I’m the new student in fourth grade in Atlanta, GA, in 1952. I’m on the playground for the first time and am beset on all sides by eight or 10 kids I haven’t yet met. The biggest one, male, swaggers a couple of steps closer to me and demands to know:
“You a Yankee or a Rebel?”
Not “What grade are you in?” Not “Where are you from?” or even “Hello. What’s your name?”
Am I a Yankee or a Rebel? I can tell this is an important question from the rapacious expressions around me, but I haven’t a clue as to what to answer. A rebel? I don’t feel rebellious, so maybe I’m a Yankee, whatever that might be. Maybe it has something to do with yanking something. But “Do you yank something?” doesn’t sound like a conversation opener.
“Uh, what’s a Yankee?”
In that instant, I blow my chances with the kids at a school I will go to for the next three years. From that moment on, I’m so socially unacceptable that I’m not even worth beating up or terrorizing. The kids jeer and spit at me and disappear into the pandemonium on the playground.
For my new schoolmates in Atlanta, there were five socially unacceptable groups:
- Blacks (Would this be a good time to mention that I was once told by the boy sitting in front of me in geography class that his regular Saturday night entertainment was to pile into a friend’s car, find a “nigger” walking along the road, rope him and then drag him along behind the car for a while? Of course, there were no Blacks at my school. They went to some other school.)
- Jews (In my new school, there were also no so-called “Heebs.” I would have liked to have seen some of those Hebrew people. I was told they had cloven feet and little horns you could see if you parted their hair just right.)
- Catholics (In the ‘50s, national leaders were trying to unite Protestants, Catholics and Jews against Communism. However, in Atlanta, Protestant preachers were telling their congregations that those “mackerel snappers” acted upon “secret orders by the Pope.” These were presumably orders that were more harmful to the Baptists, Methodists and Pentecostals in my school than the requirement to eat fish on Friday.)
- Communists (The term “commie” was applied to anyone who might not agree that whites were superior to niggers, Heebs and mackerel snappers.)
- Last but not least, eggheads (An egghead is academically inclined but hasn’t the sense to know you don’t ask a Rebel what a Yankee is, even 87 years and four generations after the Civil War has ended.)
As an egghead, I was not so much persecuted as I was ignored. It was lonely. However, it made “Vasco da Gama, Portuguese explorer, first European to reach India by sea, 1498” and “What is the original price of a refrigerator that is on a 15% sale at $675?” a bit more interesting than this stuff would have been if I’d been invited to spin-the-bottle rum-and-coke parties. Gee, no parties. I didn’t even get a chance to get pregnant.
In the years since fourth grade, what happened to all those white, Protestant, non-Communist rebels who did get invited to parties? I don’t know. I’ve forgotten names and would have no way of looking any of them up. I do know a little about what happened to my high-school classmates in Marion High School in Lake Charles, LA, however, and contrasts between them and the younger kids in Atlanta are probably minimal.
Most of my high-school graduating class of 1961 is dead. There have been so many fatal heart attacks among my former classmates that there was hardly anybody left to attend a 50th reunion three years ago. Even though it was the first reunion I had heard about, I didn’t go. It seemed like an expensive trip to take just so I could thumb my nose at some people who had died of ignorance and wouldn’t even be there. If those people had been eggheads, they would have known about alcohol, cigarette smoking, bad food and inadequate exercise a long time ago, perhaps even in time to live.
Most of my classmates who were still living three years ago were retired small farmers, nice people even after struggling to survive competition by encroaching industrial farms. There are two ways your ordinary small farmer can thrive: convert to organic farming or raise specialty crops not factory farmed. To my knowledge, none of my classmates did either. After all, one has to do a lot of book learning to make such a switch, and if one is not an egghead….
I shared valedictorian honors with a classmate who became a preacher’s wife directly out of high school and apparently never made use of any of the book learning she had acquired. In a cross-country phone call just before the last reunion, she told me she’d never been a thinker; she’d just found memorizing easy. She was satisfied with 50 years of cooking, washing and house cleaning, but to me her life seemed … well, not very much like an egghead’s nirvana.
Then there were the TV and tractor sales people, the shoe repair guy and the secretaries. While I don’t want to denigrate such professions, I have to say they don’t require much in the way of egghead academics or original thinking and they don’t usually lead to making a difference in the world.
It would seem that most of the 1961 Marion High School graduating class did little to make the world a better place. Probably the same is true of the 1961 alumni of whatever high school in Atlanta my grammar-school classmates attended.
A few people in our country did try for a better world. “The movement,” as it was called in “The Sixties,” was started by people my classmates would have called—and in my case did call—eggheads. We eggheads all across the country studied Chairman Mao, Franz Fanon, Edmundo Desnoe, Karl Marx, Rachel Carson, Richard Wright, Marshall McLuhan, Dr. Spock, Michael Harrington and many others. Out of our studies came action. Not much action, admittedly, amid a rush to buy the latest bell bottoms and engage in a lot of senseless sex. But we did try to create a world without Yankees, Rebels, niggers, heebs or mackerel snappers.
We eggheads tried to make the world a better place to live in, and I’m proud of us.