Thanks to the Shah of Iran, I attended elementary school at a small Christian academy in west Tennessee. Four decades later, that experience adds perspective to what I see going on today. Not in Iran. But in the US.
Months after I completed sixth grade, Iranian revolutionaries took hostages at the US Embassy in Tehran, where they were held captive for 444 days. Pickup trucks soon sported bumper stickers of Mickey Mouse taunting “Hey Iran!” with a gloved middle finger, while the parody of an old Beach Boys hit filled the airwaves: “Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran.” But before then the US and Iran had been allies. That’s why, in 1975, my family was uprooted to a Memphis suburb from sunny San Diego, where my dad, a Navy officer, had captained a destroyer.
The US government had sold sophisticated warships to the Shah’s navy, whose sailors were woefully unfamiliar with such state-of-the-art vessels. They needed someone to train them. My dad didn’t know a word of Farsi, but he did know warships and found himself as commanding officer of the Imperial Iranian Naval Surface Ship and Submarine Training Detachment, housed at what was then Naval Air Station Millington. It’s a mystery to me why the Navy transplanted all these Iranians to the Mid-South, the home of hushpuppies and Elvis, and where there are no ships, let alone submarines. But there they came.
And there we came. The Navy moved us in the summer so we could settle before I started third grade. Our neighborhood elementary school was still under construction, and my parent’s visit to the existing school left them less than impressed. In looking for alternatives they discovered a small academy operated by the Church of Christ, a largely Tennessee-based denomination completely unknown to them. Concerned about the school’s religious affiliation, they approached the rector of our Episcopal church, who assured them that I would be just fine. He was absolutely right.
My four happy years at that school were wholesome and squeaky clean. Back then, it might have been described as “All-American.” There was baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Cub Scouts. Adults were addressed as “Ma’am” and “Sir.” From my child’s-eye perspective, filtered now through middle-aged nostalgia, it was wholesome, nurturing, and fun. The teachers were kind. The other families were kind. We prayed, read our Bibles, and sang songs a capella in chapel. There was no smokin’, cussin’, drinkin’, and carryin’ on. I felt safe. I felt loved.
The summer after sixth grade we left Tennessee for Newport, Rhode Island. The Shah had been overthrown, Dad’s program was ended, and he was sent to the Naval War College to learn Cold War strategies and, presumably, how to contain an Iranian military our government had supported just months before. Dad wouldn’t hear again from any of the Iranians he’d worked with — including the family we hosted one Thanksgiving who were ecstatic over the American delicacy they’d never sampled before: mashed potatoes. Dad assumed they’d been executed by Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime for having colluded with the Great Satan, the United States.
Newport was half a continent away from Tennessee; culturally, they were worlds apart. In Newport, “fixin” wasn’t a verb, but “wicked” was an adjective. Lobster replaced fried catfish, squash trumped baseball, and Hush Puppies with tube socks gave way to Topsiders and no socks at all. Our suburban tract house was traded for Navy base waterfront housing with a million-dollar view of Narragansett Bay. We’d watch tall ships and racing sailboats pass by, including one skippered by a young Ted Turner, “Captain Outrageous,” whose crass unfiltered commentary earned him the moniker of “The Mouth of the South.”
My school was an old mansion, and its 8th Grade graduates went on to attend New England’s most elite prep academies. Even though it was named for a saint, it had no religious affiliation, and sainthood wasn’t something we were encouraged to aspire to. In contrast with my G-rated elementary school experience, 7th grade bypassed PG and went straight to R, and even sometimes X. Middle schoolers mixed gin and tonics at my first party, and reel-to-reel porn was projected at a big sleepover, along with an older brother’s play-by-play commentary. No parent came to check on us. The house was huge. They were rich. Very.
Unlike Ted Turner, I was no “Mouth of the South.” Nevertheless, my Southern accent quickly got me in trouble. Except for one girl who later admitted she thought it was cute, my sounding different made me a target for “frogging” — the locker room practice of bruising another’s arm with an extended-knuckled fist. When my dad saw my arm turned black and blue, I admitted that I feared getting kicked out if I defended myself. Dad, a big man who boxed and played football at the Naval Academy, promised to back me up with the administration. The next kid who frogged me received a sharp left jab. That’s the only punch I’ve ever thrown. It worked. The frogging stopped. But I also quickly shed my accent.
I was picked on as an outsider from what today would be dismissed as “flyover country” by those branded as “bi-coastal elites.” These are broad categories, to be sure, and in this case, retroactively attached to people and places of an earlier time. Nevertheless, derogatory terms like these express ugly truths of how some within our nation view others, both then and now. Such unflattering perceptions aren’t held by all. But they’re held by enough. They’re what can be created when people dwell in bubbles. And the elite Newport world into which I found myself thrust was very much a bubble. One that was rich, powerful, and white.
My Newport classmates and I lived on the southern tip of Aquidneck Island, which head-to-tail is only 15 miles long. At the north end are Portsmouth and Middleton, towns with sizable Portuguese communities who labored in fishing or the local textile industry. The only contact we had with their browner-skinned, working-class kids was when our respective morning school buses would briefly stop alongside each other in a parking lot. The windows in my bus would come down, and with a derisive shout of “Port-a-gee,” white kids would spit “loogies” — projectiles of snot and saliva — at the opposing bus.
Why? Because when people live within bubbles — be they kids or adults — those on the outside become threats since bubbles don’t provide much protection. They’re fragile by nature, and those who dwell in them can become fragile too. So they attach contemptuous labels to outsiders to convince themselves that outside is where they need to stay. They craft distorted images of the outsiders to make them easier to dismiss or ignore. They may bully them if they sound different, or spit on those they think are beneath them. As I saw from my Newport bus.
My Tennessee school was a bubble too. With the exception of one girl with parents from India who arrived our final year, it was all-white. As my family was Episcopalian, I brought diversity. Really. There was one Catholic kid, but aside from the two of us, everyone else was Church of Christ, or a close Protestant cousin. I wasn’t made to feel different or less-than, but we had little exposure to the plurality and colors of the world around us. We sang that Jesus loves all the little children: “red and yellow, black and white.” And I think we sincerely believed that. But the flesh-and-blood kids we encountered were white. Just like me.
I didn’t meet a single Black kid in Tennessee, nor did I learn about the state’s rich Black culture and history. At least that I can recall. We learned of 1878’s yellow fever epidemic, when cannonballs were fired from the Mississippi River bluffs to ward off deadly “spores.” We learned about King Cotton and Eli Whitney’s cotton gin. But we didn’t learn about who picked that cotton, or why shotgun shacks dotted the countryside, or that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated nearby just a few years before.
We did learn about the Civil War; that’s inescapable in the South. As a Navy kid, I was fascinated by the Battle of Memphis, a chaotic river melee between paddle-wheeled gunboats armored with cotton bales. And my class made field trips to the Shiloh battlefield, where nearly 23,000 young men died in just two days. But I don’t recall exploring why the war was fought, who won, and if there was a “right” and a “wrong.” Tennessee just happened to have been on one of the two opposing sides. Such as, for instance, the Cowboys and the Steelers.
The broadcast of Roots in 1977 was an opportunity to explore this. Over 85 percent of US homes with a TV watched at least part of the miniseries, including mine, as we were transfixed by the saga of Kunta Kinte and Chicken George. Roots sparked a national conversation about race and slavery. But I don’t remember it being discussed by my teachers or by my friends’ families. What I do remember is their enthusiasm for the following year’s broadcast of Walking Tall, described by Wikipedia as an “American neo-noir biographical vigilante action thriller film” about the ass-kicking white Tennessee sheriff, Buford Pusser.
I can only guess why we didn’t discuss slavery and racism. Rightly or wrongly, perhaps my elders thought these were mature topics, best left untouched until we were older. Maybe they thought that race relations had improved, and wanted to let bygones be bygones. Possibly they were embarrassed or ashamed or afraid or confused or simply indifferent. Unspoken or unacknowledged racism may have been a factor. Or it could be that they didn’t want to stir the pot. Because that might cause the bubble to burst. Better to preserve the peace, and protect the bubble.
I understand wanting to preserve bubbles, as I’ve lived within so many throughout my life. Not just as a youth in Tennessee and Rhode Island, but also as an adult, including the churches of which I’ve been a part, sometimes as a leader. And because I’ve lived inside these bubbles, I’ve experienced the goodness that can be encountered there and understand why we sometimes seek refuge within them. They’re comfort zones. And comfort zones, by nature and definition, are comforting. The world outside them can seem weird, cold, alien, dangerous. It takes courage to step beyond their confines. It’s easier to maintain the status quo.
But bubbles can also be suffocating. They hold only a certain amount of air; they can’t sustain those inside them indefinitely. For those inside a bubble, it’s hard to see what’s really going on outside. Bubbles are convex; they warp one’s vision. Things outside appear distorted, misshapen. That’s why, ultimately, bubbles need to pop. So people can breathe fresh air. So they can see clearly that those outside aren’t the caricatures they’ve mocked or feared, but real people with feelings, fears, dreams, and aspirations. Who carry unseen burdens. And who possesses a singular worth and beauty that’s innate to our shared humanity.
Mark Twain famously said that “broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in our little corner of the earth.” I’ve been fortunate enough to inhabit several of earth’s little corners, and I hope that, to some degree, that’s broadened my perspective with charitable, wholesome views of those outside my many bubbles. At least on occasion. And, I’ve learned that leaving our little corners need not involve packing our bags. It can even happen within the four walls of a school.
My dad graduated from his segregated, all-white high school in 1954. In the bottom corner of his diploma is the signature of the city’s superintendent of schools: T.C. Williams. Sixty-five years later, to the very day, his granddaughter — my middle child — would graduate from TC Williams High School, made famous through Denzel Washington’s film, Remember the Titans, which celebrates the school’s football team winning the Virginia State Championship, the first year after forced integration. It shows what can happen when bubbles are made to pop.
My youngest daughter is now a student at that same school. But it is no longer named TC Williams. For TC Williams was a strict segregationist who, ironically, fought stridently against the creation of a school that would later bear his name. As of last year, TC Williams was re-christened as Alexandria City High School. The students are still Titans. It still has a good football team. It also has an outstanding choir in which my daughter, like her big sister before her, proudly sings. Its members reflect the diversity of the student body. Their many voices blend joyfully and beautifully as one. It’s a wonderful thing to hear, and to behold.
All that’s possible because a bubble popped. It was forced to pop by those who know that nothing changes if nothing changes, and that ugly histories need to be confronted if wounds are to heal. The school today isn’t a utopia of racial harmony. Inequities, fears, prejudices, and tensions remain from when the old bubbles were intact. But things are better than they used to be. Encounters happen that wouldn’t have happened before. Friendships are established. A mascot is shared. So is a prom. And no one can spit a loogie at an opposing bus. Because there’s only one bus to ride.
In Remember the Titans, black and white students had to learn to respect each other if they were to play as a team. Without that, they never would have won a championship. The Titan choir wins awards too. And mutual respect is just as important for singers as it is for football players. But in addition to respect, as my daughter has explained to me, singers need to listen to each other. So every voice can be heard. So one voice doesn’t dominate, drowning out the others. So all voices can blend in harmony. So they can create something beautiful.
I think of this as I watch what’s taking place in our nation, as historic divides grow wider and people retreat into old bubbles, or even create new ones. We’re separated into red and blue, BIPOC and white, flyover country and bicoastal elites, “legacy Americans” and newer arrivals. Any pretense of civility seems to have been thrown out the window, replaced by aggression, toxicity, and shouting. That can happen when people don’t feel heard. Sometimes the shouting leads to shooting. It’s easy to become enraged when we feel mocked, disrespected, dismissed, misunderstood, ignored.
When shouting happens in bubbles, people outside can’t hear, in spite of the volume. There are monologues, not dialogues. What’s said and heard typically confirms what those within the bubble are thinking already. But when bubbles burst, other voices can be heard, and listening can begin: active, empathetic listening that looks people in the eye, without assumptions, without jumping to conclusions, and without an agenda to change the other’s mind; the type of listening that seeks common ground and common values so we can share common borders in a pluralistic, multi-cultural nation.
Bubbles have been a constant in my life. The Shah of Iran helped place me in my first; his downfall thrust me into another. I’ve found comfort within my bubbles and allowed them to shape my identity. Inside them I’ve found love, made friends, and witnessed what I suspect is the finger of God. But looking back, I see how these small worlds made me a smaller person, providing false securities, cultivating prejudice, and narrowing my vision — of myself, of others, of the divine. I’ve also been fortunate enough to witness the good that can follow when bubbles burst. It allows us to see, and challenges us to listen. Burst bubbles have been good for schools, football teams, and choirs. And, I believe, they’re good for our nation too.•