Hall of Presidents
December 5, 2006

Something during a Google search today got me to thinking about the trip I made to DisneyWorld when I was seven. (No, this isn't some long rambling post about a vacation - hang on, there's more to this.)

This was back in the day, when you were issued a booklet of coupons and you had to budget the different letter coupons so you could go on the rides you really wanted to go on. For example, I think Space Mountain was an E ride and I hoarded my final E coupon for hours until we neared the famed roller coaster ride.

One of the "rides" that I really wanted to see was the Hall of Presidents. I know, I know. Dude, I've already said it: I'm a geek. I thought that seeing robots was cool and I desperately wanted to see Abraham Lincoln speak. I got a thrill just thinking about watching a lanky robot stand and utter something from the famed liberator. The rest of the family thought their coupons were far better spent on things like the Teacup ride and that cloying Small World ride. (That my sister, who'd begged to go on it. . . what? oh yeah. No rambling. Okay.)

Finally, I pestered Mom enough about this ride that she handed me the map and helped me figure out exactly where the Hall of Presidents was in relation to where we were. Since no one else wanted to go with me, Mom decided that at 7 I was big enough to walk through the huge amusement park alone and go see the show. We were to meet up again at some ride I've long since forgotten after the show was over. Now, Mom was pretty over-protective most of the time and I'm not really sure why she thought that a little kid would be perfectly safe heading across the park alone. I guess because it was Disney World and what harm could come to a kid at Disney World? Or maybe she was just exhausted from my constant updates about how much longer until the next Hall of Presidents show. To quote the Tootsie Roll Pop commercial, "The world may never know."

So, I'm both thrilled and terrified to be heading across the park alone. I mean, this is a rite of passage here: I've got to officially be a big kid if I can navigate my way across this park and see a show by myself. But I've also heard plenty of Stranger Danger commercials and seen enough posters to know that kidnappers can appear anywhere and you have to be really aware of your surroundings. I was mentally trying to look everywhere at once and to try to figure out what Hong Kong Phooey moves I could do if attacked. Hey, it was the 70s, everyone was paranoid.

Finally, I arrive in front of the show's little building and I'm just so excited. I can't believe it. I'm going to hear Lincoln free the slaves. This is the coolest thing ever. I'm practically gibbering to myself in excitement. We'd been taught only that Lincoln had freed the slaves and that he was a great hero -- no one had bothered to mention to a bunch of little kids that the whole thing, that the whole civil war, in fact, was more complicated than that. Lincoln was a hero for freeing the oppressed.

I slide into the big theatre and make my way to a seat kind of in the back of the theatre, but not all the way in the back. I want to be close enough to see my hero. I keep checking my watch, with the little bee's eyes that move back and forth with each second that ticks away. How much longer now? When is it going to start?

Before it does, I hear a couple of people sit down in the row right behind me. I slump down in my theatre seat. Are they going to kidnap me? I'm here all alone and there's no adults I know nearby at all. I risk a glance over my shoulder.

Oh no! They're black.

I slump even further into my seat.

And then my brain kicks into overdrive.

"Now wait a minute," my brain says to me. "Why are you here, exactly?"

"I want to see Lincoln."

"You want to see Lincoln do what?" my brain keeps prodding.

Oh. Oh yeah. What the hell is wrong with me?

I look back over my shoulder again. It's a young couple. Maybe in their twenties - it's hard for a seven-year-old to gauge the age of adults, after all. Yeah, they're black. And young. And in love. They nudge each other and give me a smile.

You know, that was a really simple thing on their part. They could have ignored this terrified white kid, afraid that any nice action they made would have repercussions for them. Being young people, they could have tried to tease me or make me smile with a funny face. But they just gave me a little smile.

I smiled back.

I relaxed. I sat upright in my seat. I was here to see my hero free the slaves. Blacks weren't any different than whites. There was no reason to be afraid of them; they were nice people.

When the show was over and I stood up, the young couple was already gone. I don't think I even heard them leave. I do remember being a lot more confident as I wound my way back through the park to the rendezvous point and waited for my family. I didn't tell anyone about the young couple or how scared I'd been. I was embarrassed that I'd been scared at all.

I grew up in Texas during the 70s. I read Dr. Seuss books; I watched Free to Be You and Me, Sesame Street and Electric Company. I didn't know who Martin Luther King, Jr. was, but I wanted to be a part of the civil rights movement. Of course, I was born too late - the civil rights movement was over. (I thought it was, anyway.) My Dad used the n-word. The Klan.

And somehow, that one smile solidified my whole outlook to all people. A pretty simple thing, a smile.

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Like I've said, I was raised primarily in Texas in the 70s. I started school in Austin and ended at a high school in Arlington (yuppie-ville between Dallas and Fort Worth).

At my first elementary school, Pillow, I don't remember ever seeing a black student. We had two students, twins, who were either atheists or, I think now, they may have been Muslim. I was in first grade when I first met Rex and the finer points of religion just weren't a big deal to me. After all, I'd met Jon Comb in kindergarten and he was Jewish and it hadn't been any big deal. Whatever. Seemed to me like there were 18 million different flavors of religion and they were all sure they were the right one. My opinion at the time was very child-simple: God was all-loving, so anyone who tried honestly to do good and right would eventually be all right with God.

So anyhow, the point is we didn't have a whole lot of diversity in my school. I didn't really notice much. I had my good friend, Nancy, and she lived down the street from us. Her brother, David, was my exact same age -- we had the same birthday. I'd known them for ages before I said something to Nancy about wishing that my skin tanned so nicely like hers did. I have always had that pasty Irish complexion, complete with freckles. Nancy's skin was just a nice, tanned color -- not real dark, but not so glow-in-the-dark white either.

When I told my mom what I'd told Nancy, she just spluttered. "You didn't!!"

"Did. I do wish my skin would tan like that."

No one had bothered to inform me that Nancy was half Mexican. Once they did, I still wasn't sure what the BFD was. Great, you get a Mexican and a white person together and you get a built-in tan. Why don't all white people marry Mexicans? All white people want tans. Wouldn't it just be easier to marry a Mexican instead of trying to "cook" your skin into that color?

I really didn't get it.

And my mother was appalled with me.

Evidently there'd been some fuss in the neighborhood when the Tapias first moved in. The scandal! A mixed couple. (I thought that all couples were mixed - one man and one woman. Whatever. I thought adults were completely insane.) And I learned interesting new words, like wetback. But, everyone seemed to like the Tapias now, so I assumed that everything was all right.

But the real eye-opener for me was the first day of second grade. You see, we lived several miles away from Pillow Elementary. The Balcones Woods subdivision was probably a good 5 or more miles away. And you had to drive on the highway (always a big deal in my mom's mind), and you had to drive past an active quarry.

Despite the car pool, the parents complained about this drive constantly. They kept demanding a bus to take us to the school, but it didn't happen in kindergarten and seemed to be getting closer by the end of first grade.

So, after the trip to Disney World and watching Lincoln in the Hall of Presidents, I was ready to go back to school just a few months later. Our school handed each teacher about 30 students at random levels of learning and development and this year I had been moved to another class different from most of the kids I'd had in my class the year before. And after my Disney World experience, that was much more scary to me than the fact that I also had a black teacher for the first time.

When we walked in that first day, there was a folding table set up just inside the building with a posterboard hanging from it. It said "Stop the Busing."

"But I thought we wanted a bus!" I exclaimed to my mom.

She frantically tried to get me to shutup.

"But why? I thought you were tired of taking me to school." I was trying to whisper -- you know, the kind of whisper actors use to reach the back of the theatre, but still feels like a whisper? That type of whisper that seems to be the specialty of every little kid.

Well, my response relaxed the tense parent behind the table. And despite Mom's promise to explain it all to me later, it wasn't until years later that I figured out what busing these parents wanted to stop. And it made me sick. Every student at that elementary school that I can remember was white. We had some latino kids, and we had a couple of kids who got to sit down during the Pledge of Allegience (the whole Under God thing -- don't start, that'll be another post later and you can scream about it then). Of course, we lived in Texas, so there were lots of latinos everywhere. Enough so that I didn't realize that Mexicans (like my best friend who lived down the street from me) were another "race." I didn't realize that some white folk didn't like Mexicans or latinos of any flavor. I thought my friend would be extra-popular because she had a great tan.

Two weeks into the school year I was told that there was an opening at the Catholic school and was shuttled off to "shop" for my uniform.

Was it because busing appeared to be imminent? Was it because my teacher was black? Was there really a "sudden" opening at the private school?

At the time I was terribly confused. Here we were about to get buses and now Mom suddenly wants to carpool. And I have to wear a uniform. And go to Mass ... was it every day or just Fridays? I think it was just Fridays. We had to go to this church that I'd never been to and go try on uniforms -- some green plaid jumper with a white shirt. Before I could burst into tears over the jumper -- we'd already had this discussion in kindergarten when I insisted on wearing jeans or pants every day -- Mom told me that we were buying one jumper and I could also wear a white shirt and green jeans. Now that's a progressive Catholic school for the mid 70s.

And what I didn't understand then or now was this: if we were so religious as to send me to a Catholic school, how Christian was it to be that way to other people? to be so scared of them and for no reason at all?

I don't remember any black kids at the Catholic school. I had a latina teacher, but didn't see any black teachers there.

I hated it there.

I was utterly miserable the whole year I spent there.

And I don't think I saw a single black student there. Certainly no Jewish kids like Jon. Or atheist or Muslim kids like Rex. Just a bunch of pasty-white kids. And school was every bit as boring here as at Pillow. In fact, I was a bit behind where I had been in the public school.

I asked my Mom once why she didn't want me to be part of busing - either bused to another school or a school where others were bused in.

"Because I knew that someone would tease a kid - a black kid call a white kid something or a white kid call a black kid something - and you would be right there in the middle of it, defending someone. I didn't want you to get hurt."

Well, she probably had a point. I would have been. I didn't understand that type of "teasing" and I always tried to make friends with the underdogs and the kids that no one else would take to. And I never knew when to back down, so I probably would have gotten the heck whupped out of me.

But you know, the deal is that none of this stuff changed how I felt after that smile at Disney World.

Those two events ... the trip to the Hall of Presidents and the sudden turnaround about busing us to school ... shaped my life more than I could have imagined at that age. The two events together solidified something that I had been struggling with for ages ...

I learned that I could not trust my parents.

Now, before someone screams, let me explain that a little bit further. It wasn't just because I realized prejudice was wrong ... it was because I was finally starting to see through some of the mixed messages I was getting from them. Mom would tell me that black people were the same as white, but she'd also lock her car doors if she saw a black person walking along the street. She'd tell me "you can be anything you want to be" and then tell me I couldn't be a cub scout or an indian guide. She'd poke me in church during the scripture on obeying your parents, but then she'd give me direct orders to disobey my father. And, honestly, Dad was giving me the same mixed messages.

At that point, I came to the conclusion that there are good people and bad people in the world and a lot of shades in between ... but you could not figure out which people were to be avoided by how they looked. My father looked like a great businessman in his fancy suits. He looked like Gerald Ford, enough so that in the late seventies, women in the grocery store wouldn't believe him when he said he was not the ex-president.

It didn't really matter that he was white or that someone else was black or tan or kind of yellow. You learned more about people by comparing what they said with what they did ... and, of course, by watching their eyes. And Dad's eyes scared me. Mom's eyes seemed somewhat blank and empty. I began to distance myself from them.

That wound up saving my life.

Well, that and the bookmobile.

Posted by Red Monkey at December 5, 2006 4:19 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble |


jodi said:

I swear we are the same person!
ANyhooo, I have come to justify in my mind that some of the quirks of our parents,(quirks is being nice), more my mom, back then was their own battle with the common sense we hold now. I truly believe my parents were more "advanced" when it came to these topics, and yet, still hold those 'values' thye were brought up with, for whatever reasons...

Great post!

December 5, 2006 5:46 AM


MsDemmie said:

I love to see you write about your childhood - it reflects on so many issues that I never encountered and gives real insight.

Thank you.

December 5, 2006 8:08 AM


mike said:

This was a fascinating read ender.

December 5, 2006 9:14 AM


Barry said:

This is a great post, and sheds light on the amazing decisions that children have to make. Not only that it also shows that everything that parents do is studied deeply by their children. it is an amazing snap shot and I applaud you for being honest enough to put it out there.

December 5, 2006 11:33 AM


red said:

Childhoods and parents don't mix...okay you know what I mean...lol Great post! (((ender)))

December 5, 2006 1:34 PM


Babs said:

We moved out of Dallas to the burbs because of desegregation. It wasn't until years later that I figured out that is why we moved. And my brothers were sent to a private school until we moved. I had just started kindergarten. In the burbs, we have very few minorities. My mother always made sure to point out that my friend was Jewish or Mexican, etc. I would have never known if she didn't tell me. And I didn't care. You were smart beyond your years.

December 7, 2006 12:32 AM
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