Here's What I Think About That

Rearview Mirror


At the April 23 meeting of the Peninsula School Board, I listened to a sophomore from Peninsula High School named Camri Clawson speak about the need for more social-emotional learning during students’ developmental years to support diversity, equity and inclusion.

“There are very real struggles students face every single day within the halls of our schools,” she said. “There’s blatant homophobia, racism and sexism. I’ve heard male classmates talk about how they would torture homeless people if it were legal. How birth control is a woman’s job and nothing for them to be concerned about. I hear the N-word every day, every day. Racial and homophobic slurs ring throughout the hallways more frequently than the tolling of the bells. This kind of hate is not in our nature, rather it is a learned behavior.

“These attitudes and issues prove that we need DEI and social-emotional learning so we can develop not only reading, writing and arithmetic but can also build character and encourage us to lean into personal growth that can only flourish when we are empowered to see and value perspectives beyond our personal experiences.”

I was astonished by her clarity.

I was reminded of the founding principles of our nation, that everyone is created equal and has natural rights that cannot be infringed upon or taken away. It was an experiment at the time that overcame one obstacle after another to expand and strengthen us even during the most extreme tests of our character.

But racism has always existed and persists, as extremist views become more and more common. We make advances and then retreat. Right now, it feels like we need to advance against it again.

It’s finally happened: I’ve turned into one of those people who think things were better when they were growing up.

Our neighborhood of modest starter homes had all sorts of people from practically everywhere. There were Greek families, Filipinos, at least one family from Peru, a large Native family who lived off the reservation, several Black families, and lots of Korean mamas. At school, I traded my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every chance I had for rice balls wrapped in salty seaweed.

We lived close to what is now JointBase Lewis-McChord. Easily a third or more of the kids at our school were military brats. We’d make friends for two years and before we knew it, they were transferred, sometimes to bases as far away as Germany.

During the Vietnam years, one of my friends lost her father in the war. I recall feeling guilty, maybe even a little ashamed, that my dad wasn’t military. Life wasn’t fair.

It didn’t occur to me at the time but looking back at my own growing up there were a good number of kids in our working-class neighborhood who were born first-generation Americans. I never thought of myself as one, despite my mother having fled as a child with her parents from Estonia, one of three independent Baltic countries considered the spoils agreed upon by the United States in exchange for Stalin’s Soviet Union joining forces to defeat Hitler’s Nazi Germany.

I met my first friend, Linda, in kindergarten. She lived up the street from us. Her parents, Klaus and Uta, were born and raised in Germany. They spoke English with thick but familiar accents. The smells from the kitchen were familiar with a unique twist. I liked eating there.

Linda’s mom, like mine, stayed home while our fathers went to work. We weren’t wealthy by any stretch, but far more families could live comfortably on a single income in the late 1960s and ’70s than today.

Next door to us lived a soft-spoken Japanese couple with their high school-aged son. I remember the mother coming over with a special Japanese delicacy to share with us, ikuru (brined salmon roe). To put this in perspective, this was long before anyone in America heard of sushi, much less considered consuming raw seafood, except oysters on the half shell — that was high class.

My mom thanked her profusely, I remember being excited to taste whatever it was, but she turned her nose up at it after our neighbor left and suggested my dad use it as fish bait. If only she knew then what we know now — it’s the caviar of Puget Sound.

Funny enough, years later I remember fishing with my dad for chinook just south of Anderson Island with a visiting Estonian relative. She laughed as she watched my dad bait his hook with a shiny herring and said essentially the same thing: We fished with what Estonians fished for to eat.

A couple of doors down from us lived an Italian family with two towheaded toddler boys. They shared a cherished recipe for a sauce that 50 years later my family still calls “Abruscotto’s spaghetti.”

Further down the street was a Danish family with their three kids. Their dad invested in the trucking business and did very well. An older cousin, who was maybe 17, visited from Holland and stayed all summer. We all thought she was the coolest human being in the world.

The greatest gift my father gave me was the idea there are no strangers, just people we haven’t met yet. He struck up casual conversations and made friends everywhere he went. Now I understand how lucky I was to have him.

“We’re all the same beneath the skin, kiddo.”

There was a time in our nation when we recognized this truth that helped make the United States of America exceptional. We were proud of being the great melting pot, or now a mosaic. As kids, we all got along, and nobody cared about the differences.