Nearly fifty years later, I don’t clearly remember my first day of kindergarten, but I know I was miserable and complained that I didn’t fit in.
What I really meant was that I was the only white student in my class.
That didn’t last long.
On the second day of kindergarten, Mike Donahue switched classes and joined mine.
I have a few other memories from that year: sitting on the floor at the feet of an elderly tribe member who taught us her native language; participating in the annual root feast; wearing the wing dress my mom had sewn, and being chased and taunted when I was walking home from school. My tormentors, a group of older children, told me I didn’t belong and I needed to move off of the reservation.
The next year I did. I started first grade in a classroom full of white students like me.
When I was younger, I used to tell people that, because of those experiences, I knew what being a minority felt like and that I had experienced discrimination.
I didn’t and I hadn’t.
When I complained about being the only student with my skin color, my white, well-educated parents stepped in to ensure I had a friend in my class. When I lived in a place with a very different heritage than mine, my professional parents bought a house elsewhere among people with similar backgrounds.
In other words, what I actually experienced as a child was white privilege.
I’m still experiencing it.
I guarantee that no one has ever clutched their purse a bit tighter when they’ve seen me in a parking garage. No one has ever called the police because I look suspicious when I’m walking my dog in their neighborhood. I’ve never been patted down or had my car searched when I’ve been stopped for speeding.
But I have been the person who has clutched her purse a bit tighter when she’s seen a black man in a parking garage.
And I absolutely hate that.
My parents raised me better. They taught me not to judge people by the color of their skin. My education specifically addressed prejudice. I am a licensed social worker whose professional ethics are grounded in fairness and equality. My children and friends, who are all strong advocates for diversity, expect more from me.
And yet, I’ve had those moments when my immediate reaction is to clutch my purse tighter.
Living in a racist society has influenced my reactions, but, I am still responsible for them. I am responsible for acknowledging them and I am responsible for changing them.
America should be too.
My husband told me to write this.
Well, he didn’t tell me to write these exact words.
I was complaining that I can’t relax because I can’t stop thinking, and he told me that I should write. When I said no one wants to read about what is currently going on in my head, he suggested I discuss the weather.
Since today is stormy and perfectly reflects the thoughts cycling around in my brain, his suggestion wasn’t very helpful.
Here’s the thing: the devil on my right shoulder wants me to write about the people who I prefer weren’t in my life right now. The angel on my left shoulder is telling me I can’t always control who is in my life nor can I control their behavior. I can only control my reaction to them.
And right smack dab between my right shoulder and my left shoulder is my head with all those thoughts blowing around like the gusts of wind currently rattling the windows. Since my brain is centrally located in the neutral position, I guess I should feel safe sharing some thoughts about the types of individuals who are currently setting me on edge – people I don’t trust.
I don’t trust people who never challenge authority. History provides dozens of examples of what happens when people blindly follow the leader rather than do what is right. When people are more concerned about protecting their status than they are about protecting those who are most vulnerable, I will never be able to trust them,
I don’t trust “suck ups” and “brown nosers.” Anyone who uses a significant amount of time and energy trying to impress those in power is doing a disservice to people who actually have integrity. If your words and behaviors don’t provide any evidence of your personal values, I can’t trust you.
I don’t trust people who don’t like dogs. According to my baby book, one of my first words was “doggy.” When my mom took me to the library as a toddler, I gravitated to the books with pictures of dogs. The worst moments of my life have always improved when I’ve been able to wrap my arms around a nonjudgmental furry friend and sobbed uncontrollably. And yes, I do have human friends who don’t like dogs, but they’ve had to earn that friendship and my trust.
I don’t trust people who have college degrees but still don’t use proper grammar or punctuation. I understand language is learned, but going to college requires a lot of reading and writing. It should also involve professors who demand the use of correct grammar. If you leave college still using mismatched verb tenses and confusing “wonder” and “wander,” you either didn’t truly earn your degree or there is something significantly wrong with your education.
And finally, I don’t trust people who try to buy my friendship or my approval. I don’t need gifts or flowers or disingenuous compliments. If someone has to give me something in order to validate the relationship, it’s not valid at all.
As I was writing these stormy thoughts, I realized my husband’s suggestion was actually a good one. Because as I went through my list of the types of people I can’t trust, I realized something really important.
In all of the aspects of my life over which I have control, I have surrounded myself with people whom I do trust. My friends are social justice advocates who always question authority. They are the people who call me out when I say or do something stupid and allow me to do the same to them. They are the people who give me the gifts of time and understanding. They are people who want to build a better world for others rather than for themselves. And yes, for the most part, they are also people who love dogs.
Every time I think I’ve dealt with the most difficult person I’ve ever met, God laughs. And then another difficult person enters my life.
And every time I’ve struggled with the chaos and hurt that person leaves in his or her wake, I tell myself the same thing: “I’m supposed to learn or gain something from this situation. One day, I will look back and tell myself, ‘Oh that’s why that happened.'”
And up until now, I’ve been right.
But recently, I’ve had a hard time believing myself and in myself. This time, I’m fairly confident that even God isn’t laughing,
You see, I’m dealing with the most narcissistic and manipulative person I have ever met. And no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump (who I’ve never actually met anyway). However, I still respond when people ask if dealing with this person is like dealing with Donald Trump.
My response is, “it’s worse.”
That’s because most people recognize that Donald Trump is a narcissist. Those who support him obviously don’t care, but at least they recognize who and what he is.
Not so for the individual that I’m currently forced to deal with. In fact, this person is so good at manipulation that I was almost a victim of their false charm and gaslighting.
A part of me wishes I had been.
If so, I wouldn’t be so angry and frustrated, I’ve wasted too much time dealing with the narcissist’s efforts to manipulate. I’ve wasted too much energy being flabbergasted that people in positions to stop the path of destruction actually believe the narcissist instead of those who are complaining. And I’ve lost too much sleep searching the internet for ways to deal with a narcissist.
Unfortunately, all I really learned is that calling out a narcissist only makes the situation worse.
I didn’t have to Google that nugget of information. I learned it the hard way.
That which brings me back to what I’ve always told myself, “Eventually, you will look back on this situation and recognize how much you learned and why you needed to learn it.”
In the meantime, I have to find humor in how ridiculous the situation continues to be and to find solace in the fact that I have a great support system. Just the other day my husband sent me a text message reminding me to channel my inner Stuart Smalley. “You are good enough. Your are smart enough. And doggone it people like you.”
He only forgot one thing, but it didn’t come from the mouth of Stuart Smalley. Instead, it’s from that great philosopher anonymous.
“I’m thankful for all those difficult people in my life. They have shown me exactly who I don’t want to be.”
For the past few month’s, I’ve been feeling like Horton the Elephant in Dr. Seuss’ classic children’s book Horton Hears a Who.
If you aren’t familiar with the story, the Whos live on a speck of dust that is floating through the air, which means their entire civilization is at risk of being destroyed.
Because Horton has such big ears, he is the only jungle animal that can hear the Whos. Initially, he saves their community by putting the speck of dust on a clover so he can carry and protect it. His efforts are undermined and ridiculed by the other jungle animals, who try to destroy the clover. Horton rightly believes the only way he can save the Whos is by ensuring their voices are heard by the other jungle animals.
Nothing works until Jo Jo, the tiniest Who of all, joins the effort.
I may not be carrying around a clover, but I am carrying around a lot of concerns. I’m worried that something I’ve cared for and nurtured is going to be destroyed, and the people who could truly protect “my speck’ won’t listen.
Fortunately, unlike Horton who felt all alone in his efforts to protect his clover, I know I’m not alone. Many of us carry clovers. And, like Horton, we persevere because we have to. We are responsible for those who have less power.
Dr. Seuss understood this and passed the message on through his books. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. understood it and passed the message on through his speeches.
And they both understood that no voice is ever too small.
Jo Jo had a tiny voice that made all the difference to the survival of the Whos. Members of the Civil Rights movement were the voices that changed the world. And all of us can be a voice for someone who needs our support.
Be a Horton. Or be a Jo Jo. Or be both. But most importantly, be someone who does what you can to make the world a better place for others.
I was a bit irritated when I walked into the retail establishment and saw both clerks were already helping other people. I had specifically planned to be at the store when it opened so I wouldn’t have to wait in line. A couple of uncooperative traffic lights had disrupted my plans, and now I was stuck waiting.
The assistance I needed was simple and could have been quickly addressed, but the guy ahead of me was in no hurry. Instead, he seemed oblivious to anything but the long list of complaints he was making known to everyone in the store.
Being forced to listen to him was making me even more irritated,
And so while I waited, I judged him.
I judged him to be an uneducated, racist, redneck. I also guessed that he was about my age, which is why his anti-technology rant was so intolerable.
He was in the store to pay a bill and was complaining about the late fee. His bill had been due on Christmas, and he told the clerk that he couldn’t pay it because the store was closed. The woman politely told him that didn’t have to pay the bill on the day it’s due but could pay it in advance. He ignored her statement and told her that his previously bill was due on a Sunday, and he couldn’t pay it because the store was also closed. The salesperson politely told him the store IS open on Sundays. She also noted that he could pay his bill online.
And that’s when the anti-technology rant began. The man used his limited vocabulary to explain that the one time he tried to pay a bill online, the bank had taken the same amount of money out of his account every month. When he called to complain, he had to talk to someone who couldn’t speak English very well.
“I’m an American, he said. “I speak American. If people are going to work in this country, they need to speak American too.
That’s when the clerk surprised me. “My husband is from another country. He’s working to learn English, but it’s been hard.”
She said it nicely without any note of condemnation or disagreement with the customer. She was just stating a fact, and, surprisingly the man said little else. He didn’t apologize, but his rant stopped. He paid his bill with cash and left mumbling to himself.
“Wow,” I told the clerk, “that was amazing. You have so much patience.”
“I have to. I work retail,” she said. “I have to forgive people because I can’t go through my day angry.”
“I’m still impressed,” I said. “Especially since he was so angry about people from other countries. Where is your husband from?”
“Honduras. He’s been here nine years, and he still struggles with the language.”
“Honduras,” I repeated. “Wow, I bet he came here for a good reason.”
“The cartel took over his family farm,” she said. “We are still trying to get the rest of his family up here but we aren’t having much luck.”
I chose not to engage her in a conversation about the current immigration system or political environment. Instead, she asked me what I needed, and, as expected, I was soon out the door.
But the encounter stayed with me for much of the day. I was angry at the man but impressed with the clerk. I envied her ability to remain unruffled and almost kind to such an ignorant fool.
Only that night, when thoughts about the day raced through my mind as I was trying to fall asleep, did I recognize what a hypocrite I was.
My job is to advocate for people who struggle.
My job is educate the public about how stress, and adverse experiences, and lack of early childhood education can have a lifelong impact.
My job is to work with people who have few resources and little exposure to other cultures or countries.
My job is to help people just like that man.
For all I knew, the man was illiterate or have a learning disability. He might have grown up in an abusive, hate-filled environment. He might live where there is no access to technology because of geography or finances. He might have emptied his bank account to pay that bill.
Standing in that store wearing my middle-class, well-educated, self-righteous attitude, I had judged him based on nothing but how he was behaving in what was probably a very stressful situation for him.
I did exactly what I am always complaining other people do: I made judgments based solely on my personal perspective and experiences.
I could have spent a sleepless night worrying about my hypocrisy, but I didn’t.
Instead, I took to heart the words the clerk had uttered that day: I have to forgive people because I can’t go through my day angry.
She was right. What she didn’t say was that sometimes the person we have to forgive is ourselves.
And that’s exactly what I did.
Last week I questioned the educational background of Eric Porterfield, the Trump-loving, MAGA hat-wearing, WV State Delegate who made national headlines for railing against the LGBTQ community. The information I found through my “sleuthing” (aka Googling) wasn’t impressive. In fact, I was left wondering whether Porterfield actually had a legitimate post high school education.
This week, he revealed a bit more about his educational background.
In a Charleston Gazette Mail by Jake Zuckerman, (How Porterfield Went Blind in a Bar Fight,) Porterfield said he earned his divinity degree at Hyles-Anderson College in Indiana. Since the article was about how Porterfield was blinded in a bar fight after leaving a strip club, I doubt most people paid much attention to that nugget of information.
But I did, and it inspired me to do some more sleuthing. (In other words, I did some more Googling. Writing is my hobby, not my profession, so please don’t judge me.)
At first glance, Hyles-Anderson College may seem more legitimate than taking a correspondence course from Belle Meadow Baptist College. However, on further research, it raised numerous red flags.
Hyles-Anderson College is operated by the First Baptist Church of Hammonds, Indiana, which has a sketchy history of sex abuse (Let Us Prey ) and misogyny (Video of Anti Women Sermon) as well as accusations of investment schemes (Lawsuit against First Baptist Church).
Interestingly, despite all this, now Vice President and Former Indiana Governor Mike Pence has visited there on more than one occasion. (Mike Pence visits First Baptist Church in Hammond)
I spent some time looking into the non-accredited Hyles-Anderson College, and I wasn’t impressed. But my opinion about the school isn’t as relevant as my concern about how such schools and their affiliated churches are creating a version of Christianity that people like Eric Porterfield embrace and want to force onto others.
It’s a type of Christianity I don’t recognize.
I was taught that Jesus wanted us to love each other not to condemn people who think or live differently than we do. He wanted us to help the weak not to prey on them. He wanted us appreciate the importance of people rather than money and material possessions. He wanted us to welcome the stranger instead of build walls, care for the sick rather than decide who is worthy of care, and to turn the other cheek rather than instigate fights.
When Christians go bad, they don’t work to create Christ’s vision of a community of acceptance and peace.
Thankfully, many Christians still do.
I reflected about this Saturday night when a friend invited me to go to the Spanish Mass at a local Catholic Church, I’m not Catholic and my Spanish is limited, but I was literally welcomed there with open arms. My white skin and poor language skills went unnoticed, or at least unmentioned. Instead of feeling like I didn’t belong, I felt like people cared that I was there.
And that’s exactly how everyone should feel both in church and in America.
I’ve always had an issue with anger.
When I was a little girl, my parents would apologize to other adults by noting that “Trina has a temper. We are doing our best to teach her to control it.”
And so they did.
Because there are times when, no matter how I try, there’s a fire that bubbles up in my chest, rises into my throat and then unleashes itself in a fierce flame of words with the sole purpose of scorching those who aren’t in my alliance.
Now is one of those times. Only instead of the words coming out of my mouth, they are screaming out through my fingers on a keyboard.
I am so very, very angry about what happened in our Nation’s Capital on Thursday.
Like many women, I’m angry that, once again, privileged white men have more power than most people can even imagine.
Not only that, but they are ignoring and dismissing the perspective and emotions that I and thousands of other women like me are processing as a result of what we’ve endured at the hands of men just like them.
But, after witnessing Brett Kavanaugh’s testimony and outrage, the anger bubbling up in my chest can no longer be contained.
I’m not simply bothered by the accusations of Kavanaugh’s behavior in high school.
I am also outraged that Kavanaugh’s words and demeanor demonstrate that he believes he’s entitled to be on the Supreme Court. A man representing a party that rails against entitlements believes he’s entitled. And he thinks the accusations against him are a personal tragedy.
He has no concept what real tragedy is.
And that’s why he doesn’t belong on the Supreme Court.
Supreme Court Justices rarely make decisions that impact people who attended private schools and Yale University or who grew up in big houses in the suburbs. Instead, they make decisions that impact people whose only true entitlement has been a public education in schools with limited resources.
The power of the Supreme Court lies in it its impact on people with no power: poor people, minorities. the poorly educated, immigrants, criminals, and women.
But not this angry woman.
This angry woman is willing to demonstrate what true power looks like.
But I can only do that if other angry women join forces with me.
Tuesday, November 6, is a perfect opportunity to do just that.
Some places are just not intended for human comfort.
Take, for example, the concrete pad behind the building where I work. Two heat pumps and a garbage can occupy the space, which is surrounded by a waist-high concrete wall. There are no picnic tables or chairs to indicate this is a place to hang out. Nor is there any cover from the elements, which means both the sun and the rain beat down on its surface.
And yet, for the past few weeks, it’s been someone’s sleeping quarters and safe space. As I was leaving out the back door for a meeting last week, I noticed “Mark” (not his real name) sprawled out on the concrete pad in the hot sun reading children’s books.
The books were donated to my organization to distribute free to anyone who walks through our office doors.
I asked “Mark” how he was doing, and he grunted at me. I continued to my car without bothering him because, well, the grunt meant he probably didn’t want to be bothered.
“Mark” is a thirty something year-old man with schizophrenia who has been coming to our office for years.
Sometimes he is taking his medications. Sometimes he isn’t. Sometimes he has a place to live. Sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes he wants to talk. Sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes, the system helps him. But most of the time, it fails him miserably.
He spends much of his time moping around town with his head hanging low and his pants hanging even lower. The police know him. He’s been arrested and even done jail time for trespassing. Many of our social service and mental health facilities know him. Even the people at the hospital know him.
One time, when he was desperate to get the demons out of his head and a safe place to stay, he actually called an ambulance to come get him at our office. That didn’t work out very well. He’s even been committed and spent a few days in a psychiatric facility. That didn’t work out very well either as he landed right back where he was before.
“Mark” isn’t capable of living on his own, but there are no facilities in our community for someone like him. From what I understand, he is an unwelcome guest at the rescue mission. He’s been robbed and taken advantage of by people who are more streetwise than he is. And much of the time, he stinks. Literally.
And yet my co-workers treat him with the same respect they treat our donors. They listen to him – even when he doesn’t make sense. They let him use the phone – even though we are fairly certain there is not anyone else on the call. And, on the occasions they’ve convinced him to take a shower in the upstairs bathroom and he’s thrown his wet, stinky clothes away, they’ve taken them out of the garbage and washed and folded them.
They don’t do any of this because it’s in their job descriptions. They do it because it’s the right thing to do. They do it because that’s what loving thy neighbor is about: loving all of our neighbors – not just the ones who smell good or with whom we agree.
I was thinking about this last week when “Mark’ grunted at me from the hot, concrete pad and I slipped into my air-conditioned car. When the radio came on, I heard the news about the Supreme Court decision in favor of the baker who refused to make a cake for a gay wedding. I’m not a lawyer or a Constitutional expert, but I disagreed with the ruling on a personal level. I also wondered how baking a cake could even became a political and legal issue in a nation where so many people define themselves as “Christians.”
But the again, I also wondered how, in a “Christian” nation, Mark’s safe place is a concrete pad behind a social service agency.
Christians are supposed to be followers of Christ – that’s where the name came from, right? And wasn’t Jesus all about breaking norms by socializing with the ostracized and caring for people who others disregarded? He never pretended it would be easy or pleasant. But he did teach us that no person is more important than any other person.
When I got back to the office after my meeting that day, Mark was gone. His belongings were out of sight, and there was no indication he’d ever been there or that he would soon be back
But I knew he would be.
Because the fact that the concrete pad behind my office is his safe place isn’t by chance. It’s because the people inside the building have created that safe place by accepting him just as he is.
You know, kind of like Jesus taught us,
Neither age nor time has changed my opinion of Mrs. Gladwill.
I will go to my grave believing that my first grade teacher actually took pleasure in torturing little kids.
If you think I’m exaggerating, consider this: at age six, when I watched the movie The Wizard of Oz for the first time, I was convinced that the Wicked Witch of the West had taken lessons from Mrs. Gladwill.
Horrible memories from first grade still haunt me:
- Being put in the corner because it was easier to move me rather than the kids around me who were cheating;
- Wetting my pants because Mrs. Gladwill believed that if you didn’t use lunch or recess to relieve yourself, you didn’t plan appropriately;
- Going to school with the mumps because I didn’t want my name to be written on the upper right hand corner of the chalkboard for being absent;
- Getting caught going to school with the mumps, being blamed for infecting most of the kids in my class, and having my name written on the upper right hand corner of the chalkboard anyway.
The list goes on and on. But nothing compares to the horror I felt for making my first mistake on a school assignment.
Up to that point, I though school was too easy. So, when Mrs. Gladwill gave her class a worksheet with rows of pictures and told us to circle everything that began with the letters ch, I scoffed at such a simple task. While my peers studied the worksheet and labored over the choices, I took more time selecting which crayon to use than I did actually circling the pictures: a chairs, cherries; checkers, a chicken, cheese and a few other items. I raised my hand, turned in my paper and took pleasure in being the first in my class to complete the assignment.
What I never anticipated was getting the paper back the next day with a big red circle around the picture of a church and an even bigger -1 at the top of the page.
I was so astonished, I forgot to be afraid of Mrs. Gladwill. I actually reached out and tugged on her sleeve.
“You made a mistake,” I blurted out in my moment of disbelief,
I immediately regretted my words.
Mrs. Gladwill turned around with a look that said “I never make mistakes.” Her lack of words, however, gave me the opportunity I needed.
“You circled the turch,” I said. “Turch doesn’t begin with ch, It begins with T.”
For the first time in my life, an adult looked at me as though I was stupid.
“CHurch,” Mrs. Gladwill said emphasizing the ch sound, “begins with ch.”
And that was the end of our discussion. But it wasn’t the end of my disbelief.
I took the offending paper home to show my mother, who, to my amazement, sided with Mrs. Gladwill.
I was stunned. We went to turch almost every Sunday. When I talked about turch, it definitely started with a T. And that’s how others people said it too. I couldn’t have been saying and hearing it wrong.
And yet, according to my mother and to Mrs Gladwill, I had been.
The day my mother convinced me that turch wasn’t a word was quite possibly the most humbling day of my life. My world was turned upside down because I realized that the way I perceived it wasn’t always accurate. That was the most important lesson I learned in first grade.
It’s also one of which I am regularly reminded.
Just the other day, I discovered that yet another person I knew had died of a drug overdose, and, once again, people took to social media to disparage her. There were comments about how she used the money she got from being on welfare to buy drugs. There were comments about her deserving to die if she did drugs. There were even comments that the world was better off with one less drug user.
And for every one of those comments, someone who knew would point out that she wasn’t on welfare – she had a job. They would point out that she was a kind soul who went out of her way to help others. They would say that she had a family who loved her. That seemed to fall on deaf ears.
The people who were making the negative, hateful comments were doing exactly what I did as a first grader – only instead of insisting that the word church starts with a T, they were insisting that there is only one type of person who dies of a drug overdose. Based on their judgemental comments, the only thing that will change their mind is when someone they know and care about dies of an overdose.
I wouldn’t wish that on anyone – just as I wouldn’t wish any child has a horrible teacher like Mrs. Gladwill. But there is something to be said for negative experiences. They teach us valuable lessons; they help us develop new skills; they give us a new perspective; and, hopefully, every once in a while, they teach us humility.
Mrs. Gladwill died ten years ago at the age of 94. When my mother sent me her obituary, all those negative feelings from first grade came rushing back. But something else came back as well: a memory of my mother telling me that the smartest people make a lot of mistakes in life. The difference between them and others is that they always learn from them.
Thanks Mom. And (I say this with a great deal of hesitancy) thanks also, Mrs. Gladwill.