544. “Hoods”

I remember hating riding to school on the school bus. I tried to get a seat in the front, near the driver, but so did lots of people, so my odds weren’t very good. So pretty often, I sat in the back. The people who wanted to sit in the back knew that I was the front-sitting type, and to them, I was a toy. I may not have been the only person back there who was a toy, but there were lots of those guys, and only a few of us toys. And besides, we were neither going to stand up to them nor complain. And the driver ignored the back of the bus, as long as it was relatively quiet and smoke-free.
The “tough guys” didn’t carry knives or get violent with us. But they made us think they were going to. They kept using words we front-sitters didn’t use, and though they didn’t smoke on the bus, we knew they smoked at the bus stop. Back then, we called them “hoods.” Later, in college, I learned that front-sitters in other places called them “greasers.” But we all knew who we meant.
Once, in college, one of my friends heard me refer to “hoods” and said to me, “There’s no such thing as ‘hoods.'” Her statement challenged a dichotomy that I’d been carrying around with me for years. But I think she was right. In fact, Jackie, one of the people I’d been calling “hoods,” had been my friend in second grade. He’d been in my cub scout troop. I had liked him, and I had been saddened by his conversion to the other side. But I couldn’t be his friend any more.
I don’t know exactly how this dichotomy came to be part of my thinking, but it was pretty firmly settled in my mind. “We” went to college. “They” didn’t. “They” smoked and cussed. “We” didn’t. “They” knew all about cars. “We” knew just enough about cars to get our licenses and drive responsibly. When I got to college, saw students smoking, and heard language I thought was only for “hoods,” it didn’t make sense to me. How did “they” get here? I thought I’d escaped from “them.”
I was bigoted. It wasn’t precisely the same bigotry the civil rights movement was about; the “hoods” had the same color skin I had. But I judged people before I got to know them. They weren’t like me, and so I considered them bad people. If I saw someone who looked like a “hood,” I ruled out that person as a friend.
I wonder what the “hoods” are doing now. I’ll bet each person I thought of as a “hood” went on to live a life. They’re all about fifty years old as I write this (unless their lives were cut short). Maybe some of them are grandparents. Maybe some went to college. As a teacher, I work hard to connect with children who are not like me, and to help children connect with other children who are not like them. We’re all human, and we really do have a lot in common.

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