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