Small World: Life-shaping influences

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

Most of us, at least those of us with still-functioning memory cells, can recall those voices from the past whose warnings, instructions, or unique behavior are still with us, still working their effects. With some of us these influences are benign, but I suppose there are others who came under the sway of evil-intentioned or criminal individuals. Let’s leave them out of this conversation unless freshly stimulated memories bring them back into focus.

One of my earliest memories has to do with Harold, an aspiring member of our neighborhood gang growing up. He tried harder than any of us to excel at schoolwork and, more importantly, at games. He was pretty good but never quite accepted. Charlie, especially, saw Harold as a target for teasing (that is, what might be called bullying nowadays). Harold was poor. His father drank but did not work, being supported by his wife’s job at Western Union. Harold’s clothes were always clean and starched. His face shorn, Charlie said, because he scrubbed with Octagon soap. Always trying so hard, Harold’s buckteeth were always smiling. “Smiley,” Charlie and I called him. He was so eager to please and to be accepted that he never objected — at least not to our faces.

Now we approach the main point: It was late afternoon and my mother was standing at the kitchen sink cleaning vegetables for supper. I was attempting to amuse her by telling a tale of how Charlie and I had taken advantage of Harold with some bit of trickery that had the effect of humiliating him. Mama was not amused. She was not a stern woman, never raised her voice or showed much emotion. She never disciplined my brother and me by fussing at us or scolding. But we never had any doubt about her reaction to our behavior. This was such a moment for me.

“You don’t have to like Harold,” she said, “but you have to treat him civilly.” At that point in my 38th Street School education I didn’t know what ‘civilly’ meant, but I learned later. And that episode has returned to mind at least once a month since those distant days.

Then there is the long line of influential men and women — teachers especially — who helped shape my thinking and attitudes. I can hardly take a drink without seeing Mr. McArthur, our high school science teacher, “scramble” an egg by mixing it with rubbing alcohol: “that’s what happens to your brain when you take a drink of whiskey,” he warned us.

A final example: I grew up in the Deep South, surrounded by and accepting the institutions and ideology of racial segregation. My family employed African-Americans as servants and supported an elderly couple that had spent their lives laboring for us and were too old for regular work. My parents treated Ike and Phoebe fairly but never as socially equal. Later on, my father wrote a grand jury report for the city that was critical of the terrible condition of Black schools, but he never spoke out forcefully for equality. I, however, emerged from Georgia with quite liberal ideas about racial relations. How did it happen that I took a very different path from my family and community? What was the influence on me? Frankly, I don’t know. Perhaps it was the weekly arrival of Time magazine from the North, which often derided or otherwise castigated Southern “ways.” That journalism (for those days) was subversive to my inherited opinions on race.

Another positive influence was my course of study at Armstrong Junior College and Emory University, which emphasized the great books. It’s pretty hard to maintain racial prejudice when the instructor is explaining what Aristotle, Aquinas, or Mill thought.

Then there were my four years in the Navy, which in the post-Korean War period did not observe traditional racial norms. The whole country was moving in a new direction. Only where the population received support and direction from the surrounding society were the old ways apt to continue — and still continue today under the covers. There’s an example of malign influences coming to bear on or reinforce inherited attitudes. For people of good will to shape society, don’t they say (more or less) it is only necessary for them to speak out about the way they think it ought to be?

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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