From the miscellaneous drawer

by Anne Swenson

When you look at strangers, who do you see? A friend recently told me that when he looks at people he brings to the reality of meeting someone all the baggage of his own past experience. <BR><BR>When you are traveling through an airport, do you see individuals, humans who have a life and family somewhere else, or do you see people hollowed out yet functioning as part of a movie set reality.<BR><BR>What do we bring to our new relationships? Is it no more than the summation of our childhood, education and family?<BR><BR>There was a place I lived as a child which had a train yard separating the white, lower to middle class folks from the east siders. The east siders were mostly poor and included Polish, Italians, Mexicans and blacks.<BR><BR>When we were in sixth grade the two schools merged for the junior high grades. Altogether we were fewer than 40 students. By seventh grade new friendships involved most of the kids. By eighth grade, with these young bodies maturing before our minds were ready, there was a confrontation with knives in the classroom involving a white boy and a black boy.<BR><BR>The white boy’s parents owned a tavern near the railroad station. The black boy had a knife scar on his face and his father had recently been charged with murder.<BR><BR>The two boys each drew knives and their hatred of each other was visible to all in the room. The student desks created a mini barrier as they sought to gain advantage for the confrontation. <BR><BR>The teacher, who had left the room for a few minutes, returned. “What’s this all about,” she asked as she waddled to the front of the room. <BR><BR>We had all drawn to the edges of the room to watch in horror.<BR><BR>The teacher was white, grey haired and wore no more than two dresses throughout the school year, alternating them one week from another. <BR><BR>That, in fact, had been what predicated the argument: a derogatory remark about the teacher and the subsequent defense. <BR><BR>Joe White stood his ground while Dick Jones tensed as if to attack. <BR><BR>And into the middle of this, to our astonishment, went the teacher.<BR><BR>“Watch the door,” she said. “We don’t want the principal walking in on this,” she directed to two of the taller boys who didn’t appear to be ready to defend either of the antagonists.<BR><BR>“Now, I don’t know what this is all about, but I want you to give me your knives,” she said as she held out her hands. <BR><BR>Much as each of us wanted to turn away from what we thought was going to be bloodshed, we continued to stare into the eye of the storm which lay in the middle of the room. <BR><BR>Sunlight created shadows in that early spring and it seemed as if the whole world had turned hushed as we were.<BR><BR>Her hands stayed extended.<BR><BR>“I’ll get you outside after school,” Jones said as he prepared to give up his knife. <BR><BR>“There will be no such thing,” the teacher said as she accepted both knives. “This thing will end right here and there will be no talking about it outside of this classroom. No parents. Nobody.” <BR><BR>And we kept that awful secret.<BR><BR>Jones ended up in prison for robbing a post office. I don’t actually know what happened to White. He went to high school and got a job to support his family.<BR><BR>The east siders opened up new experiences for me. My best friend became a Mexican boy who shared my thoughts. A Polish boy became my first beau and a favorite of my dad. An Italian girl’s grandmother taught me that food, no matter how humble, could add zest to life.<BR><BR>Adding zest to life is all about new experiences, new tastes. Setting aside expectations allows for the fullness of the unexpected, the fullness of a broad life to land on you and envelop you. When you carry the baggage of the past into the present, you will never know what the wiry quality of White’s black hair feels like because you will be afraid to touch a black person. <BR><BR>And you may never know who the “bad” guys are as distinguished from those we call the “good” guys.