Until I was eight or nine years old our neighborhood was the kind of place where few people locked their doors. We were all lower middle class and mostly white. We knew almost every family that lived on our street by name. The neighborhood always felt safe and the threat of violence was totally absent from our minds. In reality we existed in not as much of an oasis as in a bubble. Our city had already changed outside our imaginary borders but our neighborhood still had only one story.
Life provided a few hints of stories that were different from our own during my days at Fairmoor Elementary School. Damon came to our school in the first grade. He was the first African-American I can remember meeting in person. Kids would run up to him and ask to touch his hair because the texture was different from their own. Damon was quickly accepted as "one of the guys" when kids realized although he looked different, he was really just like us.
Just a few weeks after the start of the school year the Principal introduced Sivaley (pronounced, civil-lay) to our third grade class. Sivaley was a shy Asian boy who didn't speak a word of English. We discovered he and his family were recent immigrants from war-torn Vietnam. At first Sivaley seemed so foreign to us that he may as well have been from another planet. He spent the first few weeks quietly taking it all in and drawing tanks and artillery on the blackboard, which were likely the last memories he had of his country.
A few of my friends and I took Sivaley under our wings and made sure he had someone to hang out with during recess. I had a Superball, which was a small rubber ball that would bounce hundreds of feet in the air. This is the first time I remember Sivaley relaxing and attempting to communicate. We connected on a human level. It was as though playing with the ball made him forget everything else that was running through his head. I lost track of him after third grade and often wonder what became of him.
Our neighborhood changed pretty significantly at the start of the 1978-1979 school year. This was the year desegregation began in Columbus, Ohio. I'll never forget when the outcome of the voting was announced on the radio during my summer vacation. That day I sensed a general helplessness and disbelief amongst the adults in my life. It was a done deal, for fourth and fifth grades I would be bused into one of the worst neighborhoods in the entire city. As a child of nine my stomach felt like it was twisted into knots as the end of Summer approached, I was terrified.
The first day of fourth grade I realized it was only a fifteen minute ride to a different world. Mrs. Love, greeted us with a smile as we boarded her bus, the stereo blasted funk music the entire way to Fair Avenue School. As we approached the school I saw a neighborhood that was much different from our own. Houses were boarded up, yards unkempt, and trash littered the streets. The first few days were uncomfortable and were a shock. This was my first immersion in a story different from my own. It got easier every day. Although it was uncomfortable at first, I consider the education I received at this school, from the curriculum and otherwise, was among the best I ever have in my life.
By the time I started ninth grade at Eastmoor High School in 1984 our own neighborhood was undergoing a transformation. It was the golden age of the crack epidemic and gangs from larger cities, including the L.A. Crips, had started to move into the east side of Columbus. Law enforcement wasn't prepared. Our neighborhood fell quickly, seemingly overnight, to become a haven for drug dealing, prostitution, and violence. Everyone who could afford it moved away and we became the minority.
As my teenage years went by I met many different people of many different backgrounds and races. Sometimes it was hard. The lesson I've taken away is people are pretty much people and the only real measure of a person is the content of their character. I appreciate exposure to their various perspectives which have enriched my life in ways that I could never have imagined.
There is a great divide in our country and our world today. This divide exists primarily within the confines of our own minds. I think possibly the first step to building the bridge to understanding one another is to realize that there is more than one story. Each of us has the opportunity to be both a student and a teacher. Familiarity doesn't always breed contempt, it can also breed compassion. We must teach our stories and learn the stories of others. When we can finally open our minds to this maybe the true healing can begin.
~Eric Vance Walton~