Some things don’t change that much with time. Like this curb in Norman, Oklahoma or the testament it became to a special friendship.
It looks the same as it did that day in 1958. I was nine years old and waiting there for the city bus to take me home after school.
Mother, my younger sister and I had just come back to Norman after moving away to Kansas City, Missouri for three months. Mother had a falling out with her long-time boyfriend and I guess she wanted to see if he’d miss us. He did. They got back together.
But for a while on our return to Norman, we had to live in a downtown apartment. I’d wait for the city bus. It stopped near James Madison Elementary, the same school I attended before we had moved. It was just a month before school ended for the summer.
At Madison things had pretty much stayed the same. Some friendships were intact, some less so than before.
Then there was Michael.
He had come to our school the year before. The only black kid in the entire school of roughly 200 students of 1st through 6th graders. It wasn’t easy for him at first. Recess could be hazardous for him or anyone he played with. Chasing horned toads or playing tag through the tall grass on the wide prairie of a playground landed more than one of us in the sticker patch at the hands of our fellow classmates.
So instead, our third grade teacher Miss Durkee said we should just play tetherball or jump rope or swing where she could keep an eye on us. Jane Foster, Lawanda Collette, another girl whose name I can’t remember, and myself all played together with Michael. Our favorite was tetherball but on Parents’ Day (the last day of school), we performed a synchronized swing act together.
Fourth grade was taught by Mrs. Pryor who was very fair but strict. Nobody dared get on her bad side. The five of us stayed friends but recess became more about playing jacks or drawing, something inside or close to the classroom. This was not a high intensity kind of thing, just an awareness that Michael still had only marginal acceptance from the other students.
We went on a field trip by train to Galveston but I don’t remember if Michael went with us or not. He probably missed it because of the way things were with race and public seating, etc.
Anyway, about the curb. That generic-looking piece of ground became a testament of true friendship. With so many such places and moments playing out today on tabloid TV, it resonates as much now or more so than then.
My 1958 Nancy Grace moment happened as I stood there waiting for the city bus. A carful of three drunk college guys pulled up to where I stood, with me wishing the bus was closer than five minutes away. The guy in the back seat opened his car door and began reaching toward me to grab and pull me into the car.
Out of nowhere came the squeals and roars of a banshee from behind me. The guy shrunk back slightly and I turned to see Michael roaring up on his bicycle, full on ready to stand by me. Startled, the three took off. Michael waited with me till we could see the bus nearing the corner, then he waved goodbye and pedaled off.
I never saw Michael again.
A few days later, his parents came to school to collect his belongings. His mother was crying. Our principal, Mrs. Minter solemnly escorted them into our classroom then back outside. As they were leaving, I tried to tell Mrs. Minter about the three drunk guys but she said “It doesn’t matter now”. She was wrong. It still matters.
It mattered watching Michael’s parents walk away. It mattered seeing his mother cry. It mattered that I felt duty bound to obey school rules and not follow after them to tell them what I knew: their son had been my hero and savior, and there were three college guys who needed to be held accountable. It mattered watching Michael’s parents drive away with no way to tell them about it later.
It still matters in my heart that those three drunk guys – among so many smug, self-entitled legions of males from that moment until now – inflicted their will at the expense of Michael’s wellbeing and called it ‘good’ and, as far as I know, have never paid a price.
Michael inherited my Nancy Grace moment and paid the price I would’ve paid if he hadn’t stopped to help. In our innocence, we thought we had vanquished the attempted perpetrators. Sadly, we didn’t count on them doubling back or waiting for Michael up the street. Whichever scenario it was, these moments happened then because, even if it had been reported, the guys most likely would have walked away free.
These moments still happen because, to this day, guys in particular don’t hold each other accountable to honor all people equally. Instead they indulge their buddies’ exploits by listening to how those buddies chose to harm or diminish others for recreational or other self-entitled purposes. Then they treat the information anecdotally as though no ethical or societal breach has occurred. By virtue of their silence, they share in culpability and further perpetuate the selective classism practiced globally as a rite of the male gender. Some women and girls can also be guilty of self-entitled behavior, but the vast majority of incidents and offenses belong to the guys.
And for that reason, Nancy Grace moments will continue to occur because, generationally, males pass down to their sons and other males by mantra and example that certain classes of people are acceptable targets for purposes of getting the action they need, whether it’s sexual or some other type of criminal harm they choose to perpetrate. How else would there continue to be so many Nancy Grace moments to report?
Imagine a 9-year old girl on that grassy curb expecting to catch the city bus and go home. Imagine three college-aged guys who saw that little girl as an opportunity to get some action. It wasn’t their sister or anyone they knew, thereby voiding any social contract to protect or honor her wellbeing. Likewise, her “colored” friend held no intrinsic human value due to their learned disregard and targeting of his race. And no doubt, in pre-civil rights America, their culpability would’ve been pretty much nil if they’d been caught.
Here we are almost six decades later. Granted these types of incidents are no longer hidden when they’re found out, but they are still so common and the level of justice so random that, in effect, it’s still borderline 1950’s for women, girls and other marginalized classes of citizens. Male activism needs to spread beyond the chest-thumping, sign wielding, armed-and-dangerous yahoos who show up for public displays of support. We need legions of the calm and steady, there-for-you-no-matter-what types even more.
The acceptance of each other’s equality still has a long way to go, especially in the centers of power, money and law. It’s hard for most guys to let go of historically preserved and Biblically endorsed male self-entitlement. but the reality of what works for the good of all people globally is treating each other as equals regardless of gender or any other discriminatory filter.
And, if the current global social hierarchy and its choices were working, would Jesus really need to come back?
Let’s choose to be our best and highest selves for each other like Nobody’s watching – or having to.