Sidney Poitier left us last week, after my deadline for submitting my weekly wanderings. The myriad of TV accolades almost uniformly left out one of the most memorable of his scenes – at least to a certain young man then only two years out of high school.
I’d grown to adulthood in rural Maine, three miles outside a town itself 12 miles from the county seat, and never met a Black person, save one family who joined our high school– though not my class – briefly enough I never even knew the kids’ names. That was not particularly strange; I had no real “hang-out-with-em” friends among my classmates. I led the kind of protected life enforced by distance and thousands of acres of forest and pond life.
The only thing I knew about Black people was there was one word not to call them – not because it was particularly insulting but because it was a slang word not to be used by polite folks. In the decades immediately post-World War II, we Americans had slang monikers for Japanese, Puerto Ricans, Polish and a few others who were Not-Us. One just did not use those names within earshot of wives, mothers, or children.
That rule was strictly enforced in the Messeder household, except for Dad, who was a former Marine and a retired New York City policeman and had no such limitations.
Thus were the limits of my rural-inculcated consideration of ethnic populations other than my own. I never gave my own ethnicity any thought. Excepting that one family that briefly attended my high school, I had never met anyone who wasn’t White and American.
Looking back, I am surprised how many new movies I saw that year. It was 1967, the year when “The Graduate” made the list of movies Catholics were not supposed to watch. A group of misfit World War II soldiers, all convicted murders, were assembled as “The Dirty Dozen” to assassinate a group of German high-ranking officers.
And there was the standard teenage story, starring the not quite standard Sidney Poitier It was a flick one knew would be easy to watch, good for some laughs to be enjoyed with popcorn and the young woman I didn’t know at the time would become my wife. In such movies, a teacher or principal or football coach begins work in a new school and comes face-to-face with a bunch of bratty kids from the tough side of town. Eventually, we learn the specifics of one or two of those problem kids, and we watch the star help the kids, with varying success and maybe a few laughs.
Until the scene in the schoolyard. Students are standing on the steps into the school when another student not in their class throws a tin can. Mr. Thackery (portrayed by Poitier) catches the can and cuts his hand.
Student Potter sees his hand bleeding: “Blimey, red blood!”
Fellow classmate Miss Dare (who has a crush on Thackery): “What’d you expect, Pinhead. Ink?”
There were numerous short racial-reference quips in the storyline – lines that many years later I realized had flown right by me at the time.
But that one latched onto my attention. I had never considered that any human might not bleed red blood. We rarely think much about normal. It is what it is, the way riding a bicycle is normal for a kid too young for a driver license.
That scene would be the anchor for my relationships with the multitude of people and places – different religions, languages, skin colors, facial structures – I have visited in the ensuing years. Normal, it turns out, has many appearances.
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