I was first generation that never sat at a counter at Woolworth’s. I never burned a bra. I didn’t need a bra but that’s beside the point. I wore mine dutifully with the other flat-chested girls who wouldn’t burn bras because we’d been liberated by our mothers. Girls and boys were equal in the modern age. We didn’t need bonfires to make statements. We needed our minds.
We were the first group of mixed ethnicities commonly in school together. We never knew our parents were not. We hadn’t seen Civil Rights, voting rights, integration, Jim Crow, busing riots–except in books. I’d compete for success based on brains and hard work, not ethnicity, gender, or the social status of my family.
I would never vacuum in pearls. I wouldn’t dress up and give a man a martini after his long day at work. I’d support myself, never rely on another person to do it. I’d be anything I wanted—for equal pay.
The law said I didn’t need a penis or certain skin color to be equal. On that foundation, I built my world, part of the first generation of idealists born after the last generation smoked something really, really good because the generation before them fought wars to keep everyone free.
That’s how these things go–every generation has a generation before who works hard so their children and grandchildren can take things for granted.
My mom never had time to take things for granted. She never smoked anything good—just cigarettes the doctors prescribed in the hospital after I was born. “That’s what doctors did in those days,” she said. “They said it helped with breathing.” Today, everyone’s getting tobacco karma paid back in spades in the form of healthcare bureaucracy.
Mom didn’t remember fun the sixties. “I was too busy working and typing your father’s college papers.” That’s what girls did in those days—typed papers while their fiancés built careers. Dad graduated with a few of Mom’s honors.
In a generation born equal, when I was younger I always talked cookies with mom and finance with dad.
Mom went to college when I was a teen. Her grades beat Dad’s. Still, in the age of equality, no one gave her an equivalent job.
But me–I’d never type some guy’s papers. I’d conquer the world.
Fast forward fifteen years. I switched careers to teach. A master teacher brought me into his classroom. One day, that master teacher smiled.
He asked me a question–the type of question with a point I couldn’t hope to see until it hit me square in the face. The type that precedes a lesson only master teachers teach.
I’ve been humbled by this lesson ever since.
“What do you do when you get pulled over?” he asked.
I loved this question. I had foolproof system for getting out of tickets. No one should spend their hard-earned money for going ten over the limit.
“First,” I said, “I blinker. Then, I pull over. I turn on National Public Radio—classical in the morning, jazz in the evening. I apologize. Smile. Talk with the officer. He’ll say, ‘Be careful,’ or ‘Have a nice afternoon.’ I thank him, then drive away. No ticket, ever.” I smiled, hoping the master teacher would benefit from my system.
Sometimes I’d wonder why, in the age of equality, the officer was always a “he.” I’d drive away, never giving it a second thought. I was free!
My system worked like magic my whole life. I told a story as evidence.
One night, I missed a stop sign. I was in my 20s. It was a late night post-concert donut shop situation. The car was loaded. I’m sure a passenger or two were loaded as well. I’d forgotten the first rule of getting out of tickets–never commit a traffic violation pulling out of a donut shop. It’s like playing Russian roulette with six chambers loaded. Lights flashed immediately.
I blinkered. I pulled over. I turned on NPR. I smiled at the officer. “I’m sorry officer. I didn’t see the stop sign.”
The music and the smile cloaked the car full of skin-tight barely-there black heavy metal outfits with the one hippie girl in the back channelling Abbie Hoffman, shouting “I f-ing hate cops!”
“Shut up!” I said. Yelling at officers wasn’t part of The System. The officer took my license and registration and went back to the cruiser.
“You’ll get out of this ticket. If it was me or my f-ing friends, we’d get f-ing arrested!” said female Abbie Hoffman. The officer returned. He told us to have a nice evening.
“I didn’t pull you over for the stop sign. I’ll just give you a warning,” he said. “You forgot to turn on your lights. Drive safely.”
The system worked even after a donut shop confession. I deemed it foolproof.
I expected my friend, the master teacher, to commend me, to take notes even. Instead, he frowned.
“Do you ever have to get out of the car when you get pulled over?” he asked. I told him I didn’t get out of the car, I got out of the ticket. He said he had to get out of the car every single time.
“Let me tell you what happens when I get pulled over.” Here was the real lesson, the one I needed. He should’ve told me to take notes.
“First, they pull me over,” he said. “Then they look at me.” He was about eight feet tall, African-American, with musician braids and intellectual glasses. “They tell me, ‘Please step out of the car, sir.’
“Sometimes I have to keep my hands on the hood of the car, in the same community where I live and teach while all my students and their families drive by.
“They ask me a thousand questions about my personal life. Do they do that to you?” he asked.
I said they did not. Sometimes I have an interesting conversation with the officer, but that’s about it.
“Well, they do that to me. They interrogate me. Ask me personal questions. Eventually, they ask what I do for a living and I tell them, ‘I teach American history and Constitutional law.’ Only then do they return my documents and tell me to… ‘Have a nice day.’”
If he didn’t tell them he taught Constitutional Law, it wouldn’t have been a “Have a nice day,” ending, and it wasn’t the same “Have a nice day,” I got when officers sent me on my way.
He told another story.
His son got his first job first job in a mostly white town. At the end of every shift, the teen stood outside and waited for his dad to pick him up with the white kids ending their shifts.
Every day, a different police officer noticed the boy, pulled into the lot, and asked him–only him–what he was doing. The boy began to get upset, feeling he was being singled out for his race. It was time for “the talk.”
My friend explained the talk every dad of color has with his teen. Dads teach boys how to answer officers politely, how to say, “Yes sir, no sir,” how to lose a little bit of face Uncle Tomming adults of authority in the presence of their white friends who never have to do the same. How to say “I’m just waiting for my dad, officer,” even if those aren’t the words on the tip of the tongue.
The teen replied he didn’t owe anyone an explanation.
That’s the thing about teen anger. Teen anger goes one of two ways. Some teens go on a crusade to fix the problem. Others explode. They get angry when the system doesn’t hear them, respect them, meet their needs, or deliver on that “first generation of freedom” promise.
Once you get on the wrong side of that system, you don’t get out. Especially if you’re a sixteen year-old African-American male.
My friend lived that. He knew one bad interaction with the law would change the path of his son’s life forever.
The stats speak for themselves. In this first–now second–generation of equality, boys like his fight harder to get jobs and promotions. They graduate at lower rates. They are incarcerated in statistically outlandish numbers. And when they get pulled over, they nearly always have to get out of the car.
The lesson was a matter of life and death for his son, but it was more important for me–I’d teach an entire generation of his sons. It was critical I understand many kids don’t have a “get out of jail free” card and the system doesn’t work the same for them as it does for me.
For the sake of every student I’d be given the honor to teach, I needed this lesson. It was a matter of life and death, but the life–or death–wasn’t mine.
My friend took the rose-colored glasses from my face and replaced them with a different pair–one with clear, focused lenses–and he said these words, words I never forgot:
“You will never have to teach your son how to deal with police. I do. It’s a matter of life and death for him…And I’ve dealt with this my whole life.”
I grew up in the first generation of freedom, the place where the color of the swish on the Nike sneakers was more important than the color of skin, where Civil Rights stayed neatly in the back of the book.
This master teacher–one of my true heroes–never had the same exact freedoms as me, nor would his son or many of my students, based solely on the condition of their birth.
Just as he wouldn’t have the same freedoms as me, I, in the first generation of freedom–wasn’t as equal to many men when it came to work and pay. A generation later, girls would fight to climb the ladder in many fields.
“When I was your age,” said one of my mom’s friends, “I was only allowed to be a secretary, a nurse, or a teacher. That’s all my parents would permit.” Should I feel good that we’d come so far in just one generation, or angry it still helped to have a male organ?
I watch students struggle with immigration, inequality, poverty. Some rise like phoenixes from the ashes. They “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” defy the odds, become great.
Others do not. The system doesn’t work for them.
That’s the reality in this first–now second–generation of freedom. The DREAMers are still dreaming, the poor kids are working and don’t graduate in equal numbers, and the young mom gets her WIC check, not an entry-level 20-something paycheck from a career she’s building. The list goes on and on…
I put on the rose-colored glasses one more time looking for possibilities, for the sweet spot. Society will never be equal, but there’s always a sweet spot where playing the cards right leads to the win. That’s how games work or no one would play. That’s how I teach my students to clean out the pot and take the chips home.
It’s true–I won’t have to teach my son to deal with the law. It’s also true I’ll never change the world, and I might not even get the same respect as a man in certain settings.
But I will teach kids–one by one–they can win, and that I’m just trying to win, too. As time passes, we’ll forge new rules, and fight for things the next generation will take for granted. That’s how these things go.
I’ll still get out of tickets and men as a rule will be paid more than me. But maybe in the third generation of freedom, our kids will be a little more free, for real.