I learned tolerance from an anthropomorphic duck, and prejudice from a human grammar school teacher.
In the 1950s, when I was among its less promising scholars, Parkside Elementary School incubated youths from several adjacent ethnic enclaves. Alongside upper middle-class Jews sat first and second generation Poles, a few Asians, Latinos and dirt poor Scots-Irish from Appalachia, and an ever-increasing number of African-Americans. Vast cultural differences manifested themselves among us. I did not fail to notice them. But to factor them as anything more than color within the otherwise the dingy institution was beyond my ken.
You see, I read Uncle Scrooge. His adventures appeared bi-monthly in 24-page pulp editions. Venerable Scrooge McDuck lived in Duckburg. Despite its name, the town’s population consisted of many species of fauna, all of whom wore clothes, walked on two legs, spoke English and used their fore limbs like arms and hands. Horace Horsecollar dated Clarabel Cow. Sure, the Beagle Boys robbed banks, but nobody blamed their canine genes for their villainy. Weren’t Goofy and Pluto also dogs? In Duckburg, the lion literally lay down with the lamb.
For me, the polyglot of Parkside Elementary was identical to that of Uncle Scrooge’s Duckburg. It made life varied and interesting in both places. The Polish bully who beat me up regularly did not do so because he was a dumb pollack any more than the Jewish kid who also beat me up regularly did so because he was a lousy kike. I didn’t know those words. That’s how things were until I confronted Mrs. Dart.
It happened this way. My exuberant father used to call out affectionate terms to me in Yiddish. “Hot! Iss das ein punim!” he’d coo, “punim” meaning face. Sometimes he’d say it in translation this way: “Oh, what a puss!” or “You puss!” Puss thus became a catch word in my household, a silly utterance for times of amusement.
So, one day, as was my wont, I was passing funny notes back and forth to the Black kid who sat next to me in class. Mrs. Dart, our teacher, saw me and grabbed the note. On it was one word. “Puss.” She dragged me out into the hall and scolded me sharply for my dirty language. I had no idea what she was talking about. I was seven years old.
“My dad made this word up!” I tried explaining.
“Don’t tell me,” she replied. “I’ve taught in their schools. I know what they say.”
I still had no idea what the hell she was talking about. But I was jolted awake by “their schools” and “they.” She was referring to some “them” that was diametrically opposed to “us” – a sinister, unclean OTHER people.
And that’s how I became a bigot. I have never since been able to regard an African-American again with Duckburgian sensibility. I have tried to overcome this unwelcome THEM disease, to act in spite of it, but the stain on the soul is indelible. Once infected by it, one is banished forever from Duckburg.
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