The Magic Words

By Teresa Swartz Roberts

12. Copyright 2017

First grade school picture of little girl with brown bangs and glasses
This little girl was learning that the world is full of different people. She didn’t understand hate. She still doesn’t.

            I didn’t know it at the time, but back in 1960s West Virginia, my mother was a quiet revolutionary. She was raising me to appreciate difference. She drove me to Institute, the home of West Virginia State College, a historically black college (HBCU to those in academia), to play with my new friends, the ones who arrived on a school bus each morning while I walked what I thought was two miles to school. She invited her black teacher-friends to our house, although I think the word was Negro then.

            In the first grade, we were given an assignment to draw something we hated. I drew myself having to stay after school. I loved school and wanted to please my teacher. I couldn’t seem to stay on her good side, and I found myself staying after school, sometimes removed from class to stand in front of a mirror and make the face I had apparently made at her, and even getting paddled with a board at some point.

            A little boy named Stevie drew a black person. I remember that he presented it to the class, saying that he was hoping never to be slapped by a “n*****” because he worried that the brown stuff would come off on his face. I don’t remember my teacher saying anything about it. The next year, my new black friends arrived at the school. I don’t remember what happened to Stevie, but I wonder if he ever found out what happens when a person of color slaps a white person’s face.


            As shocked as I was to hear the N-word coming from a child’s mouth, I was even more shocked when I realized I had heard it spoken by grownups, some of them people I respected, even loved.

            As shocked as I was to hear the N-word coming from a child’s mouth, I was even more shocked when I realized I had heard it spoken by grownups, some of them people I respected, even loved. Not my mother.

            I was probably in second grade when I began to realize that not everyone ate squirrel gravy or eggs and fried potatoes for dinner. Some little girls had beribboned blonde curls rather than my dark tangle of straight hair pulled into a bobby-pinned style by a too-busy single mother. Not everyone watched the same television programs I did.

            I watched Mr. Cartoon every day after school when I was a kid. It was where I first met Thor and the Incredible Hulk and Spiderman and where I first heard the word “synagogue.” Mr. Cartoon would suggest in a loving tone that children should visit “the church or synagogue of your choice” on the weekend. He also led children in reciting the “magic words”: please, thank you, excuse me, and you’re welcome. These were sound lessons in spirituality.

            I’m thinking about my mother and my black friends from gradeschool and the kids who watched Mr. Cartoon and went to a synagogue and the little boy who used the N-word and the grownups who were supposed to know better. I am thinking about diversity and how much I am glad to know people with different opinions and experiences than mine. I am dumbfounded by the fact that people can be in a room with me and listen to someone talk and hear something completely different than I hear, have a completely different experience than mine.

            I am thinking about Parkinson’s Disease and the fact that while it isn’t necessarily going to shorten my life, it is stealing my able-ness and my time. I have my own battles to fight, and I would rather not fight with people. I want to be a blessing, not a bully. So I’m going to keep thinking of the magic words: please, thank you, excuse me, and you’re welcome. I’m going to keep praying them: Please, God, take care of us and help me to appreciate those who are different from me. Thank you for your care and love–for all of us. Excuse me for my many poor choices and the times that we let difference come between us. You’re welcome to use me to be a blessing to someone, maybe someone different from me. Amen

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