Saturday, November 7, 2009


In the early 1970s, I was a little girl growing up in a middle-class suburban neighborhood of Cleveland. None of the moms worked outside the home (except maybe to volunteer in the school cafeteria twice a week) and a summer day meant playing outside with the neighborhood kids from late morning until dusk with breaks only for meals. Everyone in my neighborhood was white, Christian, and spoke with a Midwestern accent.

Once or twice, a family with a slight European accent might move in, and after months of covert scrutiny, the neighborhood consensus would be something like, “They’re good neighbors. They have a well-tended yard. They seem very clean.” I’m pretty sure that—given the rampant “people like us” thinking of the time—the earth would have shifted off its axis if a non-white family had ever moved in. Those precious few European accents were about the limit of difference the neighborhood seemed to be able to sustain.

The social climate in Cleveland back then was characterized by intolerance. I still have lots of issues with the belief systems under which I was raised and which surrounded me in all aspects of my childhood universe. I knew that there were people whose skin was different than mine because my parents would make us cross the street and walk faster or lock the car doors whenever we saw them. I was probably a teenager before fully grasping that there were people who weren’t Christian. I had no knowledge of the world outside of the U.S. except that there was something called an Iron Curtain behind which the godless, evil communists in Russia lived; we prayed daily for their conversion (presumably—in my youthful understanding—to our correct way of thinking and worshipping).

But race, religion, or ethnic origin weren’t the only focal points of intolerance in my neighborhood. There were also whisperings about families who had—or were suspected of having—lives that didn’t quite resemble that of the Cleaver family. (The Brady Bunch and Partridge Family would have been considered way too progressive to live in my neighborhood, despite their squeaky-clean images by today’s standards.) There were meaningful looks exchanged by the adults about the young people in the neighborhood who were suspected of using drugs (despite no real evidence, I’m sure), became pregnant before marriage, got into trouble at school or with the police, looked too much like hippies (no shoes and long hair = lay-about drug addict), or in any other way didn’t fit the model of approved behavior.

Our parents never gave us information other than orders to stay away from so-and-so, as if whatever perceived imperfection—too shameful to talk about—might infect us. These were the days when children didn’t ask questions if not invited to do so, and we weren’t ever invited. And, being kids, we blindly accepted everything, sometimes drawing crazy conclusions from the snippets we overheard, while trying to emulate our parents’ behavior.

There was one particular neighborhood girl, a few years older than I was, who was different. The neighborhood line was that Bethany was “slow.” As a kid, I thought that had to do with speed in the literal sense. Bethany walked slowly, sort of dragging her legs from the hip with her toes pointing inward. She talked slowly, with a kind of slurred drawl. She stared a lot. She came uncomfortably close to you when she talked. She seemed to have an endless amount of time and no expectations on what she should be doing. Even as a very young girl, I found dealing with her to be trying.

She seemed to have a lot of freedom that the rest of us didn’t have. She never seemed to have to go home for lunch or dinner; she’d sit on one of our porches and eat something from her pocket. She was out on her bike hours earlier than the rest of us were allowed to go out in the morning and hours later than the rest of us were allowed to stay out in the evening. I always assumed that the hours she kept were allowed because she was older than I was.

Bethany never seemed to mind waiting. She would often wait on someone’s porch or in the yard until the child who lived there came out to play. This irked the neighborhood moms. After watching for a while through the kitchen window and realizing that Bethany had no intention of leaving, my mother would firmly tell her that she couldn’t hang out on our back porch while I ate lunch or all through the early morning until I was allowed out to play. Bethany would argue a bit (which was shocking in our neighborhood, where talking back to a parent was a capital offense), but would eventually say, “Okay,” pick up her bike, and cycle off to someone else’s porch. I suspect she just went from porch to porch, biding her time, day in and day out.

Bethany always seemed to have an extraordinary number of scrapes and bumps that she attributed to falls from her bike. I believed her—she always had her bike with her and I saw her wipe out on it now and then. She’d often ask for band-aids. I remember thinking it was strange that she never went home to get one like the rest of us would have done.

Bethany sometimes joined in our games, though she’d lose interest quickly and try to distract us. Sometimes she’d watch us play, which always felt kind of creepy. She had endless questions and often I couldn’t figure out what she meant. I tried to be polite, but my stomach clenched whenever I saw her coming. Sometimes my best friend and I just wanted to be left alone to our own secrets and games, so we’d pretend our mothers were calling us and hide inside until she went away. As it became harder to cope with Bethany's constant presence, we developed increasingly elaborate schemes to ditch her. Sometimes she’d catch on to what we were doing to exclude her and start berating us. One of our moms would overhear her angry shouts and tell her to go home. All of the moms would shake their heads and whisper.

I don’t know what ever happened to Bethany. Eventually, she stopped hanging around. Maybe her family moved away. I don’t remember. Nobody missed her when she’d gone. We forgot all about her—easily.

Looking back, I wish my parents had known how to teach me to be more compassionate toward Bethany. I wish they had explained why she behaved the way she did and helped me to develop appropriate skills for helping her to feel included while not feeling confused and irritated by her myself. Although I did try to play with her more than some of the children in my neighborhood, I wish I had tried to understand her rather than merely endure her. I wish an adult had tried to help her. I guess those were the times.

My kids recently told me about a child they know. Based on their description, I suspect the child has developmental challenges. Their irritation was apparent, and I heard echoes of my childhood in the intolerant things they told me they and the other children were starting to say and do. From my deeply buried memories came the recollection of Bethany.

We had a serious talk that day on the drive home. We’ve had a few follow-up discussions since. I hope I advised my children well. I hope they will be more inclusive than I was. I hope that the child they described won’t be easily forgotten the way I forgot Bethany...until now.

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