In front of me this particular day was one of the best students I had ever taught in journalism. Her writing was superb; she possessed a gift for clarity and description in the parsimonious skill of reporting. Her commentary writing was dazzling and thoughtful. I told her I would help her apply to major graduate programs in journalism; her future was so bright she would be a credit to any school she’d graduate from. I remember vividly her response. Her lips trembled a bit and her eyes searched my face like a mine detector scouring for assurance in unknown terrain. “You can do anything you want in life,” I blithely said. “No,” she replied. “Everything I wanted to do is over. I trained throughout my childhood to become an Olympic skater. But I outgrew the small local rink so my parents applied to the famous skating rink nearby where many Olympic skaters trained. My parents had saved for this. They had the money. There were excellent coaches there. All I ever wanted to be was an Olympic skater. But my application was denied.”
I heard a thud in my ears, the sound of my heart in free fall. “Journalism is my second choice” she said. She was black.
A few years later, another student came to ask for a six month personal curriculum so she could stay in school while training in Colorado Springs for the Olympics. She was a wonderful student with an engaging competitive streak sure to guarantee success in training for the American Swim Team. She described the Colorado facility as fully staffed with a medical team, excellent coaches, healthy accommodations, everything she would need to help her train and represent her country to fulfill her dream in the Olympics. She went off to Colorado Springs and I became her biggest cheer leader. I assisted her with her school work even though zoom, the internet, and skype did not exist. E-mail was faulty but helpful. She not only won a spot on the swim team, but having appeared in two Olympics, she won a total of gold, silver, and bronze medals and a heap of international competition awards. She was white.
I researched the skating rink my first student told me about. It was true. No African Americans were allowed to apply and this was in the 1980s. These two examples, among many that other educators can tell, have always haunted me as precisely why black lives matter. At some point I became aware of what Irish spiritual writers call the thin space, the place of experience where a truth and a grace cut a cleavage right down the middle of a reality and suddenly you see something different, something very important for you to see, like a sudden conversion. If my two students had been of the same race, white or black, I would never have been hit with the injustice suffered by the former. But suddenly there was a thin space in front of me; it was the color of our skins. And God was there.
It seems many of us are becoming aware of the racial divide we have lived with, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously for over 400 years. I think this is a sign of hope. Let us pray to be open and thorough in seeking the truth. We can seek it by informing ourselves with reputable thinkers and writers and certainly by having the humility to discuss what we learn with others who are seeking. Because our Western cultures have colonized indigenous peoples for centuries, we are being awakened now to how harmful that colonization was and how it became our own system of slavery.
When did you experience a thin space that brought you closer to the awareness of God in a situation? This is grace. How did you use it?
Let us pray for our country and for the world trying to heal from two pandemics: COVID-19 and racism.
God bless you in the ordinary, beautiful days of summer! You are all in my prayers.
My children grew up with a family in Cleveland whose boys trained at the skating program run by a former Olympic skater you mentioned in your blog. As a white family, we observed police stopping boys of color in their cars near their school. One kid was stopped by a local policeman as he was walking up the driveway to his own house! We had these occasional glimpses of racism but we had amnesia about how families of color dealt with racism on a daily basis. Our safe world allowed us to forget. Maybe soon things will start to change. We will pray for open hearts and accountability.
Thanks, Mary Ann, how little we know growing up white. You are helping us learn and grow in the reality of past and present social justice Challeges!
My thin space was doing an anti-racism workshop with PCUSA and PCMNY hosting a few years back. That was when I first had to acknowledge that I live within a racist system and have benefited from being white in so many ways of which I was unaware. Thank you for this, may we never stop being aware!
This broke my heart…