Two white middle-class girls -- around eight or nine years old -- were walking home from school one day in the early 1970s in Omaha, Nebraska. They lived just around the corner from each other and were best friends. It was a beautiful day and only a half-mile walk in a safe neighborhood.
They heard a voice and turned to see a little black girl rushing to join them. Amy was five or six and very bright and very friendly. She assumed she would be welcomed to walk with the older girls, as she had been other days.
This was Missy's and Sally's time to chat and have fun. They tried to be friendly but then hint that Amy should let them walk on without her.
Amy just kept on walking with them and chatting at them. No hint could break through her enthusiasm to be part of their little circle.
The walk was short and they had almost reached Missy's house; the older girls were frustrated. Were they going to have to give up their daily talk to accommodate this annoying little chatterbox every single day?
As they reached her house, Missy told the little girl that she couldn't walk home with them anymore.
Sally walked a few houses further and went into her house too, and Amy went home and cried.
A few minutes later, Missy's mom answered the phone.
"Really? I am so sorry! Just a minute."
"Missy, come here."
"We're you and Sally rude to Amy Williams just now? Her mom is on the phone, and she says Amy is crying."
"Well, no ... not really."
"So why is she crying?"
"She was bugging us; so we told her we don't want her to walk with us."
"You can't not walk with her; that's not nice!"
"But, Mom, she uses bad words!"
"She said f@<%!
Then, into the phone,
"She says Amy said f@<% so they told her they don't want to walk with her anymore."
"Yes, I'm sorry. Yes. Goodbye."
Missy went back to the book she had been reading, and forgot all about Amy.
The next months were Amy-free, and Missy enjoyed her walks home each day. She doesn't remember if she ever told Sally the whole story.
Missy's family was Christian, and she had been raised to pray to Jesus as she went to bed each night, and had prayed to ask Jesus into her heart when she was younger. Just a year or so earlier, Missy had had her first real personal experience of faith, praying alone to Jesus to try to "do the things he said to do and not do the things he said not to do" after her first time of opening a Bible to the gospels all by herself and reading the words and story of Jesus all by herself.
It had been an emotional experience for her, and she believed it was real and important. It made her feel happy and safe to read the Bible and pray at bedtime most nights.
But the little lie she had told about Amy gradually snuffed out her sense of connection to Jesus. She tried to pray at bedtime, but it stopped feeling like anyone was really listening. It felt like the sun had gone out, and left her cold and alone.
Finally, many months later, Missy tried to pray in a bed in her grandmother's house at Christmastime. She knew what she had to do in the morning. Maybe that would fix the coldness inside her and let her feel Jesus again.
The next day Missy told her mom the truth, and asked her to tell Amy's mom for her. When they got back to Omaha, Missy's mom did call Amy's mom and tell her. Missy was not punished, and her mom thanked her for telling her the truth, and said that Amy's mom was extremely appreciative of the phone call.
Missy felt happy again, and she could talk to Jesus again. And she kept talking to Jesus -- all the way to now.
I do not tell this story to sell Jesus. You may be turned off by her faith, or identify with it, or just explain it away. None of that is my point here.
My point here is that even children can learn a way of living that keeps joy and hope going, even after joy and hope get squashed.
Missy's actions taught her four things:
1) when she hurt someone else, it hurt her, too;
2) she couldn't feel okay again until she did something to try to fix what she did to hurt someone else;
3) all of her reasons for keeping silent so long were unreasonable in light of her pain;
4) telling the truth and asking for help to fix things did fix things.
I believe this story is also a story of racism. If Missy was being racist, it was not conscious; she was just annoyed by a little girl intruding on her routine and on her friendship. But to Amy, it had to add another layer to the layer-upon-layer experience of being left out. And to Missy's mom and to Amy's mom, the lie about language likely had a whole different meaning than it would have had if Amy had been a little white girl.
And so I believe this story goes beyond personal life skills to cultural life skills. Tiny stories add up to mountains of injustice, and although we do need to respond to the mountains of injustice with big systematic changes, we also need to address each tiny layer, one by one.
This starts with telling the truth about each instance in our personal stories and in our history, and understanding that an intent to be racist is not the point.
A better tomorrow starts today, by tasting it -- at least in our imaginations -- and then by teaching ourselves and our kids that we can tell the truth and endure pain to get something better than we have now.
As you go through your day, take time to imagine a world that offers peace and joy and hope to everyone. Take time to feel the places that you hurt and to see where others have been hurt. Let yourself come to a resolve to tell the truth and to ask for help to fix one broken thing. Then do it again, tomorrow.
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