Straight Talk About The Wisdom Of Evanston's Youth

Columnist Christine Wolf discusses why kids need to understand and appreciate the value of living in a diverse community.

As a high school student from the northwest suburbs of Illinois, I remember sitting in the back of a car driven by my friend's mother. We were driving into Evanston for my friend's soccer tournament, heading east on Golf Rd. toward Dodge. As we turned right and approached Evanston Township High School, the mom turned down her radio.

"I need you to listen very carefully," she said, flicking her cigarette through a tiny crack in her window. She cranked the window up tightly, then looked at us in her rear view mirror. "I don't want you talking to anyone once we park. This is a terrible part of town."

I was 16 years old, and this was my introduction to Evanston.

"How come?" my friend asked.

"You'll see," she said.

We parked on a side street near the stadium and I looked around, waiting for the "bad" stuff to appear. To me, the houses looked a lot like the one my dad grew up in, in Hammond, Indiana.

Why, I wondered, do we all have to stick together?

I didn't see any fighting. I didn't see weapons or graffiti or blood or police. I saw crowds heading into a stadium -- kids and parents of every color.

As we made our way up into the bleachers, the mom clutched her purse tighter. "Just be glad we're only here for a one-day tournament," she said.

This lunatic, racist, neurotic woman made it clear she wasn't letting me out of her sight. She opened up her stadium blanket and wrapped me in without asking. She'd intentionally isolated us from the crowd around us.

Her comments seethed with a combination of anger and fear. "Just look at that group of kids over there and tell me they're not trouble." As they headed toward the exit, she remarked that she hoped they wouldn't break into her car.

Since smartphones didn't exist in the 1980s, I couldn't text an S.O.S. to a friend. This woman was my ride home. I felt compelled to stay put. I felt trapped. I knew I had to respect my elders, but I also sensed that I knew better than her. I sat in those bleachers as the tournament played on, counting the agonizing minutes until I could leave. I couldn't wait to get away -- from her.

This was my introduction to prejudice.

When we all finally made our way back to the car, the mom commented on how aggressive the ETHS players had been. "They're probably like that because they live here," she said.

"What's that supposed to mean?" my friend asked.

"If you lived here, you'd have to be aggressive, too. It's a terrifying place to live."

I wanted to scream: What does that mean? Why would you say that? How would you know?

Nearly 30 years later, I'm proud to raise my own children here. I'm now a mom in those bleachers, listening to visitors' comments about how "tough" our kids are. While it's unfortunate my kids are still exposed to such prejudice, I know they'll seek ways to eradicate it with the help of their peers. My kids have learned to speak up for themselves -- and for others -- better than I ever could. That's what living here does.

I can't tell you how many times friends or relatives have said, "Your kids seem so much wiser than their years," and I know it isn't merely a function of our parenting. Living in Evanston exposes our kids to some of life's harshest realities, like poverty and violence, but they also see unspeakable beauty, like living near the lake with neighbors of every background and culture. There is a wisdom kids earn growing up in Evanston -- a wisdom found nowhere else. I sense it in the adults who grew up here and I see it now in my children's eyes. They see past the facades of skin or neighborhood and get to know someone through their actions. They're learning how to recognize (and be sensitive to) the circumstances of others; to understand that outward appearances don’t determine inner character; and that we’re all wonderfully, imperfectly human. They are learning grace and integrity as it unfolds before their eyes.

I believe I remained unscathed by the situation with that soccer mom because my parents taught me to look beyond the surface, but not all parents and caregivers are equipped to teach strong values. It’s essential that we work as a community to help guide kids who are easily misled about what the world is really like.

It’s up to the community to set the story straight.

Jordan S. Zoot January 15, 2014 at 10:27 AM
The original column makes a bunch of good points. Having grown up here much of it resonates. However, some of the follow up comments are an absolute FAIL. One of the benefits of living in this community is that there are tremendous opportunities for anyone that chooses to take advantage of them. The unfortunate part is that there seems to be a large component that can't distinguish between opportunity and ENTITLEMENT. There is an urgent need to get past the notion that we have an on-going need to support entitlement. We don't ....slavery ended 150 years ago and NO WE DON'T OWE REPARATIONS....get over it. The atmosphere that replaces entitlement with taking advantage of opportunity starts with parents that encourage kids and support participation in school, cooperation with the police, and doesn't seek to hide those that join gangs and engage in violence. If the community would actively engage with EPD and see that those that poison the community with gang violence....petty crime that leads to more serious crime the community as a whole would improve. It is unfathomable that there would be resistance to the ETHS Safe School Zone and cameras on Church/Dodge.....these are measures that ought directly help to identify the elements in the community that need to be rooted out like a cancer. The problem can be summed up where an individual is shot in the thigh and refuses to cooperate with the police. At that point, an unwillingness to engage with the authorities and seek to eliminate the problem screams that the individuals involves would rather perpetuate the problem. The communities institutions are available to everyone that is willing to take the opportunity. The lack of willingness of individuals, and their parents to be part of the solution insures that the cycle of violence, jail and the poverty associated therewith is perpetuated. Finally, not to miss my favorite subject....the ability to obtain a concealed carry permit isn't restricted based upon race..one needs to not be a prohibited person, and obtain the requisite training. Its one more option that permits members of the community to protect themselves and their loved ones. There are numerous instances where thugs start to think twice when there is a possibility that their intended victim is armed.
E-Towner January 15, 2014 at 10:33 AM
Dickelle, i respect your view that Evanston is "to a large extent is Drive by Diversity." I disagree with this perspective and throughout the years I and my kids have a completely different and fulfilling experience meeting and interacting with their friends and our friends who are from many countries around the world and our nation, practice different religions, experience multiple cultures and holiday traditions, are from many races, and different sexual orientations. Evanston provides everyone an opportunity to experience a potpourri of life. But like many opportunities it's YOUR CHOICE to engage in the experience and grow as a person. Or you can choose otherwise and resort to cliches and make excuses.
Scotirish January 15, 2014 at 11:13 AM
I don't understand this article, and it's familiarity tells me that this is the second time Christine has published it. Northwestern University once sent out a brochure to prospective freshman that within the brochure stated 'do not live south of Main St. nor west of Chicago Ave. "Dang, that's my neighborhood," I said. On the other hand I heard from someone who said that the Custer Street Fair was for South Evanston and the 4th of July belonged to North Evanston. There are always going to be divisions and ramming diversity down someones throat because its the politically correct thing in vogue isn't going to change that. Consider this is 2014 and not 1964, have we as a world gotten better, stayed the same or gotten worse?
Lonnie wilson February 10, 2014 at 10:00 PM
I am sorry that I even have to get in this conversation again! But lets be clear about Evanston and its supposed equally offered opportunity's. From its school systems to its Neighborhoods Evanston is and has been for years a false place of equal opportunity! Minority children are treated differently in the schools, by the city, and its law arm the police. We are seen as invaders when as inquisitive youngsters we traverse our own home town, and walk in the wrong place or places we dont come from. We are taught in Evanstons fine schools systems, were we belong by teachers, counselors, and their administrations. For years Evanston schools tracked minority students, shuttling them out of futures of real growth. Now this was not done by people wearing hoods and screaming racial slurs. It was done by at least on the surface caring loving educators. Hopefully that has changed ( Some say it has). And lets look for a minute at how this wonderful town of the diverse is constructed. Our neighborhoods are as separate as south Africa, and always have been! By looking at Evanston as an outsider if I was one, I see a town filled with the same issues as the rest of the western world. A town that is pretending to offer opportunity. But in reality its a town of people trying to maintain the status quo, The people who have it want to keep the people who dont from sharing it in anyway!! And all we have to do is look at how God built the world to see what right. See in nature diversity makes it less likely that any of Gods creatures fail or die out because they all fit a puzzle!! Hint hint!!
Jim February 11, 2014 at 09:55 AM
Diversity is not a simple concept. Some diversity can be divisive and destructive. A single community or nation with multiple different languages can be very destructive and since thoughts and culture are the precursors of language, misunderstanding and intolerance can wreck such a community. In addition there are some things which should not be tolerated (no tolerance). In other words, there is a limit to diversity and tolerance beyond which a community or nation will likely fail.


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