My hometown is a village located in the southwest corner of Maine. For the first five years of my life, I spent my days wandering the woods and groves of lilac bushes around my house or with the kids down the road, an older girl and her younger brothers.
During the summer before I turned six, my father found work in San Francisco and my mother drove across the country with my older brother as a relief driver and the car loaded with luggage, my younger sister and me. We arrived in the city and moved into a flat in the Haight-Ashbury. My parents enrolled me for the first grade—my first experience in school as Maine didn’t provide pre-school/Kindergarten education—and my father taught me to read before school started.
From rural Maine to cosmopolitan San Francisco might have been a shock, but not for me. We were close enough to Golden Gate Park for me to disappear in the groves of cyprus instead of the lilac bushes. My school was Dudley-Stone which drew its student population from the north and western Haight, rich in cultural and economic diversity. Later, we moved a little south to the Cole Valley and I started third grade at Grattan School.
The Haight-Ashbury Neighborhood Council held many community events—potluck dinners, talent contests, street fairs. We didn’t call it ‘diversity’ then. We called it community, neighborhood, friends. When I moved to live in Wales in the 1980s, I was so proud of my roots in San Francisco, that I wrote articles and gave talks about the spirit of community, neighborliness and friendships formed in my early school years with people of every race, religion and culture from around the world.
There was no strained, self-conscious effort to accept one another. We just did. The kids in my neighborhood ran around together, played and commiserated, disagreed and had water balloon fights without any distinction about the color of our skin, the origin of our culture or the denomination of our faith. Of course, we saw and sensed the differences but they were celebrated. We were all inhabitants of a sunny neighborhood and enjoyed the experiences of a wide world.
These are my experiences and I do not pretend to speak for those children I considered my friends in that long ago time, but the interference of adults in the innocence of childhood has never been more pervasive than it has been in this century.
This school year in San Francisco, the Board of Education is forcing children to learn about matters that only concern adults. Parents have a responsibility to protect their children from undue influence, including their own prejudice. As one of my childhood friends, now a renown clinical psychologist, once said, children do not need to know about what matters to you, only what matters to them.
My parents did not teach me prejudice and I have never looked at anyone to judge them for their color, religion or position, only for their character. And I have faith that most of us are good, honest, optimistic people who want only to be left alone to live our lives and raise our families. These are the people I write about.