Monday, May 26, 2008

Memory Odd Lots

Every now and then on the progressive blogs I read, a dispute breaks out in which some folks talk about the "gay-bashings" or hate crimes they have endured. I am moved by these. I'll never forget reading Leonardo's story at Father Jake's about the loss of his beloved.

For whatever reason, I'm moved tonight to tell my first story. It's bloody, but kinda funny in its own way. And it speaks to my own naiveté as much as anything else.

The time: ca. 1969. I was in junior high school.

Background & Context: As I began 7th grade, my backwater Mississippi County school district integrated. And the local Catholic school cut back to grades 1-6, too. So, for the first time, we lily-white God-fearing, properly-raised racistProtestants were going to school with blacks [That's not what we called them. :(] and Catholics! Tensions in this small community were very high.

The story: I was always tall for my age, and very athletic. I participated in any sports that girls could. And I was generally among the top athletes. Imagine our surprise when black and white girls began competing in P.E. There was, to say the least, a bit of tension.

It was clear that the two best forwards on the basketball team were me and a black girl named "Hetty." [How amazing that I still remember her full name after all these years, when so many other classmates' names are lost to me.] During P.E. classes, on the court, she would often hiss something under her breath about me being a "white hobo."

"Hobo"??? I never got it. I laughed it off. Well … fact is, I probably derided her with some insult. To me, she was stupid for calling me a "hobo." I didn't live in a railroad car. I wasn't homeless. What the heck was she thinking?? And I was very good at verbal repartee. I was smart, I had a good vocabulary, and it was always my preference to use my wit and vocabulary as a rapier.

One day, during that period between classes when everybody is in the halls and the halls are too crowded, suddenly I felt her hit me from behind. And immediately a circle formed around me, as schoolkids will do when there's a fight. I lost my balance, and she took the opportunity to throw me into the glass trophy case along the hallway. While I lay on the floor with a lot of cuts from the shattered glass, she set upon me with a short-bladed knife, screaming, "I'm gonna you, hobo! I'm gonna kill the ******* hobo."

Out of dimming consciousness, I could see the school principal standing on the outside of that perimeter. Yes, standing. Not wading in. Truth be told, I had had my tangles with him, too. I was very smart in a school whose average IQ was below 100. [Yes, I'm not making that up. A teacher told me so later. This was a very poor county.] I was frequently critical of the teachers and the caliber of teaching, and I mouthed-off a lot, and I was a discipline problem. He had seen me in his office plenty of times. I can understand why he wouldn't want to defend me.

Eventually, he did wade in and break it up. It wasn't even a fight. One person had a knife, and one was shielding herself from the onslaught.

There was no hospital within a half-hour drive. Instead, somebody from the school took me to my doctor's office. I didn't realize I was streaming blood all over my body from the trophy case glass shards and the knife slashes. As the cruel fates would have it, when I was carried in through the waiting room, my mother was sitting in that room for a routine appointment. As you can imagine, she went a wee bit hysterical.

I got stitched up. Nobody got suspended, much less expelled.

Here's the part that's hard to admit: Since Hetty had attacked me for being a "white hobo," I became an even worse racist than I had been raised to be. My mouth got sharper, as did my defenses. (Ah, yes. I was a proper little racist.)

And here's the funniest part. One day in my early 40s, it suddenly hit me with a blinding flash: She wasn't calling me a "hobo"! She was calling me a "homo"! But I didn't know that word at the time. I knew all my schoolgirl crushes were on females, and I somehow knew I would never date or marry a man. But I assumed I was the only person in the universe who had ever felt this way about others of my gender. I certainly didn't know it had a word. And I had no idea what "sex" was – of either the hetero of homo variety. I'd never even dated, much less kissed anyone. I wonder now: What was it that made her attack and hate me for being a "hobo"?

So I got attacked for being a "hobo," long before I understood anything about homophobia or hate crimes.

BTW, it was in the early '80s, when I began to come to term with my lesbianism, that I also confronted my racism. I came to see that both of those "isms" were stupid and hateful. I've been a recovering racist ever since.

I'm not sure why I want to tell this story tonight, but I do.

8 Comments:

Blogger ROBERTA said...

Great story! loved the "hobo" label...if that happened in today's school system there would be jail time, court costs, lawsuits, anger management and expulsion to deal with - and never mind the press coverage!

it's sad that the principal didn't step in sooner - but that was then - times have changed and so have you - ever wonder where Hetty is these days?

5/26/2008 9:16 PM  
Blogger FranIAm said...

I just left a comment on the prior post and was going to wait before saying anything here, but...

This is a haunting story in so many ways and as I was just saying in my other comment - I am grateful for you and your story.

For whatever crazy reason God saw to this, I am 50 and yet grew up around (but never explicitly mentioned) a lot of gay people. My mother (insane in her own way ) taught me to respect and never be unkind to two groups of people... Black people and gay people. (Although she would have said colored people and I don't know what she called gay people... my memory gap.)

It is hard for me having grown up - gasp - Italian, Irish, Eastern European Jew (not in faith) and Catholic 25 miles from NYC - to imagine some of your circumstances, but I am moved deeply to read about them today.

Peace to you always, deep peace.

5/26/2008 9:18 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

You're right, Roberta: If was a different time.

And I do often laugh at how I misunderstood her calling me a "hobo."

Yes, actually, from the time I realized what underlay the attack, I have very, very often wondered what became of Hetty. I hope we would now be able to lift a glass and thank God we moved beyond it. But I dunno. I sometimes wonder if she was a "hobo" herself. Maybe she became one of those who killed herself. It's sobering to reflect on it.

5/26/2008 9:43 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

I'm glad you decided to chime in here, Fran.

You and I are of a similar age. How amazingly different our backgrounds, though. I was raised to be a hater and a racist. Heck! I didn't even know there was such a thing as "gay people" back then. [I hope to write about that soon.]

I hope you hear this. I didn't mean only to write about the attack, but about what a nasty little racist I was. I hold no brief for myself about that.

And as you may have discerned, it's easier to write the story today than it was to live it back then. I did not understand why I was hated. Now I do. Thank God for the passage of time ... and the fact that I survived it.

5/26/2008 9:48 PM  
Anonymous Lindy said...

I'd never heard of a lesbian until I went to college, and then it was in the context of very bad (if exciting!) sins. It's more a statement about my naivetè than my times.

As a child, I was taught to feel superior because we were not racists. This, of course, is just another sub-set of racism. It was all very complicated in my little town. Co-existence was necessary for survival but real integration was social suicide.

Thank you for sharing this story. I am glad for the person you've become and thankful for the way you share your thoughts here.

5/27/2008 11:57 AM  
Blogger Malcolm+ said...

Odd, isn't it, that the victims of "isms" are often so quick to victimize others on the basis of similar "isms."

It has to do with the fall.

(That was for any realignment visitors who might drop by. See, wee hell-bound reasserters do believe in the fall.)

5/27/2008 2:34 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Thanks, Lindy. Yes, I'm glad I've moved on. But I had to move away from that little town and its small-minded culture. I feel sad for those who remained trapped there.

Malcolm+, your comment cracks me up! But you're right: It's sad how the victims of "isms" brutalize others.

5/27/2008 7:56 PM  
Blogger Malcolm+ said...

Did you check out my "separated at birth" take on the Bishop of Pittsburgh at simplemassingpriest?

5/28/2008 1:29 AM  

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