Ah, the America of my childhood. So full of bunk and bigotry.
In the America of my childhood, the Crayola box contained a crayon labeled “flesh.”
Flesh was intended to approximate the skin color of people. People, if the Crayola box was to be believed, came in one color, a pinky beige.
It was just one of the crazy things I was taught growing up.
In the America of my childhood, there were apparently only two genders, girls and boys, and what you were born with was what you were stuck with. The girls and boys grew up to be men and women. The men and women became Mom and Dad.
Mom and Dad were always married. Dad worked and Mom probably stayed home with the kids, unless she was black, in which case she might leave her home to go help take care of a white family’s house and kids.
In those days, nobody had two moms or two dads because, well, you know, nobody was gay.
In the America of my childhood, “gay” meant lighthearted and carefree.
Trans? It was not a word, though “transatlantic” was. It meant across the ocean and over to Europe, where our fathers had fought a war in countries occupied by people they called Frogs, Wops and Krauts. Some went to Japan and fought the Japs.
In the America of my childhood, we proudly learned that we belonged to a nation of immigrants. The immigrants came on transatlantic boats from places like England, Ireland, Germany, Poland. They were mostly pinky beige.
Polack jokes were popular.
And let’s not forget the Italian, Christopher Columbus, who in fourteen hundred and ninety-two sailed the ocean blue to discover the America of my childhood.
So many ways that storyline was wrong, but why complicate a good yarn?
In that long-ago but not so distant America, a married woman took her husband’s last name, and in some matters, his first name too. So Mary Ellen Findlay, for example, became Mrs. F. George Schmich, her “maiden” name, as it was called, subsumed into a man’s identity.
Unmarried women were, sadly, spinsters.
In my childhood America, divorce was scandalous and usually the woman’s fault. Pity children like the girl named Nancy who transferred into my grade school. When we heard Nancy lived in an apartment with her divorced mother, we were shocked. Divorce was a sin and, to make matters worse, nobody reputable lived in apartments, except New Yorkers.
In that great America of old, children gathered in school yards and backyards to play cowboys and Indians. The cowboys had toy guns. The Indians had toy bows and arrows. The Indians, also known as Injuns, spoke only one word: “How!” They usually lost.
Injuns weren’t always the enemy, though. They made good mascots.
In that world — the world of “Ozzie and Harriet,” “Leave it to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best” — almost all the people on TV were white, except Amos ’n’ Andy, two black sitcom characters who lived in Harlem.
In that long-ago America, in which nearly 90 percent of the population was white, brown skin was exotic and entertaining, except when it was scary.
In those days, Mexicans were people who lived in Mexico, where they wore big sombreros and said things like “Ay, caramba!”
Arabs — pronounced A-rabs — belonged to cartoons and movies, where they possessed magical powers that they exercised with words like “Abracadabra!” and “Open, sesame!”
In my childhood America, a white man named Ray Stevens had a big hit with the song “Ahab the Arab,” about the “sheikh of the burning sands,” a woman named Fatima and a camel named Clyde.
And let’s not forget China. American children were told to eat everything on their plate because children in China were starving. Those who disobeyed might be spanked.
Even Dr. Benjamin Spock, who wrote the book that told our mothers how to raise us, said spanking was OK (though he later deplored it), and most American parents disciplined their children with their hands.
I could go on, but you get the point. The America of my childhood was a great land in many ways, but it was full of bigotry and bunk.
When I think back on all the crazy things taught to children of my generation, by adults who were poorly taught themselves, I marvel that a country steeped in so much ignorance has advanced as much as it has.
The ignorance hasn’t vanished. There remain people raised in the America of my childhood who cling to the ridiculous things we were taught.
But what makes this country great isn’t what we used to be. Our greatness lies in our ability to change. In fits and starts, we keep opening to new and more nuanced understandings of ourselves and other people.
“We” isn’t everyone, but it’s enough that even in the midst of the daily madness there’s cause for hope.
The question we should ask ourselves today is: What are we teaching children now that we’ll look back on as ignorance?
By the way, the “flesh” crayon was renamed “peach.” Corrections and clarifications:
Mother and daughter stand in a driveway waving at father, who is leaving for work, circa 1956.