Yesterday I was a panelist at a social justice/civil rights forum at my daughter’s school. There were five of us: an African-American man, a Caucasian-American man, a Puerto Rican woman whose family moved to Miami in the middle of her childhood, a young woman with a Muslim father and Christian mother, and me with a Japanese-American viewpoint. We took turns telling about our various upbringings as a lesson about different perspectives as the kids had all read a book pertaining to that theme. Most of us were of “a certain age” so we were also able to speak to what it meant to live without Nickelodeon and computers in an era where kids played outside all the time and where discipline was meted with a ruler or paddle.
The most interesting stories were that of the African-American man who shocked the kids with details of growing up during segregation in the South. That kind of stuff seems so far back in time and yet this man was near my age! The Caucasian panelist added an unsettling story about the prevalence of racism in Alabama where he grew up and the penalties for standing up against it as a white person.
I surprised myself by coming up with my own stories of what it was like to be the only brown child in school, along with my sister. I had thought that since we were lucky enough to have escaped negative judgement (for the most part) that I would have nothing much to say. Instead I was able to speak about the multicultural experience of having parents of different races and how I was introduced to other races in college – rather abruptly as my first roommate was a black girl – and how my sister and I were like puzzles to people…“What ARE you?” … as they tried to piece where we belonged in the cosmos.
Afterwards the teacher moderator thanked us all so sincerely and told us how fascinating and often moving our stories were. I thought she was mostly just speaking to the African-American man. Later, I had to admit I had fallen victim to the common thinking I preach against – that my life story was not that interesting. I had lived it, it was nothing to me. There was no tragedy, no horror, no big event I was a part of. Compared to the African-American man’s life, the rest of us had little impressive to say. And yet, I was listening very carefully to the others, quite interested in their perspectives, too. I had questions I wanted to ask them, but kept quiet because the question time was for the kids to respond and we were running late.
People’s lives are indeed fascinating. It is not necessarily the big events we live through, it is the moments, the history, the era, the experiences we all have that make us unique and yet the same. We each bring our own thoughts, feelings and perspectives to our stories – so much so that those present at a given moment will all walk away with a different experience. People are fascinating…and this means you (and me), too.