This is Episode Seven in the story Resilience about a day in the life of a homeschool mom and her two boys. The previous episodes can be found at Resilience I, Resilience II, Resilience III, Resilience IV, Resilience V, Resilience VI. In this episode the homeschool friends Sam, Aiden and Evan sneak in a secret conversation, behind soundproof walls in the library, far from their parent’s prying ears. They find themselves touched by the controversies of the wider world, despite their parents’ best efforts to protect them. Thanks for coming by to read.
Aiden, Evan and Sam gathered in the sound-proof room, glassed-off on the side facing the administrative area. This was one of those rooms where businessmen go, to do work in the evening, when at home, the babies are crying or the house is in such disarray, as to make logical thought impossible. The sterile environment in the room was soothing, cocooning. Instantly, Evan, Aiden and Sam found their breath slowing and steadying.
“You handled that well,” nodded Sam, sending a rare approving glance Evan’s way. She grabbed a handful of cards from the box and began sorting. Evan and Aiden followed her lead.
“We wouldn’t be here, if it weren’t for you. If you hadn’t dumped the cards all over the floor,” grumbled Evan.
“Whatever,” said Sam, dismissive as any elder sibling would be, if caught in a similar faux pas.
Sam’s lovely eyes traveled across the table to Aiden, who was already looking at her. “What?” demanded Sam.
Aiden reluctantly stopped himself from staring. “Nothing,” he whispered, gulping.
“The lady said, we can talk as loud as we want in here,” Sam shouted suddenly, causing Aiden to jump in his seat. They shot guarded glances across the library—no one noticed. They relaxed, and simultaneously realized their advantage.
“So, we can talk about anything we want?” said Evan, grinning.
“We can cuss, if we want to, God damnit!” said Sam.
Aiden winced, then smiled. “No prying eyes or ears of the Moms!” he rejoiced.
“That’s what libraries are for, right? Free speech?” Sam said.
They were all quite pleased with this sudden turn of events. Homeschooling had its downsides. You could never truly escape, to complain about your parents, as normal schoolkids were allowed to do. Parents were always near and tended to overhear you.
“It’s like having a club,” said Aiden. “The Bash the Parents Club. Who gets to go first?”
“Oh me, of course, as I’m the eldest. Almost fourteen.” Sam ran her fingers through her jet-black hair, streaming down her shoulder and over her chest like a waterfall.
Aiden reminded himself to look higher. “I’m only twelve,” he sulked.
“Me, too,” said Evan, wondering what could possibly be wrong, with being twelve.
“Also, I’m taller,” Sam pointed out. “All right then. I get to go first, because I’m the tallest.” There was certainly no denying that fact, even sitting down.
She settled herself comfortably and began. “Mom’s impossible. All she cares about is what other people think of her. She has to have all the furniture just so, the dusting has to be done on a schedule –by me, of course—and the whole house has to be vacuumed—by me– twice a week. Dad brings home people from the office for cocktails, so it has to be just right, all the time. It’s like living in a museum!”
“I like museums,” Evan interjected. He sorted his cards neatly, into little piles: one hundreds, two hundreds, three hundreds…
“And what’s most like living in a museum,” Sam continued, “is the history of the place. Dad is all about history. So, they bought an ancient house when we were little, 1920’s I think it is, and fixed it up. Now it’s like a tribute to the ancestors. The silver has to be on display. The chandelier has to be period. Not a piece of modern art in the place. It’s like the world froze in time, in the early twentieth century. And nothing that matters has happened, ever since.”
“You’ve happened since,” offered Aiden, helpfully, trying to set the record straight. “You matter.”
“Exactly!” said Sam. “And the ancestors! That crazy man in the portrait…”
“Wait, what portrait?” asked Aiden.
Though he had overheard Mom and Miss Lilly talking about the portrait, he had never been over to Evan and Sam’s house to see it, himself. It sounded intriguing. The whole house sounded intriguing. Imagine, living in a big old house! Anywhere, with hot running water sounded good to him. Especially in this September heat.
“Emmett Gaudner Jamison,” Sam spat out, as if the words put a foul taste in her mouth. “You’d think there’d be a “the third’ or a something, afterwards, but no. No one else wanted that name. He’s the only one.”
“Quite a mouthful,” said Aiden, with appreciation.
“He owned slaves. My own great, great, great…whatever. He had slaves that he bought and sold and did who knows what to: black, living, breathing people! And there he is, on the wall, at the head of the table, staring down at us, like he’s the superior one!”
“Wow,” said Aiden. “it’s almost like your mom and dad…”
“Exactly,” said Sam with triumph. “It’s like they support slavery, as if they look back to that time and think it was good. Like they wish it was that way, still.” She was fuming. Hot wisps of air caused her nostrils to flare and subside.
Aiden shook his head. Now, it was Evan, who was examining his nails.
“But they don’t really think that, do they?” asked Aiden in a quavering voice. Mom had always taught him, that when he disagreed, he should speak his mind. No matter how unpopular his opinion might be. On the other hand, challenging Sam was not a thing to be undertaken lightly.
“I mean, they don’t really support slavery or want it back or anything. Miss Lilly seems so nice. And she seems kind of embarrassed about the whole thing. What is she supposed to do, trash a fancy family heirloom, that’s been handed down in your dad’s family for years? Seems like she’s stuck between a rock and a hard place. “
Evan nodded eagerly, wanting to defend his parents but knowing only too well, the consequences of crossing Sam. It was better, coming from Aiden. She would have to treat him with at least a modicum of politeness.
Sam raised her thick eyebrows silently and Aiden felt his stomach drop somewhere well below his ankles.
“So, now you’re defending them,” she said. “You think slavery’s okay, too, don’t you?”
“I never said…” Aiden began. He could feel his anger rising. His forehead began to perspire.
“No, but you meant it, didn’t you? I’ve read about this. Latent prejudice, or something. You can’t help but defend your privilege. You can’t see just how lucky you are, and so you feel insulted, when others point it out to you. You subconsciously don’t want it taken away.”
Aiden took a beat, trying to calm down. Mom didn’t allow Alvin to yell at him like that. And Mom never yelled. This was new, this shouting and accusation, especially among friends. Evan did not seem the least bit surprised. Aiden felt his anger build, despite his best efforts.
“What are you, my therapist?” The words escaped Aiden’s mouth before he could stop them, and loudly, too. They all turned to see the reaction of the library guests, through the glass wall. Nothing.
“And what makes me so privileged. What do I have that others don’t? What could they take away from me, anyway, huh?” pursued Aiden. He couldn’t believe these words were coming out of his mouth. He clearly had a death wish, when it came to dealing with this girl. “My chickens? My sleeping cot? My three sets of clothes? My dog?”
“Jesus,” breathed Sam. Her face was red with surprise and the feeling of having stepped in it.
Evan continued to sort cards, keeping well out of it.
There was silence in the room, at last. The librarian would have been proud. They finished the sorting task in fifteen minutes.
Evan put the final touches on the restored card drawer, and Sam reached out her hand, and touched Aiden’s. He thought he would burst. Aiden determined not to breathe or speak again, until he could control his tingling body.
“Look. There’s this girl at school. That’s why I’m on edge.”
Aiden looked into those green eyes, in what he hoped would pass for empathy. Rather than nausea, which is what he felt.
“Why are you worried about someone at school?” pointed out Evan, ever the pragmatist. “You’re homeschooling, now. Problem solved.”
“Oh, go to hell!” snapped Sam. In a softer voice, she continued. “What I mean is, Aiden…well…she’s a bully.”
“A bully?” Aiden echoed, still mesmerized by those eyes. He could not imagine anyone pushing Sam around.
“She hates me. She waits for me, waits till she can find me alone, in a corridor. And then, she taunts me.”
“Taunts you?” Aiden found that producing two syllables was the maximum expression possible, under these trying circumstances.
“It started when I did the project. The one about the portrait…the one of Emmett Gaudner Jamison. I had to look up my great great…whatever, and write a biography, and then present it, as a speech for the class. I did, and everyone laughed.”
“Laughed? Was it supposed to be funny?”
“No,” whimpered Sam. “Not at all.”
“Then why did they laugh?”
“Because of this girl. She said I was a real Southern Belle. A genuine Scarlett O’Hara, pining for Tara. She said I was proud of my white-supremacist heritage.”
“She said that, in class? What did the teacher do?”
“Oh, the teacher said there was room, for diverse opinions. It was important that we all air our feelings, that everyone have a voice.”
“Even when that person is insulting you? That’s a discussion, is it?”
“Well, she did say to the girl that she should tone it down. She said it very meekly, as if she realized she had no right to complain, to hush the valid grievances of generations past, but it wasn’t supposed to get personal.”
“So what happened then?” asked Aiden.
“Well, then the girl started harassing me in the hallways.”
“Ohh. That’s even worse?”
“Yeah. She calls me ‘Whitey.’ Did I mention she—I mean, she happens to be—I mean, black.”
Aiden shrugged, sensing the awkwardness, even shame, in Sam’s admission of this fact. Sensing that it really mattered, for the first time in his young life, which skin color two people had. That it was enough to set them against each other, rightly or wrongly. At least in that strange intolerant unknown corner of the world, called school.
“Whitey?” He repeated the anachronistic epithet. Aiden felt genuinely puzzled now.
“Yeah, I know, sounds like something from a seventies re-run, like Sanford and Son, right?”
Aiden shrugged, not knowing the show.
“She tells me, I’m prejudiced. She’s watching me, she says. She’s seen me. She sees how I avoid black kids in my class, how I look down on them, how I think I’m better. She sees and hears my microaggressions.”
“Aggressions. When you harm people who are less privileged than yourself, without even knowing it, in small and unconscious ways, and it builds up over time, and they have to carry the weight of all that hurt with them, for all their lives…”
“Well, but how are you supposed to know…” objected Aiden.
“Exactly? How can I help my whiteness? How can I escape being the great, great, great whatever of a slaveowner–a true sinner, burning in the depths of hell, even though it was legal at the time– how can I improve, be better, make up for all that…?”
Same slumped at the table. Her shoulders were shuddering. Aiden realized, she was weeping.
“Oh, come on now, it can’t be all that bad,” he said, repeating words his mother had said to him a million times, in similar moments of distress.
“But it is!” Sam sputtered. “It is! How can we even tolerate ourselves, we white people! We have done so much wrong, such atrocious evil! How can we ever repay the damage?”
“So, let me get this straight,” said Aiden, leaning back in his chair. “This girl is a bully, right?”
“Yes,” sniffed Sam.
“And she hates you, right?”
“And she’s calling you names, and saying mean things, to try to upset you, right?”
“Uh, yeah, I guess. But they’re true, that’s the thing, they’re all true. Subconsciously, I must be sending out microaggressions, right and left. Oh, my God, what am I going to do?”
“So that’s a yes, right? She is doing things deliberately to get your goat, to make you feel awful about yourself.”
“Yes. And it’s working!” Sam looked around frantically for a tissue, then as a last resort, wiped her nose with her sleeve. “I do feel awful. I’m a horrible, horrible person! That’s why I pulled down the portrait, to atone in some way…”
Aiden dug in his pocket for his handkerchief. Always carry a clean hankie, that’s what Grampa said. He handed it to Sam. Her welling eyes blinked gratefully.
“Well, there you go,” Aiden said.
“What do you mean, there you go?”
“Cross her off your list,” Aiden answered.
“Oh, the list of people you care about. The list of people whose opinions matters to you. She wants you to do something you can’t, to become un-white, I guess. Which you can do no more, than she can become un-black. Just stop caring about what she thinks.”
“But what if she’s right?”
Aiden shook his head. “Do you want to bring back slavery?”
“Do you hate black people?”
“Do you deliberately stand in the way of equal rights for all?”
“So, forget what she said. It’s not true. She can’t blame you, because your ancestors got it wrong.”
“But…” Sam sputtered. “What about my privilege?”
“Oh right. I guess she’s right. It’s your privilege to be born into some degree of wealth, your privilege to live in a nice house. Maybe she’s jealous about that. But didn’t your mom say, the plantation’s gone? That your Dad’s family lost all their lands? And all their slaves?”
“Yes, that’s true.”
“So, where’s the privilege in that? Your family had to start from nothing again, after slavery. So how can you guys still be blamed?”
“Well, there’s Jim Crow. And systemic racism. And just the advantages of being white in this country. The buildup of wealth through the generations, profiting from a crooked system, you know.”
Aiden’s eyes opened wide as he tried to absorb all the sources, which Sam claimed still tainted her with racial guilt. He shrugged.
“Well, if that’s the case, it’s not just you, not just your family, but every person on this planet who can’t trace their ancestry solely back to the slaves. Whoever profited from the slave trade, in anyway. Whoever allowed it to go forward—a system sanctioned by law, in its time—and did nothing to stop it. Whoever placed obstacles in the way of equality. Whoever allowed themselves to enjoy any prosperity at the expense of others’ suffering. All those people are to blame.’
Aiden looked Sam full in the face, as she touched the wet edges of her eyes, smeared with eyeliner, with Aiden’s handkerchief.”
“Don’t you see, Sam? You are in good company. That group of guilt-ridden people, well, that’s practically all the people. And considering the fact, that people of different races didn’t stop having children together just because it was illegal, chances are your bully friend shares the blame as well. You can’t erase human nature, undo greed, or speed up change that moves too slow. You can only control what you’re doing now. And if you can’t change something, you can’t be blamed for it either.”
Sam wiped her eyes. “Thanks,” she said.
The Moms suddenly appeared, crowded outside the glass wall. “Time to go,” they mouthed, silently. Evan scooped up the finished card drawer and headed out the glass door to the Information desk. Sam steeled her expression and walked out, head high. Aiden drew up the rear, caught Mom’s eye and smiled.
For a poem voiced by a person defending their privilege, read Chickenfight.