April 12, 2008
THE PIEMAKER emerged out of my struggles last summer to care about or feel engaged in American politics. As I wrote it, I tried to think back to a time when the country felt different to me. I found myself going way back to 1968, a turbulent moment in American history, a turbulent moment for me personally. That was the year King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, the year my mother married my stepfather who is African American, the year I was a new arrival in my 4th grade class across the bay from San Francisco.
I was one of six white children in my class; my first time being in a minority. My teacher, Mrs. Goff, who was also black, was a kind, loving, hard-working teacher. She took a shine to me… perhaps simply because I was interested in school, in reading and writing, and it made her job a little easier. But she made her fondness for me obvious, and, in her own kind way, unintentionally added to the awkward painfulness of that year for me.
Mrs. Goff decided that I should run for President of the student body. I didn’t want to but had no idea at that time how to say ‘no’ to a teacher. To my great chagrin and her hearty approval, our student teacher, who had artistic aspirations, drew a portrait of me, and Mrs. Goff had it Xeroxed and posted all over the school as part of my ‘campaign’. Looking back, I can only say that Mrs. Goff was pretty naïve about how this would go over in child culture. I was a new girl, just arrived from the East, a white girl in a predominantly black school, receiving a lavish amount of praise and attention from my teachers, and now with my picture was plastered everywhere. I didn’t want to be President. I didn’t want to win. I just wanted peace and a few friends. Instead I found myself at the center of a schoolyard controversy, a battle of shifting lines, shifting allegiances, and powerful feelings about race. In child culture, which actually may be one of the clearest minded subcultures that America has, dialogue about race simply came down to this – one people had been slave owners, the other had been slaves. I thought a tremendous amount about the horrors of slavery that year and fervently, with all my soul, wished I could be free of that awful legacy. I think many, many, people have wished the same for America.
At one point, the scuffles, threats, and fury that were roiling through the 4th grade came to the attention of our Principal. He was a young man, with a reputation for being cool because he’d sometimes join our kickball games and play fiercely. For the first time in my life, I got summoned to the Principal’s office. He asked me what was going on in the 4th grade… such a huge open ended question… as I began my attempt to answer, I got choked up, began to weep silently and his phone rang. He took the call. I sat there weeping while he had his talk, and when he got off, I was quiet. He looked at me, then told me to go back to class.
Mrs. Goff was an intelligent extremely well-meaning adult who, like many others, including my Principal, didn’t really pay close attention to young people. If she’d allowed herself to cross a bit further into the child culture that was raging all around her, she might have been a great help. She might have brokered a truce, maybe even a new alliance. But her leadership remained at a distance.. and she never grappled with the difficult realities of the school’s community life. She had gifts, she even offered comfort of a generous sort, but she was reluctant to get engaged. She never placed herself in a position where we could know what she really thought… she never spoke honestly from the heart to us or listened with an open mind to our concerns. It was more than was required of her position …. And she didn’t choose to go that extra distance.
Life too often teaches us that leaders let us down. That we shouldn’t get our hopes up that someone will really listen, and that, having listened, then offer us a new insight, a way forward we hadn’t seen. But the truth is that all of us have been called to lead, that life is always inviting us to lead. That all of us are needed. In fact, there is so much need in the world, it can be overwhelming. Still, I think that in general we can challenge ourselves to see if we have erred towards the side of generosity, if we’ve been willing at least sometimes to go the extra distance, if we can pay… without for one moment regretting the cost.. attention.