We sat in tiny chairs at tables made for kids. In the school library, the tops of tables and the seats of chairs were closer to the floor than what adults typically experience. We paired off, a dozen adults and a dozen first and second graders. We were reading. We read to each other. The adult would say a word that the child stumbled upon. The child would repeat it.
Some children wrote letters on erasable white boards. One could hear the mysterious soundings-out of letters and their combinations, the gentle coaxings and coachings that shed light and pattern. Sight words, flash cards, stapled pages we called books. Voices blending. Encouragement. Ears yearning.
One boy, an eight-year-old second grader, reached out to touch my gray hair, grown over the ears in wintertime, straight and thinning. The boy, polite and energetic and eager, seemed baffled and amazed at my hair's texture, its novelty. Then he looked at my hand. This was not our first encounter in the school library; this was after a few months or more of reading sessions that were not quite reading yet but were tilled soil for later bloom. He observed the veins in my aging hand, noticing the blue riverine pattern on these hands holding the stapled pamphlets we use as books.
"My hand is a different color," the young fellow stated matter-of-factly.
The way he said those words, their surprise and frankness and tenderness, caught me off-guard. It arrested me. For a few beats, I didn’t know how to respond but feared no response would be a missed opportunity — for what I was not sure.
"Yes, I see that. Isn't it wonderful?" I quickly managed with a blend of his matter-of-factness and my mildly suppressed enthusiasm. We then turned to tackle another pamphlet, a level C or D “book.” The chorus of learning filled the room.
Upon much later reflection, I was grateful to my young reading partner for his honesty, authenticity, and directness. I recalled a moment decades ago in high school. Our teacher, a Catholic priest of the most progressive leanings, was commenting on Jesus’ oft quoted, “Suffer (allow) little children to come unto me and forbid them not; for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” The only lesson I can summon some fifty years later is that Father Giuliani underscored and celebrated two qualities of children: simple and direct.
Simple and direct. Yes indeed.
“My hand is a different color.”
A child’s uncomplicated observation of fact laden with a history unknown to me, just as mine was unknown to him.
Had I missed a deeper and more cogent opportunity? I knew the two of us were not about to engage in a candid discussion of Race in America. And I sought to avoid either preachiness or stilted speech. (Truth be told, I thought none of this. I had no time. Such considerations — and zillions more — rocketed through my brain before I uttered words.)
Those who parse such encounters might take me to task for these musings; they might posit a racial construct in my very questions.
So be it.
It’s what I had at that moment. In a country whose citizens rarely converse across racial lines, one to one, over bread or coffee or wine, it’s all we had.
The poet W.H. Auden wrote, “Love your crooked neighbor with all your crooked heart.”
It’s all we’ve got.