The problem with looking back is that you focus on comparing it to the view you have now.
You’ve probably seen the photo on Facebook. It’s a shot of a room full of white kids pledging allegiance to the flag with the prompt to “Like if you did this in school and think they still should!” with the earnest exclamation point to drive home the idea. Unfortunately, the real point in promoting this image on Facebook has nothing to do with patriotism or teaching American children to respect the flag. It’s meant to tug at your heartstrings, to make you feel something like nostalgia, and ultimately to make you long for the days when life was sure a whole lot simpler.
Let’s go back to the days of black and white TV when there were no gays, no wars, no joblessness, no housing bubble, no bailouts, no credit card debt, no Blacks, no feminists certainly, or Occupy Wall Streeters, affordable housing and cars, cheap gas, and a white WWII hero named Ike was in the White House. There were just loads of happy, working, well-fed, white folks, saluting the flag. All the colors of the rainbow were just not there – other than the simple black and white we all watched on TV.
I was in a very similar classroom once. I grew up in a white town in a white state in a deceptively white America. It was an era whose simplicity is being advertised now as something to reclaim – it’s what we get when we “Get Our Country Back!” The problem with this is that I don’t think I’m the only guy who doesn’t want to go back to anything like that. To me, that era was, in many ways, an embarrassment in the history of this country, not a trading card. The 1950s classroom I sat in had 52 white students enrolled with one white woman – a Catholic religious sister – teaching us all with no assistance. Each classroom in my grade school had the same configuration. Fifty children, give or take, one white woman in the front of the room, and if you misbehaved by her standard, you were struck repeatedly in front of the rest of the class or threatened with the prospect of being ushered into the principal’s office. The students who came back from that trip down the hall were always crying and swearing they would never do whatever they did again.
The expectations were less about recognizing academic progress and more about rewarding those who stayed in line. If you wanted recognition, you made sure the hem of your skirt hit the floor when you were on your knees, you raised your hand first before speaking, and you never read a chapter ahead to find out how it turned out. If you played well with others, you could expect a gold star. But it was never simple to those of us who didn’t understand the value placed on these key simple rules. When report cards came out, the parish priest would take a seat at the front of the room and read all the grades out loud to the class by name. “Jean, I see you have another B in Spelling,” or “Robert, having trouble still in Geography?”
It was torture.
Picture yourself sitting in this classroom, please. After saluting the flag in the morning, we were all told to sit quietly while the teacher prepared the lesson. In my First Grade class, we were given letter blocks. They were thumbnail-sized pieces of white cardboard, each with a single letter printed on them. We were to build single words, spelling out the word, letter by letter. In that room, I would guess there were probably only about 5 of us already reading, the other 47 were still learning to read.
I would build rambling sentences, made up of the shortest words I could come up with so I wouldn’t run out of letters before I finished my thought. To me, it was a game more akin to Scrabble than learning to read. Home was very similar. I came home, did my homework, ate dinner on a metal TV table watching Mickey Mouse Club on that black and white TV, and on Sunday nights, we watched The Ed Sullivan Show together. But there was an America living and breathing in the background of this simple, white façade. There was the lone single mother in the neighborhood who was shunned at school outings because she was “Divorced.” Her daughter was shunned in Girl Scouts because she honestly thought coffee and a plain doughnut was an appropriate breakfast when we all knew eggs and bacon was the correct answer. There was the family next door whose dad was a cop. He got drunk most nights after work with the boys and beat the crap out of his wife. But his kids would leave their bungalow to go to school the next day and salute that flag. There were many, many insulting names for everyone who wasn’t in my class picture and I can’t even bring myself to type them now. This was American life in the Midwest. I can only imagine what it was like in the Deep South in 1959.
Facebook also wants you to remember the cute little kitchen appliances, like egg beaters and mashed potato whisks, or the plastic disks we’d use when we played 78 RPM records. “Like” if you remember this, or “Like” if you recognize what the Brady Bunch living room looked like. The Brady Bunch looked to me like a gay dad, desperate to stay in the closet so his neighbors wouldn’t shun the kids. Folks did that in 1959. If you didn’t stay in your line, didn’t know the correct answer, you would be shunned. There was always something elusive about the country club, the treehouse, the clique, or the tribe. You always knew who was “in” and you always knew who was “out.” Those who were “in” never had a moment’s rest because they knew some small misstep could cost them their membership, and some new friend might inadvertently take away all they had earned.
How similar this all seems to me, watching the new presidential campaign and waiting for the Supreme Court to tackle same-sex marriage bans. I can see why so much political campaigning is geared toward the past rather than toward an unreliable future. The problem with looking back though, is that you focus on comparing it to the view you have now. It’s easy to see what you need to see and not grab up the whole picture because, if you are trying to feel good about yourself, you will edit like mad, hoping those fringe moments of happiness, security, and calm will sustain you. But they don’t. When I look at the black and white photo of my all-white First Grade class, I remember a handful of names. I see some real nice faces. I see something that tells me we were classmates once and then I can forget whatever I choose to forget. This is my lens, my viewfinder.
Don’t we look nice? It’s all just nice.
This canned view is not real and it will never chart a solid path into the future. It is imaginary, it is past, it is gone, and gone with it is a good bit of the shunning, a good bit of the secrets, and a good bit of the lies all the parents told their children. I prefer my TV in color now. I want 24/7 news, I want cable, I want gay, straight, male, female, old, young, left, and right all day, every day. If I don’t like what I watch, I turn it all off. And I don’t ever want to see black and white TV again. It was ugly then and it’s even uglier now if we choose that view of the country over the one I see out my door in the Bronx every day. My children’s political future should be in color too and my late afternoon prayer is they never know what black and white TV really was all about.
I prefer not to “Like.”
Anne Born is a New York-based writer who has been writing stories and poetry since childhood. She blogs on The Backpack Press and Tumbleweed Pilgrim and her writing focuses on family and life in a big city after growing up in a small one. She is the author of “A Marshmallow on the Bus” and “Prayer Beads on the Train” and a photographer who specializes in photos of churches, cemeteries, and the Way of St. James in Spain. Most of her writing is done on the bus. www.about.me/anneborn. You can follow Anne on Wattpad, Instagram, and Twitter at @nilesite.
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