Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Suzy's Cooties

Photograph of Rosa Parks with Dr. Martin Luthe...

"You've got Suzy's cooties!" said the boy as he slapped another on the shoulder and ran off. The slapping boy had inadvertently brushed up against Suzy, and touching her or anything she had touched meant a person had gotten Suzy's cooties. The way to get rid of them was to give them to someone else.

Suzy was African-American and the only one in my grade school. Like me, she came from a family considerably less affluent than the other children. The fact that both of us were outsiders in a community of insiders might have made a difference in other circumstances, but not in this one. I tried being friends with her once -- you know, birds of a feather? Her response made it absolutely clear she wasn't interested. Suzy was mad as hell.

Who could blame her? A virtual pariah, she was forced by social convention to use only one of the three student water fountains and, naturally, it was the oldest and poorest functioning. There were no signs stating, "Whites Only," but the effect was the same. I drank from that fountain as well, initially because I was an outsider, and then intentionally.

My family taught me that I should never treat someone badly simply because their skin color was different from mine. In fact, I shouldn't treat others badly, period, but especially because of skin color or religion. I had also been encouraged, for as long as I could remember, to be an individual. My parents explained there was no truth in what was said about Suzy and the right thing to do was drink from the same fountain and do so bravely.

So, that's what I did. And, of course, that rendered me not only an outsider but also an infected one. Over time, I somehow survived the "plague" and so did Suzy. Eventually, she found acceptance among some of the girls and I learned to rely on resources outside school to make life enjoyable. I haven't forgotten, however, how it feels to see someone treated as though their existence was a mistake. Nor have I forgotten how it feels to be treated as though you didn't belong.

Making our own way in this world isn't easy on the best of days. When we witness prejudice and injustice in whatever form, it behooves us to be fearless. We don't necessarily have to do anything dramatic. Simply drinking from the same fountain may be enough to send the message that you know the truth and intend to live by it.

(Image of Rosa Parks with Dr. Martin Luther King via Wikipedia)
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