Research Papers and Essays
Ronnie Oldham

Life after Shame

    Dick Gregory’s discussion of childhood experiences reminds me of my own first feelings of shame. Like Dick, I was a bastard child of a single welfare mother. Luckily, I lived in a time when free or reduced price breakfasts and lunches were commonplace, so there was no need to resort to eating paste (although my brother was a big fan of Elmer’s glue). Like other children, I wanted to fit in, be part of the group, be accepted. It’s a good feeling, even for an adult. Children begin to recognize pleasure as early as infancy. They also learn to avoid those experiences that cause pain. I was no different. I knew the ecstasy of getting my own bicycle, the sense of adventure of following the creek all the way to the river, the feeling of power playing soldier in my fortified treehouse and the interspersed pain of ridicule and embarrassment. The worst pain was the shame of public humiliation, the emotion I felt when dishonored or disgraced in front of those I wanted most to impress.

    Making and having money seemed an effective means of compensating for feelings of inadequacy. Money allowed me to have stuff. It was the perfect equalizer, but I didn’t have any. I needed the money my Mother couldn’t give. I needed storebought valentines for my Helene Tucker. I needed the feeling one gets after treating the whole class to chocolate milk. An entrepreneur was born, perhaps for the very same reasons as Dick Gregory. I sold garden seeds, Grit newspapers, Christmas cards, magazines, soap and fruitcakes door-to-door. My adolescent desire to be a "big shot" forced me to develop an attitude of perseverance and a business acumen that would serve me well in later life. In fact, one of my childhood mementos that my whole family cherishes is a note that I left for my Mother. The words, hurriedly scribbled in crayon by an eight-year-old hand on the back of a fingerpainting, "Mom, Gone over the bridge to sell seeds.  I will be home before dark."

    Years later I finally came to understand the motivation behind my ambition. I was sitting in my boss’ office. Except for meeting at some airport bar for a few beers when our itineraries crossed and the obligatory Friday phone calls, these annual meetings were about the only opportunity for us to get together. It was supposed to be my annual performance evaluation, but we were accustomed to being over the number and had few business issues to discuss. Bruce viewed me as not just a peer, but as someone with the traits he values most in himself. Somewhere during the two hours we kept others waiting while we compared Mont Blanc pens, recent dental work, plans for Delta Medallion awards and the progress of our "side businesses," Bruce mentioned how he had had to learn to deal with anger at some point in his professional development. I had never thought about it before. I was angry too. I was angry at my family for being poor. I was angry that I had to try harder. No one could tell I was angry. I didn’t know I was, but I was.

    There were only a handful of white children at Washington Elementary. Racial integration programs in the 1960’s had resulted in the closing of the "black" school called Dunbar. After that, the two white schools on the south side of town remained predominantly black. This was the year I started first grade. I never thought much about racial issues at the time. Except for the always predictable results at the annual inter-city track meet, I had no basis for comparison.

    I remember one day when Mrs. Leese, our math teacher, was handing out graded papers. One paper was marked "Soul Brother" where the student’s name should have been. When Terry Young, a very personable and outgoing child, admitted that the paper was his, everyone in the class, including Mrs. Leese, thought it was so cute and creative. Terry, who remained a good friend until racial differences pulled us in different directions, had received the kind of attention and peer acceptance I craved. The following week I handed in a paper signed "Soul Brother."  I didn’t even know what that meant.  As expected, Mrs. Leese callled out the name and asked "OK who is the wise guy this time?" with a expression as if she already knew. Something told me not to speak up. I hesitated, then slowly raised my hand and forced out the words "It’s mine." They ridiculed me. I was a white boy. How could I be a "brother" or have "soul". I felt shame for being white that day.

    Another incident still vivid in my memory happened when Troy McLain told a story about how his real surname was something other than "McLain." I had recently discovered that my own biological father was not the man listed on my birth certificate. I had no idea of any implications associated with illegitimacy. Troy was the star athlete and a good student, as well. I didn’t want to be outdone by him again. I just blurted out that my real name was such and such. Mrs. Monroe, the black science teacher who regularly applied her now illegal head-softening technique on my scalp, immediately asked, "Who told you that? Did your mother tell you that or did some man just tell you that he was your father and you believed him? You better go home and ask your mother." I’ll never forget that day.

    My experiences with feelings of shame are difficult to compare with atrocities depicted in Dick Gregory’s essay. What we do share is a level of self-esteem and pride in our accomplishments that would not be possible had we not succeeded in overcoming adversity.


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