Sometimes I remember.
I remember being in the third grade. Our classroom that year had a strange "experimental" format. Instead of rows of desks facing a teacher with a blackboard behind her, we sat in a big circle. The teacher stood in the middle of the circle to talk.
It was also the year I became friends with Jimmy Gray. For some reason, Jimmy didn't seem to have too many friends. I figured this was because he was a new kid in town and was generally quiet and reserved. So, I sat next to him in lunch and invited him to my house after school. It was a long time before he invited me to his house, and when I did it would be for his birthday party.
He passed out invitations at school. His parents had given him permission to invite anyone he wanted, so he invited everyone. I remember thinking this was going to be a huge birthday party with dozens of kids. I remember looking forward to it. In those days, birthday parties were major events we all got excited about.
When I got to his house, I was the second kid to arrive. My parents dropped me off. I don't remember if they went in to meet Jimmy's parents or not, but my parents seemed to know something I did not.
"Have fun, son."
"There might not be a lot of kids."
It did not make a lot of sense to me. As the birthday party got into full swing, there were only three kids in attendance. Jimmy's big birthday extravaganza had netted only three party guests. I remember trying to understand why Jimmy was so unpopular. Most kids never had fewer than a dozen guests at their birthday parties. Was it because Jimmy was a new kid from out of town? After the party I asked my parents because I was concerned. I felt bad for Jimmy and could not understand why so few kids wanted to be his friend.
I grew up in an upper middle class suburban neighborhood. It was one of those places where everyone has a house and a yard, two kids and a dog. During my first few years of grammar school we would go out in front of the school and march every Thursday. We carried flags and sang patriotic songs. I had no idea why we were doing that. I never realized we were being used to offset the protests over the war in Vietnam at the college down the road. Our school was at a major intersection and our flag waving and song singing in front of the school made a big impression. I never knew why we were marching and I never knew why everyone gave Jimmy Gray the cold shoulder.
My parents never taught me prejudice, aside from my father's strange rantings about the superiority of Scandinavian people. Although I noticed Jimmy's skin was darker than mine, this didn't mean anything to me. I had blonde hair and some of my friends had black hair or brown hair. Some were shorter than others. Some were chubby and others were thin. Everyone was different than everyone else. This was how I saw things. Prejudice is learned. I never learned.
My father told me that the reason Jimmy didn't have many kids at his birthday party was not because the kids didn't like him. It was because their parents told them not to be seen with Jimmy. His father was black and his mother was white. A lot of people seemed to think this was wrong. Those people were adults who told their own children that Jimmy was less worthy of love than they were.
And then every Thursday we would be back in front of the school. The marches were mandatory. We didn't mind them usually. They got us out of classes as they were actually pretty fun. Jimmy marched with us. He seemed to feel more strongly about it than I did. His father had been in Vietnam. Sometimes he talked to me about things his father told him, but we were very young.
The story was one that played throughout my neighborhood in those days. My father had escaped duty in Vietnam by being in college, and then by having a family. I remember thinking this war thing, with brave soldiers destroying an evil force of pig-like creatures, was an incredible thing.
And yes, I was in fact told at one point that we were fighting pig-like creatures. That image stuck with me for years. Later I would realize how much easier it was to think of the enemy as pig-like creatures in need of killing. Just as it was easier for some to think of Jimmy as a lesser creature.
I don't know what happened to Jimmy. He didn't graduate from our grammar school. His family moved again after a little more than a year in our perfect valley of whiteness. I still remember the images. The perfect little children of white suburban America marching weekly in support of a war they knew nothing about. The only kid who had any idea what we were doing could have taken the lead, but no one would follow. He was not worthy because he was the child of a mixed marriage, and yet his father was the only father who had fought the pig-creatures in that far away fantasy land called Vietnam.
And how much have we learned?