A few weeks ago, a friend of mine and I were having a chat when she asked me a question I had some difficulty answering. We were discussing race relations/equality/justice and so forth, all issues about which I am infinitely passionate. My friend asked, “Where did you get your intense devotion to issues of racial equality?”
Hmmm. . . where did I get it? I can think of oodles of examples that nurtured it along the way, but the initial springboard seemed a bit of a mystery.
My friend asked, “Did you come from a liberal family that cared deeply about social justice?”
After L-ing a bit too OL (thanks for the line, Modern Family writers), I said, “No, that would not have been it.” My family was about as equality minded as any other conservative white family in the 60s and 70s.
“Do you think it has something to do with being a lesbian? You know, your own experiences with inequality naturally transferring to other minority experiences?”
I think that certainly has an impact on my ability to understand the pain of being on the shorter end of the “equality” stick, but still not the source.
I pondered this question further on my own over the next few weeks. I wondered if, in the words of the sage philosopher Lady Gaga, I was simply “born this way?” I’m sad to say that probably wasn’t the case either. So, what was it? Could I go back and discover the seed? I pondered this question in depth, as I am wont to do with just about any single thing one can imagine.
Then I thought of Mrs. Soper.
Mrs. Soper was my first grade Sunday school teacher. If you had told me then that she was 112 years old, I would have accepted that without reservation. I’m pretty certain she had taught the first grade Sunday school class for 86 years already by the time I arrived.
One Sunday morning, Mrs. Soper was asking for a volunteer, probably to lead the prayer. No one jumped at this golden opportunity, so I started pointing my pudgy six-year-old fingers at each member of the class and reciting, “Eeny-meeny-miny-mo, catch a nigger by the toe . . . ”
Mrs. Soper pointed her gnarled, 112-year-old finger at me and snapped, “We don’t say that word.”
I slunk back into my chair, cowed and embarrassed. There is no greater humiliation for a budding comedian than to learn that an attempt to be funny is not only not funny but horribly inappropriate. Besides, I had enjoyed the protected status of preacher’s kid my entire life. It was the rare and courageous adult who dared chastise me publicly. Well, Mrs. Soper was both rare and courageous (in addition to being the mother of the church treasurer, the woman who wrote my father’s paycheck).
Until that time, the little engine in my spirit that could contemplate issues of social justice had only followed the track laid by my family. In an instant, Mrs. Soper threw the switch and sent me in a new direction.
I have no idea if I ever said that word again in my childhood (I know that I haven’t as an adult, with the rare exception caused by academic or narrative necessity, as evidenced above, and usually not even then). I would not be surprised if I did, but I can tell you one thing with certainty: I never said it again without thinking how disappointed Mrs. Soper would be with me. In fact, every time I hear that word to this day, whether coming from the mouth of one of my students or in a rap song, I think of Mrs. Soper.
It’s not an easy responsibility for an adult to undertake, to transform a child’s ignorance into a choice they can never make again without knowing it is a poor one. I have done it in the past when my nieces were younger, and let me be the first to tell you, I didn’t enjoy it. It was embarrassing for them and unpleasant for me. But, I also know they remember those instances as clearly as I remember Mrs. Soper.
The writer of the Proverbs said, “Train a child in the way (s)he should go, and (s)he will not depart from it.” I think the part of the verse that gets most overlooked is the concept of the true way to go. I learned lots of stuff in church that I have long since abandoned, but I have never departed from the track Mrs. Soper switched me to.
From now on, if anyone should ask where I get my passion for social justice and equality, I know exactly what to say — “Mrs. Soper.” She planted the seed which my life experiences have watered and nurtured. But, she planted the seed. Would that we all contributed to the gardens of the young people in our lives in such a profound way.