We raised our children, mostly, in Birmingham, Alabama. Birmingham does not have a pretty past, and it is not the first image one has of “sheltering walls.” But I want to tell three stories in short order. They are the stories of our children.
Our younger daughter came home from preschool one day with a letter saying that the Jewish Community Center were she attended was proud to announce that they would be welcoming their newest teacher, a man, a teacher with his Masters in Early Childhood, the next day. Two days later, I was helping our daughter put on her shoes for school, and the conversation went like this:
Me: So, you have a new teacher, Mr. Jimmy.
Daughter: Yeah. He’s black.
Me: I know.
Daughter: I wish I was black.
Me: Really, how come?
Daughter: (pausing for a moment) Black is a really nice color.
As she scampered down the stairs to breakfast, I sat there on the steps and cried tears of wonder. Our little white girl in Birmingham, AL thought being black was a good thing. Were things changing?
A few years later, our oldest daughter, after tryouts and portfolios, won a position at the Alabama School of Fine Arts. The school was built in the very center of downtown, a block from the Museum of Arts, a block from the Downtown Library, 5 blocks from the Civil Rights Museum and 16th Street Baptist Church where 4 little girls died in a bomb planted by klansmen. The school called unto itself teenagers from all over the State, from all kinds of families, teens of all types, colors, sexual orientations, religions and socio-economic incomes. The arts, the classics, the sciences, the technogeeks–it was all happening there, five blocks from our house. This was Birmingham, AL?
Our son was in a first grade class at a wonderful, experimental school in the Birmingham City School system, called EPIC. It was a warehouse converted into an elementary school on the campus of the University of Alabama in Birmingham. An artificial stream ran through the school, and banana trees grew through the roof. There was an aviary in the middle of the building. But the biggest wonder was that all kinds of students were served, together, in the same class. Our son’s first grade class had two deaf students, so in addition to the first grade teacher, they had an interpreter for the deaf, too. By the end of the school year, the entire first grade could sign, and no one was left out of what happened in class.
Each in their own ways, our children were found in little communities that were able to offer sheltering walls–in a city notoriously know for being anything but sheltering. I know Birmingham’s horrible past. I also know the possibility of even the worst of places becoming new places–where sheltering walls grow up out of old soil.
There is hope today–for anyone, any place. You can choose to allow sheltering walls to rise up out of old spaces and create the future.