15: Making Choices

15: Making Choices

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Kind (of) America

Making Choices

Before God, we are all equally wise and equally foolish.

~Albert Einstein

I skipped all the way home from school. I was so excited. Thursday evening was our school’s annual roller-skating party. The rink would be filled with children from our Catholic elementary school, and many teachers had also promised to attend. I couldn’t wait to have fun with my friends.

Our teacher had made an important announcement just before dismissal. “As you know, some of our classmates live quite far away. They won’t be able to attend the party unless arrangements are made for them to spend the night with a friend. If any of you would like to host Robert, Nathan or Shauna, please bring a note from your parents tomorrow.”

As the bell rang, I rushed over to Shauna’s desk. “You can stay with me!” I assured her.

Shauna was one of my best friends in the third grade. Her face lit up as she did a quick twirl. “That would be so much fun!” she answered. “I hope your mom says it’s okay.”

I laughed and assured her, “She will. I have lots of sleepovers at my house.” We chattered all the way out the door, parting at the line of yellow school buses. I would be walking home, while Shauna boarded the bus that was headed to the inner city.

It was the 1960s, and in an effort to achieve racial balance, black children were bussed in from the city to attend suburban schools. Desegregation was a term that meant little to me at the age of eight. The only thing I noticed was that the bus carrying the black children often arrived late, and I was jealous that they got to miss a bit of school. I had no concept of the hardships involved in their long daily commute.

Arriving at home, I plopped my lunchbox on the counter and quietly reached for the cookie jar on the counter. As I lifted the lid, the scent of cinnamon made me lick my lips. My older sisters loved to bake. My mother walked into the kitchen. “Mom, can a friend spend the night on Thursday?” My mother put a finger to her lips, her way of reminding me not to talk with food in my mouth. I swallowed fast, and then continued. “It’s the night of the skating party.”

Mom let out her usual sigh when I asked for a sleepover. “You never sleep when friends are over,” she protested, “and you have school on Friday.” I clasped my hands as if in prayer. “Please, Mom, I promise we will sleep,” I begged. “Shauna is so nice. You will like her.” She looked at me for a long time, as if in deep thought. She opened her mouth to answer, then starting wiping the kitchen counters vigorously. I snatched another cookie and stepped back outside to play. As the screen door shut, I heard my mother’s answer: “Ask your father.”

At the dinner table, I swiveled my chair from side to side as I played with my peas. I waited for my father to finish talking to my brother, and then quickly asked about Shauna. “Dad, can my friend spend the night on Thursday?”

He glanced at me, then at my mother, who was stirring the gravy. “I guess so,” he muttered. I held my breath as I savored the joy that was filling my body. I was smiling so big it was hard to chew my food. I instantly started planning, mentally choosing which pajamas I’d wear.

“I have to bring a note to school saying that it’s okay for her to stay here,” I informed my mother. That’s when my father dropped his fork. He turned to me. He seemed angry as he asked, “Is she black?”

I looked up into his face, feeling both frightened and confused. “Yes, she is,” I answered quietly.

His fury was now apparent as he snapped, “Then she’s not staying here!” He went back to his roast.

I was so stunned that I could hardly move. I bit my lower lip as hot tears filled my eyes. What had I done that had made him so angry? Why did it matter that Shauna was black? Why didn’t he like my friend?

As I crawled into bed that night, the scene replayed in my mind. I kept twisting the facts about, trying to make sense of it all. But after what seemed like hours of thought, I came to the conclusion that this simply was not logical in any way. I had always trusted my father and would have followed him down any path. But even at eight years old, I knew that he was leading me astray this time. I had never heard the word racism, but I knew in my heart that it was wrong to judge others based on differences. At that moment, I felt a profound sadness. I loved my parents. But I was ashamed of them.

Thankfully, Shauna was able to spend the night with another classmate and attend the skating party. As we skated together, hand in hand, I told her how sorry I was. “It’s okay,” she said with a smile. But it wasn’t okay, then or now. As years passed, I had to close my eyes and ears to the prejudice my parents displayed. I vowed to come to my own conclusions about people, based not on their race or religion, but rather their effect on my heart and soul. And I’m pleased to say that my diverse array of friends has my heart humming and my soul singing.

~Marianne Fosnow

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