The winter of 1963-64 was a rough one. I was in the eighth grade. John F. Kennedy had just been assassinated. My school was becoming integrated (the authorities sent one African American boy to our school and called it good enough). It was code (sic) outside. And my teachers did not like me. (At least, that is what it felt like).
I have told snippets of this story before but it is necessary to repeat some information to put this story in context. My father was an 18 year old school drop out with a regular girlfriend when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. He went to war. He was gone four years. He came home. He married his girlfriend, got a job, and started a family. They had seven children – six boys and a girl.
I am the third boy. My Mother did not work outside the home, my Father worked two jobs. We had a roof over our head, two gas space heaters to keep us warm in our four room house, and regular food. We never saw ourselves as poor or underprivileged – until we reached our teens and the reality of a cruel world hit us in the face.
As the third boy I was blessed with regular hand-me-down clothes. My Mother was a horrible seamstress, but she diligently sewed patches on my jeans. I did not think anything about it until the eigtht grade – when the more affluent students began to make fun of my clothes. I remember a painful moment when one of the ‘haves’ mocked my clothes in front of a crowd – he said, “Hey Ohg, when did you get your CARE package?”
But the worst economic and social prejudice came from the school and church authorities. My eighth grade math teacher called me to her desk for high school consultation. She told me that I was not college material. She told me not to take any high level math in high school. She told me that perhaps I could get into an auto mechanics class and learn a trade.
When I went to high school I had to argue with the school counselor to get into algebra. They compromised and put me in “Algebra for Dummies.” After my freshman year I was placed in the regular advanced Algebra and Geometry classes. The high school counselor, prejudiced by the eighth grade teacher, gave me a chance. I had to prove myself. My grades were marginal – but that was all that was expected of me.
But the prejudice affected me. I did not immediately go to college out of high school. I went to a trade school – completing the radio and television repair study at the Electronics Institute in Kansas City. (Note to eighth grade teachers, electronics is rooted in math). My life has always been lucky. I had a thirty year career in Information Technology (Data Processing for you Old Folks). The years went by and I finally had the courage to tackle college. In 1996 I graduated from the University of Missouri at Kansas City. (I had to drive 60 miles, four nights a week for four years, while working at my full time job).
Today – I hold my eighth grade teacher in contempt. She was one of the most horrible people that I have ever known. I wonder how many of my friends from grade school lived lives of desperation as a result of her prejudice.
Even today I have a deep rooted distrust of authority figures. Any hint of discrimination or prejudice rankles me. I understand the ‘anger’ that Barack Obama talks about when addressing prejudice.