My daughter Aeddan and I witnessed the world’s weirdest car accident this week.
We were in the parking lot of our doctor’s office, and a car had backed out of its space. A different car, from across the lane, started backing out too. The first car honked; the second car continued to back out. The first car honked again, and again, finally laying on the horn. I covered my mouth with my hands as the second car collided with the first one at, say, five miles per hour.
We watched this whole bizarre scene for at least thirty seconds.
I gave my name and number to the first driver in case a witness statement was needed, and got a call later that night. Part of the insurance interview went like this:
Agent: What type of car was on your left?
Me: A silver one. I think it was some kind of SUV, but smallish. Like, definitely smaller than my RAV.
Agent: What type of car was on your right?
Me: Ummm. A dark one. Maybe blue? Or black or dark green?
Agent: Do you know what kind of car, ma’am?
Me: Definitely not a truck.
Wow. Super helpful, huh? Since this week’s questions deal with what I remember being taught, let’s just say hindsight isn’t 20/20 for me; it’s often confused by the passage of time. Furthermore, I was a high school teacher for fifteen years, and am now a mom to two teenagers; believe me that what a kid “remembers” learning isn’t necessarily what was presented in class.
The questions for this week:
How connected to or disconnected from the larger world was your family, your school, your town? How much did you understand about conflict and struggle in your world or beyond? How did you make sense of people who had material wealth and people who didn’t? What was your family’s attitude about people in power?
The late historian Ronald Takaki referred to the history taught in American schools as “The Master Narrative,” the version of history told by Americans of Anglo descent. Think about what you did not study. Did you learn Lincoln’s views on enslaved black people? Anti-immigration laws of the nineteenth century? America’s laws regarding who could and could not gain citizenship? The Native Americans who had once lived on your town’s or school’s land?
It’s hard to know how connected I was to the larger world as a kid, because it’s so different today. Thanks to social media, I see photos of what friends in Kyrgyzstan are having for breakfast! But looking back, I’d say I was disconnected from the larger world, because where and when I grew up, parents didn’t really talk to kids about current events. (At least, white parents didn’t. I can’t speak for anyone else.)
My naivete only went so far. My parents were highly suspicious of everyone in power, and modeled that for me quite clearly. My dad especially thought most humans were “idiots”—the word I heard him use most often. My parents had no problem going up against authority. In fact, my mom is still the person I call if a problem seems too big for me. (Thanks, Mom!)
Wealth and authority are often connected, and by middle school, all my close friends were richer than I was. Other people’s parents had two-story houses, new cars, yachts. Other people’s families took me to restaurants, musicals, cultural events. I was the oddball at the richest high school in the district. Writing this now, I’m grateful in a new way: as many of these friends were non-white, my views of who “deserved” wealth and power developed to include non-whites. It was true from my experience, so it became an assumption–a sound one.
Of course, there were kids poorer than me at school, though I didn’t know it at the time. But back in Montana, where my people were, I was the exotic wealthy relative. My dad, stepmom, and two stepbrothers were still living in a trailer when I moved to Seattle. They had a Volkswagon Squareback that we kids had to push start all the time–and, as the back doors were broken and no longer opened, we had to climb through the windows before it drove off without us! On my mom’s side, I couldn’t get enough of my cousins. When we visited, the bathtub would get filled with clean hot water once a week. My uncle would get in, get cleaned up, and get out—leaving the tub full for my aunt. Their two oldest sons went next, then me and my girl cousin together, and finally the youngest son. The bath was cold and grey by the time we got in.
If we wanted to wash our hair we poured water over our head from a bucket outside.
Their attic was the greatest place ever. All four kids slept in one giant room that spanned the entire space, with a sheet hung to keep the girls and boys separate. This was Montana, cold enough for snot to freeze to your upper lip when you walked outside, and there were holes in their roof you could see out when you were in the upstairs bedroom. There was no insulation, either.
So, yeah. By middle school all the poor people I knew were white and all the black and brown people I knew were wealthy (by my standards). I’m grateful for this inversion, but it wasn’t, of course, enough to offset our nation’s past.
History has a deep and complicated effect on us, and Irving argues that we need to actively address its effects. I don’t think I started understanding much about people’s larger struggle until 9th grade, when we studied Red Scarf Girl, a memoir about the Cultural Revolution in China.
I feel blessed to have been taught by some of the greatest history teachers of all time. My high school friends still talk about them: Dewain Lien, Jeanie Angersbach and Jim Glennon, mentors who taught us to question everything and view events from multiple perspectives.
I polled some of my high school friends, and we agreed that we focused mostly on world events–in which the US didn’t always look good. (I’m thinking of the banana plantation rebellion, for example.) We spent in-depth units on modern South American, Asian, African, and European history, a type of education I believe is mind-opening in itself. Regarding the specifically US-soil issues raised in Irving’s question, none of my friends feel our teachers let us down, but we also don’t remember studying American history from a uniquely non-white perspective, either. In our case, given our amazing teachers, we came to the consensus that the curriculum focused on other issues. The only thing we could remember was the internment of Americans of Japanese descent during WWII. At some point I did learn about Chinese laborers building the railroads, and Indian schools trying to eradicate native culture. I know we studied the Trail of Tears, and 9th Grade meant Washington State History, during which we studied local Native history. I remember crying when I learned the US turned away thousands of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, some of whom had already reached US port by boat–but when did I study this? No clue. Again, please recall that I don’t remember the types of cars which I stared at for half a minute three days ago.
At the end of these chapters, I guess I’m left feeling adequately adequate. Like, my education did more good than harm, my childhood experiences left me more open than closed, my friends were more different than same. But, of course, whatever I learned about history, and the experiences of others, I certainly wasn’t shocked or horrified on my friends’ behalf. If anything, I envied them.
Which is lovely, but means I had no true clue what they were up against.
[Please take a look at Debby Irving’s book Waking up White for yourself. To start at the beginning of my waking journey, click here. And please check out Di’s take on Chapter 5 and Chapter 6, and Stephen’s Chapter 5 and Chapter 6 as well.]
Image by Shuets Udono – https://www.flickr.com/photos/udono/408633225/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1741799