When our two youngest children were still in elementary school, we moved from a small town west of Chicago to Mississauga, Ont. The neighborhood we chose to live in was very international, and our children were exposed to many new cultures, traditions, sights, sounds and smells that they had never before experienced in our small town in the Midwest. Being young, they did not seem to notice any differences other than the normal things any newcomer would encounter, such as the singing of the Canadian national anthem in school instead of “The Star Spangled Banner,” which was the only national anthem they knew. “O Canada” was quickly learned, and life went on.
My daughter, Jess, came home from school one day, excited to tell me that her teacher had asked that each of them bring in a baby picture of themselves the following day to be put on a board by the teacher, who would then have the students try to guess to whom each picture belonged. We pulled out some old photo albums and my daughter selected a photo of herself to take.
“Do you think anyone will ever guess this is me, Mom?” she asked.
I had to smile, because it was obvious that my daughter was completely unaware that she was the only white child in her class. With her light blond hair and big blue eyes she stood out like a beacon from a lighthouse in the sea of faces made up primarily of students from the Middle East, Pakistan, India, Asia and Africa. The majority of boys in her class were named Mohammed, thereby necessitating nicknames be assigned such as Big Mo, Mini Mo, etc. to distinguish them in the classroom and on the playground. As children do, this was taken in stride by all, who seemed to prefer to concentrate instead on what games to play at recess and who to sit next to at lunch.
When Jess came home from school the next day, I casually asked her if anyone was able to identify her in the baby picture.
“Of course, Mom,” she replied. “Everyone knew right away it was me because of my blond hair.”
Once again, I smiled. I was glad that for the time being, anyway, my child was still unaware of skin color, race and cultural differences among her classmates. I knew it wouldn’t last forever, as such is not the way of our world, but at least for a while my children could live in a world of their own design where the most noticeable attributes of a person were not race, religion or country of origin, but instead were friendliness, kindness and how well he shared.
By middle school this would change, and the differences in the students would be more noticed, particularly in the case of some of the Islamic girls in her class, who would begin wearing the hajib during those years. I knew it was inevitable that before long, lines would be drawn in the sand, and factions created. It felt like the death of innocence somehow, like that feeling you get when you realize you are too old to play with dolls or to do “kids’ stuff” anymore.
As a consequence of what happened on 9/11, our kids will never know the freedom of an open border or of a life untouched by fear and suspicion. But I hope some part of them remembers what it was like to see the world through the rose-colored glasses of childhood, unfettered by preconceived notions, judging a person only on his behavior instead of his appearance.
It may be wishful thinking, but we could all learn a great deal from our childhood selves, while there were still traces of innocence not yet washed away and replaced by the realities of an adult world where sharing with others no longer seems to top the list of qualities to admire.