Ah, the Amer­ica of my child­hood. So full of bunk and big­otry.

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - Mary Sch­mich mschmich@chicagotri­bune.com Twit­ter @MarySch­mich

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.

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