gone to, a world where people were comfortable exposing the uncomfortable truths about a society which needed to mend fences and heal wounds.
This Friday morning, as I get ready for a Labor Day weekend of activities (a shorter list than it would have been pre-Pandemic, or as some would say, in the Before Times), I am happy for all those experiences that happened in my formative years, that helped me to be a bridge, a connector, as one friend recently called me. Let us work together to make these times the bridge to a future where we can all respect the struggle that others have gone through, and practice empathy.
Have a wonderful weekend, Family!