Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Bain Of My Young Existence

"Mr. Drummond" was like the adoptive father me and the black brother I never had never had.

The man who played him on TV's Diff'rent Strokes, Conrad Bain, has died at age 89. Sadly he outlived two of his TV kids.

That obit mentions some harsh criticisms of the show, which aired from the time I was three until I was ten, before living on in daily after-school reruns. People said it provided a "lite" version of race relations. Maybe if I'd been an adult when the show came out I would have seen right through it, but if you want to teach kids about things like that, you have to do it in a way they understand. Arnold and Willis were practically the only black kids I knew! Until the Cosbys came along anyway. For some kids in my town, who knows, maybe seeing black and white people living together as a family, albeit only for a half-hour at a time, made a big difference.

Did I ever tell you about my fifth grade class? Our lily-white school suddenly tested the free-agent waters and came back with one Indian kid, one Asian kid, one English kid, and one African-American kid whose last name, I shit you not, was "Black." It was almost like all the teachers got together and decided it'd be good to show the children of Ridgefield that non-white people did exist outside of our TV screens before sending us out into the world. A few kidnappings later, diversity! The rest of the names seemed phony, too, lending credence to the "planted outsiders" theory. See if you can figure out which kid was which: Christopher Charlesworth, Ed Zhang, Probahan Basu, and of course Duane Black, who, as an odd side-note, insisted his middle name was "Turbo."

Not that there weren't racists in my town, but I feel like the general attitude among us 10-year-olds toward our new classmates wasn't negativity, but wonder. They were exotic. We almost worshipped them. Which is better than not accepting them at all, right? And it all comes back to Diff'rent Strokes: As an adult, it seems like we were treating the "different" kids as cool new gadgets as opposed to realizing they're human like us. But as a kid, maybe that's exactly how you learn to not be a racist. They'll have their skin color, you'll have yours, and I'll have mine. And together we'll be fine.

To beat my mom to the punch--yes I remember we also had Ranjit* and Vimala in our town, who I think were in my nursery school classes, but K through 4 was pretty much a Caucasian-fest. And, actually, Duane might have come along in third or fourth, but it works better for the story having all four arrive at the same time.

*Huge win by me over him in chess club that one time, as he was second-ranked at the time.
Mom here, naturally.
Ranjit was beside himself that you could read and he couldn't. He demanded his mother teach him to read.
But, never mind, you've forgotten Paul!!! I think he was Chinese and his family rented a house across the street for a while and nobody could pronounce his name. He and his sister could speak very little English. (I think you guys were maybe five.) So he felt bad about it. So you said, My middle name is Paul. You asked him if he wanted to be called Paul until the Virginia Court gang could pronounce his name. He was so happy, that someone suggested Sarah (I think) for his sister. His mother came over and told me how much it meant to her that the kids on the street tried to make her children feel comfortable. So even though this is probably all totally politically incorrect, it worked. ps. I just scrunched some neighbors. We had ten houses on the street (including Scott and Crystal's house on the corner with the Old Stagecoach Rd. address), and 24 kids under 12! Starting with Scott and Crytal, then Susan , Mike and Mark, "Paul and Sarah", the three incorrigible boys across the street (the oldest Timmy), Rita, Craigie and the older brother, Mary and Joseph (don't ask), Pam, Andrew and Courtney, you and Jene, Chris, Greg and Joe, and Joanne, Karen and Allison.
Ha, I didn't forget Paul--but he was middle school-era. I wasn't 5, I was 12! We played a lot of Nintendo Pro Wrestling over at his house. Then Chan came along in high school to complete the Asian Trifecta.

(I like you you combined the term "number crunching" with remembering neighbors of the past, to come up with "neighbor scrunching." Yes, we had a lot of kids around! Don't forget about Tiffany, Carter and Stefan. And Ali, Eric, and Mikey.
Mom again.
Thank you for the credit and HOW could I have forgotten Ali, etc???
I'm getting too old to remember who your friends were at five and who they were at 12. There were so many kids on our street and every mom but one didn't work outside our homes and it was so much fun.
Good post. I loved watching different strokes, too. I grew up in the inner city so seeing black people wasn't something that was as foreign to me, or even a novelty. So for the same reasons you stated that it was influential for you, Different Strokes was influential to me in the opposite way. There weren't too many white kids in my school, I mean there were a few, and if I had to guess it was probably 10% of the entire student body, but they were a lot more like me with regard to their socioeconomic struggles. I didn't see them like I saw "Mr. Drummond". He was someone that came across as altruistic on the show, for a while when I was growing up I wished I would find a Mr. Drummond to adopt me and pull me out of the situation I was in.

Again, good post.

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Location: Rhode Island, United States