It’s February and Black History Month. Last week, after I had written about the trials and triumphs of our own Miss Poulsbo Jasmine Campbell, I started thinking about my own dealings with people of African American descent.
My own “black history,” if you will, reaches back to kindergarten to one of my first black friends, Eddie Henderson.
My very first of many, many memories of Eddie was him giving my then-best friend Michael Harrold a well-deserved fat lip in a playground fight a few weeks into the school year and seeing him outright scared when our teacher Mrs. Dalton reprimanded him.
Time passed, wounds healed. Eddie and I became friends, sometimes even walking to and from kindergarten together at Stevens Elementary School which is on 19th. The Hendersons lived about a block south of our family on 20th Avenue on Seattle’s Capitol Hill. It was back when private schools, like nearby St. Joseph’s were fairly affordable and if you were Catholic (we were) you pretty much knew where you’d be for the next eight years. And so we did. I didn’t see in black and white. Friends were just friends and other than knowing that the Hendersons weren’t as well off as other families around — something I discerned on my visits to his home — I never gave our backgrounds much thought.
In grade school, Eddie and I were both fairly solid B students and while I was more of a cut up, he (as his uncles did) excelled at soccer. It was an honor to take the field with a player of that caliber. He was awesome and could do things with the ball, I couldn’t do on a bet during my prime years later.
As we got older, we grew apart a bit. In seventh and eighth grade we still took to the pitch together and shared the same classes and scholastic struggles (I helped him in English, he helped me with math). Throughout everything we remained friends. Equals.
In high school, this seemed to change in a single day.
The freshman soccer team, of which Eddie and I were on, was headed to practice. Back then, they’d just pile the balls, the cones, and the players in a van and head out. That van ride is one of those moments in my life that I want back.
Some of the other players, former Queen Anne students (one of St. Joe’s many rivals in grade school) began to tease Eddie about his race. Instead of standing up for my lifelong friend, I lapsed into silence. Even though Eddie’s eyes found mine and begged rescue, I didn’t speak up.
They started to call him a nigger. Still I did nothing. Incredibly neither did the coach, who was the older brother of one of the agitators. Eddie tried to smile and laugh it off, I simply stared.
Our assistant coach, and soft spoken English teacher, Mr. Doyle, was another story. Thank God.
His a face red with rage, he turned and started yelling at Eddie’s protagonists at the top of his lungs. No one knew that Mr. Doyle’s wife was black or that they had two children, either. We all learned this over the next several minutes.
You could hear a feather drop when we arrived at the field.
But with a soccer ball at his foot, Eddie gave no indication at practice that he had been wronged. We passed the ball, ran lines, scrimmaged. He was stellar as usual. I was average.
It was like old times. Almost.
After practice I finally found some courage and told my old friend (who, along with me, went on to attend Seattle University — him on a soccer scholarship) that I was sorry.
Sorry for not being there when he needed me.
He looked across the field at nothing in particular and told me not to worry about it, that everything was cool. True, our friendship continued as always.
And while I had trouble looking him the eye for weeks afterward this, too, passed in time. The lesson I learned through my inaction and Eddie’s resilience and forgiveness of me, thankfully, did not. I doubt it ever will.