One of the biggest duties of a parent, as I see it, is teaching your children solid values -passing on life lessons and sharing things you’ve learned about the world. There are so many things that can fall into that category. I know that as a parent of this generation, I’m teaching different lessons than some parents taught when I was a kid. I think that this generation is finally “getting” so many things that should have been known long ago.
Recently I took my son to see “42,” the movie that portrays Jackie Robinson’s introduction into major league baseball. He was the first African-American to play the sport in the major leagues.
I love baseball and have enjoyed books I’ve read related to Jackie Robinson, so I was eager to see the movie. My son, however, isn’t much of a baseball fan, but based on what he’d learned about Robinson in school (he did a report on him during Black History Month) he said he wanted to see the movie.
Growing up in a primarily white suburb, I didn’t have much exposure to black people at a young age. It was a time when the ‘n’ word was still heard often. It wasn’t used in my house, but I heard used by some adults I came across and by classmates and when I got my first couple of jobs, I heard co-workers spew off racist comments. On television, there weren’t too many shows that modeled a typical African-American family and the shows you did see made the relationships between blacks and whites into comedy. Most of what I first learned about the African-American race was what I saw on the Jeffersons or what I saw on Soul Train. Later Bill Cosby would change that.
It was a time when, although there was more acceptance of African Americans, there was also animosity over affirmative action and resentment over things like the Miss Black America Pageant. I remember hearing a lot of negativity when Vanessa Williams was crowned Miss America in 1984. It was also around the time when Ryan White, a teenager diagnosed with AIDS was barred from attending school. And it’s a time when gays were expected to stay in the closet. And it’s a time when kids and teens struggled with what they heard and learned and what they thought was right. I guess every generation has had similar struggles.
My parents had friends from church who had adopted a boy who was black, so that was our first interaction with an African-American our age. I was a very young child and I remember sitting down at the dinner table with his family. In the back of my mind I’d heard about how blacks hadn’t been permitted to eat in the same places as whites or use the same bathrooms as whites. I was too little to comprehend that it had happened in the past and I remember thinking that I might be doing something wrong eating dinner at a table with a black boy. I wondered if I should be touching the utensils he touched after he passed the vegetables. It was just a young child trying to make sense of what I’d heard. And that was the trouble, kids hearing things and believing them and repeating them from a generation that believed them.
In a scene in the movie “42,” the Dodgers are playing Cincinnati and relatives of one of the white players are in the stands. When Robinson walks out on the field, white adults around a young child start yelling terrible things and the young child, obviously confused and conflicted, repeats them with a pained look on his face. How many young children over the years have done that…repeating what they’ve heard from the adults around them and believing them to be true or right because it’s what they’ve learned? Children live what they learn. It’s a vicious cycle. But it can be a good cycle if the right lessons are being taught.
When I went to high school, I was bussed to a school in a different community that was nearly all black. Because of so many things I’d heard, I was really terrified to go there. I immediately learned that so many negative things I had heard about the African-American race were not true. Both the valedictorian and salutatorian of my graduating class were in my homeroom for all four years. Both were black. Both were intelligent, kind, inspirational. My homeroom teacher was black. He was an excellent mentor. There was only one other white student in the room from what I remember. I spent every morning with these kids for four years and being with them quickly proved that generalizations I had heard were very untrue. It’s too bad that it took that experience to realize that what society had been teaching me was wrong.
These days I know there are still things that are said that shouldn’t be said. That some kids still hear and learn negative things about other races that they believe and repeat and perpetuate. But I think it happens less than it used to. The more we learn about what’s been done wrong, the more we can work to make it right.
One of the biggest lessons I want to get across to my kids is that most of the world is made up of good people – of all races, sexes, colors, nationalities, backgrounds – and that we should never make up our mind about someone before we get to know them.
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