Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Tiptoeing into Civil Rights

(Continued from Saturday . . . )
The students in that inner-city school inspired me to become in a quiet way an advocate of Civil Rights. In the fifties, Rosa Parks refused to budge, two outraged white men murdered fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, and the Little Rock Nine stood steadfast. I’d been in college then, mostly oblivious to what was happening in the South.

         During the early sixties, Mississippi racists murdered four children in a church, freedom riders headed south, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his resounding oration “I Have a Dream,” Ku Klux Klansmen dumped the dead bodies of three civil rights workers—two white and one black—into an earthen dam, police in Birmingham used fire hoses and dogs to attack protestors, and public officials halted the march to Montgomery on the Pettus Bridge. I was in the convent with its ban on reading newspapers, watching television, or listening to radio. Once again, oblivion.
            This stupor continued after I left the convent. Only the assassination of Martin Luther King on the balcony of a Memphis motel on April 4, 1968, and the signing of the Civil Rights Act a week later opened my consciousness to what was happening in my country and within me. Weeks later a black man mailed a letter and I admitted my own bigotry.
            The lives of the students in that inner-city school soon prompted me to change. There’s too much to tell you all that happened. Too many thoughts skittered my mind. Too much growth within my spirit. So today, I’ll simply relate two of my learning experiences. In my next posting, I’ll detail a third.            
            As I wrote on Saturday, none of the students had ever been inside the large department stores in downtown Dayton. I decided to take them there. I had no car, so one afternoon six of us boarded a city bus and traveled across the river to downtown. We repeated this weekly until all the students had visited the largest downtown department store.
            The big highlight of the trip?
            Riding an escalator.
            The students had never seen one. We went up and down, up and down, until they felt comfortable stepping onto and off of that moving staircase. The store manager stood at the bottom, eyeing us suspiciously.

            The students were neither rambunctious nor rowdy. No pushing or shoving, just a little joshing around. The escalators delighted the students, who giggled as they rode. They were mannerly toward other riders—most of whom, if not all, were white.
            Afterward, we wandered the store aisles. Seeing the merchandise through their eyes widened mine.  They nudged one another, whispering at color. Style. Cost. The store manager followed us.
            One student pointed to the mannequins in the windows and throughout the store. “Nothin’ but white,” she said. For the first time in the whole of my thirty-three years I opened my eyes to the invasiveness of racism. Any black person shopping in that store saw clothing displayed only on white mannequins.
            The weekly trips to the downtown department store continued. The manager finally stopped following us from floor to floor. But I saw now with those new eyes. Reading newspaper and magazines ads I found no black models. Watching television, I saw few black actors. Only on the airways did I discover the artistry of blacks as I listened to soul music produced by Motown.

A sculpture at the Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina.

            Thus began a campaign of letter writing. I wrote to magazines throughout the country as well as the local Dayton papers. In these letters, I encouraged the publications to use black models to attract black readers, who were also consumers. I pointed out that integration was now the law of the land.  It would lead to better jobs for black workers. That, of course, would mean more to spend. I suggested that rather than drag their heels, they lead the way.

            None of the publications responded, but the students knew about my letter writing and cheered me on. We spent the year cheering one another.
                                                                               (Continued on Thursday . . . )

Click here to view a succinct timeline
of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.

All photographs from Wikipedia.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

A Unit of Study Unites Us

(Continued from Thursday . . . )
The students and I settled down for the year. I quickly discovered that about the same number had difficulty with reading as in other grade-school classes I’d taught. About the same number were good in math or science or any subject we tackled. A few were avid readers. Several showed an intellectual curiosity I’d met before. Conclusion: these students were just like all those I’d taught. Only . . . and this only was big . . . only they were poor and destitute.
            They had no books, magazines, or newspapers in their homes to read. They hadn’t been to a library, museum, or art gallery. Some had never been in a movie theater. They had no money to ride  public transportation so their world was the neighborhood of the inner city. That is to say, they seldom, if ever, got out of its confines. Some had never seen the downtown area of Dayton, so they’d never visited a department store.
            As the weeks passed, one thing became clear: I’d been educated in white schools. I’d studied white textbooks. I’d been taught about white inventors, presidents, entrepreneurs, explorers, kings. I learned the history of the conquerors—who were white.
            I had no stories to tell about black men and women. About black history. I had no stories to tell about people—black or white—who’d grown up in poverty. I was ignorant of any history that went beyond the exploits of whites. I knew nothing about the culture of the black community or that of poverty.
            So together the students and I set out to learn. Together we devised a unit on the Underground Railroad. This appealed to all the students—both black and white—because the story of slaves escaping the South held suspense, creativity, cunning, danger.

Harriet Tubman

            I introduced the topic by talking about Harriet Tubman, the famous Underground “conductor.” None of the students had ever heard about this “network of secret routes and safe houses used by 19th century black slaves in the United States to escape to free states and Canada with the aid of abolitionists and allies who were sympathetic to their cause. . . .The Underground Railroad was at its height between 1850 and 1860. One estimate suggests that by 1850, 100,000 slaves had escaped via the ‘Railroad.’” (from Wikipedia)
The unit the students and I devised enabled us to use all the subjects in our curriculum. To incorporate all subjects, the students did the following:
·      estimated mileage from various southern states to Canada
·      wrote messages using the terminology of the railroad, which served as a metaphor for the escape routes
·      devised codes so as to follow the cryptic messages of escape       
·      studied the role Dayton and the state of Ohio played in the Underground Railroad
·      drew pictures of the flora and fauna of all the southern states and the northern escape routes
·      learned the names of the constellations and where they were in the night sky during the four seasons of the year
·      drew sky maps and learned the Greek stories behind the constellations
·      learned how to use a compass
·      read poetry by Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and Countee Cullen and wrote poems about imaginary escapes
·      wrote and performed plays about escaping along the Underground Railroad
·      studied the lives of abolitionists like Frederick Douglass, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Harriet Beecher Stowe
·      wrote short stories about the life and adventures of Harriet Tubman
·      drew maps of escape routes and illustrated them with the flora and fauna along the way
·      and more . . .

Map detailing the Underground Railroad escape routes.

            For my part, I had to spend evenings at the local library trying to find out all I could about the Underground Railroad. This was difficult because publishers were only beginning to realize that the United States was ready for books about black history. As I learned more, I was better able to inspire the students to think of new things we could study.
            Of course to do all that we did, the students needed reference books. I checked out as many as the local library allowed. I also encouraged students to get a free library card and check out books. Many did. The school itself had a small library with a worn set of encyclopedia. The students toted these up to our classroom for daily work.
            Months passed while we worked on this unit. Afterward, I wrote an article for a leading educational magazine about it. With the fee from that, I bought a book for each student to take home and read. This in itself was a lesson for them: The work they did in school could lead to making money and that money could be spent on books. And of course that first unit of study led us to devising a second, on the inner city and life in Dayton in 1968-69.
            On Tuesday I’ll share with you how the students inspired me.
                                                                        (Continued on Tuesday . . . )

Both illustrations are from the Wikipedia topic “The Underground Railroad.”

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Inner-City Learning

(Continued from Tuesday . . . )
In the fall of 1968, the Dayton school district assigned me to an inner-city grade school. I can’t remember how many seventh-grade students were in the classroom I entered so nervously. In my mind, however, I still see the rows of students staring at me. A white teacher.
            The first weeks were rocky. The students tested me to see who would lead them that year. Riotous noise frequently erupted from the room as the students acted out their frustration with someone who knew nothing of being black or poor.
            One student in particular tried to take over the classroom. In my teaching career I’d encountered this kind of rebellion only once, eight years before. I’d made first vows on January 1, 1960. The next day the Mother Superior sent me to Omaha, to a seventh-grade classroom in which the fifty students called themselves “Nazi Storm Troopers.” They intended to take over the school.
            At that time, the superior on mission told me I had to win the students over without any outside help. “If I come into that classroom and warn them to stop their shenanigans, they’ll never respect you.”
            At the end of that school year, I returned to the motherhouse. Exhausted, I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The mother superior assigned me the obedience of taking a long nap every afternoon between Vespers and Matins.           
            Now it was eight years later. I’d left the convent, taught at a Catholic girls academy, and sought out this inner-city school in Dayton. Here, I found myself once again unable to establish a classroom routine. This time I sought help from the vice principal in charge of discipline. He encouraged me to use physical punishment “to show them who’s boss.”

            For many weeks, I resisted, but teaching became increasingly difficult in that disruptive atmosphere. The year would be lost if I didn’t do something, and the students weren’t responding to respect or kindness. The vice principal told me they understood only a strong stance and physical discipline.
            One October day, he arrived at my classroom door carrying a thick, eight-inch-wide, wooden paddle. It was about two feet long with a nine-inch handle at one end. Holes had been bored through the “business end” of the paddle.
            He beckoned me out into the hall. “Today’s the day, Dee,” he whispered. “You need to show them you mean business. They’re respect you for this.” I couldn’t imagine showing these students their importance to me by paddling one of them. But the vice principal assured me this necessary.
            He asked the offending student to come out into the hall. The young boy stood up, waved to his expectant audience, and swaggered from the classroom. The vice principal told him to put his hands on the wall and to assume “the position.” Now the student’s buttocks faced me. I gripped the paddle. “Paddle him five times,” the vice principal advised.
            My first swat was gentle. I didn’t want to hurt this child.
            “Dee, put some heft into it.”
            Each swat was hesitant. Fearful. But by the fifth swat I’d swallowed my distaste and just wanted to get this over with: I hit the child’s buttocks squarely. The paddle dandling by my side, I told him to return to the classroom. He gave me a cheeky grin and said, “I never thought you had it in you.”
            In this strange way, I won over the students. That was after I rushed into the bathroom and threw up. The vice principal waited for me. “They tested you, Dee. And you just passed the test.”
            For the rest of the year the students and I worked amiably together. They shared their stories with me before the first bell rang. I learned that the school had no money for sport teams, extracurriculars, or buses; that some of the students’ families were on welfare; that the mother of one of the girls was a prostitute and so this seventh-grader often got little sleep; that most of the students spent their evenings babysitting their siblings and had no time left to study; that many parents worked at least two jobs to support their families. 
     Most of all, I learned that these children had the same dreams for their lives as all the children I'd ever taught. The only discernible difference between them and the youth I'd taught in Omaha, Seneca, Baileyville, Kansas City, and at the Catholic academy for girls in Dayton was . . . poverty.

            What I quickly came to understand was that the students divided themselves into four groups: poor blacks, poor whites, destitute blacks, destitute whites. The whites were mostly new arrivals from Tennessee and Kentucky. The long-time residents of Dayton called them “rednecks” or “crackers.” The former because when they left their farms and moved to Ohio they had red necks from working in the fields; that latter because they were poor whites.            
            Students of the two poor groups, whether black or white, came to school with bagged lunches. The destitute groups didn’t. They often started the day without breakfast. Hunger was part of that classroom, and it taught me quickly that black and white wasn’t the issue at that inner-city school. Poverty was.
            A few years later, I taught in another classroom—in New Hampshire—where poverty influenced learning. The Dayton students had taught me what I needed to know so as to help those high school students in New England.
            On Saturday, I’ll share with you just what those students and I did together in that inner-city classroom.
                                                                        (Continued on Saturday . . . )

Photo of building wall by federico stevanin for freedigitalphotos.net
Photo of child’s hand by africa for freedigitalphotos.net

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Realizing My Own Prejudice

Hello on this overcast chilly morning. First, I’ll share some news today. Then I’ll relate the story of how I discovered I was prejudiced against people of color.

The news:
·      Last Saturday, a fellow blogger, whom I greatly respect, posted a story linked to the following site: wolfirschhorn. You can find the original story there or a repeat of it on Melynda’s blog. I believe the story, which is an example of medical bias, is important for all of us because of its grave implications.
·      Many of you have read comments by Fishducky on my blog. Here’s her comment on Melynda’s blog for the story I am encouraging you to read. She’s given me permission to quote it. “ . . .  Should you be more eligible for any medical procedure if your IQ is 130 than if it was 120? If your hair is curly rather than straight? If you still have all your limbs or if you had to have one amputated? If you skin happens to be white instead of brown, yellow, or red?”
·      If you look to the right you’ll see the cover of The Golden Sky by EC Stilson. Elisa and I have become friends and it is an honor for me to promote her memoir. It speaks to anyone who has ever loved a child. This poignant story, fierce in its honesty, also relates what happens to parents when a child dies. Ultimately, The Golden Sky is a memoir of courage and renewal. It speaks to all of us who embrace the possibility of becoming fully human.
(Continued from Saturday . . . )
The story of my prejudice:
After leaving the convent, I worked for a publishing firm in Dayton and then at an all-girls Catholic high school. In May of 1968, while walking home after school, I saw a man standing at the corner mailbox. It was a rectangular box on a pillar. The letter slot at the top was long and narrow. Inserting a legal sized letter by its short width, not its long length, was always easier.

I searched and searched for a photograph
of a US Postal Service letter box from the 1960s.
This is as close as I could get, but it doesn’t have the slot.

            The man was trying to insert his letter by the long length. It kept getting caught at the side of the slot. Immediately, a jumble of thoughts skittered through my mind: He needs help. He doesn’t know that you have to insert the skinny end.
            Behind these thoughts lay another layer of nebulous feelings: That poor black man can’t figure out how to do that. I know and I’ll show him how.
            At that moment, the man deftly inserted the narrow side into the letterbox slot and ambled away. I stood stunned, having suddenly realized that I thought he was “slow on the uptake” because he was black. The realization stupefied me because I thought I considered all human beings equal and didn’t notice color.
            And yet I’d thought that thought. I couldn’t get away from my own bias. I’d based my opinion of the man’s capabilities on the color of his skin. Where had that prejudice come from?
            Perhaps no white person raised in Missouri between 1936, when I was born, and 1958, when I went away to the convent, was immune to such thoughts.  I don’t know. I do remember—rather vividly—that I was aware of the words Amos and Andy as I stood there looking at the letterbox.  
            As a child, I’d listened to the radio program Amos and Andy. Two white actors played the roles of two black men. Amos was hard working and bright. Andy was gullible and, I’d always thought, just a little slow in understanding Amos’s plans for solving any problem that came along.
            So the thought behind the thought behind the thought—the miasma of racism lurking within—was that blacks were not as intelligent as whites. Never mind that Amos had been extraordinarily bright and creative. I clearly based all black men on Andy.
            The next day, I called the Dayton school district and applied for a job in an inner-city public school. I wanted to teach black students so that I might rid myself of the rottenness within my thoughts. I’d never taught any black students or lived among any black families. I needed to be among blacks.
            I wanted those students to help me rid myself of bias. I didn’t stop to think that my prejudice might influence my teaching and harm the students. I was thinking only of myself and my need to let go of bigotry.
            In Thursday’s posting I’ll relate to you what happened in that classroom.
                                                            (Continued on Thursday . . . )

Photograph from Wikepedia.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Integration at the Pool

(Continued from Thursday . . . )
In Thursday’s posting, a pregnant white woman and a young black boy on a Kansas City streetcar made me aware of racism. That happened when I was ten—in  1946. Today’s story took place when I was eighteen—in 1954. That’s the year the Swope Park swimming pool was integrated after two years of legal wrangling. 
           According to the City of Kansas City website, “At 1,805-acres, Swope Park is the crown jewel of the Kansas City, Mo., park system. As Kansas City's largest park, and one of the largest urban parks in the United States, Swope Park is home to many of Kansas City’s finest attractions.” One of these “finest attractions” is its large, free swimming pool.

A pool in London that is somewhat like, 
but bigger than, 
the 1954 Swope Park pool.

            In late spring of 1954, reporters for the two Kansas City newspapers began to write stories about what would happen on opening day at Swope Park. Many of those they interviewed vowed their children would never again swim in the spacious pool. The city’s residents hurled hateful epithets at the judges who’d handed down the ruling and threatened anyone who tried to integrate the pool. People placed bets on whether any “white” children would show up on opening day.
            I resolved to be there. Not to be there would betray the boy I’d sat next to on that streetcar eight years before. I’d never again seen him, but his face and his hunched, bony shoulders remained etched in my memory.
             The day before the pool opened, I stayed overnight at my grandmother’s in Kansas City. The next morning I donned my two-piece swimming suit. Over it, I wore shorts and a tee shirt. Sandals graced my feet.
            Downstairs in the living room. Grandma Ready sat on her throne. It was a Queen Anne chair from which she issued edicts and orders to the rest of the family. I announced I’d be back around five p.m.
            “And where do you think you’re going, Missy?” she asked.
            “To Swope Park.”
            “You’re not leaving this house. No grandchild of mine is swimming next to n-----s.”
            “This grandchild is.”
            “You’ll be swimming in n----- pee! Maybe swallowing it!”
            I laughed out loud. She glowered at me.
            “Do you think whites don’t pee in pools?” I asked, truly interested in what she’d reply.
            “Only lowdown white trash.”
            “Then that’s what I am ‘cause I’ve peed in that pool before when I couldn’t hold it in.”
            “I’m not letting you swim in n----- pee. It’ll stain your skin. You won’t be able to rub out the black.”
            “Grandma!” Her ignorance amazed me.
            Note that I’m not saying her racism amazed me. I’d been on my way to her house eight years before. She’d been the first family member to whom I’d told the story of the racism I’d encountered. Her response? “That n----- should have stood up and wiped off his germs. Then he should have let both you and that pregnant woman sit there. No manners. They just have no manners.”
            I’d seen the whole situation a different way but my grandmother remained convinced that the pregnant woman was right: being too close to that boy might have somehow contaminated the unborn child. I thought then. I think now. That it was the hatred within the mother that might cause contamination.
            On Thursday’s posting I left a comment about a song from South Pacific. Inger reminded me of who actually sang the song back in 1949 when the musical South Pacific premiered. How brave Oscar Hammerstein II was to have written these words in the midst of the racism of that time.

You've got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You've got to be taught
From year to year,
It's got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You've got to be carefully taught!

From the 1949 Broadway musical “South Pacific”
with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II 
and music by Richard Rodgers.

On that summer day in 1954, I took the bus to Swope Park and spent the day in the pool meeting other young people whose skin was a different shade from mine. We swam and laughed despite the protest and picketing, the hateful faces and the epithets. We ate at the concession stand while policemen guarded the premises.

Another pool, this one in Texas, that is comparable to the 1954 Swope Park pool.

            Throughout the summer, the newspapers reported that attendance at the pool was at one-third its normal level. So children of every color were staying away. And why wouldn’t they when the threat of violence was always there? But I went back again and again. I liked the coolness of the water in the sweltering heat of a Missouri summer.
            My grandmother tried to teach me to hate. My mother simply showed me how to love. She won, hands down.
                                                           (Continued on Tuesday . . . )

Photographs from Wikipedia.

PLEASE NOTE: A fellow blogger has posted an important happening on her blog under the title wolfhirschhornEveryone needs to read this and to consider its implications. Please click on the title and read this posting. It's important we all become aware of this. Please click now.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Encountering Hate

(Continued from Tuesday . . . )
As I remember, Missouri didn’t have segregated public transportation when I was growing up. That is not to say that racism didn’t flourish here. It did. I just wasn’t aware of it until fifth grade, when I was ten.
            Mom emphasized in every way she could that all people were created equal. Sometimes I’d tell a story that indicated I thought I was better than someone else. Immediately, my mother would set my thinking straight.
            “Dolores, don’t brag about your gift for numbers. What about Barbara June? What’s her gift?”
            “Playing the piano.”
            “And Bobby?”
            “And your brother?”
            “Figuring out how to do things.”
            “See? Different gifts. Noticing that makes all the difference.”
            Arrogance wasn’t tolerated in our home. And anything smacking of intolerance was even less accepted. My mother believed in the “brotherhood of man.” At school, the nuns seemed to think that only Roman Catholics and a few other “saintly people” would go to heaven. Mom quashed that idea.
            “Dolores, do you think God’s prejudiced?”
            “Probably not. It’s not right.”
            “He’ll welcome anyone who helps others. Just concentrate on that.”
            Given this background, I was ill prepared for the blatant hatred of racial prejudice when I encountered it on a Kansas City streetcar.

            I was taking the streetcar to my grandmother’s house. All the seats were filled. In the aisle, children, women, and men stood packed together. My father would have said, “like sardines.”
            I stood pressed against two young women, one of them pregnant. I was turned toward the right side of the car and spent my time reading the ads posted above the windows. I looked up, not down.
            At the next stop, the man sitting in the seat next to which I was standing stood up, excused himself, and began edging his way through the crowd. I’d been taught that pregnant women and women with young children were always to be given special consideration. So instead of simply sitting down, I turned to the pregnant women and said, “Mam, would you like this seat?”
            She glanced down, and her pretty, white face twisted. She frowned. She grimaced. Her lips thinned. Her eyes became fierce. She glared as if in disgust.
            I followed that glare downward and saw, sitting with his hands clasped and pressed between his legs, a young boy, no more than my own age. I looked back up at the woman, her face so ugly now, and asked, “Mam, do you want the seat, being pregnant and all?”
            “I’d never sit down next to that n-----boy if you paid me. He’d contaminate my baby,” she hissed.
            So I sat down. I wanted to reach and take his clasped hands from between his legs and shake them and say, “It’s alright. My mom’d say she’s just ignorant. But that’s no excuse for being mean.”
            But I said nothing for he was staring fixedly out the window, his right shoulder turned away from me. I said nothing, but I thought lots. I wanted to know if that happened often. I wanted to tell him how my classmates used to laugh at me. And how I cried because of this. I wanted to know if he felt like crying. I wanted simply to know that boy.
            Where did he go to school? What subject was his favorite? Was he good in arithmetic too? Did he have a little brother? What would his mom say about that pregnant white woman? How often did someone treat him like that? How scared was he?
            I asked nothing. We sat in silence, riding the streetcar. By the time I got off at the corner of 39th Street, the aisles were empty. No one had to make the choice about whether to sit next to that ten-year-old black boy. No one had to choose whether to be contaminated.
            I never forgot. That hate-filled, ignorant woman will always be for me the face of racism and that shuddering young boy, his hands clasped between his knees, will always be its bitter fruit. On Saturday, I’ll share with you how that one incident led to my first foray into civil rights.
            Before you leave this story today, please click on the following link to read Rita’s story of her encounter with God on the bus.
                                                                        (Continued on Saturday . . . )

Photo of streetcar from Wikipedia

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Following Mom's Example

(Continued from Saturday . . . )
Today’s posting is one I wrote for June 9, 2011. Hardly anyone read my blog then, so I suspect it will be new to most of you. My reason for reposting it is to illustrate how my mother’s example, as displayed in last Saturday’s posting, influenced me.
             In that post I shared with you how she responded to everyone with great respect. I learned from her that in giving, we receive. The following story illustrates that. It took place in the spring of 1967, a few months after I left the convent in December 1966.
            Three weeks later, I was offered a job in Dayton, Ohio. Before I left home, Dad warned that men might “hit on me” if I followed the  same route every day. He cautioned against that. I posted Dad’s advice on June 7, 2011, should you like to read its humor.

Mom and Dad on the farm in the mid-1950s.

            Dad was proven right; men did approach me. They didn’t “hit on” me however. Instead, they asked for money. I always gave them whatever change or dollar bills I had. I’d been taught that we could come upon Jesus unawares and not recognize him. In my mind, these men were Jesus. I couldn’t say no.
            One day the vice president of the publishing firm where I worked saw me handing money to a man hunkered against a store wall. “Thank you, Ma’am,” the drifter said and smiled. A serene smile over the gaps of missing teeth. Surely Jesus.           
            I walked on to where my employer waited. “Dee, don’t give these guys money,” he said. “I know how much you make.”
            “They might be Jesus.”
            I explained. He shook his head. “If you have to give them something, tell them you’ll buy breakfast for them. They’ll turn that down flat. They’re only looking for booze money.”
             I took his advice and found him wrong in his assumptions. I ate breakfast with several of these men who inhabited the sidewalks, their heads drooping between tented knees. Together, we gobbled eggs, bacon and sausage links, hash browns, toast, sweet rolls, coffee lightened with cream. All the while, the men shared their life stories with me. Each had a story to tell that showed me the mystery of human existence and the vagaries of life.
            One of these drifters had a different definition of woman from what I’d learned in the Scholasticate—a definition I shared in this blog on June 4, 2011.
            On the spring day I met this defining man, I was wearing a new dress. Short-sleeved. Bright yellow splotched with white daisies. A narrow belt.

A dress I bought the summer after leaving the convent.

             I stood across from the office, waiting for the light to change. In soiled clothes, he teetered toward me. His face sported whiskers and dirt. His straggly hair hung against his hunched shoulders. This is Jesus I thought.
            I started to dig for coins.
            “Ma’am, you’re one mighty fine woman,” he mumbled.
            I dropped the coins and quickly leaned over to pick them up, my thoughts scrambled. He’s talking about my figure. This dress is too clingy. My body’s not hidden in black serge. He can see the outline of my bosom. I covered it with my purse.
            “Did ya hear what I told ya? One damn fine woman,” he slurred.
            “Thank you.”
            “Real perky.”
            “Thank you.”
            The light changed. I started across. He followed.
            “One damn fine figure of a woman.”
            “Thank you.” I was walking faster.
            “I’m tellin’ ya the truth, Ma’am. One mighty fine figure.”
            “Thank you.”
            I wanted to run, but this was Jesus. He might smell like whiskey, but who says Jesus has to be a teetotaler? He was the most famous brewer of all time. Witness Cana. Who says he has to wear newly laundered clothes? This was Jesus.
            “How’d you like some breakfast?”
            I treated him to a meal. Hank was a fine man.
            And I?
            I wasn’t a seamstress. But I was one fine figure of a woman.
            Damn fine.
            Now surely this is an example of how in giving, we receive.
An afterword: For much of my adult life I let others define me. Only in the past few years have I chosen to grow into and embrace my own definitions.
            During this month of January, I’ve planned a series of postings about my  peaceful activism. Working on this series, I’ve realized that since my youth, I’ve been a seeker of justice for all.
            Once again, this on-line memoir is revealing to me something about myself. Thus is the healing power of telling our story.
                                                            (Continued on Thursday . . . )