In the spring of my sophomore year I decided I needed to see the world in some constructive way and I competed for an international exchange student program through Rotary. I remember that there were 5 of us and only 2 were going to be picked and one of the applicants was a Freshman who was a good friend of mine. It was exciting thinking of going to France or Italy. When I got the news I was shocked. I didn’t get picked. I was mad but moreso sad. I wasn’t going to take this sitting down.
I mulled it over with my mom and finally we both came up with an idea, perhaps there was a way to stay in the country and go for a half year instead of a full one? How could I do that? Then we thought about who we knew in more urban areas of the country: I had an aunt in Houston and one in Sacramento. No brainer. In 4 weeks we worked out a plan and wrote a letter to my prinicipal, connected with the principal at the Sacramento school serving my aunt’s neighborhood and ta da! I was going to spend the first semester of my Junior year in Sacramento, California! My Sociology experiment was about to ensue!!
Flash forward to the chapter pertaining to my post today. I’m sitting in my American History class, not sure what the topic was but I think it was World War II, and two black girls in my class started yelling at each other and hurling intense swear words at each other and in seconds they are escalating to the point where desks are being pushed around and before I know it they are on the ground, kicking, hitting, scratching and screaming at each other. I had never seen anyone that wasn’t on t.v. actually fight each other in my life. I looked away and buried my head in my arms and started to cry. The teacher broke them up and called the school security (not something I had been exposed to either) and had them hauled out. I can’t remember how soon until class was over but what I do remember is I couldn’t move. I was hiding my tears from view, embarrassed at how it had impacted me. What happened next was so touching as my teacher, Mr. C, walked to his bookshelf, took a book off it and held it to his chest. He said something like “First fight? I bet that’s not something you see everyday.” And I said, “No, it isn’t.” And then he said, “You know, people can do some crazy things to each other; it’s happened many times in our history. Here, I want you to read this story, this account of something that happened to people who were thought to be outsiders and some stories about how they handled it.” He handed me a thick book with the title “Neisi” in big letters and I forget the subtitle. I had no idea what it was about, but I trusted my kind teacher and went home and started to read it. I read all about how the government of our country and this state participated in setting up internment camps to put Japanese families in to keep them away from the rest of the population. They saw the Japanese people as enemies, as threats to our safety and livelihood and thousands of miles away in Poland and several other countries another government and another leader was shuttling away millions upon millions of Jews in concentration camps. I’d heard about the Jews and could not make sense of it and I felt like someone had lied to me by not telling me about this before my teacher decided to come up to me and place a book in my lap to taste the bitter disappointment of man vs. man (in the broadest sense). That humans were capable of doing these awful things to each other. My eyes and heart were both opened but not exactly “resolved” about this. I felt the cognitive dissonance between learning about something and then attempting to process it. Do you know I still haven’t quite done that. I’ve watched films and attended lectures about both the Japanese internment and the Holocaust, visited museums for each, attended lectures for each, still look for information about each because at 16 and to the present, I have tried to make sense of the world. Of cruelty. Of fear. And it bombards my being to the core. The miracle of that pain, I think, is that from that exposure, from that experience on, I have had a deeper conviction around the importance of shared humanity. That I am at first a spiritual person having a human dress rehearsal; second I am a human in the anthropology of things and humans were given hearts that connect to minds that connect to souls and back again and with those special tools it’s imperative that we use those gifts to co-exist, to share our stories and seek first to understand before we start picking up any sticks or stones. I can’t possibly know the story of another across from me merely in isolation or even if I read a ton of things about them. I will only really know their story if I dare to connect. First. Understand them, first. The only interment and concentration camps we need are ones where we park our misunderstandings, untested assumptions and myths that have no direct, visceral, human experience to back them up. Humans create oppression, humans can un-create it and that would be a great use of our hearts, minds and souls.