“So, where are you from?” is a question I ask a lot. Having moved to Raleigh in November of 2017, North Carolina is the tenth US state I have called home. I’ve managed to visit an additional 34, and traveled to a dozen countries in North America and Europe. I’m not well traveled, but my sense of world geography allows me to distinguish between the African nations of Ghana and Guinea versus the South American Guyana and Guiana. I call myself the mile wide and millimeter deep dude because I have a clue, just not a grasp.
Still, I ask this question mostly of my fellow countrymen as a means of establishing rapport. Last month I met a newly married couple and guessed not only what US State they were each from but what part of the state. It’s a fun parlor trick and while people are amazed when I’m right, nobody seems to hold it against me when I’m wrong. Today I creeped out the Red Cross phlebotomist who took my blood donation when I asked her if she had attended Oakland Elementary School in Bloomington, Illinois.
I grew up south and east of Oakland, the elementary school I went to from September of 1966 through June of 1971. The homes south and east of Oakland were filled with white, middle class people who were privileged enough to live within walking distance of their elementary school. Greg Valentine, a Japanese American born in the USA, is the only non-white person I remember attending Oakland Elementary prior to September of 1969. In 1969 Oakland became integrated.
“Integrated” is a funny word for redistricting. Children north and west of Oakland Elementary, those living closer to Clinton Street than to US 66, were bused from their homes to Oakland Elementary. Most of these students were white, a few were Latinx and one family, a fifth-grade girl and her fourth-grade brother, were African American. Things changed with the redistricting. Oakland stopped sending all of its children home for lunch and started having a school lunch program. Of course, there were other changes too.
Being the fourth of five children my three older siblings and I attended Oakland when it was 99.9% white. My brother Greg, two years my senior, said he witnessed the fourth-grade African-American boy physically attacked daily and his sister taunted relentlessly, all for the sin of breaking the color barrier in a “progressive” central Illinois elementary school. (BTW- this family opted out of busing the following school year. The torment the children faced was too much for them to bear.)
Naturally, none of this Oakland Elementary background was foreground when I asked Laura where she was from, I was just making conversation. “So, where are you from?”
“Illinois,” Laura Navarro answered.
“Where about?” I deadpanned.
“Bloomington,” she said, prepping my arm for a needle stick.
“And how’d you like Oakland Elementary?” I asked.
The look I got from Laura was priceless. (This is known as phishing. It is a technique commonly used by con-men. We send out queries that marks give tells on. It’s a great way to wow someone.) As Laura was about to stick me I came clean.
“That was just a guess,” I said. “I grew up in Bloomington and I went to Oakland, but I was probably gone before you started. I was just taking a shot in the dark. I was there when Oakland became integrated.”
“For real?” Laura asked.
“Absolutely. Nineteen-sixty-nine/seventy school year. I was done at Oakland in June of seventy-one.”
“I didn’t start until 1973. And we were the ones who integrated it. People from my neighborhood. We were bused in from over by Clinton.”
“Huh,” I said, “there was one family, a black boy and his big sister? Mistreated mercilessly. I swear somebody beat him up every day. And just tormented his sister. Not me! But I didn’t do anything about it.”
Laura looked at me. “How old were you?”
“Uhm, third grade? Eight and nine.”
She nodded. “What do you think you could have done about it?”
“Nothing. Still bothers me.”
She nodded. “Yeah. I guess it should. You ready for your stick?” she asked, flashing her needle. I nodded yes, and she stuck me. I tried not to wince.
Memories of the injustice perpetrated against people of color from my early years seem to spring to the surface about every month or so. I’m reminded of the injustice and cruelty we bring down on other for the crime of being different, for the sin of wanting equality. It’s a valuable life lesson, and like donating blood, important to others.
And hey, it’s really only the initial needle stick that hurts.