I’m getting the you-poor-dear look as chemo makes me bald and blotchy. People make a point of telling me how beautiful my headscarves are. Right. I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot of these on the red carpet this year. This being my second time around with cancer, I take it in stride. Everyone means to be kind. They think: There but for the grace of God go I.
Back when I was a working human being, I advocated for kids in the juvenile justice system. Delinquents, if you will. I use that word so that you will understand, though I despise it. A delinquent is someone who’s failed to meet an obligation on time. These kids haven’t failed. They’ve been failed—by mom’s pervert boyfriend, by schools that see them as a drag on standardized test scores, by communities where it’s easier to come by a Glock than a square meal, and by public policy never intended to protect or serve them.
Yet these “delinquents” rarely get the you-poor-dear look, and I'm wondering what that means. They’re usually seen as fires to be extinguished. But I always think: There but for the grace of God go I.
I love old movies, always have. One rainy night in high school, I felt a tremendous sense of beer-and-marijuana-inspired confidence. I did Gene Kelly’s entire “Singin’ In the Rain” number in a shopping center parking lot for the amusement of my friends. I cannot dance sober, and beer generally doesn’t improve one’s coordination. In my mind, though, I was so graceful that I gave gravity the slip. It is one of the happiest moments I remember from my growing up, to the extent that I can remember it.
Gene’s dance ends with him encountering a disapproving looking officer of the law. So did mine. Just like in the movie, I smiled, shrugged and sang, “I’m dancin’ and singin’ in the rain.” And just like in the movie, the cop watched as I walked away whistling.
Did I mention that I’m white? I think that piece of info is critical to understanding why the anecdote concludes as it does. In other respects, my youth bore a striking similarity to those of kids who wind up in cuffs – often for less serious missteps than recreating MGM musicals under the influence. I just didn’t look like the kind of girl who gets arrested. In other words, I was white. Appearances, I learned at an early age, mean a lot.
My mother left school in junior high. She fed her kids and got us through college by waiting tables. Doing well in school, she assured us, would mean doing well in life. I remember practicing penmanship with her, as she sipped strong tea to stay awake after a hard day. “Do your very best, Pumpkin,” she’d say. Anyone could succeed if she worked hard, Mom promised.
Kids tend to believe what their parents tell them in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Mom worked harder than anyone I have ever known and was not a success, not materially. At night, she’d soak her aching feet in Epsom salt. I remember playing at her feet one night when her calluses cracked and the basin filled with blood. It was the moment I decided to become a writer. “People must not know about Mommy,” I thought. “If they did, they’d help her. I’m going to write stories about people like her when I grow up, so that everyone will know.”
It was a less dramatic moment for her. She just sent me to the linen closet to get the old brown towel we used for drying the dog after a bath. She did not want to ruin a good one with her blood. That was my mother in a nutshell. She forbade life from leaving visible stains.
We have something called an “achievement gap” in this country, where low-income and minority kids score lower on standardized tests and quit school earlier than their richer and whiter peers. I prefer the term “opportunity gap,” because it places the blame where it belongs—on the inferior schools and a nation that drowns them with low expectations.
It was Mom’s clear expectation that her children would excel in school, and we did. We’re all pretty sharp pencils. I switched schools in seventh grade, and after some standardized testing the teacher announced to my new classmates that I was “a genius,” thus dooming me socially. I am not a genius by any measure. I was clearly smarter than my teacher, however, and he never forgave me for it. But he never looked down on me as a kid being raised by a couple of drop-outs, one of whom kept drinking himself out of jobs. As far as he could tell, I was a bright, shiny middle class kid.
Mom didn’t just inspire us to work hard; she disguised us as kids everyone expected to excel. I went to school looking like Shirley Temple, every hair tamed with Dippity-do. I emerged from a perfectly trimmed house to catch the bus. Nobody gave me the you-poor-dear look back then. Nobody knew we had a picnic table and discarded office chairs in the dining room, where bread and gravy was sometimes considered an entrée. As I got older, there were strict rules about make-up and jewelry. I always looked like a child of respectability, even soaking wet and stoned in a parking lot.
Mom hid many things from the outside world, most heroically Dad. I believed that my father was a vampire. He would roll in at 5 p.m., agitated and short-tempered. That was OK. Other people had tightly wound fathers, too.
Once the sun went down, things got scary. There were fits of rage followed by heaving sobs. Occasionally he’d box with an adversary I could not see. Sometimes he seemed dead. All after sundown—which convinced me that my dad transformed in the dark like Bella Lugosi. (Old movies played a large and not always positive role in my childhood.) I slept lightly, always petrified that he’d come into my room and bite my neck.
Later I realized that it was not sundown that transformed my father. It was Ernest and Julio Gallo. By the time the moon was out, he was plastered. I still cannot stand his drink of choice, white wine. Cannot get it past my nose.
I remember the first time I came home to find a puddle of urine in the hallway. I would have been in high school, when his alcoholic dementia was in full swing. While Mom hid his drinking from the neighbors, I confronted it constantly. “You don’t understand what an unhappy childhood I had,” he told me after I found him with a pint in the basement.
“Likewise,” I said.
That sarcasm seeped into my school life. One of my teachers told me that I had “an attitude.”
“Of course I have an attitude,” I replied. “I’m not dead.” (Funny how that catch phrase still works for me.)
I was punished only by a withering look. Everyone isn’t so lucky. For example, African-American kids are 2.6 times as likely to be suspended nationally as whites. I was no angel. My first chore upon getting my license was to drive Dad to the liquor store everyday. Imagine the possibilities. But I was never denied access to a classroom, as so many kids are because of suspension, expulsion and arrest. The main criticism I got from teachers was that I was an “underachiever.”
I have seen black and Latino kids routinely suspended for cafeteria shoving matches, disrupting class (an Olympic event I took at least a silver in) and skipping school. I’ve also seen them arrested for this same level of misbehavior. There are no national statistics on how much more likely kids of color are to get arrested in school than white kids. We don’t care enough to collect the data. But in every state or municipality I know of where people have crunched the numbers, race has an overwhelming effect. Last year a study found that in Boston African-Americans accounted for slightly more than one-third of the student body but represented about 63 percent of all arrests in public schools
Many advocates shy away from the phrase “school-to-prison pipeline,” because educators object to it. I object to kids getting arrested because of the color of their skin.
There were security guards all over the veterans hospital where my father died. The place seemed sketchy with its ancient carpet and flickering fluorescents. It smelled of Kool-Aid and vomit. Guys haunted by god-knows-what demons wandered around the place. “Don’t get on the elevator alone,” one of the nurses warned us.
Dad looked like some documentary about famine. His limbs were like sticks; his stomach, distended; his eyes, yellow as egg yolks. He didn't talk much, but he’d call me “Momma” when I came to visit. He’d always said I looked like his own mother, and his grasp on reality wasn’t great at that point. It took four months for the cirrhosis to kill him. Every day after school, I’d drive my mother to visit him. I’d do homework in the corner of the hospital room, avoiding him as much as possible.
We were leaving one night when we ran into a chaplain. He was unaccountably cheerful and had obviously talked with Mom before.
“This is my Colleen. She’s a freshman at Fairfield University,” Mom said.
I avoided his eyes and he playfully kicked my foot to get me to look up.
“What kind of grades are you getting?” he asked.
He looked at my mom quizzically. “Straight A’s,” Mom assured him.
“Good work!” he said in happy amazement.
I realized then what Mom’s concealment had done all those years. She’d made it plausible that I’d be a smart kid. The priest, who’d seen my background up close and personal, didn’t expect it. When he heard I was actually a good student, it was like telling him I was a blind sharpshooter. Something for the folks at Reader’s Digest to write about.
I’m big on at-risk kids because I secretly was one. I should have ended up on welfare or behind bars. Life worked out considerably better, because my mother was a master of disguise and because of simple luck.
The lucky part is that I’m white. Race is beyond even my mother’s powers of concealment. Having a different skin color would have altered my experience in school, and education did indeed change my life.
In some really meaningful ways, being white in America is like winning the lottery every day. We live longer. Women of color who get breast cancer are more likely to die than white women like myself. We also make more money, populate most of the bodies that run things, and we don’t proportionately populate the shame of our democracy, the world’s most gargantuan prison system.
Conservatives will argue with the conclusions I draw from my experiences. Did I work hard? Sure, probably harder than my more advantaged peers. But I had the opportunity to make my work count because few people and public policies ever really counted me out.
Being white gave me a chance to be perceived as a student with potential. It’s a simple piece of luck, like being healthy or not. Except, my health is a true, objective negative. Race is neither negative nor positive, until prejudice enters the mix. Prejudice is an entirely human construct. So it isn’t the grace of God, white American pity, or guilt that’s lacking in the opportunity gap; it’s the lack of goodness of human beings and the abundance of brittle policy that fails to protect black, brown and poor Americans from that lack of goodness.
I’ve been the recipient of so much kindness lately. People make dinner for my family, give me rides to appointments, walk my dog. I am seen as a good person who is suffering because of bad luck. I’d say that’s accurate. But the same is true of most of the kids who will spend this night behind bars. Where is the equivalent of a pink ribbon for them?
Having cancer twice stinks. People ask if I ever wonder: Why me? I do, but I wonder with an attitude. I wonder why I, who had so many of the checkboxes for failure, am sitting here watching deer graze outside my big house; where I shoot the breeze with the lawyers, journalists and artists who make up my circle of friends; where my husband and I ponder what we’ll do with all this space once our beautiful, high-achieving kid goes off to college; where my life, though far too fragile, is still a thousand times better than it was at the start. Why me? I wonder. Why not everybody?
Colleen Shaddox has written for National Public Radio, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Woman’s Day, PARADE and many others.