By the early 1980s, I was elated to have noticed an increase in tolerance among the diverse students in my high school English classes. Incrementally, however, both young people and adults began to absorb and reflect the growing negativity in the media and elsewhere, weakening the civil discourse so necessary to effective communications.
Much of the discontent, bitterness, and anger so apparent today is the result of a quagmire of long-term challenges that are complex, inter-related, and heavily laden with emotion. Called “wicked problems” and “social messes” they are highly resistant to change.
One of the most pressing is what President Obama called “the slow-rolling crisis” related to racism and poverty. How can this trajectory be deflected?
In order for substantive change to occur, we must strengthen our willingness and ability to broaden our perspectives, to treat individuals and their opinions with respect, and to modify some of our more hardened viewpoints.
Although inborn traits and the cumulative acquisition of knowledge and experience are important to the development of one’s world view, what we regularly hear, feel, and observe in early childhood and the values imparted to us are crucial.
It was my great fortune to have a mother who was never arrogant or disrespectful to any individual and who modeled kindness to everyone she encountered. I was also blessed by the presence of Evalena “Lena” Jackson, who worked for my grandmother. She lived behind the two-story Victorian built by my great-great grandfather in Dallas, Texas.
Twice a week, Mrs. Jackson rode the bus to our house on the edge of town to help Mother. They did the chores as a team, and when it was time for a break, they sat at the dining room table, drinking coffee, talking and laughing.
As a child, I was always absorbing details that struck me in some way. Everything about Lena was good, especially her smile and the deep chuckle that plumped her freckled brown cheeks and crinkled her eyes. Her heels, the palms of her hands, and the skin under her nails were pink. She wore calico dresses, white cotton aprons and bedroom slippers.
My grandmother said that the family was always good to Evalena. “We let her set up tables and chairs in the back yard and use the household linens to entertain ladies from her church,” she would say. Years later I recognized the self-righteous condescension toward someone who deserved so much more.
Because many foods were rationed during the war, Lena and I made “butter” out of oleomargarine and food coloring. I loved to sprinkle the orange powder on the white substance and watch it burst into 4th of July sparklers. Mother and Lena planted and maintained a freedom garden in the back yard, the produce of which was equally shared.
Lena showed me how to twist the tomato, pepper, squash and string bean stems rather than tear the vegetables from the vines.
She and I often walked to a nearby farmhouse to buy eggs. We traveled slowly along the country road, I wearing a sunbonnet, and Lena carrying her green umbrella. Brown and white cattle roamed the fields beyond the barbed wire fences, and lavender thistles grew in the roadside ditches.
I asked Lena why her shoes had so many holes. “That’s just so my feet won’t hurt when I’m working.” Her explanation satisfied me to a degree, but why was her purse so worn, her clothes so faded and plain?
When I was 5, my father left, but Lena’s loving presence comforted me. Within three years, however, Mother became very ill, and we moved west to Los Banos, a drier climate. I still have Lena’s letters. “I am well and hope you are too. Please give Joanie Girl a hug and kiss for me.”
I understand that, during my childhood, much of the culture of the post-slavery South remained, with people of color held down by unjust social, political, and economic factors. I know that Lena’s relationship with us was an example of discriminatory practices, but I also I know that, within our home, the outside world of racism was largely diminished due to our mutual regard.
Mrs. Jackson had no worldly power, position or wealth, but she was far more worthy than many who acquire them. She gave me love, attention and an example of humor in the face of oppression and privation.
The gift I most value, however, is the opportunity she provided in my formative years to know and cherish a person whose surface characteristics may have been dissimilar to mine but whose substance was pure and immutable.
Joan Chatfield Ardovino of Shaver Lake taught English for Fresno Unfied School District for 25 years and also served as an adjunct instructor for Fresno City College, Fresno State and Fresno Pacific University. She is the mother of two daughters, a stepson and six grandchildren.