May 09, 2005

Combating that cycle of fear-loathing harming us all

There was something odd about Matthew Fisher, I thought back in second-grade. He was a nice kid, yet nobody really got along with him - except for me.

Matthew possessed a good sense of humor and a boy's love of adventure that turns a cornfield into a jungle. If you dropped your books, he'd kneel and help you gather them together; if you forgot your lunch money, he'd share his fish sticks and cupcake with you.

Maybe it was his darker complexion, jet-black hair and slight squint, I surmised one day, but that didn't make sense. There were classmates with pointy chins, goofy big ears and blackened teeth who had more friends than Matthew.

We most enjoyed playing "Star Trek" together. The jungle gym became our starship. Matthew always wanted the role of Mr. Sulu, which I did consider a little odd but was fine by me so long as I, a Midwestern farm boy, got to play Captain Kirk.

Even in those days of learning basic multiplication and the world's continents, I had a hankering to write. After penning one space adventure, I let Matthew read it, knowing he'd be appreciative. He liked it and asked if I'd write another, this one about Mr. Sulu.

I scratched my head. Why would anybody read about anyone but Captain Kirk?


The original series of "Star Trek" had less to do with swashbuckling and special effects than politics, but there was just enough of the former to lure a kid who didn't know any better. At worst, the messages could be quite overt - about overpopulation, slavery and bush wars - but at its best, the themes were quite subtle.

Most notable was the bridge crew. Sure, an all-American boy from Iowa ran the ship. But surrounding him was an Asian helmsman, a black communications of-ficer, a half-alien science officer, and a Russian (our Cold War enemy!) navigator. On the decks below was a Southern doctor.

Considering this, hanging out with Matthew Fisher hardly was odd to me. On my favorite show, white people and Asians worked together as friends all the time.


Matthew's father had served in Vietnam in the late 1960s and married a woman from Saigon. When his tour of duty was up, she came with him stateside.

How out of place Matthew's mother must have felt in the middle of a small farming community settled generations before by Germans and a couple of Irish families, thousands of miles from her family homeland, from which only bad news spilled nightly out of Walter Cronkkite's anchored reports.

One autumn day in second-grade, a classmate suddenly parted from his friends, who stood behind some low shrubs, and accused Matthew's "people" of killing his uncle. Matthew just remained quiet, his pupils dilating just as did Captain Kirk's crew's when confronted by a monster. He tensed.

"That's stupid," I said. "His dad fought in the Army."

The accusatory boy smirked like a wolf that knows its prey is weakening and said, "He's even worse - a traitor to his own people!" Then the boy walked away, though later in the day some of his friends called me a "gook lover" when the teacher wasn't looking.


A few days ago, I met with members of the University of Iowa's American Sign Language Club to talk about the newspaper. I hadn't felt so uncomfortable in years.

Unbeknownst to me, many of the club's members were deaf. So, the club president said she'd sign. As she did, the majority of the club watched her - not me.

Having participated in de-bate and forensics through high school and college, let me tell you that there is nothing more disconcerting to a public speaker than the audience not making eye contact with you. That sense of being ignored, no matter how much you modulate your voice or gesture or try to make eye contact is disconcerting. I was thrown out of my realm.

And in retrospect, I'm quite glad for that.

They weren't ignoring me, of course. But knowing what it feels like to be the odd man out every once in a while never hurts any of us.


The night before, a new friend of mine walked across the Pentacrest to his classroom, where I was to give a presentation about newspapers and diversity. Hani asked me, "Why do some people have to put others down for their color or religion?"

"Fear," I said, a bit to his surprise.

Rewind back to second grade. After the confrontation with the boy who'd accused him of being a traitor and murderer, Matthew told me he hated him.

And all of these years later, I understand that in truth what was odd about Matthew: He was a boy of good conscience who fell into the trap.

(originally published May 9, 2004)

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