(Every year or so I like to share this true story, a story of when I saw myself in a mirror and didn’t like what I saw.)
It is easy to be deluded into thinking that you know yourself, especially at the age of fifteen. But events can suddenly thrust you into a set of circumstances that shatters the crystal castle you’ve built in your mind. Then you find yourself on your knees trying to pick up the shards, only to discover they will never fit together in the same way again.
It was 1968 – the summer of change. Social upheaval. Unrest in the streets. Strains of “We Shall Overcome.” I witnessed many of those changes, but it wasn’t until I moved to Tennessee and met Eugene McDonald that I experienced change on a personal level.
One of the scariest things for a kid is attending the first day of school at a new school, in a new town. Yet here I am, for the fifth time in my life, enduring this Hitchcock-like tension. The butterflies in my stomach beat their wings nervously. My sweaty hands grip my books. The lump in my throat swells, making it difficult to swallow.
I drag my feet through the shade of giant maple trees and climb the steps of the ancient building -like something from a gothic novel – known as Dresden High School to begin my sophomore year. (One rumor I’d heard was that the building had been condemned twice. The town ultimately demolished it the year after I graduated.)
Entering the front door produces an assault on my senses. The musty smell of the old building and multiple samples of the latest perfumes (White Shoulders, Chanel No. 5) and aftershaves (English Leather, Brut, and Hi Karate) make me sneeze. A cacophony of voices pelt me as friends greet each other. People smile at each other, hug, or slap each other on the back. This only increases my sense of being an outsider to these Tennesseans.
The looks I get are sideways glances, followed by questions delivered from mouth-covered hands. I read the questions in their eyes. “Who is that?” “Is he new?” “What grade is he in?” In a town of 2,500 and a high school of 350, hiding the fact that you are an outsider is impossible.
Students purposefully stride toward their assigned destinations. I feel lost. I slowly move across the worn wooden floor of the lobby, not having a clue where I am supposed to go. Then I see Bob. He is one person I met when we moved to Dresden a few weeks ago. He comes straight toward me.
“Hi, David. How’s it going?”
“I’m not sure which way I’m supposed to go.”
“Let me see your schedule. What’s your first class?”
I show Bob my list of classes.
“First period – P.E. That’s great. That’s my first class, too. Follow me.”
Relieved to have some direction, I follow Bob and exit the building through a set of heavy double-doors. We flow with a small stream of people into another building I expect will be the gymnasium. Five feet inside the building, I’m sure it is the gym.
Gymnasiums all smell the same – a mixture of musty clothes, the chemical smell of newly varnished floors, and the sweetness of soap from the showers. And they sound the same – rubber soles squeaking on the wooden floor, voices echoing to the point of being unintelligible, coach’s whistles, and someone barking instructions.
Everyone is clamoring onto the wooden bleachers. Bob introduces me to a couple of people. He was born and raised in Dresden and seems to know everyone. He has no idea what it is like to be an outsider.
A man with a whistle around his neck tells everyone to get quiet.
“That’s Coach Gibson, the basketball coach,” Bob whispers. “Did you bring some clothes to change into for P.E.?”
I nod and hold up my small bag containing tennis shoes, shorts and t-shirt.
Coach Gibson calls role, gives brief instructions as to his expectations for the year, and then dismisses everyone to change clothes.
Like a lemming I follow the other boys into the locker room. Wooden benches, with names and initials crudely etched in them, sit in front of wooden lockers without doors. Everyone starts stripping down to get dressed back up in their gym clothes. There is the typical laughing, joking and making fun of each other that boys engage in, though I’m only an observer.
I look for a place to sit where I can change. I turn the corner and am stunned at what I see. I don’t move or speak.
In front of a locker is a solitary colored boy, close to my age and size, changing his clothes. A colored boy! In my locker room.
My look of shock must have been apparent to the boy. He stops and looks at me without expression. After a pause and an audible sniff, he continues changing clothes.
I sit down on a bench, my mind reeling.
The majority of my previous life I had lived in Alabama. The Deep South. Home to Governor George Wallace.
I used public toilets that were for “whites only.” I avoided the water fountains that were for “colored only.”
The N-word was used as casually as breathing in referring to colored people. “Those people.” “You know their kind.” Dehumanizing jokes were as common across elementary school yards as rocks on a gravel road. I looked spellbound at the television as water hoses tore the clothes off of colored people’s backs.
I watched with pride as Governor Wallace, flanked by soldiers, stood defiantly in the school house door to block the entrance of a colored student. Nobody tells him what to do, I thought proudly.
I knew there was a school for coloreds, but I never saw it. Really never gave it any thought. What did they have to do with me?
Yet in my home the N-word was never uttered and other people were not made fun of. My parents taught us that everyone was equal and that prejudice was an offense to God. This juxtaposition of the prejudiced world I faced everyday and the non-judgmental world I lived in at home created dissonance within me.
Friends that I enjoyed playing with, and their parents in whose homes I ate and spent the night, were obviously highly prejudiced against anyone who wasn’t white. But my parents, who I loved and respected, held a firm line against that kind of attitude.
At the mature age of fifteen I came out of that conflicted place feeling that, at my core, I was a compassionate person and that everyone deserved an equal chance. I bought into what my parents taught me. I didn’t believe I was prejudiced against colored people, even referring to them as African-Americans, as many of them at that time wished.
Now I’m in a gym locker room 350 miles and several cultural divides from that Apartheid-world I spent my childhood in, experiencing feelings I didn’t believe lived in my heart.
Why am I offended at his presence? Why do I feel he shouldn’t be here? Why am I so uncomfortable? I’m embarrassed and confused by my feelings.
I notice that none of the other white guys seem to even notice the boy quietly lacing his Converse high-top tennis shoes. When he finishes dressing, he takes a puff on an asthma inhaler. I’m taken aback by this familiar looking behavior.
Both of my brothers have asthma. I remember the times I was terrified by their gasping, wheezing sounds as they desperately scrambled to find their inhaler.
I look again at the African American boy and feel a bow pull across a small, sympathetic string in my heart.
Everyone files out of the locker room. I quickly shed my street clothes and put on my gym clothes. I hurry out the door and join everyone on the gym floor.
The shriek of Coach Gibson’s whistle shatters my confused thoughts. I’m back in the here and now.
“Okay boys. Let’s divide up and play some basketball.” Without consulting a list, Coach quickly calls the names of ten boys and divides them into two teams.
I find a seat to myself and watch the scrimmage. The boys immediately take their proper positions on offense and defense. They race up and down the court with practiced speed and agility. They bank shots, drop in layups, block shots, and execute fast breaks with precision.
It’s easy to see why coach chose these ten to scrimmage. They probably play on the school basketball team.
I glance around and notice the African-American boy sitting by himself like me. He watches with an air of indifference. I think about the similarities between us. I feel a tug at the corner of my conscience. A little light filters in. Maybe he knows what it’s like to be an outsider.
Coach’s whistle hooks me by the ear and jerks me out of my preoccupation. “Give me ten more boys.” He looks at his class roll and barks out ten names, mine included.
As I pass the boys who have been playing, I notice them gasping for air. A sheen of sweat covers them. But I especially notice their smiles and laughter – their connection to each other.
Coach divides us into two teams and I suddenly realize the African American is on my team. I feel the ripple of my opposing feelings bumping into each other again. This should be interesting.
I’m eager to impress Coach Gibson. I played basketball in Alabama and intend to try out for the team here.
Coach offers the ball to the African American. “Here, Eugene. You take the ball out.”
The simple act of Coach Gibson calling Eugene by name tied me to him because he was now the only boy on the floor whose name I knew.
Pointing at me, Coach told Eugene, “Throw the ball in to Johnson and let’s get going!”
Eugene’s stoic features shift and a wide, infectious grin takes its place. Tossing the ball to me and then running past, he says, “Let’s go Johnson.”
For the next fifteen minutes I run up and down the court, exchanging passes with Eugene. And with each pass, the differences in us melt away. I shout words of encouragement to him. He smiles and laughs with me when we assist one another in scoring. My first time playing with an African American.
When Coach whistles us off the court, Eugene and I sit together on the bleachers – two outsiders having found common ground. Me and an African-American, sitting together as new-found friends.
For the rest of the day I remember in shame my initial reaction to Eugene. I ask myself hard questions that produce uncomfortable answers. The biggest truth I discover? I was prejudiced and wasn’t aware of it. How subtly the influence of the culture I lived in had woven itself into the fabric of my character!
In 1968, that changes needed to take place in America was clear to me. What I’d failed to notice was what changes needed to take place within me. I’ll forever be grateful to Eugene McDonald for helping me both see and make those needed changes.
Eugene and I remained friends throughout high school. He served as the manager of the basketball team, his asthma not allowing him to play the game he loved. And because I spent plenty of time on the bench during my basketball career, we watched the games together.
For over thirty years I never heard a word about Eugene, though I thought of him periodically.
One day I was in Martin, TN, about ten miles from Dresden, having a new set of tires installed at The Tire Barn. As I sat in a straight back chair waiting for the job to be completed, a black man came in. I glanced up and noticed his whitening hair, and then went back to my magazine reading.
The man spoke to someone about getting a tire fixed. Then he laughed. A memory stirred in me. The laugh was familiar. I looked up and saw a broad, infectious smile. The door on my memory bank creaked open a bit more. Could it be?
I let him catch my eye. I smiled and nodded. He returned the nod and turned back to a friend who was with him. I must be mistaken.
Suddenly he paused and turned back to look at me.
It had to be Eugene.
I stood up and walked toward him with hand outstretched. “Are you Eugene McDonald?”
He took my hand. “Sure am.”
Standing this close to him I see his eyes look clouded, possibly from diabetes. “You look familiar,” he says.
“Eugene, I’m David Johnson. We graduated from Dresden High School together.”
“David Johnson? I’m not sure…..”
“You probably remember me by my nickname, ‘Virgil.’”
“Virgil?! Of course! Man, how are you?”
We spend a few minutes catching up. I tell him the story of my first day at Dresden, of my having moved from Alabama, and how I initially felt about him being in the locker room at the gymnasium. “I’ve always felt I needed to apologize to you for that.”
Eugene laughed that same easy laugh I remembered from years ago. “Man, that was a long time ago. A different time, a different place. Let it go. You don’t owe me anything.”
“Oh, but I do. More than you’ll ever know.”