News of my racial equality struck me with a devastating blow. Thirty some years later, I've almost healed from my shattered self-perception—almost.
I grew up in a spacious farm home on a hill overlooking an eleven acre lake on my family's four hundred acres of pristine land in the northernmost part of upstate New York. We owned ducks, chickens, horses, cats, dogs and enjoyed regular glimpses of many other wild animals that flew, swam, ambled or trotted over our land. As a Norman Rockwell setting, Natural Bridge, N.Y., a town of about 800 back then, was a perfect place for a child to experience nature and develop lifelong friends.
By age five, I realized from watching television that not everyone in America lived in such a beautiful environment. I didn't know how I got so lucky. My circumstances seemed unfair. I took quiet note and enjoyed it.
My family was the only black family in town. Dad, after serving in the army at nearby Camp Drum, was invited to begin a medical practice in the nearby town of Harrisville. The majority of the locals had never known a black person, much less had a black physician move in with his entire family. The townsfolk embraced us and we bonded with our new community. I soon learned that other black families in other parts of America weren't always welcomed into such historically white neighborhoods as we were. For some reason, life chose to be unfair—much to our benefit. My life's circumstances were, again, nicely skewed in my favor.
Most people in any rural town appreciate the importance of having a pleasant if not close relationship with the local physician and Dad made it easy for them. On any given day in his clinic you'd find him whistling a tune while swinging his stethoscope in the air as he entered an examining room. Dad's outgoing personality, sense of humor and soon-proven ability to handle medical emergencies earned him a good reputation—one that I soon realized had trickled down to me in the form of playground fame. In first grade before recess, my teacher warned, "If anyone gets hurt out there you'll need to go see Geoffrey's daddy to get fixed." What's bigger than that for a first grader? If you get hurt, my dad will fix you! I couldn't have planned such good fortune. It was as ideal as it was unfair. I quietly relished it.
At age six, my friend Donald often came to our house to play with me. When his mom arrived to pick him up at the end of each visit, Donald fell to the ground crying, flailing his arms and legs because he didn't want to leave. During one such tantrum I overheard his mom whisper to mine. "I'm so sorry," she apologized. "He must really like Geoff because Donald never behaves this way at his other friends' homes." From my six-year-old perspective, Donald's tantrum made perfect sense because I did have the "funnest" toys. None of my friends ever wanted to leave. Could I help it if life had plopped me into a funhouse? I secretly delighted in the unearned, unfair popularity it brought.
One day my school had Field Day—a break from regular classes for students to compete outside in a variety of games and races. I was in second grade and won the 100-yard dash for the second year in a row. When I received a blue ribbon in front of my classmates, I felt my ego rise up to its hind legs and roar.
I remember other kids asking me how I ran so fast. Second grade boys are known to attribute their speed to anything, including sneaker color (mine were red - superfast). I don't remember giving an answer as to why I won. The speed was just there for me when needed. The unfairness of it had now been made public and official by my blue ribbon and I wasn't complaining.
It was shortly after this victory that my utopia imploded. I now refer to it as "Black Monday." My second grade class was doing an art project that required use of glue. A girl named Dawn approached me. "Geoffrey, would you please open my glue bottle?" she asked.
Normally, our ever-available teacher was the first choice for such a physical task. I was puzzled.
"Why do you want me to open it?" I asked.
"I told my mommy and daddy that you won the running race again and they said black people are stronger and faster than white people."
I couldn't believe my ears. I sat stunned, blinking. I don't remember responding—verbally. After considering the fortuitous lesson Dawn's insightful folks were trying to teach her, I took her glue bottle and placed it between my legs. I wiped my right hand on my trousers, shaking it a few times to loosen the fingers that would become my vice grips. Dawn stepped back—no doubt to avoid accidental injury.
On my way down to a doubled over position, my eyes closed. The importance of my mission took over me. I wanted—no needed—to find my zone. Dawn's parents were obviously wise and my task of proving their wisdom was absolutely critical. I held my breath and channeled all my energy into a death grip on this now-symbolic glue cap. My knuckles, ironically, began turning white. Just before the stomach spasms began, I startled both Dawn and myself with a raspy throat sound I'd never uttered nor ever heard before or since. I kept twisting. I knew that handing Dawn a separated glue cap would release the most delicious unfairness life had offered me yet: my racial superiority acknowledged by a person of the opposite race.
I soon realized that the white glue cap on the white girl's white bottle of white glue was too welded for my white knuckles to remove. I screamed a silent prayer that echoed in my head. I tried to remember what Samson said in the bible as he toppled a building with his bare hands, but I couldn't remember the right phrasing and that wrecked my concentration.
I then hoped the teacher would see the commotion, approach and demand that I hand the bottle to her. She was too far away to hear my wheezing.
I considered telling Dawn to look toward the other side of the room and quickly using my teeth, but the glue cap was too big.
The next best option was feigning a sudden hand injury as a parachute out of my dilemma, but couldn't risk Dawn interpreting it as physical weakness—way too risky.
After a final gasp, I slammed the unopened glue bottle on the desk. I tried to conceal the pain now radiating from my hand as I turned to Dawn. I watched disappointment trickle onto her face. Her eyes moved up and down my body disgusted as if I had just told her the truth about Santa Claus or as if my weakness—my failure had made liars of her parents. I felt my ego sprinting away, yelping. its tail between its legs.
I was unusually quiet after arriving at home from school that day. At dinner I pressed my parents to agree with Dawn's parents. After laughing, Mom and Dad ruined my life's streak of perfect unfairness by telling me that Dawn's parents were mistaken. Then Dad went on talking about some term that began with "stereo," but I couldn't focus.
I'm feeling better now. 40 years later, life has not been consistently fair with me, yet I've learned to humbly appreciate every unfair advantage it offers. I won't say this incident permanently scarred me, but after more therapy than I want to admit, my own concept of my racial superiority remains shattered beyond any hope of repair.