Updated: Aug 16, 2022
Before beginning my first day at school - even before walking to the end of my street - I was introduced to prejudice. I learned that children who attended my school would walk on one side of our road, while children who attended a different school and wore their blue uniform, would walk on the other.
As we walked, fierce yells and taunts would be exchanged from one side of the street across to the other. The meaning and purpose of these taunts totally escaped me, but I quickly learned the words of the chant that 'my' group was expected to shout. Taken out of context, they were only a few words that sounded no more menacing than a line from an innocuous nursery rhyme, but sometimes context is everything.
Before reaching the doorway of my first classroom, I had learned that blue-uniformed kids were bad.
Survival instinct kicked in. I was a little kid among big kids, and these were kids I would be spending the next decade of my life with. It was in the interests of survival to be on their side; to walk on their side of the road and give tacit support, by my mere presence among them, to the insults that they hurled at the 'blue' kids. I never made a conscious choice to do so; it was just the dominant culture in which I now found myself.
To be most effective, the challenger would stand, legs akimbo, pointing with dramatic disdain at the blue kids on the other side, whilst fiercely bellowing the words; "Stare, stare, like a bear, sitting in a monkey's chair." ....That was it.
Just those few, totally meaningless words, but with clearly inflammatory undertones. I could never hear what the blue kids shouted back, but assumed it was something equally menacing. It was all very curious, almost ceremonial in its observance, and added to the mystique of being a 'big girl' who now went to school.
With the passing of several years, I began to understand a little more about what all the taunts and blue uniforms, meant. Those kids were Catholics. Catholics had their own school. Catholics were different. By that time, I'd also learned a few other words for them, like 'Mickey Dolans', but still didn't know what the words meant, or really even how to pronounce them.
Rumour was that Catholic kids smelled. Their families were poor. They sinned a lot, and had to share their sins in detail with their teachers and church leaders. They all had enormous families, and didn't eat meat on Fridays. As I learned more about these poor people, I could only feel very grateful for my own family, grateful to God that I was not one of 'them'.
My mother had been raised in a religious family, although that devotion had not always been shared by all members, most notably her grandfather. However, there is a time for everything under the sun.
After the passing of his devoutly Brethren wife, who had apparently required more that her share of a sin-covering eye, this grandfather had, in remorse for the hardships he had brought upon her, undergone a personal spiritual transformation - some lesser equivalent of Paul on the road to Damascus - which aroused in him a powerful proselytising fervour. It was a revelation that drove him to spend Friday nights on the main street of their town, preaching and calling the people to God.
Whether he met with any success I do not know but, these many years on, my mother's reminiscences politely suggested that the public sermonising during these later years of his revelation had been only slightly less embarrassing to her as a child than his previously unenlightened behaviour. Whatever the case, thanks to my mother's personal devotion to God, I grew up with religion all around me.
Since we did not see very much of our own extended family, it was our church and neighbourhood that took their place in our lives. My father's two sisters were not close. Neither were we often able to see my mother's only sister and her family, since they lived 'up north', a journey of only a few hours travel, but which always seemed much longer when driving in the aging car that we had borrowed for that purpose, over dirt and loose gravel roads.
Those visits were the highlight of our holidays, and we loved our Aunty and Uncle. I felt thrilled when the males of the family, the respective fathers and brothers and cousins, played cricket together on the large lawn of their home. Sometimes they even let me - the only girl - have a short time in batting.
The best times of all were the blissful summers we spent at their holiday home on a long golden surf beach where, as a teenager, I learned from my father to be a competent fisher, would have my first experience of surfing and enjoy the thrills of land-sailing. My cousin Carol sometimes gave me her hand-me-downs which, to the little provincially-raised girl that I was, seemed unbelievably glamorous - practically 'Hollywood'. My cousins rock'n'rolled to all the latest music from the United States, and saw the newest movies.
They were so 'cool' even before we learned that word. For this reason, it was a considerable shock to me when I discovered one day, and quite by chance, that their family was Catholic.
At first I felt total disbelief. Why did I not know this? Why had no-one told me? How could this exciting, sophisticated, fun-loving family have any connection with those poor, harassed and harassing, blue-uniformed children back home? How could I reconcile this bombshell of information with those years of my childhood experience, of our respective denominations each keeping well apart from the other, striving to preserve our separateness, each believing in our own superiority before God?
So my first and best-ever school lesson, although I did not appreciate it at the time, was about how our world determined some differences to be ‘good‘, and others ‘bad‘. I learned not to trust the values and opinions of others, and to search out the truth for myself. Which is the very first principle of the Baha'i Faith to be taught to all peoples.
"...the root cause of prejudice is ignorance, which can be erased through educational processes that make knowledge accessible to the entire human race, ensuring it does not become the property of a privileged few..." --- Abdu'l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu'l-Baha 202.