>The title of today’s post is taken from the Mumford & Sons song. If I’ve done my job at all well, you will–after reading–see why it’s apropos.
This one has really gotten away from me, and thus I’ve had to split it in two. What follows is part one. The second part will follow on Friday. Tomorrow, I be will guest posting in Alise Wright’s Not Alone series. It is a piece about how the spectre of depression reared its ugly head in my life. It is one in a series of stories affirming that while one may feel so in depression, we are nevertheless not alone.
In the early 70s, my mom worked for–I want to say–an organization called OIC, the Opportunities Industrialization Center, in Erie, Pennsylvania. OIC provides job training programs for the disadvantaged and under-skilled. Being only three, or four, at the time, I’m not sure how mom got into social work (she had previously been a grade school teacher). What I do know for sure–because she told me later–was that she only brought me into her office once. Maybe it was because she didn’t work there long, or due to the fact that on the occasion she bring me along in tow, I raised my free hand (she was holding the other), extended a finger to point, and said “Sanford. Sanford. Sanford.” Mom tells me that she hurried me down the steps as fast as my little legs would go.
As you can probably surmise, it appears that I had a pretty sheltered middle-class upbringing. Up until that point, I had never seen a black person in real life–only on Sanford & Son. In hindsight, this seems strange to me, because one of my dad’s best friends from high school was black. (I don’t recall, but I was probably present when they watched All in the Family as well). I have no conclusions to draw from this–it’s just an observation. My parents were in no sense racist, but I don’t recall socializing with folks of other races. As a young child, I’m sure the irony of watching Good Times in the comfort of my middle-class existence was lost on me.
I share all that just to highlight that my exposure to cultures other than my own came solely through television. It was a sheltered, yet strangely permissive upbringing. (I’m the kid who, when told to go “relax and watch T.V.,” did just that–while slurping a cold one. When asked, I replied “Cause that what daddy does”).
I include that just as the briefest of peeks into my early life. If I learned anything at all at that time, I would say it disengagement. Sure, my mom was a social worker–first, at OIC; then later as a juvenile probation officer. But that was just work: I don’t recall her trying to impart her love of social justice causes to me. (I suspect this has to do with her education and training in Freudian psychology. Children need to discover their own values on their own).
In case it’s not already clear, up until this point, I had entirely no notion of discrimination (there’s that sheltered existence again). That a whole race of people, or an entire gender, could be looked down upon, oppressed, was entirely alien to my experience. It didn’t dawn on me that institutions such as OIC existed because people had the hope beaten out of their souls. And loss of hope is something I know I thing or two about.
While my sufferings are nothing but the tribulations of a middle-class white boy–and thus not worthy to be compared to what was endured by a whole class of the American populace–they were nevertheless real to me. I soon learned the sting of discrimination, of rejection, from my own dad.
If my understanding is correct, discrimination is, at it’s most basic, an irrational prejudice based on factors outside of the “discriminees” control. Some people are discriminated against because of the color of their skin, some because of their gender, and others because of their lack of athletic prowess. This was the case with me. You see, my dad was a star athlete in high school and college, and I suppose he wanted the same for me. But I just didn’t have the skill. And he never really spent the time sharing the things he loved with me. Regardless, when it came to join little league, he got me a Johnny Bench Batter Up to help me with batting practice.
I’ll never forget the first, and last, time he worked on it with me. Apparently, I wasn’t “doing it right.” He walked away in disgust, muttering “what the hell is wrong with you?” I did want to do it right, I did want to make him happy, but couldn’t: I didn’t have the same talent he had.
Our relationship changed. He didn’t know what to do with me, so he didn’t try. Whatever hope I had for winning his love died. I would never be good enough. And that message is one that’s altogether too easy to internalize.
I never played sports again. All because of something I had no control over: a basic lack of innate ability. My strengths lay elsewhere, but I didn’t know it yet. And wouldn’t for a long, long time.