February 6th, 2007

Attitude is Everything

I enjoy breakfasting with a dapper man. But this morning was something special: three men for the price of one. So to speak. (Don’t you wish all the fun things in life automatically tripled that way?)


I had planned to interview one man about his memories of elementary school for a book I’m working on with Judy Schroeder. (We’re documenting historic schoolhouses in the 10 southernmost counties of California—she paints ’em, I write about ’em. This project has been underway for a few years now, and after a misleadingly enthusiastic response from a publisher last year we are jumping right back into the fray and trying to fill in the gaps in our working draft.) He invited two of his classmates along for the ride—and what I expected to be a one-hour interview stretched into more than two.  


The school these gentlemen attended is about a 10-minute walk away from where I live. It’s been the office for a fruit packing house—one of two still functioning in the no-longer-very-appropriately-named Orange County—for some time now, and the local university has plans to purchase it. It was one of Orange County’s segregated schools (the school across the street was the “white school”; this one was the “Mexican school”).


I’ve interviewed alumni of segregated schools before. Some of them are justifiably angry. Some of them have memories of others’ prejudiced attitudes toward them. Some alumni are so upset by the whole thing that they turn down my request for an interview.


My breakfast bunch has experienced prejudice. One of them remembers a police officer calling him and his friends “dirty Mexicans” as he ordered them to knock off whatever they were doing. And, oddly, while in elementary school the boys (and girls) were required to shower (at the school!) as well as to brush their teeth with toothbrushes the school provided them. None of the guys connected the epithet with the school’s actions (although I wonder).


But school was school—and school was fun. Plain and simple.


None of the three gave the uniform ethnicity of the student body a second thought. When they attended the integrated intermediate and high schools, they didn’t think it was weird to suddenly have white friends. “Kids are kids,” they agreed. One of them told me that Mexicans were allowed at the local swimming pool just one day a week—right before the pool was cleaned. But another one said, “Oh, they say that it was the day the pool was cleaned—but I don’t think it’s true.”


“Me neither,” the first guy admitted.


Then they proceeded to tell me all the places they did go swimming: the Santa Ana River, the irrigation channels that flowed throughout the walnut and orange groves. “Sure, it was mud—but we didn’t care,” the third guy said.


It’s not the things you look at, as Dr. Wayne Dyer would say. It’s the way you look at them. So off with those dirt-colored glasses, people. You may be swimming in mud—but still, you’re swimming!


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