Saturday, March 5, 2011

Free to Be...

I've been thinking a lot lately about a little girl named Lisa. Lisa was in my 2nd grade class (about a thousand years ago) and I invited her to my Super Amazing Sleepover Birthday Party, along with 7 other girls. We did all the usual birthday things- ate cake and pizza and slept in sleeping bags on the floor of my room. It was a typical 8 year-old good time.

The morning after that party was not so much a good time. I was suddenly persona non grata in my small town. A 2nd grade (and 3rd grade and 4th grade) pariah. I was invisible.

See, Lisa was (and, I assume, still is) black. She was the only black girl in my class, in fact, but I had been living in a Free to Be You and Me world for the first 7 years of my life. It never occurred to me that her skin and hair should be factors in my party planning. Plus she wore her hair in 4 braids sometimes and she had white knee boots and I thought that made her the epitome of cool.

Since I had no idea that I'd violated some social contract with my birthday party guest list, I attributed my new social leprosy to something I'd done. I assumed there was something wrong with me- that I was inherently broken. It took me years to put together that I wasn't about me, that it was about the ignorance and fear of a bunch of small town parents who taught their own kids to take that fear out on another kid.

Later on, I learned that my parents saw this coming. When the party invitations went out, other moms and dads (including my dad's boss and the school principal) contacted my folks to tell them that this was a Bad Idea. That Lisa had to be dis-invited asap. While I wish someone had explained all this to me then (I could have lived with a little more righteous indignation and a little less self-loathing), I understand that it was complicated. (1977 wasn't exactly the most enlightened time in the Midwest, you know?)

My mom admits she had a moment when she considered it. She thought of calling Lisa's grandma and making excuses- the party had been canceled or we'd had to postpone because I was sick. Then she realized that she wanted more for me. She wanted my life to be bigger than that single, stupid small town. She wanted me to be a part of creating that Free to Be You and Me world. She was brave enough to stand by what she knew was right and to bring me along to stand beside her.

I think that's pretty badass.