| Artwork by Joe Livernois
By Joe Livernois
I was a blank slate in high school; which is to say I was in a white state of mind, an open book still to be written. We were border kids, living in a biracial town too small for segregation but divided nonetheless.
Our high school was a melting pot, but the divisions were clear. The Mexican and Black students were accepted if they were athletic stars, or if the families were established in money or by their willingness to blend in. But even then it was all surface and no depth. In every denomination, there was the white church and there was the other; rarely did they mix. Words might be exchanged, grudges were developed and assumptions were constantly validated or dispelled.
When you’re a poor white boy in a farm town with no local history or honor attached to your name, the underlying assumption is that you’ll know your place. When I hung out with “my own” in their safe spaces and when none of “the others” were around, they assumed I didn’t mind hearing the garbage and the hate. It came with the territory. And sometimes they would slip and the unforgivable word might get used in the locker room and the star athlete within earshot would be reduced to tears.
Blank slates. White state.
Like everyone else, my thoughts on the racial divisions in our country today are clouded by the personal experiences that filled my blank slate. And those thoughts now come from the perspective of an old white guy occupying an old white guys’ world. But as a sideline witness to recent high school episodes involving race-baiting ugliness in Salinas and in Pacific Grove, I’m reminded of my own journey.
I’m reminded of how I was afforded the space and offered the teachable moment when I screwed up along the way as a high school senior. And I wonder about all the public rancor and outrage wrapped up in the events of the past month in Monterey County high schools. And I wonder if the quiet moments will be available for the perpetrators so that they too can learn. Or if the kids will react to the noise by digging in their heels, that the anger directed their way will only harden the ignorance that fills their blank slates.
The blank slate that was me as a high school senior was given a weekly column in the school newspaper. My column was topically flippant and sourly sarcastic; it had the tone of a bombastic high school prick. One of my columns addressed some administrative atrocity at the high school gymnasium. Along the way in the story, I quoted the boys’ locker-room attendant, a beloved Latino who watched over us with all the love and respect one might expect from a high school classified employee. He was the hero of my column — and that was my intent — but the quotes were written in broken-English vernacular, clearly diminishing and racist.
In today’s world, I’m certain the reaction to that column would have ruined me. Social media would have called me out and I would have deserved every uncomfortable reactive moment from the angry masses. But this was 50 years ago. The general reaction among readers at the time was indifference, or so I thought. Students of color in a farm town ruled by farmers were not yet comfortable speaking out.
My blank slate had been given the privilege of a newspaper column in a white state, and theirs had not.
But, fortunately, I did hear from the locker-room attendant. He called me in — he didn’t call me out — and together we talked in the broom closet that served as his “office.” He didn’t scream and he didn’t yell, but he made it clear that he was insulted by my attempt at humor. My column might have been a joke, but it wasn’t funny to him. He was hurt, and he wanted me to know what that meant. This was no lecture and he didn’t want an apology. He talked to me like I was an adult, with respect I didn’t deserve. He wanted me to know that my words and my actions would define me the rest of my life.
Something switched in my heart with that conversation. A lot happened for me after that. I was sensitized to the subtle behaviors that created the divisions in that community, aware of my assumed role in the social fabric of the place. It’s the lesson I hope the kids involved in the recent atrocities get to learn. We all trip and stumble, but the lessons learned along the way fill the blank slates.
Not long ago, I had business in that same border town. It was a small real estate thing involving my mother’s estate. I’d been away for decades, so I reached out to an old high school pal to help me with my business. In my naivete, I thought things had changed down there. Within 10 minutes, he mentioned the “wetbacks” in the community.
I was ashamed he felt comfortable using that word with me. To him I was still the blank slate in the white state of mind.
Taking my business elsewhere didn’t feel like a betrayal.
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