As I grow older and the hour glass grows bottom heavy, I find myself reflecting upon my life. And although I have turned my back on formal religion, the concept of sin has never strayed far. I am a man, I like to believe, of both compassion and conscience, and perhaps this is why my sins continue to haunt me. None of us are pristine, and we all have blood on our hands to some degree, either through our own direct actions, or by others once removed. But the sins that haunt me the most are not the result of what I have done, but what I did not do. The worst of sins, for many of us, are sins of omission; those times when in the face of cruelty or injustice to others, we were passive and did nothing.
There are two examples from early childhood of sins of passivity, the memories of which never dim with time; they are always in my thoughts.
When I was six, I attended Imperial Grammar School, in South Gate, a city in South East Los Angeles County. I remember it was a school with no grass, and during recess the children played games on the asphalt, and adult supervision was nearly laissez faire. This was the Nineteen Fifties.
One day I saw an extremely angry group of children who had surrounded another child. As I moved closer, I saw a little Black girl in the center. The other children, all White, shouted and screamed at her, and I will never forget the hateful words of one of the more aggressive boys- “We don’t want you here because you’re a nigger!”And the face of the little girl showed fear and hurt; and much more. I saw strength, pride and defiance in her eyes. I do not know where she came from, or her name. I do not know what happened to her, nor remember seeing her again. But I remember her face and those eyes-they have become a part of me.
A few years later, my family moved a short distance to the city of Downey. Upward mobility. We lived on a cul-de-sac private street. There was a sense of privilege and superiority among both the adults and their children. Adjacent to our street was a large lot, vacant except for a very old, ramshackle house where the Tanner family lived.
They were a poor family, and the daughters, Carol and Eileen, wore old hand me downs that seemed to be from another era. Carol was the older, about eleven, and Eileen was about my age, nine. There was nothing wrong with those girls. They were sweet, pretty and intelligent. Both had red hair and cute freckles. And they were pariahs.
They were victims of class hatred. The kids who were my neighbors despised them because they were seen as a blight on our perfect, upper middle class neighborhood of custom homes and large yards.
One day after a rain, a number of the boys from the neighborhood, all older than me, were playing in the vacant field across from the Tanner’s house. Carol unwisely ventured over to them. She wanted to visit- to be a part of the neighborhood. After screaming names at her, Carol was chased and caught, and thrown into a large puddle. One of her shoes came off, and a boy gleefully put mud in it. I remember as if it were yesterday.
As she cried and struggled, Mr. Woods, one of the fathers and a principal at a local school, drove by on his way home. he stopped, and got out of his car. I breathed a sigh of relief; he would put a stop to it. And he did. He sided with the boys, and scolded Carol to never come to our neighborhood again; to stay where she belonged. And she limped home on one shoe, sobbing with every step.
Not long after, the Tanner’s house was demolished to make way for an apartment building. I never saw Carol or Eileen again.
What could I have done? Physically intervening would have required more physical courage than I had, certainly back then. But I could- and should have done something- even something small.
I could have approached the little Black girl, perhaps in private, and told her how sorry I was; that although I could not feel all of her pain and humiliation, I certainly felt some of it. I should have done something to show her she was not entirely alone. And perhaps I could have gone over to Carol’s house with a gift or note telling her that I always felt she was pretty and worthy, and that I was far more like her than the boys who had bullied her, and told her of the times when I was bullied by them as well. But I did nothing, and am forever haunted by the faces of those girls.
But I’m not dead yet. And neither are you. I try to be active in the face of injustice, but I often falter. The opportunities are everywhere to step in and defend someone. To give and take a risk, however small. To intervene; to stand up for someone else.
We don’t have to take a bullet for someone, but by doing nothing, in a sense we already have.