Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Help

Time out for a book report...

(Yes, the ol' English teacher in me is still alive and kickin'.)

Months ago, my sister recommended reading THE HELP. She assured me I would thoroughly enjoy it.

Reading the blurb and seeing the previews for the upcoming movie, I knew it would address the civil rights movement and social justice issues. It is about the perspective of maids in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 60's just as the civil rights movement was escalating across the nation.

I enjoy novels addressing social injustice. Richard Wright's BLACK BOY was one of the first such novels opening my eyes to those who suffered so much in our country. I admire authors who are able to capture the difficult stories of the time. One such novel, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, is my all-time favorite. I loved it so much I named my daughter Scout after the main character. If I had more children, I am sure I would have found a way to continue with Atticus,Jem, Dill, Calpurnia, and a host of other names from the book (except Boo Radley or any of the Ewells of course).

I do enjoy a good read. I just wasn't ready to stop my mystery series by a Scottish author I had come to enjoy.

After a summer of brain candy, I finally purchased THE HELP.

My sister was right. It is a good read. The characters are well developed, rich. I enjoyed the different view points and suspense of the ever-developing conflicts.

It was the setting though that intrigued me the most, the time period that is. To me, it almost became another character.

The author would subltly make references without giving the exact date or year. For example, one of the characters would refer to a phrase from a televison show, or a lyric (Bob Dylan) being heard for the first time, or a snatch of conversation overheard by one of the maids.

As I read about the point of view of being a black person in the South in the 60's, I could not help but flash to where was I during these important events? Where was I when the struggles for civil rights were reaching their peak?

When one of the characters mentioned man landing on the moon, I flashed to sitting in my small-town church. The preacher stopped the sermon so everyone could see on television the "small-step-for-man-giant-leap-for-mankind"-moment.

I started remembering how sheltered I was from racism in my town, but it did exist. We never had maids like the white ladies in the book, but African Americans did not live in our town; they lived in a separate town, went to separate churches.

I grew up, not thinking about this at all. I never had a black teacher. It wasn't until the late 70's even that I had a black student in my English class. I remember the impact having that lone African American student in my class while teaching THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN. Issues of race were now evident as I watched his struggle in a predominately white school.

Later, my first year as assistant principal in a suburb of St. Louis, I witnessed teenagers from the city riding buses for hours to attend wealthier neighborhood schools as a result of desegregation attempts. The love parents had to put their children on a two-hour early morning bus ride so their children could experience a better education was evident every day I walked into the building and saw their eagerness, their fear, and sometimes their resentment for having to ride a bus to achieve what should have been theirs in their neighborhood schools. I witnessed the tension and lead discussions during the O.J. trial, the Rodney King news, and even when ROOTS was shown in a social studies classroom resulting in fights from frustration and racial tension. Later, I drove to the city to meet with parents, talk to teens, and recruit children for education.

I remember as a principal hiring a wonderful woman who became known as the first black assistant principal in a large school district, and hearing her tell me what it was like to feel the pressure of "speaking and acting on behalf of her race in a white school district." She also told me tragic stories of growing up in the Midwest and experiencing racism daily. Her own mother died because she was not allowed to go to the nearby white hospital, but had to be driven, too late, to the black hospital much farther away. She told me to have hate for white people would demean her mother's memory. All of this and more I saw later as an adult, and I still do not have an inkling of what it is like to experience racism. I will never understand it. And for that, I am sad and grateful. Sad that it exists and grateful that I have not had that experience.

Growing up, racism was hidden from me; I never saw it around me because my town did not allow it to be seen.

Sadly, I realized reading this book, that I was more aware of the struggle and protest over the Vietnam War than I was about civil rights while growing up in the 60's and 70's.

After finishing the novel, I thought what are the struggles going on today about which my little family and I are oblivious? What issues and struggles are passing by me unnoticed in my protected middle-class white world?

As a result, this morning, my daughter and I read Luke 10. You know the story there, don't you?

It is the story of the Good Samaritan. We discussed the attitudes of the time toward the Samaritan people. They were looked down upon, even hated, yet it was the Samaritan who stopped and gave aid to the beaten, robbed man left to die on the road.

The parable Jesus told was the result of a scholar's question, "Who is my neighbor?" Previously, Jesus had affirmed to the scholar that the two greatest commandments were to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, strength. And the second was to love your neighbor as yourself.

After telling the story of how many "holy, educated" men had walked by the beaten man on the road and only the Samaritan stopped to help, Jesus then asked the scholar, "Who was the neighbor?"

The scholar replied, "The one who showed mercy."

Jesus then said, "Go and do the same."

That is my call today from God. I don't have any marches or protests or mission trips to go on. The 60's and 70's have passed me by, but there are many needs all around me...

if I will only open my heart and eyes to see and hear those needs.

In closing, I flashed to a childhood memory illustrating for my daughter and me the modern-day Good Samaritan.

It is a true story of my dad. We used to travel from our small town each Christmas to the BIG CITY of St. Louis. To us, the then thriving downtown with store windows of robotic Christmas figures, the noise of the traffic, the rush of the air from metal grates as we walked gingerly over them, all added to our excitement of seeing Santa on the 7th floor of Famous Barr.

While walking on the busy streets, it was not unusual to see pan handlers or people asking for money. People just walked by, used to the sad sight.

In the middle of one busy sidewalk, a man lay moaning. Like the priest and Levite in the parable of Jesus, people made an arc around the man. Some even stepped over him.

Not my dad though.

He stopped and called for a police officer to get an ambulance and help the man. The response from people passing by was, "Oh, he's probably drunk. Don't touch him. He could be dangerous."

It did not matter to Dad.

Thank goodness, too. It turns out the man had had a stroke. He had been lying on the sidewalk for hours with no way to communicate his need for help.

Oh, Lord, let my heart not be hardened by the problems in the world nor my mind so overwhelmed that I miss the opportunity to help even one soul for you today.

I look forward to seeing what God wants me to do for Him today. In the meantime, take my sister's advice and read a good book, THE HELP.

For His Glory,

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