Short Takes: Taking a Stand

Pitching a Good One

When I was in Walmart some years ago, I found myself caught between keeping my mouth shut—or pitching a good one. I chose the latter.

I was near the dairy case, checking dates on yogurt when I heard someone say, “Where are the eggs?” I looked up, thinking that the voice was directed towards me, and then I realized it was directed towards a small Asian man. The voice belonged to a very large white man. He repeated himself forcefully. “I said, where are the eggs?”

The smaller man smiled, shook his head, and put his hands out in a gesture that said to me, “I’m sorry but I don’t understand you.”

I could feel his embarrassment and said to the large man, “They are in the case right behind you.” When he turned to look at me, the small man took the opportunity to smile thanks and hurry off.

“Damn foreigners! Come to my country . . . can’t speak the language. Probably doesn’t work. Bet he uses food stamps.” The man was looking at me as if we were co-conspirators against all the problems of immigration.

At that time I’d been out of work for medical reasons for almost a year, the first time in my life. I was living off a $724.00 Social Security check and had to use food stamps. Something snapped in my normally sweet, compliant self. How dare this man assume so much about the little man?

“Where are you from, sir?” I asked, standing nearly toe to toe and looking in his eyes.

“Hell, I was born right here in Texas, why?” He thought we were going to have a nice conversation.

“I’m from Pennsylvania, where my mom’s family settled after they immigrated from Germany and Switzerland about 300 years ago.” He started getting red in the face, as did I. I heard my voice rising. “My great-grandfather was called “The German” in our family Bible because he never learned English. My grandpa on my dad’s side spoke only French. He came to America after being gassed in WWI, fighting for the French Resistance and protecting American soldiers. Shame on you, sir! Unless your family was Native American, they came here speaking something other than English, but someone gave them a chance.” I was puffing now as I grabbed my shopping cart and took off with him staring after me.

I couldn’t shake the conversation. I began training as an English as a Second Language instructor. Now, on Sunday afternoons, I teach a group of refugees from DM Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi. I hope the little man from Walmart is enrolled in a class, too.

I am grateful to that man from Texas for showing me that if you aren’t part of the solution, then you are part of the problem. He made me take a stand.

A Trip to the Principal’s Office

My cheeks burned and my hands trembled. I sat upright and rigid in front of a huge wooden desk. Behind it sat Mr. Grinter, the principal of my grade school. He glowered at me and drummed his fingers on the desk. Each drumming echoed in my ears almost as loudly as my own heartbeat.

“Young lady, you were seen throwing rocks at one of your schoolmates on the way home from school yesterday. You know that’s wrong, don’t you?”

I nodded. Of course I knew it was wrong. But I didn’t do it! I wanted to shout. The words stuck in my throat, held down by the fright that filled my body. It must have been some other first-grader who threw those rocks. I had walked alone the entire three blocks to my grandmother’s house, where I stayed after school until my parents came home from work. I hadn’t seen anyone throwing rocks. Who would do such a thing? Worse, who would lie about it and say that I had done it?

“And now the only thing to do is say you’re sorry.”

My terrified throat squeaked out the words—and managed to add the word “but” before he interrupted. “Now say you’ll never do it again,” he said.

“Yes, sir,” I heard myself whisper. It seemed to me that my heart would burst with the truth, but the words of that truth stayed imprisoned within me.

Suddenly Mr. Grinter leaned across his desk. His white hair bristled and his round spectacles flashed in the sunlight from the window across the room. “I’ll be watching you from now on. You’re dismissed.”

* * * *

Thirty years later, I stood in front of a smooth wooden desk not unlike Mr. Grinter’s and addressed the man sitting behind it.

“Your honor, my client pleads not guilty and requests a jury trial.” I heard the firm sound of my words with satisfaction. I looked at my client and nodded. Whether he did what he was accused of would be up to the jury to decide, but there would be no Mr. Grinter to threaten him based on hearsay and supposition. American justice requires that the accused receive certain rights: the right to face one’s accusers, the right to have a certain standard of evidence presented in a certain manner. As a lawyer, I was proud to be part of that system.

I’ve often wondered what became of Mr. Grinter. I never had a chance to thank him for motivating me to give others the justice he refused to give me. Although I no longer practice law, I’m glad I liberated that frightened little first-grader and gave her a voice to speak for others.

A Matter of Jello-O

My mother’s three sisters were powerful figures in my life. There was an obvious pecking order among them: Florence, the oldest, ruled the roost; pleasing her was the top priority of the other three. The second oldest, Jean, followed Florence’s judgmental lead and cast her own web of control over the younger of the sisters. Barbara was the toady who ran to meet the demands of her older sibling, and Susan, my mother, absorbed the figurative blows that kept her silent and timid.

We ate dinner with them and their families most Sundays of my childhood. For me the most galling aspects of Florence’s reign were her dictates about the food served at those dinners. Florence was a connoisseur of Jell-O. She insisted that it was an essential part of every Sunday dinner. I hated it, but I was powerless to refuse my serving. Following my mother’s lead, I was a shy child and rarely spoke up even in my own home, let alone at those meals. My mother and I whispered, we smiled demurely, we nodded in agreement, we never argued, never challenged. Our lips were tightly bitten.

During the Sunday dinners of my high school years, I watched Florence wield her control with a sharp look or a turned back; Jean would raise her eyebrows to reinforce the message; Barbara followed with an acerbic tisk. It was the early ‘60’s, and outside my home the culture of youth pushed loudly against the domesticity of the era.

I left home for college in 1965 still under the spell of my family. I awoke to find myself in the midst of the blaring color and the smoke-filled rush of protest. Freed from the requirement of attendance at Sunday dinners, I spent those hours listening to my dorm mates decry the arbitrary nature of authority. My political awareness bloomed in parallel with the escalation of the Vietnam war. I studied the characters in that drama. The men who plotted the course of our protracted disaster related to the rest of us in a manner painfully familiar to me: I recognized Johnson’s sharp looks, McNamara’s acerbic condescension; Rusk’s raised eyebrows and disdainfully turned back.

At the end of my freshman year, I returned home a bolder and more conscious person. By that time I had marched against the war and held high a banner declaring my opposition to our government. I had spoken out. I had taken these actions with the support of my peers. But once back within the walls of my family home, my inchoate assertiveness was muffled by the pressure of family tradition.

It was not until the first Sunday dinner that summer that I finally claimed my own power. As Florence began serving the quivering red dessert, I looked at her and noted the arched eyebrow. Firmly I declared, “No, Aunt Florence, I do not want any Jell-O.”

The Veteran

Sunday afternoon and it’s drizzling. It’s not supposed to rain in September in Berkeley. But it has been raining all summer and we’re sick of it. Perhaps what we’re sick of isn’t the weather but the need to rally ourselves in spite of it.

We keep wearing our game face in the face of crappy weather, hate mongering, and fear. There’s a war on. The wars, the one in Iraq and another in Afghanistan, are the subtext of the play we’re about to see. We’re not sure we want to see this play. We’re not sure we want to watch as soldiers are killed and as men are enjoined to rally round a cause they never believed in and now must defend. We don’t want to watch the inevitable progression of little boys becoming killing machines. We don’t want to see the slaughter of innocence. We know we’re supposed to love the solider and hate the war, but we hate all of it. There’s too much to forgive.

But we still go to the play. In the amphitheater before it begins, I glance at the stone staircase to the side. A handsome Hispanic man, accompanied by his young wife and their three kids, sits in a wheelchair. The usher wants to place the wheelchair at the edge of the stage so he can watch the play, so he can have a bird’s eye view of war.

“I want to sit with my family,” he says.

“I’m sorry, sir, but there isn’t a ramp. There isn’t a way to get you up the steps. You can see that the first few rows are reserved for subscribers. The general seating is way up there, the tenth row, but there’s no way . . .”

“No problem. I’m sitting with my family.”

His wife smiles at the usher. “He can do it.”

She turns to the eleven-year-old son. “Roberto, help your dad out of the wheelchair! Carlos, carry these things.”

Roberto moves to his dad’s side. Carlos retrieves the picnic basket, the blankets, and several pillows. Roberto and his mom each take an arm and lift the paralyzed man out of the chair, laying him face down in the damp earth. He lies sprawled in red and brown leaves for a minute while his wife picks up both his legs. “Ready?” he asks.

“Sí,” she responds.

Straining, the nameless man pushes up from the ground. He’s a wheelbarrow now. She’ll direct the ascent up the staircase, and he’ll do the heavy lifting. He moves forward, up the weathered stone stairs, up, up on his hands, his sun-bronzed arms quivering with the strain. He is not self-conscious or self-important, but merely determined to sit with his family. He’s a veteran.

Bill Shirer’s Book

In 1974 I met the author William Shirer, who was in town for a lecture. I told him I was very excited to meet him because his book, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, published in 1960, helped me speak out when I discovered that my high school history textbook only gave a short paragraph to the Nazi genocide during World War II.

Rewind 10 years. I am a Jewish teenager living in a conservative town in central Texas. Our Jewish community is small, but I go to Hebrew school, and I know the history of my people. We don’t know what happened to our family in Belarus since connections were severed during the war. But I am enraged by this meager handful of sentences about Hitler’s extermination of the Jews in the textbook..

I turn first to my mother. She does not see the point of protesting. “Don’t waste your time,” she says bitterly. “It’s not important to other people.”

I stay after class one day and tell my teacher 1) that I am Jewish, and 2) I think it is unfair that our textbook says so little about how the Nazis murdered the Jews. I can feel myself blushing, but my teacher listens. She quietly suggests that I prepare a report for the class.

There’s not much material in our public library, so I pull out Shirer’s book, the big, thick volume that sits on our bookshelf, a Book of the Month Club selection. Over 1,000 pages long, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich has an ominous black cover with a swastika enclosed in a white circle. When I open it, the spine cracks.

I begin taking notes. Behind the statistics are stories not yet widely known. When I read about Nazi soldiers using babies for target practice, I am overcome with nausea. The deeper I wade into this sewer of detail, the more I weep. My mother is worried. She is right: the sadism I encounter is beyond my experience. Yet, more frightening is anticipating the response of my classmates. I am afraid no one will really listen, and even if I am telling the truth, they will not care.

I stand before the class and describe the camps, the round ups, the trains, the gas chambers, quoting passages from Shirer’s book. The room is quiet. Some people are looking at me; some keep their heads down, staring at the floor. I am sweating heavily. At times, I have to pause to contain my grief.

I finish speaking just before the bell rings, and the teacher thanks me. Some classmates applaud. While I gather my bag and books, a guy in my class, someone I have never spoken to, comes right up to me to say, “Marianne, I’m glad you gave that report. I never knew anything about it.”

Rocking the Boat

My repertoire did not include taking a stand. Growing up in the 1950s in a traditional family, I subscribed to my mother’s philosophy: Nice girls get along, share, and don’t rock the boat. During high school and college in the 1960s, I escaped the madness and rebellion, and I fell in love with a nice young man with a great future, married, and started a family.

In the mid-1980s, this stay-at-home mom with four children had shelved her dreams of writing and making use of her English major. My extracurricular activities revolved around volunteering at school, church, and scouting in our small town, 35 miles south of Chicago.

However, a Chicago daily newspaper advertised for writers for a weekly edition in outlying areas, and they hired this neophyte for an Around Town column. This opened the door for more work for me: covering village and school board meetings, and news and feature stories. It was a win-win situation for the editorial staff, the community and me. I had the contacts. The community responded wholeheartedly to their newspaper. And, best of all, I was writing, learning new skills and getting paid the grand sum of $15 per story.

The paper assigned me a female photographer, another mom from a distant suburb. Toward the end of our first year working together, my photographer partner remarried and decided to spend the coming summer away. My editor asked me if I could handle a 35 mm camera. “Of course,” I responded. I learned quickly, enjoyed the challenge, and really liked the extra money. I knew the day would come when my partner would return—but I also knew I could not go back to our earlier arrangement.

I approached my editor and told him how I felt. He responded, “We must be nice and share the work! We don’t want to hurt her feelings and make her feel left out.” I cannot imagine that statement ever being directed to a man. I reminded him of my valuable connections and my skills. I told him I would give up the photography if he would pay me double for writing.

I continued as a reporter and photographer. My former partner moved on to a different suburban edition. In a few months, another newspaper offered me a full-time job that I couldn’t refuse. I learned a valuable lesson. I took a stand, and I rocked the boat—and that made all the difference.

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