When I was six, the one black boy in my elementary school was in my class. His name was Teddy. This was white-white-white Iowa in the 60s. My first grade teacher, Mrs. Van Cura, got angry at the class one day for misbehaving and said, “Whoever doesn’t behave will have to play with Teddy at recess.”
What was wrong with Teddy? My six year old brain worried until I went home and asked my mom.
The word racist was not in my vocabulary. People were prejudiced or bigoted, but as a six year old, I didn’t understand. All I knew is that Teddy looked horrified when the teacher said that. After my mom explained that there was nothing wrong with Teddy, I felt bad for him.
Flash forward thirty-some years. I am now a mother of young children holding a garage sale in my tony neighborhood in Northern California. A lot has changed. People at my sale are from all over the world, immigrants, looking for bargains.
My fake ficus tree is on the driveway. It towers over the young Latina woman who has just gotten out of the car. My price is twenty dollars. She speaks with her husband, still in the car, and then approaches me.
“Fifteen dollars?” she asks, pointing to the tree.
The ficus hadn’t sold in the first two hours. Maybe I priced it too high. As I stand there deciding if I am going to let it go for less than I want, a white woman comes up to me.
“I will give you fifteen for it,” she says.
“This woman is buying it,” I say.
The white woman glances around my driveway, filled with people of various skin tones.
“Sell it to me,” she says. “We are neighbors. Don’t sell it to one of them.”
My mind flashes back to first grade. One of them. Does she mean an immigrant? A person with darker skin? A person who got out of a beat-up car filled with children in the backseat?
“She already offered fifteen dollars,” I say, glancing at the young woman who looks nervously at us.
“Wouldn’t you rather keep it in the neighborhood?” the older white woman presses.
I am an ex teacher. I taught Spanish. I write books with Spanish in them. I am offended by this neighbor of mine.
I nod my head to the short woman by my tree.
“Yes, fifteen dollars,” I say.
The Latina woman runs back to the car to get the money from her husband. The white woman clucks her tongue in disgust and walks away from me. As the husband gets out to tie the ficus tree to the top of his car, I watch the people on my driveway. I wonder how they got here, how their lives are, what they came from. I don’t forget the memory of the woman’s smiling face as she hands me the money. She understands what has just happened. She understands that I chose to sell her the tree.
I am at the hairdresser’s recounting the Ficus tree story. It is now twenty-some years later, We are about the same age. I tell her about first grade and the black boy in my class.
“I went to school with a boy who was one quarter Native American,” the hairdresser says. “I always had a crush on him, he was so good looking. But I remember when we played in the neighborhood, and one day a mom invited us all inside for bologna sandwiches, except he had to wait outside on the lawn.”
“That’s horrible,” I say.
“That’s Trinidad, California, in the sixties,” she says.
The hairdresser and I are approaching retirement age. We’ve seen a lot happen in our lifetimes. We see the Millennial generation changing the attitudes of the world by their inclusiveness. What happened in Iowa and California fifty years ago is now considered racist. What happened on my driveway in the 90’s is considered racist. The older white woman who didn’t get to buy my tree is probably in a nursing home somewhere or gone.
The generations behind mine are changing what is considered a racist attitude. My own kids have called me racist.
I can’t change the past. I can only reflect on it and tell the stories. I do not think I am a racist as they define it, but I have certainly seen racism in action.
Couldda Wouldda Didda
I sold the Ficus tree to the right person.