Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Diversity Series

No Longer Feeling Out Of Place
By Kelly Lafarga

A bell rings and suddenly halls fill with loud, vivacious children. Some of the older ones settle into their new classes while the young ones run outdoors for recess. The vast field is covered with the newest playground equipment. Within minutes, dozens of students are clamoring over the various choices, deciding who gets to take their turn.

A young first-grader named George Jones is among the children at play. He is actively engaged with his fellow classmates and nothing strikes a wrong chord with him. He has many friends and is happy in his school. Little does he know that one day it will dawn on him that he is slightly different from his other friends. He will soon realize that he is the only African-American boy in his prominently white grade school.

Today, Jones, 23, who was born in Arlington, Va., grew up in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. Shortly after his mother died, he moved in with his grandmother, who lived in Halls Hill, a predominantly African-American neighborhood that was founded in the late 1800s. Soon after his arrival, Jones was sent to private school -- St. Ann’s, located in an upper class white neighborhood, which he attended from kindergarten through eighth-grade. Throughout all of those years, Jones was the only African-American child in his class.

“At first I was fine with it,” Jones says. “I was almost too young to know any better. I felt the same as everybody else and didn’t even realize that I was slightly different.” Jones took part in many activities and converted to Catholicism in the second-grade where he had his first communion. He was also a Boy Scout for a few years.

“All of my friends treated me like I was just like them. I would do everything that they did. Their families at times even took me in as if I was part of the family. It was cool,” Jones says. “It wasn’t until I entered middle school that I suddenly realized that something was different, that I was different.”

When Jones entered fifth-grade, he became more aware of his surroundings. The older he got the more he knew that even though his friends at school didn’t treat him differently, he still wasn’t the same as everyone in his class. What really made it settle in was finding that the kids in his own community began to treat him poorly.

“The kids in my neighborhood didn’t like me because I went to a private school,” said Jones. “Where I lived wasn’t exactly a ghetto, but it was pretty close to it. They weren’t receiving the kind of education that I was and looking back now I realize that they probably resented me for that. I began trying to be more social. I would go out of my way to hang out with the kids in my neighborhood, but they never accepted me. This was really hard for me to understand at the time.”

Jones continued attending St. Ann’s until the eighth-grade. However, dealing with the serious issue of race at such a young age really began taking a toll on his overall outlook. He was confused like so many other children in his position are, especially during that period. Whether it’s an African-American in an all white school, or vice versa, or any other race being singled out, eventually the child will feel out of place and question why he or she is so different.

Luckily, Jones moved on to high school at Bishop O’Connell, which was also a private school. But the difference was that it had a much richer and more diverse community.

“I was accepted to Bishop O’Connell on a basketball scholarship,” he says. “Like me, many other black kids were accepted for the same thing. I was surrounded by kids who were just like me and I began to make great friends. There were kids of many other races too.”

Jones is not the only one who has dealt with racial issues. For children it is especially hard to cope with. No one ever wants to be the outsider or the “different” one. Now living in New York City, Jones has no connection with the feelings he once had as a child.

“I admit at the time it was hard trying to find myself. I didn’t know where I belonged,” he says. “I felt so insecure and alone at times. It was really hard being a part of two immensely different worlds at the same time and not truly feeling comfortable in either. Now living where I do, I feel like I’ve found a nice balance for myself. I never feel like I don’t belong because honestly, in this city, everybody does.”

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