Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Biggest Gift My Parents Ever Gave Me:
A Clean Slate & Tolerance

By Diana L. Chapman

When I was growing up, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed. So was our President, JFK. And not long after, Senator Robert F. Kennedy.

The times were volatile, an emotional heart-twist of steely pain. And as just a little sprite, it was hard for me to understand why my mother sat and sobbed day after day, all day and all night long, while we watched funeral caskets go by on every single television station, one after another, when we were living first in Seattle and then later Montreal. Where were my cartoons, I demanded?

Where were the cartoon heroes, I yelped, as I switched from channel to channel only to see throngs of people as the caskets glided by? Where was the Underdog? Superman? Batman?

What I didn’t understand at the time was the people who died -- those were my parents heroes. They all stood for a symbol – a simple one – that mankind needed to grow up and learn one of the most crucial words in the English dictionary: tolerance. It seems that they died for that – a treasure that just like freedom is not free. It’s something to work for and build toward.

My parents taught us tolerance. We weren’t allowed to call other kids names or treat anyone without the utmost kindness. My mom would call us in to watch commercials trying to fight against prejudice; the one that still remains with me was a white boy playing happily with an African-American boy until the white youngster's mother arrived. She immediately raced over, grabbed her son and yelled for him to stay away. The boys both cried, because they had no idea what they had done. My mom would shake her head with disdain and indicate that she would never do such a thing. We were free to be friends with those we picked.

It was never race they determined ourfriendships on; it was the character of the individual

We were so well trained not to be prejudice, that as it slowly seeped out when we were older that my parents weren’t perfect, it stunned us. They still were carrying a lot of old scars from World War II and had hidden their feelings from us, tucking them away like a squirrel hording nuts.

We did not hear about their prejudices until we were in our teen years, starting at perhaps, the age of 15. By that time, they began to share and reveal their true feelings. It always came up around the subject of World War II.

They still carried horrible feelings toward the Germans, and we couldn’t later in life even talk about the Japanese for quite some time. But by this time, we were old enough to debate their feelings and tell them how silly they were being.

And perhaps their emotions were somewaht understandable.

Besides losing scores of friends and relatives during WWII, my mother’s brother died when Germans shot his plane down over England when he served for the Canadian Royal Air Force. Her brother was the red-headed 19-year-old, the oldest in her clan, and the leader in the family.

But his days were shortened and lost in the winds, shadowed long ago and embedded in a cemetery somewhere in a long and forgotten countryside of England – far, far away from the lands where he was born and where his family could visit. We actually visited there recently with our own son – and we’re able to understand how all these soldiers died to make us free.

My mother’s Dad, served in the Canadian military during World War I, was buried alive when Germans bombed and used mustard gas. Ironically, a German doctor worked diligently to save his life, a story that was routinely repeated and passed down through the family because it seemed my mother’s family couldn’t fathom why that doctor turned into such a hero for them when he held the life of an enemy in his hands.

Yes, my parents grew up with many prejudices. But they did not share them with us. So the three daughters ventured into life, innocent babes in a distraught world, with a clean slate – and we never really understood the anxiety of the blacks, the hatred toward American Indians, the slander and libel of the Jews.

We were free. Not because we were white, but because my parents made it so. They didn’t germ us or gum us up with their own prejudices.

The day that this became so crystal clear and was like a lightning bolt for me was on a visit to Belize, a beautiful Central-American country once called British Honduras, a land lush with tropic jungles and hundreds of islands dotting a turquoise sea.

While on the island of Ambergris Caye, we met a southern American couple. Belize, with a large black population that came down from the tides of slavery, exists as a giant mix of descendants from English and Scottish pirates, and generations of Chinese, ancient Mayans, Guatemalans, and slaves that had fled from all over the United States and other Caribbean Islands.

It was about 90 percent black when we met these southerners in the late 1980s and we were taken aback when they old us, that blacks and whites should be together in the United States, but not mixed. We should live separately, they said.

I was confused and so was my husband. If they felt this way, I asked them, then why of all places would they come to Belize -- a place that was one of the biggest melting pots since America ever came along? Perhaps even more so.

I’ll never forget the words the man etched in my brain in those moments. “Those are my feelings,” the southern man said. “I learned it from my father. He learned it from his father. And he learned it from his father. It’s the right way. It’s passed down through the generations. That’s the way I was brought up and that’s the same way my son will be brought up.”

I didn’t have the guts to ask him: “But what if that’s not the right way to be brought up?”

All of these lessons gave me the greatest gifts to handle students questions during my writing workshops. One of my 13-year-old students wrote: “I like to play basketball, but I feel that when I play I’m living up to the black stereotype everybody wants me to.
I’m tall, black and know how to make a lay-up. They (people) feel that African-Americans can only be athletes, and entertainers. Why not a doctor, songwriter, president, chef, scientist and a director?”

This is what I wrote back: “You are so right! You are black! You are tall! You can play basketball. But as you know, you can become a doctor, a lawyer, a song writer and even a president. The last person in the world that probably anyone would of thought to become the president of the United States at your age was Abe Lincoln. Why?

“He had no formal education. He was extremely tall and gangly – and, many people thought he was ugly. Did he prove the world wrong? You bet he did. And so can you.”

So can we all. Start with this: give your child as best as you can – a clean slate and the biggest gift of all – a simple word in the English dictionary: a word called tolerance.
Community Happenings:

Pediatric Clinic Expands Hours

The Harbor Community Pediatric Clinic expanded its hours to include opening for youngsters on Friday.
Additional hours are part of the ongoing efforts of the clinic to enhance its operations for the community to ensure health benefits for children and adults.
On the first Friday the clinic opened in mid-October, Dr. Orawan Sitburana, the new, part-time pediatrician, was busy treating children the entire day.
“We are fortunate to have her,” said Michele Ruple, the clinic's executive director. “On our first Friday, Dr. Sitburana treated 12 patients. These are 12 kids that would have gone untreated.”
Clinic hours are now 9 to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Reach the pediatric center by calling: 310-732-5887. The location: 731 S. Beacon Street, San Pedro.

The San Pedro Chamber Presents the 11th Annual Teen Conference: Teens At The Table - “Bridges to Success”

Trying to prevent more teenagers from dropping out of high school, the San Pedro Chamber of Commerce announced its 11th annual teen conference.
To be held Tuesday, Nov. 27, from 8 to 1:30 p.m., the chamber plans to help 9th grade students “overcome obstacles to success and develop career paths; thus reducing the chance they will become a drop out statistic,” according to a chamber press release.
This year’s conference – as all the past conferences have – work toward mentoring and supporting teens and is in need of sponsors for the event.
It will be held at the Double Tree Hotel, 2800 Cabrillo Marina Way.
Organizations invited to join the conference include: San Pedro High School, Mary Star of the Sea High School, Port of Los Angeles High School, Rolling Hills Preparatory School, Harbor Occupational Center, Harbor Boys & Girls Clubs, LA Bridges (Toberman House Youth Program), San Pedro Youth Coalition, San Pedro & Peninsula YMCA and the YWCA of the Harbor Area.
Please call Sandy Bradley, the chamber’s chair of the Business-Education-Arts Committee at (310)- 940-9316 for further information.