Sixth Grade Was a Nightmare

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From my sixth grade report card, my teacher’s comment: Actually I was unhappy and she contributed mightily to it.

Sixth grade was a nightmare. Maybe sixth grade is a nightmare for most – especially for girls since we’re all in different stages of puberty and it wreaks havoc on our bodies and emotions. Compounding that reality was the fact that I had a truly terrible teacher that year.

Mrs. Garner was the kind of teacher who seemed to take pleasure in humiliating students. She would call a student up to the board to do a math problem when she knew the student likely couldn’t solve it. I wasn’t particularly good at math, so I was one of her victims. She would also give back test papers from lowest to highest score so everyone knew how you did. This was especially embarrassing for me since my math test scores were dismal. It took me years, and better math teachers, to get over the damage done and realize that, in fact, I wasn’t actually that bad at math.

If that was her only flaw, maybe it wouldn’t have been that bad. But as that teaching strategy revealed, she was mean. I guess in a perverse way it was a good thing because, as a result, I bonded with some of my classmates. We had a siege mentality. It became an ‘us versus her’ situation. Cindy, my best friend, and I were united in our rebellion. We plotted various schemes, and shared lots of laughs in thinking of ways to get back at her. We thought we were pretty creative when we ordered a pizza to her house. We sent an insulting letter to her home, as well. I’m embarrassed to think of it now, but we didn’t know what else to do with our hurt and anger.

For the first and only time, I played hooky that year. Cindy and I hatched a grand plot. We, and another friend, were going to meet at Cindy’s apartment. Her mother must not have been home that day. I left for school that morning, as I usually did, but took a detour to the Bayview Projects where Cindy lived, which was conveniently located right next to our school. I went to Cindy’s building and, terrified that I would be seen by another classmate, I went up the stairs instead of taking the elevator. Our other friend chickened out and went to school. Cindy and I spent the day baking (we had a food fight!), watching television and laughing.

Cindy’s older sister came home and threatened to tell. We cleaned up and vacuumed. I don’t recall if Cindy got into trouble, but since her sister knew I was afraid word would get to my parents, so I fessed up before that could happen. I told my mom and she had a very unexpected reaction. She told me she should have given me a mental health day off, and that I should talk to her first if I was feeling that desperate. I never played hooky again.

Mrs. Garner did another student more harm. This past August I went to my 40 year (holy shit! I’m that old!) high school reunion and was reminded of an incident that is illustrative of her character. I went to the reunion specifically to seek out classmates who had also been in my elementary school class. As part of writing this blog, I wanted to compare notes.

Clayton was one of two African-American boys in that class. Clayton and I had been in the same class three years running. He was the smartest kid every year. He could be talkative, more talkative than the teachers appreciated, but there was no denying his smarts. In sixth grade, toward the end of the year, the class was asked to vote to have a student representative who would speak at graduation. Our class voted for Clayton. Mrs. Garner gave the honor to a white boy, telling Clayton, that he didn’t enunciate clearly enough to deliver the speech. I don’t recall the class being offered any explanation. I can say that Clayton spoke perfectly clearly (as good (sic) as any Brooklynite, if not better).

When I went to the reunion, I asked Clayton about a different incident I remembered from fourth grade. He didn’t recall it, but he shared three other experiences that reeked of racism. When he told of the election described above, parts of it came back to me. Interestingly, I didn’t remember which student had been denied the honor, I only remembered my feelings of righteous indignation that the class choice had been overridden. I wouldn’t have remembered that it was Clayton who had been wronged if he hadn’t told me. It is so interesting what we remember, what makes a mark on us.

One of the things Clayton and I discussed at the reunion was that Mrs. Garner was the wife of the District Superintendent. In addition to having tenure since she was a veteran teacher, Mrs. Garner likely had no concerns about being rebuked by the administration for her teaching methods or actions.

Hearing Clayton’s story validated the intense dislike I harbored for Mrs. Garner. She may be long gone from this earth and I may have acted out inappropriately, but my 11-year old self knew she wasn’t a righteous person.

Note: In writing this blog piece I reached out to Cindy and Clayton. Both were helpful and generously shared their memories. To further illustrate the damage done, Clayton shared the following in an email:  …in addition to this slight, she then had me placed me in Class 773 in John Wilson (the lowest-ranked of the three “SP” classes in the upcoming 7th grade). Now, how you go from Valedictorian-elect to the lowest class of the SP program is beyond me, but it added to my frustration with school in general. I never again got inspired to do well in school–it just seemed not to be worth it. It wasn’t a meritorious system, it was one of politics and preferences–preferences I seemed destined to never receive. So, I have to say that in many ways, I never recovered from 6th grade.

 

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back (or is it the other way around?)

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Yearbook photo

My parents and I were at Seniors, a restaurant in Sheepshead Bay, to celebrate my high school graduation. The ceremony was earlier in the day. I started to say, “I feel really bad…” and my dad threw down his fork. “Don’t!” he said, “We’re celebrating your graduation. You have nothing to be sad about!”

“But…” I started to explain, but the look on his face shut me down. I fought back tears and concentrated on the food on my plate.

The end of high school was a strange time for me. I was so unhappy and lonely in junior high school and came to Canarsie High School feeling like an outcast. I was terribly insecure, between my eyes, my weight and general self-consciousness, I began high school in a hole. Things did turn around, but not like in a fairy tale or Hollywood movie. The ugly duckling didn’t emerge as a swan and float off happily ever after. Painstakingly, over the course of the three years, I dug myself out.

I started by joining some activities. I was in the chorus of Sing, a school show of sorts. I connected with some of the girls who stood near me in the alto section during rehearsals (some were friends from elementary school who went to a different junior high). I still had trouble knowing how to extend the friendships beyond the rehearsal, but I was making progress.

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Sing senior year (1976). I am the last person in the last row on the right (picture from our yearbook).

I tried out and made the girls basketball team. We were God-awful, except for one or two players, but I loved basketball and I was happy to be part of the team.

I wrote for the Canarsie Campus, the school newspaper, and by senior year I was the editor-in-chief. I started out doing okay in my classes and by the senior year, I was doing really well. The trajectory was headed in the right direction. I was voted Most Likely to Succeed by my classmates and had my picture, along with Alan Schick, in the yearbook commemorating the designation. I both enjoyed the attention and felt disconnected from it. Inside I still felt like the girl who sat in the junior high school cafeteria eating lunch alone, worried that I would be the target of teasing.

So, in June of 1976, I was in a much better place than in September 1973 when I entered high school. But, my newly formed self-esteem was still pretty fragile, and oddly enough the graduation ceremony itself delivered a major blow.

Canarsie High School held its graduation at the Loew’s Kings Theater in Flatbush, a huge old-time movie theater with some 3000 seats and ornate plaster walls. With more than 750 graduating seniors (there were more like 1100 students in the senior class, but the rest didn’t qualify to graduate) and their families, the high school auditorium couldn’t accommodate it.

I don’t remember who from my family came. My Dad drove our monster-size Chevy Impala, with my Mom and me (and perhaps others – it’s possible that Uncle Terry and Aunt Barbara were there), and dropped me off to gather with the graduates. They went to find parking.

Some students were invited to sit on the stage, those who were speaking, receiving an award or performing. I was receiving an award so I marched in and climbed up on the stage with maybe 30 other students. I was told beforehand that I would receive the Monroe Cohen Memorial Award, given in honor of Canarsie’s beloved representative to the New York City Council who unexpectedly died a year earlier. I didn’t know why I was being given the award, but I took my seat on stage and took in my surroundings.

The stage was huge; the whole theater was huge. I looked out and searched among the thousands of faces for my mother. I couldn’t spot her. My dad, who had been a dean at Canarsie High School but left to become chair of the social studies department at another city high school two years before, was invited to sit on the stage, too. He was seated on the other side with faculty and other dignitaries. I couldn’t see him either.

The ceremony proceeded in the usual way. Eventually they got to the presentation of awards. I heard our principal, Mr. Rosenman, announce the Monroe Cohen Memorial Award and I started to make my way to the front of the stage. Mr. Rosenman was saying something like, “Linda virtually single-handedly put together the school newspaper, without a faculty advisor and with very little funding.” I was standing next to him, smiling, one hand extended to receive the award and the other hand extended to shake his, when someone screamed out, “That’s not true!!” Despite the crowd, unfortunately at that moment it was pretty quiet in the theater.

I looked around, wondering, did that just happen?! Though the comment wasn’t repeated, I knew what I heard. It rang clear as a bell, echoing in my ears, “That’s not true!!” Mr. Rosenman paused briefly and then continued on as if nothing had happened. Finally I took the envelope with the award and found my way back to my seat on wobbly legs.

There may have been applause. I actually didn’t know what was happening because my head was spinning. I sank down in my seat, shaking like a leaf. I felt exposed. Everyone knew I was a fraud. I looked frantically around the theater to see if I could figure out where the comment had come from, but the words didn’t leave a vapor trail. There was no telltale sign, except in my vibrating body.

My friend Laurence, who was sitting a couple of seats down from me, reached over and patted my knee. He asked if I was all right. I nodded that I was, though I suspected that my face said otherwise. I’m sure all the color had drained from it.

I don’t remember the rest of the ceremony, but I kept breathing and made it through. I found my family afterwards. I don’t remember much about our conversation, other than my mom telling me that someone said it was a parent who yelled out. Maybe that should’ve made me feel better, but I was still in shock. My father, who was quite hard of hearing, was learning of it for the first time when we gathered after the ceremony was over. He dismissed it as sour grapes. I wished I could do the same. We got back into our Chevy and went back to our house in Canarsie.

It didn’t occur to me to be angry. I felt humiliated and it confirmed my worst fears, that I was undeserving. I hadn’t asked for the award and I didn’t write the comments Mr. Rosenman delivered.

At dinner with my parents, when I tried to bring it up, I think my Dad wanted to ignore that it happened and he didn’t want me to be hurt.

I couldn’t let go of it, but I had to pretend to.

All these years later, I remember the incident so clearly. I know that I went that night, after dinner with my parents, to celebrate at a bonfire at a nearby beach with friends. I don’t remember what my friends said. It is unlikely that I would have mentioned it because it was so embarrassing, but maybe I did. I don’t know if words of comfort were offered, but maybe they were. It is interesting, the memories we carry with us, and what we forget.

No Easy Answers

I was in social studies in 12th grade in 1975 and the class was discussing the nursing home scandal that was unfolding in New York City. Terrible details of elder abuse and neglect were emerging in the newspapers.

The discussion moved from the scandal to elder care as a societal value. Our teacher explained that in some cultures, for example, Native American, elders were more revered than in American society at large. In those cultures older folks stayed with the family as they aged and were cared for until they died. One of my classmates, declared, “I would never put my parents in a nursing home! How can you put them away like that?” Others chimed in with their agreement.

I raised my hand to respond, “It isn’t so simple. Sometimes older people,” and my voice unexpectedly broke. I took a deep breath and managed to say, “need more attention than you can give.” I couldn’t say more.

My grandfather, my father’s father, was staying with us at the time. Grandma had recently died. In those years he stayed with us for some extended periods – during the period of mourning, after cataract surgery and while awaiting placement at the Hebrew Home for the Aged, My brothers were away at college. When I made the comment in class I was thinking of the impact that Grandpa living with us had on the life of my parents and myself. Unfamiliar with our house, with compromised hearing and vision, it was difficult for him to manage.

While he was staying with us, when I came home from high school, I would ask him if he wanted to take a walk. He was always delighted to. He would put on his trench coat and fedora and we would set off to the shopping center. Grandpa was always careful to walk on the outside, closer to the curb. I didn’t understand why he did that, so I asked him. He explained that the man should always walk next to the street, the young lady should be closer to the buildings to be safer. Grandpa had very gentlemanly, old world ways.

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Grandma and Grandpa in happier times, on our living room couch in Canarsie. With his trademark fedora, trench coat draped over his arm. In those days you could see travelers to the gate. I believe they were off to Florida.

We would go to the stationary store where he would buy the Forward, the Yiddish language newspaper, and a cigar. We would walk back home. Grandpa didn’t feel a need to fill the silence. I’m not sure if his reserve related to his hearing deficit, or if it was just his personality, Grandma certainly ran the show when she was alive – she was smart, funny and opinionated. Maybe she just overshadowed him and he got used to it. I wish I had asked Grandpa more questions. We were surprised at how long and well he did after Grandma died.

Perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised. After all he came to this country by himself at the age of 17. He learned five languages, he ran several businesses, married and had a family. He played cards and a mean game of Scrabble. Even though English wasn’t his first language, he beat all comers.

When Grandpa had cataract surgery and was recovering at our house, I gave him his eye drops. Both Grandpa and my father had what’s called benign essential tremor, involuntary shaking of the hands, so they couldn’t do it. My mother had a thing about eyes and wasn’t comfortable giving the drops. I did the best I could.

As part of his recovery from the surgery, Grandpa was told not to smoke his beloved cigars. I think this was to minimize coughing which might impact the healing of his eye. We still took our walks and he still kept a cigar in his shirt pocket. One day at dinner, Grandpa started to cough. My father was enraged, thinking Grandpa was still smoking. Dad reached across the table and ripped the cigar from Grandpa’s shirt pocket. “You know you aren’t supposed to be smoking these,” he roared.

He also ripped the pocket clear off the shirt.

In that moment I thought it was possible that Dad hated his own father. After the explosion, Dad apologized and things calmed down, though it wasn’t that long after that Grandpa went to stay with Aunt Diane.

Dad told us that he remembered little of his own childhood, but he also told us that when his family moved to a new apartment on Prospect Park West there was a bedroom for his sisters and one for his parents, but not for him. He slept on a couch. He made himself scarce, going to school, working various jobs and playing ball.

Aside from feeling neglected, Dad also said that when he had the opportunity to go to Harvard or Yale Law School, his parents wouldn’t lend him the money (he didn’t believe it was simply a matter of finances). They did provide funds for his older sister to go to medical school. There was layer upon layer of resentment that was never addressed, it just smoldered in my father.

For the years that Grandpa was able to be self-sufficient, he lived in Century Village Deerfield Beach in Florida and we made our annual visits. When that was no longer an option, he moved to the Hebrew Home for the Aged in Riverdale.

So while it would be optimal if as folks aged they could be cared for in the loving arms of their family, I don’t think it always plays out that way. The needs of the older person may be too great, the capacity of the family to provide the support and the relationships may not be healthy enough to make it work. It wouldn’t have in our family.

Zada, my cello and me

 

 

I was lugging my cello to the bus stop, finally bringing it home from Bildersee Junior High School so I could practice over the weekend. A familiar mustard-yellow Toyota Corolla pulled up to the curb next to me and I saw Zada, my grandfather, roll down his window. “Lindele, let me give you a ride home,” he called out.

“Thank you! How’d you know I’d be taking my cello home?”

“Your mother mentioned it to me, so I thought I would see if I could catch you on my way home from work.”

Zada was coming from Danilow’s, the commercial bakery where he worked, wearing his uniform: a white short sleeved shirt, white pants and black belt. Hunched over the steering wheel, he was nearing 70 years old.

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I carefully manipulated the cello into the back seat and climbed in the front, relieved not to have to manage the cello on the bus – actually two buses and a long walk across Seaview Park to get home.

“It’s going to rain,” Zada told me. I saw no sign in the sky, so I asked, “How do you know?”

“I feel it in my bones. Uncle Michael told me he felt it in his leg this morning, too.” I harrumphed dismissively.

“What? You don’t believe me.”

“You can’t tell the weather with your bones,” I said, choosing to put my confidence in science instead.

Uncle Mike had badly broken his leg the previous summer and according to Zada (his father), it would function as a barometer for the rest of his life.

“Wait, you’ll see, you’re young,” Zada said.

Conversations with my grandfather often went this way. I could argue about anything with him, including the weather, but I usually didn’t make any headway and neither did he.

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The Lived Experience of a White Girl (circa 1966 – 1976)

I have lived a mostly segregated life. It’s not that I wanted that for myself. At least I didn’t consciously make choices that would separate me from people of color, but it has worked out that way.

I have always been interested in the lives of other people. From a single trailer seen in passing from my car window as we drove through a desolate part of Wyoming to looking at the tenements from the elevated LL passing the New Lots Avenue station in Brooklyn, I have wondered what life was like for the people living in those places. That curiosity led me to books, but it didn’t lead me to friendships.

I think I would have had to make conscious decisions to seek out relationships with African-Americans or other people of color in order to reach across the barriers. When I thought about making that effort I wondered if it would come across as disingenuous, like George Costanza in the “Seinfeld” episode where he decides to find a black friend.

I think back to my experiences in elementary school in Canarsie. Classes were grouped ostensibly by academic ability. There was only one or, at most, two black students in my class in any given year, and they were boys. Curtis (not his real name) who was in my fourth, fifth and sixth grade class was very smart but was frequently getting into trouble for talking too much and he was regularly accused of instigating other kids to misbehave. In frustration, one day our fourth grade teacher asked for a volunteer to sit next to Curtis. I raised my hand eagerly, and I was selected. I don’t remember what I was thinking at the time. Did I think I could befriend him? Did I think I could rescue him (as if he needed rescuing)? I honestly don’t recall how it turned out – whatever happened, it wasn’t dramatic enough to make a lasting impression. I can only imagine his humiliation. This was not a strategy used with any other misbehaving student and it certainly didn’t help to bridge the divide.

In 1972 the New York City Board of Education adopted a plan to bus black students into the two predominantly white junior high schools in Canarsie. My mother supported busing and I did, too. How else would we achieve integration? The plan, though, was received with tremendous hostility by white parents in Canarsie. It resulted in a boycott. Parents kept their children home from Bildersee (my junior high school) and John Wilson (the other junior high school in Canarsie) in protest.

 

This went on for a couple of weeks. I was literally alone in my 9th grade classes, just my teacher and me. I remember enjoying the one-on-one time with Mrs. Cohen, my English teacher. I also remember walking in the main entrance through a path laid out by the police and their sawhorses. Adults stood behind the barriers, yelling epithets at the few of us who went to school. (The picture above is actually of John Wilson JHS, but this scene was repeated at Bildersee. I don’t recall the policeman blowing his nose quite so ostentatiously.)

My dad was the administrative dean of Canarsie High School in those years so he was in charge of discipline. He was aware of the troublemakers in the neighborhood and had connections with the police. On one particular day Dad got wind of a planned confrontation between a group of Italian and African-American kids, so he found my brothers in their classes and sent them home. When there were threats of violence during the boycott, I stayed home from Bildersee, too.

The upshot of the boycott was that the busing plan was implemented and my relationship with one of my closest friends, Pia, was irreparably damaged.

Like many who lived in Canarsie, Pia’s family had recently moved from East New York to benefit from the better schools and escape the violence that plagued that neighborhood. The plan to bus black students signaled the beginning of the end to them, they believed white flight would certainly follow. I was more hopeful. While nothing was ever said directly, Pia never invited me to hangout at her house again and she was distinctly cool to me at school.

By the time I got to high school in 1973 racial tensions were at a fever pitch. The way the education system was structured there were very limited opportunities to interact across racial lines. Phys Ed, Health and some elective classes brought us together, though that was all pretty superficial in the scheme of high school life. The thing we could really bond over was rooting for our basketball and football teams. Fortunately Canarsie High School was very competitive. My senior year thousands of us went to the PSAL (Public School Athletic League, New York’s city-wide) basketball championship game between Canarsie and Lincoln High School at St. John’s Alumni Hall. That victory provided a moment of transcendence. While there were other moments, mostly connected to sports, it seemed to me that most of us lived our lives amongst our own.

It is ironic that my children, who grew up in an upper middle class suburb of Albany, New York, had genuine friendships with people of color and more opportunity for interaction than I did growing up in Brooklyn.

A “Fantastick” Sweet Sixteen

My mother’s parenting approach can best be described as laissez-faire – not the adjective one tends to think of to describe a mother. My brother says we grew up with a Jewish mother, just in our case it was our father.   He was the one who checked to see if we were wearing a hat before going out into the cold. Although Mom’s parenting was not always a great fit for me as a sensitive and insecure child, she got many things right.

One muggy August night in 1975 I was tossing and turning, feeling nauseated, my heart pounding. As I lay sweating in my bed in my room the size of a closet, my thoughts were flitting from one unhappy topic to another; taking a mental inventory of everything that was wrong in the world. From the latest crime wave in New York City to more personal worries about Grandma being in the hospital with something serious, but as yet undiagnosed. Earlier that week my father’s friend, someone he had known and played poker with for more than 20 years, committed suicide because of gambling debts that no one suspected. I had also come home earlier that month from a job at a sleep-away camp because it seemed to me everyone on staff was getting high and I wasn’t. All in all I was feeling unmoored, the ground under my feet was shifting.

I lie in bed looking out my window at the bricks of the house next door and felt the world closing in. After trying to manage alone for a while, I woke my mother up.

At first she thought I might be physically ill, but after going over my symptoms it became clear that I wasn’t, so she took a different approach. She started a different kind of inventory – reminding me about the good things in my life. My brothers were fine, she and dad were okay, too. I was entering my senior year of high school and would be applying to college soon. Exciting possibilities awaited. Of course that was scary, too.

Mom had an idea to distract me. She suggested that we plan a sweet 16 party. I would turn 16 in early October. Between having a birthday late in the year and having been part of a New York City program that combined three years of junior high school into two, I was young to be a senior in high school. I had gone to many sweet 16 parties the year before and I thought people would be tired of them. As my mother talked I found myself getting excited in spite of my doubts.

“You promise people will come?” I knew it was a silly question even as I asked it, but I couldn’t help myself.

“Yes,” she said with assurance, “we’ll come up with something really great. Maybe a ‘mystery bus tour’? “

Hmmm, I thought, that sounded interesting.

Going out on a limb, she said, “I promise it will be a success. And, we’ll have fun planning it.”

She convinced me.

Fortunately, the rest of the summer passed without further tragedy.

We chose the off-Broadway show The Fantasticks as the destination for our mystery bus ride. Mom arranged to rent a yellow school bus. I could invite 20 friends. We would have fried chicken from Chicken Galore on the bus and make-your-own sundaes back at the house after the show.

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Amazingly enough, I found an invitation among my memorabilia
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Yes, I drew a bus on each invitation!

We still had to find something for me to wear, no mean feat given my self-consciousness. After combing the aisles of A&S, we managed to find dressy corduroy overalls. Who knew such a thing existed?! I lived in overalls so it was perfect.

Now my main worry was about the party once we got back to the house. I actually explained this to my parents: at virtually every sweet 16 I attended, people left the house, went for a walk and came back high. I didn’t like the idea of being alone at my party waiting for people to come back stoned. Of course, if they did, they would be especially appreciative of the make-your-own sundaes.

My parents reassured me as best they could.

The big day arrived. Friends and family arrived on time. We boarded the bus and had a little contest with everyone guessing where we were going. The Empire State Building? A bowling alley? A museum?

Everyone managed to eat their chicken dinner without too much difficulty. I wasn’t wearing my dinner – a personal victory! We arrived at the Sullivan Street Theater in Greenwich Village. I remember worrying about the seating arrangements, but in the end just gave out the tickets and enjoyed the show.

Afterwards we piled back on the bus and returned to Canarsie. So far, so good.

To my surprise, the guy I had a crush on gave me the album The Divine Miss M by Bette Midler. He suggested we put it on. The song was Do You Wanna Dance. He asked me to dance! I had precious little experience slow dancing. But, I managed. It was awkward and thrilling.

Some people did disappear and came back high, but it wasn’t a mass exodus.

And, I was actually happy at the end of the night! Not all that common of an occurrence in my teenage years. I sat on the couch in the basement, reviewed the night with my mom and read the kind messages in the sign-in book and smiled. My mother made good on her promise.

 

What are you?

Note: One of the reasons I started writing these memoir-stories was to explore different aspects of identity. I have struggled with notions of femininity and masculinity, as well as issues of social justice with respect to race and class for as long as I can remember. Some of the stories I have posted have touched on these topics. The essay that follows is intended to be one of several on race and ethnicity – it is a big topic! And, I have a couple of experiences I want to share. I welcome your contributions to the conversation – please feel free to share your perspective by commenting or sending an email.

“What are you?”

When I was growing up in Brooklyn in the late 60s, it was one of the first things we asked each other. It was a way of sorting ourselves out. I wonder if kids still ask each other that. As adults we tiptoe around those questions.

When we asked, in that place and time, we were usually asking whether the other person was Jewish, Italian-Catholic or Irish-Catholic. There really weren’t that many other possibilities in my neighborhood. I’m embarrassed to say that I was a young adult before I realized that there were many other possibilities – and how small a minority I was part of.

I’m not writing nostalgically of that time – I don’t think those were the good old days. I have been reflecting on why we asked each other that question and what it meant. I think we need to figure out how to talk about our identities in a way that doesn’t stir up suspicion, insinuate judgment or assume superiority. We are, after all, curious about each other.

As kids we were figuring out our identities and where we fit in. In asking the question ‘what are you?’ it felt to me like we were looking for connection, searching for commonality. The question was a shortcut to understanding something about each other and the answer could help seal a bond. And if it didn’t create a bond, it gave a point of reference.

We talk about prejudice being learned and in part I think that is true. Certainly we don’t come into this world thinking that a particular group is cheap or dirty or dangerous. All of that is learned. But, I think there is a hard-wired discomfort or suspicion of those who are different from us and that makes fertile ground for prejudice. We are born into a family or culture that defines what is comfortable and known to us.

I was born into a second-generation Jewish-American family. Actually both of my grandmothers were American born, which would make me third generation, and my grandmothers were high school educated. Both of these facts made my family a bit unusual in my neighborhood. My parents were not only college graduates, but my Dad had one master’s degree in education and another in economics. My mom was going back to school while I was growing up and earned her master’s in reading. Education was a value in and of itself.

We took great pride in being Jewish, though we weren’t religious at all. I recall Nana lighting Shabbos candles on Friday nights. I have a mental picture of her moving her hands forward and back over the candles as if to invite the flame into her heart, her white hair covered by a white doily. Then she put her hands over her eyes as she completed the prayer silently. That was the extent of our ritual. We didn’t go to synagogue and we enjoyed ham, among other treyf (unkosher) items. Judaism was a culture to me, a sense of humor, and a way of looking at the world. It meant asking questions. It included certain foods at certain times of the year. It didn’t include God.

I was and am ethnically Jewish. My grandparents liberally sprinkled Yiddish in their speech. Shana madela (pretty girl), lay keppe (lay your head down), meshuganah (crazy), and schnorer (a moocher) and many other words were part of our lexicon.

One Yiddish word confused me. I grew up hearing blacks referred to as “schvartzes” by my grandparent’s generation. It wasn’t the equivalent of using the n-word, but it was a pejorative. When I sat at Nana’s kitchen table listening to her conversation with friends and family and the word was used, it sounded wrong to my ears, it was a discordant note. When I was older Aunt Simma shared a story of being told that she couldn’t go to a black classmate’s house to play when she was a child, though she was welcome to invite the girl to her own home.

I never had to face that issue, though I can’t imagine my parents issuing such an edict. There weren’t any black families on my block. There were only one or two black kids in my elementary school classes and neither of them were girls. Even in high school, my life was pretty segregated. My path crossed with black kids in gym and on the basketball team. The relationships didn’t extend beyond the court.

I’m 56 years old and still trying to sort out the different aspects of my identity and what it means for my relationships with family, friends and the larger community. In some ways it has gotten even harder to talk about.