My Spiky Sponsors

My Spiky Sponsors

Overcoming the sting of prejudice with the balm of friendship

For 15 years, my husband and I lived full-time on the road in an RV. We visited almost every state in the country and had many adventures — some glorious and some hair-raising. This is one of the hundreds of stories about small events with big repercussions.

. . .

We had parked our RV at a scenic, forested campground on a lake in a far-flung northwestern suburb of Chicago. It was a lovely spot with winding lanes, a well-stocked store staffed by friendly people, a sandy beach, and paddle boats. In fact it offered everything a camper might need — everything, that is, except internet access.

So I drove every day to a small local library about fifteen minutes away to research an essay I was writing for an online course.

One day a group of about eight high school students came into the computer room where I was working. They were a diverse bunch of young people; their clothing and hairstyles proclaimed their unwillingness to conform to some arbitrary standard of correctness.

Right on their heels came one of the library staff. He stood frowning, hands on his hips, watching the students shrug off their jackets and settle into seats in front of the computers. He didn’t speak a word of warning, but his expression clearly said that he was not pleased to see them.

While the group was definitely animated, they were neither rude nor excessively loud, and I found their company refreshing. The librarian, however, seemed determined to catch them committing some violation of library rules.

He came into the room frequently to check on them, each time asking me if they were bothering me. I assured him that they were not, yet he glared at them and told them to be quiet, even though talking was not restricted by the policy in that room.

When the man came in for the fifth time, I told him, “You know, there are no signs here that designate this room as a quiet zone. These students are having a good time studying together, and if I feel that I need a quieter environment, I’ll move to another part of the library.”

“I will throw them out before I let that happen!” he huffed. Then he glared at the group again for a long time, to make sure his meaning was clear, and actually slammed the door as he left the room.

I looked over at this bunch of young folks who a few moments before had been laughing together as they worked on their various assignments.

Now they sat still and somber, staring down at their knees. One of the girls saw me watching and cleared her throat once, twice, and then a third time, and finally spoke to me in a very soft voice.

“He always picks on our group because we look different. Not anyone else — only us.”

I just nodded, and my acknowledgment apparently gave her courage, because she continued more loudly,

“I hate that! They think we’re going to cause trouble just based on how we look, you know, like because we’re spiked.”

Here she gestured toward her friends, none of whom wore what I would call a spiked hairstyle, so I wasn’t sure exactly what part of them might be considered “spiked.” Deciding I didn’t really want to know, I simply nodded again.

The young lady looked around at the others as if to gauge their level of support for what she was about to say, and then she whispered, “It’s because some of us are Mexican.”

As soon as her words were out, it seemed she suddenly realized that she was talking to an adult white woman, and a look of panic came over her face.

“Oh no,” she said, “I didn’t mean that. That was just a joke.” She glanced quickly at me and then away, then at me again, then at the floor.

I waited until her eyes settled and said, “No, that’s not a joke; it’s probably the truth, and it is injustice.”

The group actually gasped, as though I had dared to speak out loud something that had always been hidden. I told them that was exactly what I was writing my essay about — the injustice of prejudice and stereotypes.

They scooted their chairs up closer to mine and I talked for several minutes about our travels and the race unity workshop that my husband and I had been presenting around the country.

At one point my young friend suggested that when I was done with my essay, I should post it in the library for everyone to read, and I promised to email them all a copy if they gave me their addresses.

As our discussion continued, I watched this courageous girl’s expression change gradually from excitement to resignation, and then to sadness, and finally, she admitted, “But I really don’t think things will ever change.” Already at her tender age, she felt hopeless.

I begged them not to lose hope. I told them what I’d seen and experienced — that there were many people, and yes, even many white people, all over the country who were actively engaged in change.

And I said it was all happening because of bonds of friendship among people from different backgrounds.

“The images in my mind of the faces of my friends of color are what drives me on,” I told them, “and I don’t want to let them down.”

This seemed to encourage the group, and the girl said, “Hey, you and I are friends now! My name is Amanda.”

Then another student jumped up out of her chair, put her arm around a fair-skinned, blond girl, and said, “This is my best friend — she’s white and I’m Hawaiian!”

Within seconds the whole group was involved in the conversation, back to their animated, spiky selves, talking about this or that friend of different ethnicity.

Amanda said, “You know, it’s not just about race. There is prejudice against gays and grogs too.”

Anyhow, I think she said “grogs,” or maybe it was “throgs.” I thought it best to just nod my understanding, even though I had no clue what type of person she might be referring to.

A young Mexican man, grinning and rocking back and forth, shouted, “Hey, we’re an interracial group; we could be like your sponsors or something!”

And we all thought up funny scenarios that involved my diverse team of sponsors following our RV down the road in their big red bus. The librarian apparently heard our laughter and came over to watch us through the room’s windows. He didn’t come in.

A little later I went out into the main part of the library to make some photocopies. As I walked back toward the computer room, I could see them through the same windows; they were ripping little strips of paper from their notebooks, writing something on them, and putting them next to my computer.

Then they gathered up their jackets and books and straggled out of the room, offering their hands to me as we passed in the doorway. They exited the library still laughing — quietly — and one of the boys waved to the librarian on his way out.

On the desk, I found a tidy stack of paper strips with their email addresses. Like their clothing and hair, their addresses reflected some aspect of each student’s identity.

To me, those emails were breadcrumbs strewn carefully on the forest path to help me follow their trail and find my spiked sponsors when it was time for me to hit the road again.

1 Comment
  • Nancy Freda
    Posted at 18:00h, 29 August Reply

    This story brought tears to my eyes. I want every white person to hear your heartfelt stories! Like you, I am so very introspective and have a desire to learn from every experience! Stories can be a gentle way of communicating difficult things and I believe that your stories are so completely truthful in a way that will reach hearts!

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