My music teacher, Mr. Sullivan, was a fat, bald man. Whatever hair he did have was an unattractive dull rusty color. Strangely enough, his wife, who was a substitute teacher, was a cute young thing with pretty blonde hair and a good figure. I always wondered how he managed that one.
In fifth grade, we sang songs like “Old Kentucky Home” “Home on the Range” (Oh give me a home where the buffalo roam), “Yankee Doodle” and other traditional American favorites.
I attended a mostly white school in the suburbs; you could count the black students on one hand. Halfway through the year we got a new student, a black kid named Gary. The boys accepted him as another guy to play with, run races around the track, and play cars on the floor with.
One day while we were in music class, Mr. Sullivan told us, “I don’t have any prejudice against people who have different color skin. But what I do have prejudice against is people who don’t wash. Soap is 39 cents. Everybody can afford that.”
I digested his words for a few minutes, and realized, yes, that makes total sense. I noticed that Gary did have a distinctive smell; he smelled different from the other boys. Except Charles of course. Charles always smelled awful. (Charles was a poor kid, rumored to have been the product of his father and his sister.)
I figured Mr. Sullivan had a good reason, and that he didn’t like Gary because he smelled funny and his explanation made perfect sense. It wasn’t because Gary was black, it was because he smelled funny.
About a month later, I went home after school, hitting the cabinet for the Oreo cookies before starting my homework. As I opened the cabinet, Mother told me, “We are using paper plates for supper tonight. The well has run dry and we don’t have any water.”
“What about the toilet?” My first thought popped out of my mouth.
“I was able to fill a few jugs with water from the neighbors across the street, but we can’t flush every time. Don’t use so much toilet paper.” (Mother had always tried to explain about only using 2 squares, and I never did figure out how that was enough to dry yourself with.)
I ate my cookies, and out of habit went to the kitchen sink to wash away the crumbs from my hands. I turned on the faucet and nothing came out. Then it hit me: it’s not about the soap, it’s about the plumbing. If a pipe breaks or there is no water, you can’t wash. It has nothing to do with 39 cent soap. It’s about the plumbing, and poor people can’t always fix their plumbing immediately.
I realized that people can make excuses for just about anything. They can lie to themselves to make themselves feel better, without addressing the real issue.
Were you told stories like the 39-cent soap by your parents and teachers?