I am fifteen. I do my best to avoid being noticed. I don’t dress provocatively or wear makeup other than mascara, barely even see other faces because I don’t wear my glasses. I do my schoolwork, work an afterschool job, date a boy who makes me feel safe. But inside I have large, loud opinions about social conditions, politics, religion. I don’t know anyone who talks about such things. My boyfriend wisely listens and agrees with the fervent opinions I share only with him.
I don’t know how to get along with my boyfriend’s family so I smile and stay quiet. I’m pretty sure something about me disgusts his older brother because he won’t even look at me. If I call and he answers, he drops the phone on the counter to yell for his brother. He’s never once said my name. My boyfriend’s father is 6 foot 5 inches, towering 14 inches over me. I’m not familiar with adult sarcasm so I wilt around him. I don’t like that my wilting makes me seem like my boyfriend’s mother, who expresses no opinions, not even on her face, making herself small and subservient.
One afternoon my boyfriend and I are out together. We stop at his house for a brief interlude with his proudly Irish great uncle who is visiting from out of state for the first time in decades. He is thin and whiskery as a stalk of wheat. I smile at him whenever he looks my way. He brings up a work-related incident that still angers him, quickly devolving into racist comments He is the first person I’ve ever heard deride Black people. In the next sentence he uses the n-word. I bristle. My boyfriend looks at me with an expression I interpret as let it go. The great uncle continues, his mouth in a strange smirk. I have been taught to be polite. I’ve kept quiet to my detriment many times and will do so many more times. But this time I speak up.
My boyfriend’s family looks shocked as the quiet little blonde girl, the one who obsessively reads history, spews out all the Irish slurs she can think of. I say Mick and Paddy and drunken Irish, asking if he wants his people spoken about that way. I ask if he knows what prejudice his ancestors endured when signs were posted outside buildings reading No Irish need apply or No Irish, no dogs, or, more commonly, No Irish, no dogs, no Blacks just a few generations ago.
There’s an awful pause.
I want to run out of the room but, unexpectedly, he agrees such terms are unfair. Then starts to justify his biases. I say it’s the exact same thing. He says no it’s not, I say yes it is. Prejudice is prejudice.
A longer pause.
Neither one of us knows how to extricate ourselves from the situation. Right about then, my boyfriend invents a reason we have to leave. We hustle out of the house. Once we get in the car, I laugh although I’m shaking. I say I have no delusion I’ve made any difference. I have no idea how to make a difference. The real me wants very much to know what can.
Now I live in a world where young people, everywhere, advocate loudly and persistently for a sustainable, equitable, compassionate future. They’re not standing up to one racist man, they are standing up to an entrenched history of brutality and greed. They are reshaping the future. I can feel it happening. I hope you can too.
*I’ve worked on an exhaustively hyperlinked post about ways to reimagine education during the pandemic but just can’t seem to muster up what it takes to finish it. So I’m posting this response to the writing prompt “the first time you felt brave.” I think our world needs a great deal more bravery (and love) than it ever has in my lifetime. Please respond with a story of when YOU felt brave.