I grew up in a modest three-bedroom house on Ebert Street where the basement walls were clods of dirt. I’d call it middle class. Ardmore. You’ve probably heard of it. It sits nestled in the R.J. Reynolds High School district. A school with tobacco roots. A mammoth on the hill. A school that taught both the silver-spooned kids of Buena Vista, the kids on food stamps a mile or two down the road, and me, a chubby, acne-faced white kid who fell somewhere in the middle of that massive gap.
I attended Reynolds for a year then transferred to Parkland after ninth grade. People have joked that I was probably the first white kid to want a transfer to Parkland. There are racist undertones in that joke, but it may be true. The truth of it is that’s where I belonged. My mom taught in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school system for 36 years. A big chunk of it she taught at Philo Middle, so I went to middle school there though it wasn’t my assigned district.
Outside of hating being seen with my mom (like every 12-year-old does), I loved Philo. It’s where my friends were, some black, some white, the same friends that I missed so dearly during my freshman year at Reynolds, hence the transfer to Parkland. Now 20 years removed, I look back at my time at Philo and Parkland and realize it was some of the most valuable time in my life.
When I was at Philo, I had a black friend named Will. I went to Will’s house after school one day and we played football in his yard. Around dusk, we saw a police car at the end of the street and Will went and hid behind his mom’s car. I stayed in the yard and waved back as the police officer, who didn’t see Will, rolled on by. At the time, I didn’t think anything of it. Will was just playing a little game of cops and robbers, right? I now realize the complexity and sadness in that story.
Now, did attending Philo make me a better person? Probably not. Was Parkland an oasis of racial harmony? Not at all. We still had the kids with the lifted trucks and Confederate flag license plates, and the cafeteria typically split down racial lines. But I do believe there was a recognition of differences that I gained from attending schools where I was the minority.
Fast forward a few years, and through a combination of luck and help from an old, black education counselor named Mr. Colvin, I found myself at the United States Air Force Academy, a 90% white institution, housing mostly valedictorians and Eagle Scouts, most of whom were raised in the best stables of America. But even there, I saw versions of Will’s story. One weekend during my freshman year, some friends and I went to Denver. On the way, I was pulled over by the police for speeding. James, the cadet in the passenger seat, was black. As I rolled down my window, I noticed he had his arms on the dash. When I asked what he was doing, he simply said, “You do the talking.”
When I see the Black Lives Matter movement, I see it through the lens of what Will says and what James says. I believe that when it’s “us vs. them,” and the “them” is a giant crowd of no-name, no-face protesters, the “us” struggles to understand the “them.” I see it through the lens of watching Will hiding behind his mom’s car. I see it through the lens of trusting the C-5 pilot, another black Air Force Academy graduate, to bring me safely back home to my wife and daughter, all the while knowing he’s been asked to step out of his car at least four times, put in handcuffs, and made to feel something less than human.
We are all products of our upbringing. Sometimes, based on that upbringing, it’s understandable why some may not understand another’s life experience, but it’s everyone’s duty to not turn a blind eye. It’s everyone’s duty to listen.
Sometimes all that is needed is simply recognition — recognition that our fellow Philo Tigers, Reynolds Demons, Parkland Mustangs or Air Force Falcons are in pain; that they or their families have suffered and that we recognize that pain and want deeply for that pain to end. No buts. No well if he hadn’t. No well if you hadn’t. Just recognition that many people have been hurt and you want with all your being for that hurt to end.