My very first friend in the world was ‘colored.’ Politically correct wasn’t yet in vogue and those whose job it is to create labels that rip humanity apart had not yet mandated that “black” or African-American were the preferred labels with which to define people whose skin color was darker than mine.
To me, it didn’t matter. The only label I used to describe her was “friend.”
Michelle Goines (sixth from the left, second row from the bottom in the photo above) and I met on the first day of kindergarten at Our Lady of Loretto School in Brooklyn, New York. The following year, we were reunited at Nativity School, even though we didn’t live in the same neighborhood, and there was no perfectly good reason why we would end up in the same school. We just did.
The Universe was having her way with our destinies, and perfectly good reasons could not stand in Her way. They never do. “Coincidences” were one of the gizmos inside the Mary Poppins-esque bag of tricks She carried around to whisk us to amusement parks open only to children whose hearts have not yet been denied entrance by cynical adult minds.
Those schools are long gone, but the memories they left behind are eternal, their legacy entrusted to the grownups we would become.
Nearly 50 years later, through the magic of Facebook, Michelle and I would find each other again, a bit older, but no less enthusiastic about our lifelong friendship. We were, after all, each other’s first friend. And no matter how much “reality” dust life throws in our faces, we never forget our first.
We were children of the ’60s. A time of racial and ethnic divide that threatened to separate our nation despite a very active movement to end segregation. It was much like the political climate of today, without the luxury of Twittershere soapboxes from which to spew hate.
Bussing black kids to “white schools” was trending in the ’60s. I was a product of bussing but in reverse, a white kid bussed to a predominantly black school.
Their names spill from my memory as easily as an overfilled glass of water spills to the floor. Arnold Freeman, Marie Severe, Charles Coles, Kathy Long, Maria Barboza, Antoinette Verduci, Rosa Howell, Herbie Fundora, Stephen Lenikan, Carl Lenore, Anthony Devito, the cute boy who had a crush on me and pursued me relentlessly in the first grade, and countless others.
I look at photos from that time and I see an ethnic diversity for which I will forever be grateful.
We were white, black, Hispanic, Asian, Italian, Irish but … we didn’t notice.
Perhaps we knew on some level that prejudice and racism existed. But we were too “ignorant” to notice, or perhaps too wise to care.
“Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” – Matthew 19:14
I was ignorant of what was going on around me because I had more important things to do … like making sure mom and dad gave me enough change so that when the nuns pulled out the candy stash hidden in the classroom closet during mid-morning recess, I would be first in line to buy the chocolate-covered malt balls that 55 years later, make my heart water with the bittersweet tears of childhood memories.
Little did I know that those innocent years would mold my beliefs, my philosophies and my spirituality unlike anything that would follow.
Beneath the surface of the shy, skinny, 6-year-old girl in the green plaid Catholic school uniform, lurked my own set of labels. I was a Cuban-Lebanese-American, soon-to-be registered Republican, hiding behind a closet door that would bang wide open with little fanfare three decades later. I was a bit of an anomaly.
I still am. The only difference is that I’ve shed one of those labels. I miss the days when orange was the new black. These days, the house on Pennsylvania Avenue is home to an orange-haired resident who is certainly no friend of black. He would not have approved of my friendship with Michelle … or my open closet door for that matter (But I digress. This message brought to you by Barb Doesn’t Talk Politics).
These days I read the posts on the Facebook page dedicated to our beloved Nativity School like a lion devouring its prey, hungrily hoping to recapture the precious moments time briefly placed before us.
We knew how to live in the moment, but that moment wasn’t long enough.
Even though our individual experiences may have differed while we attended Nativity School, there is one common thread that unites us, a thread that can never be broken, an innocence burned through the fire of life’s experiences to rise from the ashes as empowered adults.
It’s comforting to know that after stripping away the walls that time has built around our hearts, those innocent kids are always ready to come out to play.
Those memories, however, come with responsibility. And it is our mission, and the mission of anyone with similar memories, to share the wisdom of our innocent pasts with the present and future generations … wisdom the world labels as ignorance.