I threw my first punch in first grade.
Under a west Texas sun, Shon and I laughed as we competed against each other to see who could swing the highest. He was the Chris Rock of our class and he was using his humor to his advantage. Apparently, the more he made me crack up, the more my swinging skills diminished.
As we were engaged in our contest, a group of boys snuck up from behind and shoved Shon off his swing. Startled, I put on my brakes by gliding my feet across the gravel. As I did, Shon took off and sprinted across the playground. “Let’s go get that n*gger!” said one of the white boys as they chased after Shon like a pack of wild wolves.
Realizing what was happening, I began to fume. Shon was fast, but the wolf pack was closing in on him. It was clear he needed my help. I ran with all my might to the soccer goal where they had him trapped.
When I caught up to the huddle, I was relieved to see no one was hitting him, but they had him surrounded and hurled insults as he sat on the ground covering his head. Words can hit in places no fist ever could.
Wanting to stop this, I tackled the first kid I saw and started throwing awkward punches. Immediately, the other boys pushed me off, kicked me in the gut, and called me, “n*gger lover!” I hoped a teacher would put an end to this, but they never did. From a distance, it probably looked like we were just boys being boys.
Thankfully, a whistle blew signaling recess was over and the wolf pack walked away congratulating themselves, leaving Shon and I to lick our wounds. He helped me to my feet and we walked back to the school building. Swallowing his emotions, his typically happy face was frozen except for his quivering jaw. I said the only thing I could think of, “I’m sorry that happened to you.” I suggested he tell the teacher when we got inside, but he nodded his head no. He didn’t want to speak about it, and for some reason, didn’t want anyone to know. I think this is what it looks like when a wall goes up.
I moved away shortly after the playground incident, but I will never forget the helplessness I experienced walking back with Shon. In that moment, I felt guilty for being white. I know I shouldn’t, but that’s how I felt. Intuitively, I knew treating someone like dirt because of the color of their skin was ugly, cruel, and ignorant. No one ever sat me down and taught me that, yet somewhere in my six-year-old mind, I understood racism was not only awful, but unjust.
Why was that? Where does our sense of justice and injustice originate? I didn’t know it at the time, but it comes from the same place that tells us grabbing a cooing baby by the legs and smashing her against a brick wall is perverse—our conscience.
Each of us are given a conscience; that gentle nudge that points our nose in the right direction. Or, depending on the circumstances, that chirping pigeon that annoys us when we’re drifting off into subhuman territory. “Conscience is a man’s compass,” declared Vincent Van Gogh “and though the needle sometimes deviates, though one often perceives irregularities in directing one’s course by it, still one must try to follow its direction.”
It makes me wonder, what went wrong with the boys from the wolf pack? Did the voice of their conscience begin to sound an awful lot like their family and friends? Do they feel remorse from their actions? Can their prejudice and bigotry be overcome?
I believe they can.
And I believe people can change.
If you have been raised to think and act this way, it’s not too late to become a hero. Recognizing you are in the wrong is a great first step. Making things right with those you’ve wronged is where the healing begins. Teaching future generations about what’s wrong and right is a legacy worth building.
Heroes not only fight against injustice, they fight for peace.
May that be true of us all.