I believe in the golden rule. “Do onto others,” my mother always said. As a child in the mid-70’s I moved with my family from Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn to Durham, North Carolina. Like any black person moving back to the South at the time, my mother had concerns about our ability to navigate the more challenging landscape of race south of the Mason-Dixon Line. But her concerns were soon alleviated as my older sister and I excelled at our new school and made friends of every hue.
My mother taught me the golden rule and I tried to apply it diligently in my new environment. She taught me to believe that if I treated people with the kindness that I sought, it would eventually come back to me. But kindness isn’t always a reciprocal act among kids. And while race still mattered in the 70’s in North Carolina, class differences also brought out the lesser angles.
This revelation collided with my beliefs on a fourth-grade playground. The game was softball and my athleticism always made me one of the first kids chosen when teams were divvied up. The last kid chosen was an unkempt, tow-headed boy named John who always gravitated on the edges of our activities, a pariah to my more affluent white classmates. John had an ever-present shadow of dirt on his face, and shoes that hung together with remnants of laces. He and I were on opposite teams as we took the field to play. In the age-old tradition of playground sports we shared equipment and exchanged gloves with the other team as we came in to take our turn at bat and they took the field. But no one would share a glove with John who was rebuked by everyone he approached. Without much thought, I went over to John and gave him my glove, which he gladly accepted. We shared it throughout the game. While I can’t remember who won, I do remember that my gym teacher came over to me afterwards and thanked me for what he described as my generosity towards John. At the time I didn’t see it as generosity but simply extending a hand to someone who was in need. The fact that I was black and he was white didn’t really cross my mind.
As I think back on it, I saw in John what I feared could have been my fate: the inherent unfairness of an untouchable status as a second-class citizen based on nothing more than an accident of birth. “Do onto others,” my mother always said. Those simple words have always guided my values and I still believe in them today although it has become a bit more challenging as I’ve settled into the complexities of adulthood, become more judgmental with age and sometimes less forgiving. But I always remember back to that playground, to John and that shared glove, and my mother’s guidance to find my grounding and recapture my belief.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.