NEGOTIATING THE NARROWS:.
by Storyteller Susan Klein
Storyteller Susan Klein remembers “learning” prejudice at a young age.
Approximate Length of Video and Audio: 12 minutes.
Religious differences. Recognizing the connection between various kinds of “-isms.”
Hope for societal change that embraces diversity.
In this excerpt from her longer story “Through a Ruby Window: A Martha’s Vineyard Childhood,” Susan Klein examines the allure of “the other” while also exposing how quickly we ostracize those who differ from ourselves.
As a young child Klein was intrigued by the mysterious practices of her Roman Catholic friends and neighbors. In the 1950s the Roman Catholic Church was still seen as somewhat foreign and was largely unknown or misunderstood by Protestant America. Although she was raised in the Methodist church, Klein was dazzled by Rosary beads, statues of saints, and the very mysterious Sunday Mass she attended with her best friend Debbie.
Klein learned, however, that religion can divide people when she found that her friend could never visit her own Methodist church. At that young age Klein didn’t understand the subtleties behind her friend’s inability to miss Catholic mass to attend her Protestant church, but she did feel that somehow Methodists must be “less than” Roman Catholics.
Klein’s new awareness of religious difference and how it might indicate value—someone is better, someone is worse—opened her up to the other ways in which we differ from one another. She experienced a normal experience of childhood taunting based on her German ethnicity, forcing her to face the reality of Nazism.
She finds a new friend in a young boy from her Methodist Sunday school only to be told later by an adult that she shouldn’t spend so much time with a child of another race. These experiences cause Klein to question the lessons she has been taught in Sunday School—did the Church, did adults really mean it when they taught “God is love” and that “we are all brothers and sisters”?
Despite her discouragement, the adult Klein ends her story on a note of hope that change does occur, even if slowly, and that we are moving towards a time when differences might no longer divide but could be embraced.
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REFLECTIONS & DISCUSSION QUESTIONS ABOUT
Negotiating the Narrows
- Klein describes in great detail her fascination with the “old ones” in her neighborhood praying the Rosary, the images of the sacred heart of Jesus, and the statues of saints in her neighbor Ma Phillips’s house. What differences in those around you did you notice as a child? How did you experience those differences—were they intriguing, frightening, off-putting, or something else? Were differences embraced or suspect in your family?
- Although Roman Catholics often faced discrimination and suspicion in the United States until recently, Klein assumes that it is her own Methodist denomination that must be “wrong” when her friend Debbie confesses that she can’t visit Klein’s church because “God will strike me dead.” Later, Klein worries that as a Protestant she shouldn’t participate in a Catholic festival for fear of bringing God’s wrath down on the Catholic participants. Why do you think Klein assumes there is something wrong with her and her religious denomination? Is her reaction familiar to you? What might this tell us about children’s understanding of difference?
- What might have instigated Klein’s schoolmates to turn on her and call her a “Nazi”? Klein didn’t even know what that term meant, and we can assume the other children didn’t either. What might have been going on in the culture at the time—1950s New England—that it would have given little kids that word and the knowledge that it was bad?
- Klein experiences a serious disconnect between what she was learning at church and how adults in her life behaved. Tell a time when you experienced a similar disjuncture. How can we—personally and as a culture—close the gap between our ideals and our actions around diversity and getting along with all kinds of people?
- What is your reaction to Klein’s conclusion of her story? Where do you see the world changing regarding people being able to get along across differences of race, religion, and culture? How might we move more quickly in that direction?
- This week you will notice someone who differs from you by race, religion, culture, ethnicity, or in some other way. Take time to observe the differences. Note how you are feeling: Are you comfortable? Do you feel “less than,” “better than,” suspicious of, or interested in this person who differs from you?
- Think about your upbringing—how might it contribute to how you’re feeling? When you notice this person behaving in a way you don’t understand, try to imagine the most generous explanation possible for his or her behavior. If you’re really brave, invite the person out for coffee or lunch to get to know him or her better—you might even work up the nerve to discuss your differences!
STORY TRANSCRIPT of
Negotiating the Narrows
by Storyteller Susan Klein
Note : The transcript below of the video and audio story is not in correct text book English. It is a transcription of the spoken story. There are also a few variations from the spoken word. This text is for your guidance and reference as you start to study and think about this story.
Hi, this is Susan Klein, and I am going to be telling you an excerpt from “Through a Ruby Window: A Martha’s Vineyard Childhood” that was copyrighted in 1995 by August House in Little Rock, Arkansas. When I was a little girl, just a little bitty girl in Martha’s Vineyard, where I grew up, I was fascinated by rosary beads. All the old ones in the neighborhood had rosary beads, and I was so delighted by them; mostly the old ones would have a little bit of a rosary in their pocket, and if things were not going well in the household, I could always tell because the old one would be mumbling and fumbling in her pocket, going through the rosary. It was a wonderful time for me to understand what was going on in the household, because the old one was present but was not really available. Every now and then, I would see through a crack in a bedroom door that there was another row of rosary beads that would be hanging on the sacred heart of Jesus, which frightened me. I would see that gorgeous picture but then there was also the heart break there and I thought “What is this and how come they have these gorgeous beads? Why on earth are they not wearing them around their necks?”
But it was as beautiful as I thought anything ould be. Until one day when I was next door at Ma Phillips’s house. Ma was an old woman who walked with a cane and she kept to herself quite a bit, an old Portuguese lady, and she had finished a whole bunch of antimacassars and she wanted me to help her on this day when her arthritis was acting up. She asked me if I would follow her into the parlor. Now a parlor on the Vineyard at that time, in a Portuguese home, was a formal place. And so I came behind her holding onto “the doilies” as she called them, and when we got into the parlor, I saw something that I never had imagined in my life, there was a bright miracle in the corner, tiers of shelves going up in an altar with beautiful white lace that was overlaid on red velvet like a birthday cake or wedding cake, sitting on were beautiful saints. I thought they were dolls. Sitting next to them were little red—they looked like little bowls—with candles. I was shocked because we were having a huge fire in town at that point, all the fathers were fighting the fire and all the mothers were cooking and baking, baking and cooking and making coffee. The smell of coffee was everywhere and the curtains were just blowing in the windows all the time, aprons were flying by your face, and all the women just kept on cooking and all the men would come in smelling of sweat and smoke and fear, and all this was going on and here she was burning candles in the room where nobody is looking. I couldn’t understand it and I wanted to touch those beautiful little dolls, she said “No, no, no, those are saints. Those I use when I talk to God. Alright, I’ll let you touch one.”
So, she handed it to me, and I was so amazed by the beautiful clothing and it had a crown on. But I couldn’t touch them. So, watching dolls that I couldn’t play with and seeing fire unattended at this time completely confused me; I had no idea what is going on.
But the whole Catholic thing was really interesting; my friend Debbie had rosary beads as well. And we also would stay over at each other’s houses and she would let me touch the rosary beads every now and then, but that was it. I couldn’t do anymore; I was a little Methodist, you know. And so on a night Friday when we stayed over, we would play all through Saturday, watching cartoons, having a wonderful time. She had a lilac bedroom, and nobody had a lilac bedroom in the fifties! And her mother would never let me stay on Saturdays. I didn’t know until long after that when we are about seven or eight, that it was the church question: What do you do with a Methodist on Sunday morning? But one day finally they let me stay over and go to church with her on Sunday. I was astounded because if our little Trinity Church was dressed up in sensible tweed and sensible brown leather shoes, Our Lady Star of the Sea certainly was wearing a sequined ball gown and high heels. The difference was astounding. I branded myself a Methodist immediately of course because I tripped into the pew, nearly did a header over the kneeler and had missed what Debbie had done going into the pew. I didn’t know about the genuflection and the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, so what I had perceived she may have done, I sort of did. I think it probably meant “throw a curve ball left of plate”! But it surely didn’t mean anything Catholic. And we started howling, you know, we were just laughing so hard. We got choked shut, though—you know our mouths did—when the priest came by swinging the incense burner. There was no breathing to be done after that. I was so excited about it, this was very different, you know: stand up, sit down, kneel, kneel, kneel, you don’t get to sing, everything is going on, and you don’t participate.
I couldn’t wait for her to come to my church. So all along I said, “Debbie, you gotta come, you gotta come!” She never said anything until finally she said, “I can’t do it.” I said, “Why not?” We were about seven years old by then. She said, “Because God will strike me dead!” I’m said, “I went to your church and I’m still alive.” She said, “It’s different. You’re not Catholic!”
And I knew I was absolutely less than. Oh, being a Methodist was a terrible situation! I so wanted to be a Catholic because they got to go to nun school in summer time, and I was relatively creative and all the kids hated nun school because it took away from summer. But for me it would be an opportunity to do arts and crafts, and I thought it would be fabulous. Well, one of the other things that happened at this point was that we had in town the opportunity for a feast in the summertime in July. Joe came to our house—Joe is a friend of the family. He said, “We need someone to hold one of the ribbons for the crown during the Portuguese feast, the feast of the Holy Ghost.”
I thought the crown belonged to the Queen of Heaven. It was Catholic, what did I know? It was really Queen Isabella; Queen Isabella was a very generous queen, responsible for the miracle of the roses. But I thought it was the Queen of Heaven, and all the girls who made communion, they each held one of the ribbons that was attached to the pillow on which sat the crown that one of the girls got the honor of holding it. And now they were one girl short for this, and Joe came to our house to ask if I could be that girl. I said,
“What is wrong with him!?! He’s Catholic. Doesn’t he know we’re Methodist? For goodness’ sake, he doesn’t see us in church. Methodists can’t be holding the crown of the Queen of Heaven!”
But I didn’t say anything. I just stood in the kitchen, and he said,
“Do you want to do this?”
“No,” I said. “No, I don’t have a communion dress.”
He said, “We’ll borrow one from somebody who made communion last year.”
“No! We can’t do it!”
My mother said, “Suzy, are you alright?”
“No! I can’t do it, I can’t do it!”
Because I knew what would happen. I knew they would come off the boat with a band from New Bedford, they would go all through the town, and come through the square right up the road by the movie house. All those little girls were going to be blasted into oblivion because there was a Methodist among them. I knew this was not a good thing. So I said,
So I ended up, of course, saving entire grade level of young women, young Catholic women, from celestial annihilation by
having the good sense to say “no.”
Well, a few other things confused me about Catholicism. I thought I would be able to ask somebody, but there was no one I really could ask, but I knew I had whole bunch of specialists right next door, so I tried to peek in through the window of Ma Phillips’s house. She must have been cleaning or something because one of the curtains was ajar a little bit, and you could see just in. And when I looked in, all those saints were upside down, standing on their shelves in that beautiful corner with altars and velvet, but they are upside down with their feet wagging in the air. But then I thought, “Oh my God, everybody is confused about this religion!” Turned out, later on, many years later I found out that when one of her son was in his cups, he would pull pranks in her parlor, so they weren’t really confused, but for me it was an affirmation.
There were a number of things that happened. By the time I was in school and—you know how when you are together with kids and you are all a part of a class, we only had seventeen kids in our class. But on this particular day I was being ostracized, I didn’t know why. And pretty soon the kids got into a circle, and I was in the middle of the circle and the kids held their hands tightly together and wouldn’t let me go, no matter how hard I ran, they just kept chanting, “Nazi, Nazi, Nazi!” We were the only German family in town, and I knew “Nazi” was bad but I didn’t know what it was. So pulling myself out of this situation was really, really difficult. I finally got away from them and I was crying and I knew that I was something despicable. But I did not understand how I could be something so horrible and not know it myself but they could all know that. Well, my friend Ernie put his arm around me after school and he walked me home. And then I asked him about it, and he said that he didn’t know. He was just trying to protect me, it turns out. When I got home I asked my mother if we were Nazis. Oh boy, it was an interesting bilingual tirade that came flying through the house at that point! I had to promise never to utter that word again in the household—no, we were not! So I went to the library because the library let’s you know what’s going on, you know? So I went to find out, and “no!” indeed. When I sat there and read about it, I was horrified, and every day after that Ernie and I met on the way to school and our friendship really blossomed, although I was surprised couple of months later to have a friend of the family say, “Suzy, you might want to think about spending so much time with Ernie.”
I said, “We just walk back and forth to school.”
She said, “You don’t understand. You probably should stick to your own kind.”
I said, “He’s a Methodist. We’re in Sunday school together.”
She said, “He’s not white!”
I was stunned. What had broken open during the Nazi incident, that wound, was broken open afresh by this. There was something in that moment, though I was just a little girl, that made me know that the issue of social justice would go on for an eternity. And then I started thinking about everything I learned in Sunday school. “God is love, except when . . . .” “We are all brothers and sisters, hmmm, but maybe when you encounter . . . .” They were like banners in the sky for me. I was upset by it for a long time; I had no one to talk to about it. And then I realized as I continued to read that it didn’t matter if they called me a “Nazi,” or a “kike,” or a “spic,” or “nigger.” It didn’t matter what it was. We were all the same; in the fact that we were “the other” was our similarity. And I realized that people could have some kind of self worth by pointing the finger at something they considered less than—and I was horrified. And it stuck with me for a very, very long time.
But the world changes a little, you know, bit by bit, slowly, but it changes. And now, every now and then, I think about how those changes occur—what soft, small things instigate those changes. And I know that every single time that some horrible thing is rattled until the bottom falls out and its whole importance is turned upside down, that one of those saints, one of Ma Phillips’s saints, no matter where they are—for she is long gone and the house has been sold so many times—one of those saints, one of those saints surely rights itself and stands tall.
©2010 RaceBridges For Schools. This lesson plan is part of an initiative for educators called RaceBridges For Schools. It is a project that seeks to provide free tools for teachers and students to motivate them to build stronger and more inclusive communities. This guide may be freely used, reproduced and distributed for educational purposes as long as this copyright information is displayed intact. The video and audio excerpts and transcript included in this unit is copyrighted by Susan Klein. Used with permission. www.susanklein.com