How It Came To Be


“I had a sense that citizenship was going to require learning to
with ambiguity and paradox.”

Sometime in the second or third week of seventh grade, we had our first fire drill. The drill was one more set of rules to learn in a new school with new routines – a more adult world of homerooms, different teachers for different subjects, class periods, rigid schedules, and bells regulating everything.  When the fire alarm went off, we marched outside single file and were instructed by our teachers exactly how and where to line up on the blacktop.

I was standing next to Adele, my friend in the fragile sort of way that kids first come to know and like each other. We had several classes together, and whenever she spoke in class, she seemed very smart, very shy and very gentle.  Adele’s skin was dark, dark brown, and she stood out. She was the only black student in the school.  Though she was not the first black person I’d ever know, she was the first one my own age.  I sensed that her reticence had to do with always standing out so much, because I was painfully shy and I hated standing out.  I thought it must be excruciating to be so visible all the time, and I was in awe of Adele’s grace in her predicament.

Just after our long line had come to a standstill, a boy on a bicycle came rolling out of his driveway. He made lazy curves the length of our line and seemed to be gloating over the fact that he wasn’t in school that day and we were.  He curved toward our line just in front of Adele and me, and as he reached the point on his arc closest to us, he sneered, “You should go home and take a bath.  You’re dirty.”

I felt the searing awfulness of his remark.  I wanted to protect Adele, to shield her somehow, but he’d already said it, and I couldn’t make it go away.  I wanted to say something to her to take away the sting, but I had no idea what to say. I wanted to beat the living daylights out of him, but he was already far way, and besides, I was small and not a fighter and I knew I couldn’t beat anything out of anybody.  Finally, I thought I could tell the teacher.  The boy had been smart enough to make his remark when the teacher was out of earshot, but if I told her, surely she would punish him and do something to help Adele.

All the teachers were strutting around imposing order, demanding silence, and instructing us how to count off our presence by saying absolutely nothing but our names, one by one, down the line.  Against this strict lesion in proper decorum and adult ways, shouting out to my teacher to tell what had happened would have meant breaking the rules by saying something other than the regulation words we were allowed to speak.  Afraid to stand out myself and wanting only to be good, I did nothing.

I tell this story because it was the first time I confronted a policy paradox, though I didn’t see it that way at the time.  (I saw it as my own moral cowardice. ) Here was a social practice – the fire drill – whose purpose was to keep us secure.  Yet, with all the seeming control the teachers had over the world, they couldn’t stop an act of violence against one of us and didn’t even know that one of us had been hurt.

Here was a set of rules that seemed perfectly fair on the surface.  They were like traffic regulations, just rules to make sure things ran smoothly, not the kind of rules that clearly confer advantages on one group rather than another. Yet if we followed only those rules, bullies would prevail and their chosen victim would get hurt. Ordinary rules, I realized, couldn’t stop bullies or help victims.

Here was a set of rules that embodied rightness and goodness. (Follow instructions. Don’t talk. Do exactly what you’re told.) Good citizens follow these rules.  Yet, in my gut, I could feel another set of rules I knew to be right, too. (Don’t hurt people. Stop people who hurt others. Help someone who is hurt. Stick by your friends.) I couldn’t be good under both sets of rules.  That morning on the blacktop, I had an inkling that even the clearest, simplest, most unambiguous policies could be mighty ambiguous indeed.  I had a sense that citizenship was going to require learning to live with ambiguity and paradox.