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“Tattoos and no-tattoos can be friends,” my 5-year-old daughter interjects into our small group’s conversation about tattoos on a Tuesday evening.

Yes, I assure her, we can be friends with people who look different from us.

We live in divided and divisive times. We can categorize our neighbors into endless groups. Red states and blue states. Christians and “non-believers.” Protestant and Catholic. Evangelical and mainline Protestant. Blue collar and white collar. Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter.

I met my childhood best friend when she invited me to her sixth birthday party, as we stood together on the steps outside our elementary school. She was friendly and open in that way that only young children can be. I eagerly accepted the invitation and began a friendship that would last through high school and into the early years of college.

She was brown-skinned and I was white. Race wasn’t something we ever talked about, unless she brought it up in a joking way. “I don’t like white people,” she sometimes said, “except you and my mom.” She called herself a Nigerian princess.

I remember lots of sleepovers, Michael Jackson dance contests, endless rounds of Monopoly. I remember playing soccer in the Oregon rain. I remember going to see the Dave Matthews Band play in the Gorge, and the time the WOW Hall advertised our theater troupe on the same poster as a Slick Rick show. I remember writing rap songs for the band we started in third grade, and in college when our drunk friend got locked in a dorm room stairwell overnight I remember never laughing so much as I did with her.

I don’t remember ever asking my best friend about race, about what it was like to be one of the only brown-skinned kids in our school. Was it hard for her? If it was, she never let me know. Our high school group was a microcosm of diversity for Eugene, with three of my closest friends being ethnic minorities with immigrant parents from Nigeria, Korea, and Mexico.

Our friendship ended as suddenly and inexplicably as it began, with her one day choosing to stop returning my calls without any falling out or slow drifting away.

In college and beyond, my friendships seem to have become more and more homogenous. We are a 99 percent white, upwardly mobile, advanced degree holding, NPR-listening group of folks. We like to talk about social justice. We have backyard chickens and drink kombucha. We go to church, or used to before becoming disillusioned with organized religion. If we do have tattoos, they are discrete.

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Backyard chickens are so trendy right now! Too bad they attract rats.

I tell myself that my friends are similar to me because I don’t have many opportunities to get to know people who are different. But is that entirely true?

“You are the light of the world — like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house.” — Matthew 5:14-15 (NLT)

It’s certainly easier to be friends with people who share similar backgrounds and interests as ourselves. But Jesus calls us to be a light to the world, something I can’t do if I remain cloistered in my kombucha-drinking, NPR-listening corner of the church. For my part, I want to be more intentional about widening my circle of acquaintances to include more diversity of race, religion, socioeconomic status and sexual orientation. Within the Church as a whole, we also need to do a better job of promoting dialogue between Christians with different political views and scriptural interpretations.

I wish I could go back to the openness of childhood, when it was so easy to make friends with anyone regardless of what they looked like or who their parents were. Fourteen years after my friendship with my Nigerian princess best friend ended, it still hurts to write about her. I wish we could go back to being friends like we used to be, but time has changed us, and we can’t ever go back to that place we stood, two first graders on the steps outside our elementary school, fulfilling Martin Luther King’s dream without even knowing.

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I wrote this post as part of a series on “Seeing the Other,” for the CitySalt Church blog. 

photo credit: numstead rooster via photopin (license)

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I hadn’t been quite sure where home was for awhile. After Spencer and I got married we moved every few years to a new apartment, from Eugene to southeast Portland, to Beaverton, back to southeast Portland, and finally back to Eugene. We rented a month-to-month apartment in Portland for three years, just waiting for the next step as we continued applying to jobs that we hoped would offer more stability. Even when I was pregnant with our first child, and during the first year of her life, we continued to apply to jobs out of the area, ready to move whenever needed. We even considered an offer I received to teach 5th grade girls in Kuwait, before (wisely) rejecting the idea for logistical reasons.

I knew that we were not home, just in a sort of limbo.

As a mom, I couldn’t survive in this rootless state. I needed deep connections, support, and stability. Ultimately I decided I needed to return to the place that was foundational in my life, the city I had lived in from birth until getting married at age 22. Eugene.

I didn’t know how much I loved Eugene until we moved back. I didn’t appreciate how many places around town were integrated deeply into layers of my unconscious. Memories were everywhere. Going for a walk at the Arboretum, for example, transported me back to early childhood, when I was close friends with the daughters of the groundskeeper.

In Portland I had felt so far away from my past, having virtually no ties left to childhood other than my parents. I didn’t have siblings, and I was no longer connected to any of my childhood friends.

I didn’t realize that you could love a place, that a whole town could be your companion in the absence of friends. Eugene had been with me through so much, in a way that no human being ever had. In Eugene I had learned to walk, ride a bike, climb a tree. As a child, I spent hours in apple trees in my backyard reading books. I had climbed to the top of Spencer’s Butte countless times. I had skinned my knees on the blacktop at my grade school, and gotten covered with mud during soccer games. I had made best friends and lost them, fallen in love, graduated college, gotten married.

So it was that when we moved because I needed to escape the devastating isolation of my life as a mom in Portland – I found refuge not just in the support of my parents but in my hometown itself. I knew this town, and somehow it seemed that Eugene knew me too.

And slowly I returned to myself.

Still, it took three years before we were able to buy a house. Three more years of living in a month-to-month rental. First with one toddler, who quickly grew into a preschooler, and soon our son was added to the family. We were a family of four in an 800-square-foot apartment with a tiny concrete deck as our yard. It helped that we were near many nice parks in our southeast Eugene neighborhood. Still, I was thrilled when we began our home search last summer, and overjoyed when we signed for a house, a modest three-bedroom in a quiet southwest Eugene neighborhood, several months later.

We moved into our new house the week of my 33rd birthday. My family and I had finally found our way home.

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Spencer and I take a selfie after signing for our first house. So happy!

 

The women are crowded into the dressing room, peeling wet swimsuits from their rounded bellies. An unusual cross-section of women – a technology specialist for the school district, a yoga teacher recently moved back home from life in the tropics, a couple of my high school classmates. One woman, 36 weeks pregnant with her second child, is in the middle of a divorce from her addict husband. “It’s better this way,” we assure her. She is stoic, accepting the way things are.

A set of pregnant sisters has come to swim class tonight. “Are you excited that your sister is pregnant too?” one woman quietly asks the older of the two.

“No,” she shakes her head. “But I’m coming to accept it. I’ve been planning my pregnancy for years – hers wasn’t planned. She always gets all the attention, being the younger sister.”

While pulling on clothes over still damp skin, a woman says her husband’s afraid she’ll turn in Regan from The Exorcist during labor. “Hmm,” I say, from the vantage of my second pregnancy. “Are you planning for a natural birth?”

She says she is, though she’s decided on birthing in the hospital rather than the associated birth center. “I need a big room for all my friends,” she says. “They’re weird so I don’t want them hanging out in the waiting room. Some of them have been to one too many Rainbow Gatherings.” She laughs. “Plus, where would they smoke in the birth center?”

“Hmmm,” I say again. I want to say that her friends certainly won’t be smoking in the hospital’s maternity ward, but I just smile and nod.

My first night in class there was just a small group, 5 of us, and one of us expectant mamas cried as she talked about the C-section that was scheduled a few days away for her breech baby.

“I just don’t want to be cut open,” she said.

But aren’t we all about to be cut open, our hearts exposed, in the process of bringing a new life into the world?

We think we are preparing for the marathon of labor, when really, it’s the parenting that we should be saving all our strength for. It’s parenting, more than giving birth, that’s the test of a lifetime.

Me at 36 weeks pregnant.

Me at 36 weeks pregnant with my second child.

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I arrive at the middle school at 7:30 a.m., a solid 45 minutes before first period. I need time to find the classroom, make sure it’s unlocked, read the teacher lesson plans, understand the lesson plans, and find any necessary materials. “I’m subbing for 6th grade Language Arts,” I tell the secretary.

She looks at the sub info on her desk. Her expression grows concerned. “No,” she says, “It’s art – can you handle that?”

“Of course,” I say. I have 2 years of experience teaching elementary and middle school, a year of student teaching, and a year of subbing at a high school. “I mean, if she has a lesson plan, I can follow it.”

“Hmmm. I think she uses lesson plans,” the secretary says unconvincingly.

I take my substitute teaching ID and find the classroom. The “lesson plan” is bare bones – in each class students are to use the period to work on finishing up their perspective drawings. The teacher desk is a mess, the floor littered with trash. I wander next door and introduce myself to the shop teacher, a friendly older gentleman who says I can send kids to him if there’s a problem. Even when I had my own private school classroom, I often sent kids to the teacher next door, so this comment doesn’t concern me.

First period comes along, a small group of mostly 8th grade boys. Though they mainly choose to goof off rather than work, this isn’t a concern for me. Some of them are working and some are doing other homework. No one is particularly causing a problem.

The 7th grade class is a different story. A large group of 35 or so, they are a mass of barely contained energy, spinning rulers around their pencils and throwing paper across the table at each other. One table catches my eye and I quickly identify the ringleader. His behavior is not the easygoing goofing off of the 8th grade class. I’ve visited several prisons and chatted with inmates, but never before seen the cold, casually hate-filled look that was in his eyes. I certainly wouldn’t expect it in a 13-year-old child. Great, I’ve entered the plot of Dangerous Minds. Here we go.

I remind this table a few times to get on task. I take away the rulers they won’t stop spinning in the air. I hear the ringleader speaking in a threatening way to another boy at his table. “Is there a problem?”

“No,” he says and smiles. “No problem here.”

As this table continues to show no pretense of doing the assignment despite my reminders, I take the ringleader aside and ask him to go work in the shop class next door. “Fuck that,” he says. “I’ll go to the SRC.” I hand him a referral slip, which he throws on the floor as he walks out.

The table continues not to work. This is surprising – I would expect some attempt at following instructions after this. A few minutes later I ask another boy to leave the class, this time escorting him to the shop class next door. Who do I find in the shop class? Ringleader. “You’re not supposed to be here,” I say.

“Bitch, you told me to come here.”

I do not respond, just walk to the shop teacher and ask him to give Ringleader a behavior referral and send him to SRC. When I get back to the classroom, a girl from The Table – a girl who also has cold, empty eyes – has wandered off to the other side of the room and is doing a cartwheel. At this point I no longer care about this class. I look at the clock. There are 20 minutes left and then I will have a lunch break. If I can make it through the day without quitting, I will have earned $150. I look back at the girl. The other students are looking at her and whispering, giggling. Clearly she wants to get sent out of the classroom, too, like her friends. Not going to happen. Now she’s doing something with scissors. That makes me nervous. Sharp scissors and disaffected, possibly gang-affiliated teenagers are not a good mix.

The 20 minutes pass with little incident. Students file out. I assess the area that Gang Girl had been in – damage left is a puddle of paint on the floor. It’s lunchtime now, and in a few hours I’ll be gone. I don’t have to come back to this school, or to any middle school ever if I don’t want to.

I’m sorry for these teachers, sure. But I’m more sorry for the kids.

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photo credit: Paint Job 2 via photopin (license)