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Oct 02

Being “The Other”

In Brief— The author wanders through his memories of the New Mexico boarding school and his experience as one of the few Anglos in a predominantly Hispanic school.


Prejudice is the child of ignorance. (William Hazlitt)—

They called me “Whitey.” They called me crude names. I was a scrawny, blond, fifth grader, one of very few Anglos in the Catholic school where Hispanics predominated. The other Anglos, limited in number, were day students living in town.

Wait! I need to tell you why I became “The Other” in that school in Santa Fe.

Prejudice faintAs a kid in the humid Midwest, I was an asthmatic who endured seemingly endless shots to help me breathe when my lungs struggled for air. At his wits end, the family doctor finally said that unless I was in a high dry climate I would die. A boarding school in Santa Fe, New Mexico, was the answer. Alone, a thousand miles from home, I became “The Other” in a class of boys of Hispanic descent.

My class was presided over by tall, lean Brother Benedict dressed in his black cassock and split white collar. He ruled with an iron hand and brooked no nonsense. Pea shooters protruding from hip pockets were confiscated on sight, but piñon nuts were something that couldn’t be stopped. Hidden, but not stopped.

Piñon shells littered the floor and crunched under Brother Benedict’s feet as he patrolled the aisles. I really admired the way my Hispanic classmates could shell the piñons in their mouths and spit the shells out of their mouths while chewing the tasty little nuts inside.

Two of us, Guillermo and I, swapped places as the top students in the class. [I’ve occasionally wondered what became of Guillermo.] Anyway, nothing was quite so embarrassing as sitting on the Brother Superior’s lap and having him praise me while all my classmates’ eyes burned into me. Guillermo never sat on the Brother Superior’s lap. Curious, that. Maybe it was because he was Hispanic or maybe because I was the only Protestant kid in the school…or maybe because the Brother Superior was…

Twice a day, morning and evening, we attended mass in the oldest church in the United States, adjacent to the building where I slept. Damn, but those old wooden kneeling boards were murder to my bony knees. While the other kids took communion (got a round wafer and some grape juice), I had to kneel on that wooden board and wait. I was Protestant, you see. On Sundays, we had to dress up in our finest and march to the cathedral in town for the big weekly mass [Notice that God cares how his worshipers look.], but at least the kneeling boards were padded.

One day, Brother Benedict lost his temper—never far from the surface—when one of the boys was whispering to a companion. WHACK! Swinging with all his might, Brother Benedict broke the oak pointer over the boy’s head. The boy stood up and walked out the door. He never came back. Good for him! I always admired that boy.

Not all the brothers were as nasty as Brother Benedict. Some were close, like the one who struck me on the back of the head because I wasn’t moving fast enough to suit him, but friendly Brother Alec made spinning tops for all the boys and was much liked. Kindly Brother Isodor ran the infirmary and treated one of my friends who was cut by an angry Italian day student wielding a razor.

Not only was the asthma cured but I learned independence and self-reliance. Hikes into the foothills, turning over old gravestones in the abandoned cemetery looking for slithering pets, walking atop the high bordering wall studded with jagged broken bottles, eating the insides out of warm French bread while soft snow flakes drifted down, buying freshly-made tamales from a visiting vendor every weekend. These and more experiences contributed to my growth, to the person I am today.

But how did being the “The Other” teach me acceptance instead of resentment, fear and prejudice? I don’t know. Maybe I paid attention to what I felt. Maybe it has something to do with my character, but it taught me what it’s like to be an outsider in an unfamiliar environment.

Translate that to the current US election—particularly on the Republican side of the aisle—to England’s Brexit as well as the rise of the immigrant-fearing Right throughout Europe and it becomes more meaningful. All those who fear and distrust The Other need to show compassion and understanding as to what it’s like to be an immigrant in a foreign environment, a frightened human fleeing deadly violence, war and privation.

It may be too late for the fearful prejudiced ones to walk a mile in an immigrant’s tattered shoes, but it’s not too late to give thought to why those immigrants are fleeing. To them, it’s a matter of survival.

Humans have brains. They must use them. They must feel in their gut what it’s like to be “The Other.” It’s not too late to be cured. It’s not too late to experience humanity.

8 comments

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  1. Jim Newton

    As I read this I first thought that I had never been the other, but realized that I am the other in South Africa. Not the outsider though. Here we are accepted and even loved by many. Here where white people did horrible things to black people under Apartheid, we are accepted and loved and even in our very early days in 2002-3 we never felt shunned. People here waited and watched and accepted. Maybe some cultures just have more capacity to withhold judgment and try to see beneath the skin.

    1. Don Bay

      The difference between our experiences is that I was an outsider and treated as such. My experience made a hidden but profound impression that is reflected in my ability to identify with the fleeing refugees now being treated as outsiders throughout the world…even in America.

      Another difference between our experiences is that the Africans you describe know that you and Chris are providing them with valuable knowledge they lack. Keep on doing what you are doing as long as you can. In addition to providing knowledge, you are building bridges toward a better future.

  2. Arthur Ulene

    Wow. What a story. Thanks for sharing…. Art

    1. Don Bay

      No matter how painful, all of us are adding to our personalities with everything that comes our way. As Richard Bach has pointed out, every problem has a gift for us. The gifts may differ or not get opened right away, but we can share those gifts with others. You have. I hope I have, too.

  3. Dave Meyers

    This is a sweet and inspirational story….reminiscing about our youth can often seem more meaningful now than it did then. But, as your example attempts to relate to the World and specifically to the U.S. mind set concerning refugees, you my still have some of your youthful idealism at play here.
    I fear it’s not likely that Americans, in large numbers, can relate to what their own ancestors went through to get to the U.S. seeking asylum, let alone those currently knocking on our doors. Americans have had it too easy and too cushy. Even many in the lower tears of our society have had it much easier in terms of safety, freedom, and life sustaining opportunities than many of those trying to get in now. Americans simply cannot relate and they believe the talking heads on Right-wing media who pump fear into them as they try to promote their conservative agenda.
    It seems that no matter what ancestral background, how long ones family has lived in the U.S., or even ones political persuasion to some degree……the tribal instinct kicks in. Just as race mixing in the U.S. is not a true reality, neither is the acceptance of the “OTHER”……They simply ‘aren’t from my tribe’.

    1. Don Bay

      The lesson I was taught at that early age didn’t rise from my subconscious at the time, but once it did it had a strong effect on who I am today. Yes, we are all tribal, but we also have compassion. It’s a matter of which we allow to dominate us.

      The refugees now causing tribal resentments and unreasoning fear are facing considerably more than I experienced as a kid, but my experience stirred compassion and a measure of understanding of what they are experiencing. No idealism there. Way too many in the world and America are allowing their tribalism to overwhelm the empathy and compassion inside them. I wish I could get the tribalists to reach inside themselves and show their compassion, but if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

  4. Donna

    I could really identify with your experience as “the other”, Don , although my experience was much less painful and for a much shorter time. I attended first grade in Albuquerque at Coronado School and was the only person in my class who could not speak Spanish. Fortunately, the instruction was in English, so it was just at recess where I was the odd girl out. ( They let me turn the double rope) I still remember how it felt to be unable to speak the language of those around me and recall those feelings when I meet or teach English Language Learners.
    I think that had I stayed at Coronado, I might have learned Spanish, but our family moved to a new neighborhood the next year, where no one spoke Spanish.
    I’m glad you had such an enriching, though painful, cultural experience as a boy. It must be part of the reason you have such a world outlook.

    1. Don Bay

      You understand what it’s like to be “The Other” as well as I do and react the same way today as I do, with empathy, compassion and understanding. Being exposed as we were when we were young teaches one of two things: 1) Understanding what refugees feel in a strange environment or 2) Fear and bigotry directed at “The Other” who are perceived as a threat.

      Of course, much depends on the environment. Growing up in a family and community of racists and bigots will more likely than not result in a child growing up to be like those around her/him. If “The Other” is seen as a threat rather than an opportunity, the result will likely be a stain on the personality. Fortunately, you and I and many others see the opportunity for enrichment.

      The moral to the story is that societies can grow and prosper when “The Other” is welcomed and respected as a fellow human.

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