22. The first real racism I experienced in life was when I girl who I was really close with freshman year of high school was told by her mother she wasn’t allowed to hang out with or speak to me anymore.
Jen was my best friend high school and the first girl I ever loved. Throughout freshman year of St. Mary’s High School, Jen and I were inseparable. We ate lunch together. We spent the days writing and exchanging page long notes that I used to keep in shoeboxes under my desk. On the weekend and over the summer, we would talk on the phone until the wee hours of the morning much to my mother’s chagrin. Even though we weren’t girlfriend/boyfriend, we regularly exchanged “I love you’s” in our notes and phone calls. Even though I was too shy to ever flat-out make a move, we were moving in that direction at a glacial pace.
Jen also happened to be white.
Back then, i never thought of Jen as white, or more accurately, I never thought of it as an issue. I went to a Catholic grade school and it was pretty mixed. The class was half minorities and half whites. I regularly hung out with kids of all races in and after school (when they weren’t beating me up). I went to Boy Scout troop meetings with them. There was never an issue. I didn’t know there was any reason for there to have been an issue. I’m pretty sure I didn’t know what racism was at this point. I knew what racism was as a concept. We learned about it in for a few awkward days in Social Studies class but I always thought of it as something that used to happen in the 1960s and 70’s. Clearly, I lived a charmed racial life.
One day, I took the train to Port Washington to go to Jen’s house to help her paint a room. I had met her mother before and she was really nice to me. When I got to the house, I met Jen’s grandmother and uncle. Her uncle seemed okay but her grandmother looked like she really didn’t want me there. She actually hid her jewelry. I thought it was funny more than anything else but never really gave it a second thought.
It was Jen’s birthday and I took the bus and train out to Port Washington to go hang out. Jen and her mom were waiting at the train station. Jen’s in the backseat and her mom had an angry look on her face. Jen gives me a half-smile but she’s clearly sad. Apparently, I’m being taken back home. While we’re driving, Jen’s mom tells me that this is the last time we can see each other. I can’t remember what she said specifically after that but Jen said it “was something to the effect of it being the best thing for me, because if we were to date, no one else would want to be my friend and I would lose the respect of all my friends and family.” Jen was crying. I might have cried too if I hadn’t been so confused and stunned. When they dropped me off back at my house, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I ran around the neighborhood looking for someone, ANYONE, to hang out with so I could think about something else. I went to Andrew’s house and told him what happened. I was more embarrassed more than anything else.
We tried to keep in touch but it was much harder than I thought. We would do three-way phone calls with our mutual friend Eva. We still exchanged letters but Jen had to work hard to make sure they didn’t get intercepted. I spent a lot of my summer waiting for Jen to call me. She would call me when no one was home and I would call back. She thought if the phone bill was lower she wouldn’t suspect anything. Unfortunately, she got the phone bill itemized and Jen got punished again. Jen’s attempts to contact me left her grounded for most of the summer.
Jen and I had a lot of the same classes so I was looking forward to sophomore year. On the first day of school, we were leaving Honors Math and crossing the street to go to Honors English. Jen and I were talking and laughing outside and everything felt back to normal again. When we got to English class, I was seated two rows way from her but directly across from her. We were both laughing about our new rather flamboyant English teacher and then a look of terror and embarrassment came over her face as she looked out the door. I asked her what was wrong and she just mouthed “My mother.”. The teacher went over to the door and asked if he could help her. She said something about seeing her daughter. Oh shit. After class ended, we both slowly made our way to the door. I saw Jen’s mother there waiting at the doorway with a scowl on her face. As we were face to face, all I could do was say “Hi there!”, start to chuckle and walk away. Jen was forced to take a different math class.
Jen and I never really hung out as much again. We had classes together but never sat too close to one another for fear of her mother’s return. We still wrote notes to one another but the frequency decreased. We both started dating people in sophomore years and, while still friends, slowly hung out in different circles. The restrictions started to fade but the damage had been done.
Thanks to Jen for helping me write this post. I’m glad we’re still friends.