I’ve been emailing back and forth this week with my old grade school chum, G., and we’ve been swapping memories about our childhood years. It’s fascinating to get each other’s perspective on that time and remind each other of different things that happened back then. Like the time the class mischief maker left his lunchbox at school all summer and it stank to high heaven when we came back in the fall. Or G. inviting all the neighborhood boys over to ogle his Farrah Fawcett swimsuit poster since he was the first boy in the region to order it from TV Guide. Growing up in a small town in the early and mid 70’s really was a great experience. We weren’t exposed to drugs, gangs or school violence. The only weapon at Franklin Elementary was Mr. E.’s paddle, and boy, could he swing it. Those really were the Wonder Years for us, but I realized today I can’t say they were perfect because it wasn’t a perfect time. The times they were a changin’, but not fast enough for some folks, like my friend Ramona. This week’s stroll down memory lane left me wondering where she is now.
Ramona was the first black person I ever got to know really well. The minority population in my little hometown in the mid 70’s was pretty small. There were few faces of color in my school photos. Since the Civil Rights Act was signed the year I was born, and the Watts riots and Alabama voting clashes occurred when I was a baby, as a grade school student I was ignorantly unaware of the race struggles that had occurred in the first decade of my youth. I was conscious of color back then because adults talked about it, but I didn’t really care or think about it, until I became buddies with Ramona. I remember her in kindergarten with her pigtails and colorful barrettes. I can see her now riding a tricycle during recess. This picture is from 7th grade when she and I played on the basketball team. Well, she played. I warmed the bench.
It’s ironic that she isn’t smiling in the only photo I have of her, because she always smiled. She had a giggle box that worked overtime and an infectious laugh. She made me laugh from the very beginning. We often sat beside each other in class, but didn’t become really good friends until 7th grade. Because we got along so well, I assumed she was just like me, and she was except for the fact that she faced issues I didn’t have to worry about. I didn’t know it then, though. We passed notes, shared jokes and talked on the phone for hours. She laughed at me because I was so naïve and taught me things about her culture I’d never heard of like Soul Train, Jeri Curl and hair food. She opened up a musical world outside top 40 pop radio when she introduced me to Teddy Pendergrass and Barry White. We had many good times at school and over the phone, but we didn’t visit each other’s homes. We would have needed transportation, but we didn’t ask our parents. It was like we had some kind of unspoken deal that we wouldn’t cross certain societal boundaries. We never discussed it, and I didn’t think about it much until one day when she showed up at my house. Her older sister had driven her there on their way home, and she stopped to show off her new baby nephew. It was the only time she ever came to my house. I grabbed her nephew and took him inside to show my parents. They welcomed her inside, but I could tell she felt really awkward, like she just didn’t belong. I never understood why, but I could see it in her eyes. She didn’t stay long that day, and we never spoke about it. It was my first clue that things were different for her in a way that they weren’t for me.
After 8th grade graduation she and I went to separate high schools. We drifted apart, but I never forgot her. Occasionally, I would run into her mom in town, and we would chat for a little. Over time, I lost track of her. During my high school and college years my little world expanded, and I learned much more about the racial divide in this country. Many times I have wondered what it was like to be in Ramona’s shoes back then. I can only imagine how tough it might have been to be one of those few faces of color in a very pale community. I wonder how many times she had her feelings hurt by unkind words or felt like a second class citizen because someone told her she was. I will probably never know. I am ashamed I didn’t ask her those questions back then. I feel like I let her down by not looking farther into her heart and mind. I wish I had been smart enough to look beyond my Wonder Years bubble. I sometimes wonder where she is now. I wish we could sit down and chat for a very long time over a drink and a piece of pie. I wish we could belly laugh and giggle together again. I would tell her I’m sorry I didn’t ask THOSE questions. I wonder if she ever thinks of me.
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