High School

A large Black man yelled my name from across the crowded bar. 


I stood up to acknowledge my living existence.  One of only two white women at a birthday party for a co-worker, this was the last place in the world I expected to run into someone from my high school days, let alone someone who would recognize my teenage self through the extra pounds, graying hair and wrinkles.  

He walked closer and then took a few steps back.  My confusion and a hint of fear must have shown.

“You don’t recognize me do you?” he said.  

I tried hard to rewind my brain 38 years but I just couldn’t see anyone I knew in this man.

“It’s me!  Johnny Brown,” he said.

I rushed forward for a hug.

“OH MY GOD!  DOWNTOWN JOHNNY BROWN!” I said.  “Now I see you.”

But I never really knew him.  He was familiar to me mostly because he played basketball with some of the boys I knew.  And, of course, because he was one of only a handful of  black kids in a baby boomer graduating class of almost 1,000.  The boys had dubbed him “downtown” Johnny Brown which I assumed had something to do with his basketball prowess.  

He offered to buy me a drink and so I left my table of girlfriends and went to stand at the bar with him.  I mentioned that once in a while I still see some of the basketball players he knew.  

He said that he didn’t.  “Do you know what it was like for me to go to John Marshall High School?” he asked.  “I had never seen so many white people in one place before.”

 “I’m sorry,” was the only honest response I could come up with.  

I told him that it’s kind of funny since some of my old high school chums believed that we went to a really integrated school.  I guess for Wisconsin white kids in the early 70s, having a few dozen Black kids in the whole school was a new and memorable experience too.  We were so self-centered.  But then again, how could any of us know what it was like?  Even now, can I even glimpse the experience of my Black friends when I move through the world as member of the privileged majority?   The real privilege is that I don’t ever have to think about it.  

I had a flash back of what a charming and personable guy Johnny was, yet how afraid me and all my girlfriends were to be “too” nice to him.  We were terrified that our fathers would kill us if we had been encouraging to him and he did something as outrageous as call our homes or ask us to a dance.  

Johnny knew a lot about me.  He knew the name of my high school boyfriend and said that he was my first real love.  I made a scoffing noise at the thought of that relationship being some kind of legendary romance.  

He said that he had met my husband Tom many years ago at a job that they both hated.  I don’t remember Tom ever mentioning this to me.  

Then again, Johnny didn’t know anything about me at all.  He made an offending comment about my having been a housewife for the past 38 years. “I don’t even know a house wife!” I shot back.  He apologized but I wondered if he assumed that about all white women.

He told me about how he had only been “caught” once and had a daughter in her early 30s.  “She’s really smart,” he said.  “On the honor roll all through high school and graduated summa cum laude from college.”

And then he shared that he had been really smart in high school too.  He graduated when he was just 16.  I doubt that I ever knew that he was younger than the rest of us or that he got good grades.  

He told me about living in LA for a time and how glad he was to be back in Milwaukee and that he had his own computer business now.   

 “I’m not surprised you didn’t recognize me,” he said.  “I’m 300 pounds.”

“People think I’m fat,” he said, “but I’m not.”  And he put my hand on his rock hard python of a bicep.  

“And the ‘fro I used to have,” he said while pointing to the pony tail that held his severely thinned hair together.  “That was a perm!  My mom had to give me a perm so that I could rock that ‘fro.  Some of the white guys had better naturals than I did.”

When we exhausted our sparse shared memories, I politely excused myself and rejoined my friends at the table.  I could feel his gaze on me and I was glad that I had paid attention to select a flattering outfit that night.  

I stayed at the party longer than I intended, resisting the urge to ask him to dance the entire time.

 I regret it.  

(I wrote this back in 2012 when it happened. I post it today in honor of John whose memorial I attended today. RIP)


I was the best marketing director the Boys & Girls Clubs ever had.  I had bill boards all over town.  We had positive stories about the accomplishments of our kids and I’d gotten great media coverage when we opened a new branch.  I’d received multiple awards from the Boys & Girls Clubs of America for my work.  

In 1991, I got a call from one of the major networks.  Aha!  I thought.  That’s how good I am.  Now they’re calling me.  They told me that they were working on a documentary on education in America and wanted to talk to some teens about their experiences.  They specified that they didn’t want any of the honor roll type kids.  No youth of the year.  Just average kids.  They further specified that they wanted to do brief phone interviews with them without me in the room.

That should have been a red flag but I was so delirious with my own power that I agreed.  And no one at the Clubs questioned me.  They trusted me.

So, I lined up about six kids but the producers of the show told me that none of them were going to work out.  I told them that the only kid I had left who would be willing to talk with them was Eric, our youth of the year.   He was also president of his senior class at North Division High School.

Eric was a gregarious kid and a great spokesperson for the Clubs.  He loved the media attention and always showed up for an interview well dressed with a fresh fade hair cut. I could rely on him to testify to the importance of the role the Boys & Girls Clubs played in his central city neighborhood.   He became kind of our own local celebrity. 

I didn’t hear anything more about it until Eric called to confide in me that he had been asked to carry a hidden camera in his back pack at North Division High School.  Now I was worried.  This felt like trouble.  Trying to keep my panic at bay, I tried to caution him but he was excited to do it.  Eric insisted that he needed to do this because otherwise it would always just be his or any student’s word against a teacher’s word.  He wanted to make a difference.  He didn’t need anyone’s permission.  He was 18 years old.  

I called the producers.  Left a message.  Then called again every hour of the day. They clearly stopped talking to me.  

A few months later, the footage Eric collected was featured on Expose’.  It showed things like a teacher sitting at the front of the class while kids played dice in the back.  Not the kind of documentary I thought it would be.  And it wasn’t just Expose’.  The story was national news.  

The shit hit the fan.  The school superintendent was calling the head of the boys & girls club.  My colleagues at the branch where Eric was a member made sure that I knew about the pain and suffering this was causing his family. 

I almost lost my job.  To this day, I don’t understand why I didn’t.  I was responsible and I didn’t tell anyone what was happening.  My own arrogance at the time astounds me now.  

The producers said that they wanted to see what kids see.  I get that.  It’s valid.  We need to let the people who are impacted speak.  Tell their truth.  Powerful stories can lead to change.  But all that this story did was cost some teachers their jobs and make Eric and his family the target of the backlash in their own community.   His younger sister had to change schools.  She wasn’t safe at North Division High School. Eric moved out of state to go to college. The staff at the Club branch where Eric had been a member no longer welcomed me.  

The media didn’t care what happened to Eric after Expose.  He struggled for several years with mental health issues. On a visit home he sought me out.  He wanted to make sure that I knew he was okay.   It meant the world to me to know that in spite of the trauma, he had finished college and was successfully climbing the career ladder in the insurance industry.  He said that what happened wasn’t my fault and that he would do it again.  He wanted to make a difference.  And that he was still grateful to the Boys & Girls Clubs. 

A few years later, he was dead.  I was told that he was shot while protecting a woman from a man somewhere in Georgia.  There was no news coverage of the event in Milwaukee.  I learned about it from a colleague at the Clubs who had remained close to the family.  

When I tried to google him to create this story, wanting to make sure I had my facts right, the only thing I could find was the news reports about Expose, his life reduced to this one story.

This is the hardest story I’ve ever told. It’s a story about the harm caused in the wake of doing good.  I used Eric to proclaim the virtues of the Boys & Girls Clubs.  The media used him to tell the story they wanted to tell.  I question whether I honor him by telling his story or am I further exploiting him for my own benefit.  

I went on to have a long career in nonprofit organizations and storytelling.  I believe in giving a voice to the voiceless and that our stories of courage and resilience can inspire change and empathy.  But I’ve learned that my first loyalty must always be to the human being.  Not the story.  Not the organization. Not the media.  Not me.  

Talking to Kids about Race

This is my story about talking to kids about race over the generations.  It’s the story about a lot of small conversations.  It’s about the journey to unlearn racism that  never ends. I’m white and I grew up on the northwest side of Milwaukee.  I moved to Bay View as a young adult.  I have two sons and three grandsons, two of whom live nearby.

When I was very young I was at a shoe store at Capitol Court with my mom.  An African American man waited on us.  I had never seen anyone like him before and couldn’t stop staring.  I asked my mother out loud, “What is the matter with his face?”  My embarrassed mother whispered, “He’s just like us.  God just left some people in the oven a little longer.”  Hmm, I thought.  So he’s kind of like a burnt cookie.  Like me but somehow imperfect.

I wanted my conversations with my sons to be different.  I took them to Juneteenth day, Mitchell Street Sun Fair, Indian Summer and got them involved in the Boys & Girls Club where I worked.

When my oldest son Sam was in the 2nd grade, he had a homework assignment to do a presentation about his nationality.  We’re a bunch of things—Croation, Bohemian, and German—I was annoyed by having to pick just one and I didn’t like the idea of having the kids separate themselves by nationality and race.  So, I told Sam that we’re American.  Simple, I thought.  We discussed what we thought of as being American culture—hot dogs and hamburgers, baseball games and the 4th of July.  When he got home from school that day, Sam was really annoyed with me and said his teacher wanted to know if we’re native American and what tribe we belong to.  Not so simple.

When my younger son Ben was in the 2nd grade, his best buddies were two Mexican cousins.  We spent a lot of time with their families—school, soccer, church festivals.  One day, after spending time with their families, Ben asked me if he could “please, please, please be Mexican.”  Of course I had to say “no.”  It was hard to explain that we can’t choose what we are.  “We can’t be Mexican.  We can’t change our identity.”

When teenage Ben was riding in a car with an African American friend Jason, they got pulled over in Shorewood and were brought to the police station.  Ben swore they had done nothing and the police offered no explanation.  I talked to Ben about what happened.  He could drive a car through Shorewood  and no one would give him a second glance.  But it was different for Jason.  And I thought about what people mean in Milwaukee when they say “those neighborhoods,” the neighborhoods where “you’re not supposed to go.”  It depends on who you are.

Now I have conversations with my grandkids.

When Ezra was in 2nd grade, he told me that he didn’t like brown people  When I asked him why he said, “Kenny is mean.”

“Oh, so you don’t like Kenny,” I said.  “Are there any brown people in your school that you do like?”

“Oh, yes,” he said.  “I like to play with Trevor.”  “So that means you like some brown people.  What about Nathan?  He’s not brown and you don’t like him.”

“Yeah, I guess I like some brown people and I don’t like some white people.”  What I hoped he was learning was not to judge people by the color of their skin.

Just a few weeks ago I had a conversation with my grandson Noah who is a 6th grader.  He asked me why anyone would discriminate against people of color.  I explain that some people think that they’re different or not as good as white people.  “That’s crazy,” he said.

I still talk to my grown up sons about race.

After an incident at a soccer game that accelerated nearly to physical violence between adult spectators, Ben shared that he was sure that it was motivated by racism.  A Latina girl had accidentally knocked off a white girls glasses during the game.  We talked about how Latinos get stereotyped as aggressive.

At another kids soccer game, while the kids battled it out on the field, the adults of a Latino family were being targeted by the adults of an all white team with taunts like —“speak English.” The Latina mom understandably blew a fuse and unleashed a firestorm of cuss words which made everything worse.  Everyone stood around and gawked at the melt down spectacle, including me.  Finally, it was Ben who came up with a solution to the stalemate.  He simply invited the Latino family to move their lawn chairs and come and sit with us.

I was proud of him.  He may not have changed anyone’s mind that day, but he did something to intervene.  To demonstrate that not all white people feel the same.

People say that talk is cheap.  But so many of the big barriers in our society are built on conversations—the things people tell kids, or fail to tell kids.  People learn about race through conversations.  We learn who we are and who we aren’t.  We learn where to go and where not to go.

But conversation can help to tear down those barriers too.  I’m going to keep on talking with my kids and grandkids and I want them to keep talking to me.  We all need to keep talking.


Here’s a link to the live version told at an Ex Fabula Fellowship event in 2017.  http://wuwm.com/post/ex-fabula-difficult-conversations