Cues From Childhood

I enjoyed reading the novel To Kill A Mockingbird. I think the brilliance of the writing is that Harper Lee used a preteen girl child to tell the story she had in mind. We see the world through Scout’s eyes, her understanding, as limited as it in for a child, and yet Scout has the presence of mind to pick up on a few cues presented. Sometimes she is helped to see them very plainly as when the black preacher tells her “Stand up, your father is passing.” and she notices that all the blacks in the gallery are standing in respect for her father. Of course by using a child and then creating that flash back as an adult passing judgment on the past events we can understand Scout’s world view. Scout is an innocent in the world. To her, people are people, black or white. She has not picked up on society’s curse, that of the categorization of people by some adverse characteristic such as color or economic condition.

For me, I see clearly this lack of sophistication that a child has until it is filled in by social mores and often to the worse for the child. I spent my elementary school years in the south, Texas, but south enough. We didn’t have any blacks in our school now were there any black community that I knew of in our small city. I grew up into that preteen age without a great deal of prejudice towards any particular group. Well, maybe a bit of dislike for Mexicans since they were responsible for killing out hole trinity, Davy Crockett, Colonel Travis, and Jim Bowie. Beyond that, I was never taught to hate “coloreds” or think they were less than equal to us. When I was eleven and twelve I worked in my aunt’s hayfields and those of the surrounding farms. Skin color was never a consideration, Ira, the handyman on our farm was black but I never really noticed any difference between him and myself. He was older and stronger and deserved my admiration because he was a good worker and a friendly man. And god, I needed that friendship then. I thought the world of him.

Once we cross that line into the teenage years our mental development changes and we start picking up on the social cues given by others, particularly adults. From them we learn what is the expected behavior.  Some children acquiesce to these taught biases and misconceptions very easily, perhaps needing some adult truth to validate their experiences.  The world can be a scary place to the younger teenage child.  Parents, teachers, public media provide different messages that may often conflict.  My parents often sent conflicting messages that I would interpret one way and my older brother a different way.  This is the way of the world.  As individuals our perceptions differ and affect out understandings of that world.  Our memories change according to our mental needs.  For my own set of memories the changes have come almost imperceptibly and yet, I can see a few of those changes.  An example is my neighborhood where I wen to elementary school.   The streets seemed so wide to me as a child.  My friends and I rode our bicycles everywhere and thought we covered great distances.  We I look at that neighborhood now the mental map I had as a child no longer matches the realities of the adult mind.  As an adult I see everything more to the correct scale.

I can identify with Scout in so many ways.  I was the younger sibling and three years younger than my brother.  He could do anything, me, not so much.  I was the more troublesome child, prone to doing the wrong thing, choosing too many of the wrong actions and activities.  Unlike Scout there were no dramatic moments in my young life that would define some civic duty or moral cause.  Most of our ideas about war are defined by film representations, an indirect experience at best.  The wild west I saw through the camera lens never prepared me for the real experience.  Foreign lands are mysteries that one must put together through the clues given by photographs, books, and films.  The streets of Budapest looked nothing like those in the film The Little Shop Around The Corner. The challenge to my beliefs held so innocently as a child came in my late teen years and early manhood.  Youth may seem overly critical of the world but I would believe that is the time when so many innocent beliefs are so greatly challenged.  The passage from child to teen to adult is one fraught with discontinuity and discontent.  We learn that adults aren’t always right, that society has many biases and misconcpetions that are still held valid to the majority.  We drag our prejudices along like heavy luggage and if we can, if it suits our purposes, if we don’t mind being different, we will drop some of that heavy baggage.  Oh, we never are truly free of it, never.  You see, once you have done a person some harm, some hateful injury, you can never take that moment back.  It’s your moment to live with the rest of your life.  These are the regrets we store up in life.  They will fade aways but these moents are always subject to recall at the most inoportune times.  The best we can do is to think of the as lessons learned an opportunities for improvements.

If Scout had been a real individual and not just a part of Harper Lee’s personality and imagination I wonder what she would have to say today.  How much of her thinking and feeling has changed over these many years.  What would she have told her children, if she had any.  Life is a process of looking both forward and back.  A comparison of what we think we know and feel to what is real and right.  Society seems far more polarized than I can remember, but maybe my memory is faulty.  I remember a time when racism was norm.  And not just against the Black community.  Unlike Scout I spent my teen years in the north, in Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love.  Only there was very little love in that city.  And the racism was far more a caste system.  Everyone went along with it but the Black community.  Why should they, they were at the bottom, hated by that group above them, the Puerto Ricans.  If Harper Lee had gone though those times in that city, what would her character Scout have made of her experiences?

We make a difference in the world through the little things we do.  Those acts of kindness, the times we lend a helping hands as a matter of a person’s due in this world.  I’ve lived in many places in these United States but what I have found in the smaller towns, the more rural areas, and even some of the quieter suburbs is that neighbors often lend a hand without being asked.  A man needs help splitting wood and stacking it, you pitch in.  It’s a recipical action.  To allow others to help you is to acknowledge that you can’t do everything on your own.  It is to allow others to become part of your world and you theirs.  Communities need interactions amongst there folk so that the community is reaffirmed.  Wasn’t that one of the things Scout saw?  The offer of help and the acceptance creates that future bond and sense of understanding.  But these are gifts that must be freely given to hold value.  As the general population concentrates into increasingly larger metropolitan areas that sense of community develops into zones of exclusion.  Is it exclusion by race or caste?  Not really.  No, the zones of exclusion are created by economic means, the price of the real estate market.  General motors, through its dealership network does not purposely exclude members of various groups from owning one of their Cadillacs.  The exclusion is the cost of the vehicle.  If you do not have the means to pay for that Cadillac you may not buy it.  There is no race or caste exclusion, only economic.  Well, you say, there it is.  Exclusion from the economic means by race or caste.  Assuming that our jobless rate as reported by our wonderful President were correct, and it is woefully short of the truth, then what keeps a man or woman from that economic opportunity that allows one to buy a Cadillac?  Education and skills?  But we have a public school system that has been engineered to eliminate all prejudice and disadvantage.  We have erected a means of giving those with lessor opportunity first choice.  We give those whom we have labeled disadvantaged a pass and a great deal of economic help so that they can enter that economic opportunity that we have denied others not thoust so worthy.

Perhaps that is what Scout would chose to give pause for thought and comment.  We are really not building our communities because the help is neither freely offered nor freely accepted.  If I come over to your house to help you paint it, regardless of perceived difference, I do so out of a sense of community and friendship.  But if you then sit on your porch drinking beer while I do all the work and then accuse me of having a racist attitude, perhaps I will acquire one where you are concerned.  There was no reciprocation on your part.  There is now a good reason why I don’t want you living next door to me.  A hostile neighbor can’t be trusted.  A hostile neighbor signals he does not want to be part of the group.  A hostile neighbor excludes himself from the group.  And then he complains about his self imposed exclusion as being caused by the group.  Well, as an analogy this one is far from perfect, but it makes a point.  When trying to create inclusive communities all must accept responsibility to make themselves inclusive.  Groups have shared values and goals among their members.  If the goal is to enlarge the group then there must be changes to the values and goals so that all are accommodated.  the values become a little more general and a few are added in a way that they can be shared by most.  the same with the goals.  Small groups merge to form larger group associations.  The larger group shares basic identities with all members.  The small groups may remain inclusive to their own members but they must embrace the larger group identity.  If the members of the smaller group find that too difficult they will never really join the larger set of groups.  This isn’t rocket science, this is basic human behavior.  If your set of behaviors is grossly different from my set of behaviors then the chance that we will become members of the same grop is nil.  We must have a number of common bonds.  And “bonds” is the operative word.  We have to define our terms so that each of us understands the meanings we use and possess.  It is like marriage.  Opposites don’t stay maried very long.  It is that change from opposite to similar that creates the bonds that last.  We don’t need to give up identity but change and expand identity.  Think about it.


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