I just didn’t know


Last Saturday, Sweet Caroline gazed up at me with a quizzical look. Then looked back down at the contents of her basket, “But, Papa, I don’t understand.” The rest of what she said, just before she rode off on her new bike, has made me question my childhood and how I was raised in ways I never thought possible. But I just didn’t know.

The summer session of Big Papa’s Basement Academy is now in full swing, and the routine is vastly different than regular school. Right after breakfast, the girls sit around the table to begin a condensed school day. The first subject is always math, then reading, writing, art, and storytelling.

By 10:00 a.m., we venture outside to do life science by gardening, bug collecting, or walking pathways identifying plants and trees until lunchtime, except last Friday we didn’t get outside until almost 11:00 a.m.

On Fridays, we end our inside school with the Georgia Studies Weekly, and this week, the subject was Ruby Bridges. The girls knew nothing about her … neither did I. At age 62, I just didn’t know.

As I tried to teach the lesson, Sweet Caroline and Little One kept interrupting me with their questions. After a few minutes, I suddenly realized — they didn’t know.

This fall, our girls will enter the first and second grades, and the subject of segregation hasn’t been taught in their school yet. I did my best to explain when Big Papa was a little boy, schools were segregated — divided based simply on the color of a person’s skin. Only white people could go to white schools.

Upon hearing this they both said, “No way, Big Papa. You’re making that up.” They just didn’t know.

Their disbelief spurred me to go even further into the racial divide by showing them pictures of signs that read Colored Bathroom, Colored Waiting Room, and even Colored Water Fountain. I showed them pictures of little Ruby Bridges standing on the steps of the school closest to her home, flanked by three law enforcement officers. It was her first day in the all-white school.

The girls were stunned. They both said, “Our friends in school have different color skin, and they are the same as us.” They just didn’t know the way it used to be.

“Yes … yes, they are. We are all the same, but there was a time, not so long ago, that some folks didn’t think that way.” I continued our conversation by talking about slavery, but again got interrupted by their endless questions of disbelief.

“Papa, you’re telling us a story. You can own a cat, a dog, or a bird. They are pets. You can’t own people.” I explained that there was a time that you could. And in some places, this was still true. Sadly, they just didn’t know.

After the lesson, the girls went outside to play while I gathered drinks for them. In her home office, The Wife had heard our lesson about segregation and was surprised by how engaged the girls were and how much she thought they had learned. I told her that they weren’t the only ones.

I had never heard of Ruby Bridges. Her story wasn’t taught when I was in school. The Wife turned to me and replied, “It wouldn’t have been taught. You and Ruby Bridges are the same age. You were in kindergarten at the same time.”

That’s when it dawned on me. All those years at my elementary school, our school was segregated. The first two years I attended high school, it was too. I didn’t think anything about it at the time. I just didn’t know.

The next day, the Mom bought the girls new bikes. After making sure their bike helmets were fitted correctly, Little One rode off up the driveway. Sweet Caroline asked if she could get a friend to ride in the little pink basket on the front of her bike. I said yes, only one. She ran inside.

Within moments, she returned with not one but two stuffy friends – a white puppy and a black puppy. Happily, she placed both in her bike basket. I remarked, “Only one friend can go riding with you. There really isn’t enough room. The other has to stay here.”

Sweet Caroline picked up the puppies out of the basket. Hugging them, she looked up at me and replied, “But Papa, I don’t understand. I love them both the same.”

And with that profound statement, she placed the black and white puppies back securely into the small basket together. She had only turned 6 years old last month, but she understood. I was stunned at the wisdom of what she had said.

She rode up the driveway to join her sister, and I smiled after her, “Well said, Sweet Caroline. Well said.”

During the coming months, I will do my best to educate the girls that, even though we all have a different history, we’re all human beings and deserve the same rights. Unfortunately, there are still some people in this world who don’t think that way. And that’s the problem.

I now realize saying, “I just didn’t know,” isn’t good enough anymore. It never was.

[Rick Ryckeley has been writing stories since 2001. To read more of Rick’s stories, visit his blog: storiesbyrick.wordpress.com.]