Thursday, January 13, 2011

Rewriting History?

How much power does one word have?  Depends on the word, I suppose.  "Orange," for example, doesn't cause people to cringe with guilt.  But is there one word that you have regretted saying and wished you could take back?

I spent my early childhood in Boulder, Colorado.  Boulder in the early 80's was a nice place to live.  It was still a hippy-ish town.  It hadn't quite yet been discovered by the well-to-do-head-in-the-sand sect.  As open-minded and liberal as Boulder liked to pretend to be, it was still a pretty closed community, although less so then than now.  To give you a picture of what the people of Boulder looked like, in my entire elementary school, there were probably 10 students who were not white.

One day, when I was 8 or 9 years old, I was riding the school bus home.  It's was a beautiful sunny day, and spring was about to turn into summer.  All the children on the bus were happy and cheerful, including me.  I was gleefully joking around with my a boy around my age that I had just started talking to on that trip home.  He and his family had lived in the neighborhood for a few months, but he and his brother had kept to themselves on the bus.

I don't remember how we actually started talking or how we ended up laughing so hard we were crying.  I just remember feeling joyous and lighthearted.  Then, without warning, the strangest thing happened:  the ugliest and most vile thing I can ever imagine spewed from my mouth...  "N*****!"

I was overcome with shame, but worse was the look on my new friend's face.  I had never before in my life seen so much sadness and disappointment come across another person's face.  And I was the cause of it!  By uttering one horrible word, I had turned a magic moment into an agonizing silence.

I still have no idea where that horrible utterance came from.  My family never used the word, and we had even had discussions about racism and not using that word.  And I certainly didn't think that this boy was in any way a N-.  Later on in life, I learned part of the message I had given this boy:  "You are a black person, and will always be black before you are a person."  What a horrible thing for me to communicate to as an innocent child to another innocent child!

I apologized to the boy for several days after that incident.  And he never made eye contact or spoke with me again.  Not that I blame him.  I couldn't take back that one word... ever.  But I don't believe in changing history, either.  I am that little girl who hurt another person in a way that I will never fully understand.  But I certainly learned quite a few important lessons from that day.  We can't change we have done to each other; even if we erase a hurtful and meaningful word in books and replace it with one with which we are more comfortable.  History and the horrible things that have happened throughout time cannot be changed, no matter how hard we rub with an eraser.


  1. Very true my friend. As you so eloquently put it, we can only learn from our mistakes and move on. Very powerful Hope! Have a blessed day.

  2. This is amazing, what a message Hope! You are an amazing writer!