Let’s see, I started school in about 1969. Didn’t go to kindergarten, because my parents really hated anything with a German name. OK, I’m kidding about that, I didn’t go to kindergarten because my mother, an English teacher, taught me how to read at age 4, and I was pretty darn good with the finger paints, if I do say so myself (and naps, well I had them nailed). Anyway, due to a very-late-in-the-year birthday, I started first grade at age 5. Integration was in full swing in my home town of St. Petersburg, Florida, so I had plenty of black kids in my class. School was probably the first time I had much interaction with blacks (if you’re waiting for me to use the term “African-American”, you’re going to be disappointed. The only person I know who was born in Africa and moved to the US is my cousin Jim, who is white). I had no preconceived notions, so black kids were just kids in my class. Now, at the time, there weren’t any blacks on my block (which was my world at the time) so I never thought about where they might live, and they didn't come over to play (and 'play dates' were some years in the future - and for someone else's kids). My friends beyond school hours were mostly church friends, and there weren’t any kids my age in the surrounding houses (well, not when I was five).
One day at school (I think this was second grade, sorry for the fuzzy chronology – do you remember what you were doing at age five?), we were coming in from recess and everyone was taking turns at the water fountain (no, there weren’t any separate facilities, not even holdovers from the dark ages). We had a stupid thing we’d do where someone would sneak up behind the person drinking and push their face into the stream of water. Ha-ha, water up the nose. Well, I did that to a little girl in front of me, and she giggled about it and I meandered into the classroom. A couple of minutes later, I found myself yanked out of my seat by my teacher and thrust into the hall, where this little girl is crying her eyes out and holding her bleeding mouth. The teacher asks “Did he do this?” and she pointed and nodded through her tears. I tried to plead my case, that I’d barely touched her and she had even laughed about it (I actually really liked this girl) to no avail. Turns out that another kid in my class named Malcolm (he’s the only one who’s name I remember in this story) had seen what I did, came up after I walked off and had SMASHED her face into the fountain apparatus. I don’t know if she just didn’t realize it was someone else, or if he threatened her, or what, but here was a little black girl protecting a little black boy at a expense of the little white boy. I never thought about this in racial terms until very recently when it just popped into my head one day. Was this the germ of an attitude? I was surely upset that I got the blame for something I didn’t do (a pattern that continued throughout my scholastic career), but I never consciously thought she was doing it on purpose, or that there was any sinister motive behind it.
…to be continued