My wonder years

How cute
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A couple of Christmases ago my mom gifted to me and my sisters our choice of photos from her old photo albums. She had dumped them all into a large box and we spent all day sifting through them. Call it bobbing for memories. It was a unique gift with immeasurable value. Not everyone has photos from their wee lil’ years. My wife doesn’t. My closest friend had all his childhood photos eaten by a fire several years back. Some people just had parents who never took photos (an issue Gabby does not have).

I gobbled up several dozen photos and later ordered them in my own special album. Every so often I like to glance through it. I try to see some semblance of Gabby and I (She actually favors strongly one of my sisters.) I also enjoy looking back at my class photos from elementary school. I have just about every grade. The one above is from Mrs. Burgess’ second-grade class, circa 1981. That’s twenty-five years and thousands of No. 2 pencils ago. I’ll let you guess which one is I.

When my stepdaughter first saw this photo she expressed shock. “Wow,” she said. “You sure had a lot of black people in your class.” Hmmm. I’d never really considered the racial composition of my youth, but looking back, yeah, I was part of a rainbow connection. That photo sports a racial blend you just don’t see often here in the mountains. Back home it was normal. At least, I think it was.

I consider my upbringing a blessing. I grew up in a one-street neighborhood of about a hundred homes and plenty of kids. Racially it was the equivalent of a string of Christmas lights – not too much of any one color. We all got along pretty well. Every football game was the Olympics, only under one flag – Crossgates (the name of our hood).

I grew up with friends black, white and latino. One was an atheist Russian. Another a Polish Yugoslavian. There were booksmart girls and lazy guys, budding capitalists and natural athletes. We raced bikes, explored woods, talked smack and battled GI Joes. Those were the days.

Once, my sister and I were invited to a Halloween party at Kenya’s house. She lived way down the street from us. We didn’t have money for real costumes, but we had plenty of bed sheets and makeup. So we dressed as ghosts. Off we went to the party. Once there we found we were the only white people there, and by white I do mean white. Mom had painted our faces the color of our bleached sheets. I remember feeling a bit akward at first, but we had a good time. If anyone noticed our inadvertent contrast, they didn’t say a thing. At least to us.

I keep in close touch with one buddy from back then. Another is among my links up top under Friends (picturetakin). With regards to him, I still have in one photo album a newspaper ad featuring a photo of him . It’s a grainy black and white, showing him in his Native American wardrobe. The ad was for an upcoming Pow Wow. Thanks to him I always thought rain was just one flash dance away.

I’ve lost touch with everyone in to the second-grade photo. Most of us weathered the storms of junior high and high school to graduate together. I wonder at what age it is we begin smiling without showing teeth. Everyone in this photo looks so happy, except for Jeff. Poor Jeff. I remember him well. We were best friends through much of elementary school before taking different paths in our teens. Mrs. Burgess isn’t smiling either. She doesn’t look unhappy, but neither does she look thrilled. Her solemn smile is in sharp contract to the Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy gang surrounding her. It must have been a Monday.

As I reflect on these old photos I do have one fear. What will become of them when I’m gone? Will Gabby keep them as family heirlooms? Or will they find their way to the dump or a dingy thrift store? Worse, could it end up as idle decoration on a restaurant’s wall, a photo ridiculed by drunken college teens or pondered by bored patrons enduring slow service? Perhaps it could be a topic for a blind date, when silence is avoiding like raw spinach. I shrudder at the thought, but what ya gonna do? At least the decorator would have taste.

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3 thoughts on “My wonder years

  1. O.K. You are completely adorable there, but the kid on the right of you looks simply kitten killin’ evil. Is Poor Jeff the kid all the way on the left of your row? I’m from down east so know the racial balance is more common off the mountain. I’m afraid that my girls would probably notice the diversity of your class photo first thing as well, but I hope I’ve raised them well enough to simply say, “hmm? That’s different than I was schooled,” to themselves and then go mix and play well with others.

  2. Jeez! What a pup you are. In 1981, I was in the 8th grade. I too, went to a racially balanced school; well, a series of them. Back in my day, in the big city where I grew up, they bussed kids from one side of town to the other, in the name of integration. That could go either way, you know? Being raised with people of lots of ethnicities can make you more tolerant, and accepting; or it can make you less so. I think my upbringing is the main reason why it’s important to me that my children are color blind.

  3. The make up of my 2nd grade picture resembled yours. That was the year busing began in Greensboro. I don’t remember having feelings about it one way or another. We try to bring our kids up color blind but it can be difficult. Things tend to be segregated. They go to public schools in Greensboro which has gone back to neighborhood schools. Last year’s stats are listed: My daughter’s elementary school has 748 only 2.8% were black. My son’s middle school has 1168 students with only 3.8% black. My daughter’s class this year is all white except for 1 Hispanic.

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