St Croix River Road Ramblings

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Holding Hands

I belong to the Northwest Wisconsin Regional Writers group. We write a story on an assigned topic each month. The topic "Holding Hands" led to this reminicense.
************* HOLDING HANDS ************
Her name was Denise. She almost got John, Bill and I kicked out of the class we three disparagingly called “Touchy Feely 101 for Teachers.” We were the only guys in the class of 25 prospective teachers. It was required and we suffered greatly as we were prodded to “get in touch with our feelings.”
The previous session had us split into groups of 5, with each member of the group to play a role of a part of a machine. It was described to us that each of us would be part of the machine, making repetitious motions and sounds, interlocked as a group that would look like a flowing graceful sinuous machine from a distance. Sort of like a clock works with gears and pendulum all ticking together, each part critical to the whole, yet each part just a gear or lever of no consequence on its own.
John and Bill took their lead from me, believing the whole class was a lot of crap foisted on us by this woman professor off into women’s touchy feely land. The exercises were down right embarrassing as well as stupid. We guys formed our machine standing stiffly apart from each other, our machine actions being fists poking each other’s shoulders round and round. Denise and Flower didn’t like our machine and wouldn’t participate. They had been permanently assigned to this group with three uptight guys and didn’t like it at all.
Flower was a New York hippy with long hair on her head and legs, who didn’t believe in anti-perspirants or bras. She had unnerved us in earlier group activities as she had claimed that everything that we three had said or done was sexist or a reflection of uptight white male controlling behavior. In those early days of women’s lib it was easiest for a guy to shut up.
The two women tried in vain to get us to loosen up and be like the other all girl groups, forming sinuously, fluid, limb-entertwined machines of grace and beauty with more physical contact than I had had playing football, and without helmets, pads and protection. They looked like wriggling masses of Twister game players to me. I had hated that game too. When I wanted to entwine with one or more strange women, I didn’t care to have an audience, especially if we all were sober! And what would my wife think.
Denise complained to the professor who told us that we must get in the spirit of the exercises or we wouldn’t learn anything; and we would fail the class and never become teachers. I began to dislike Denise even though she did not come across as a male hater like Flower. Denise seemed more worried about getting a good grade and saw us guys and our faulty machine as obstacles to her progress.
Next week brought a lesson in developing trust in others. Long term honesty and trustworthy behavior brought long term trust opined the professor. “There are short cuts that can make trust happen rapidly” she said. “Your next exercise is to spend 30 minutes with another person in the class being led about the Madison campus blind folded; then reversing the roles for another 30 minutes. You must pair up with someone you don’t know or someone you dislike. Before I could pick someone, the prof came over and told Denise and I to partner up as she knew we didn’t get along.
Let me tell you a little about Denise. She was sort of average looking; the type you would call pretty if you liked her; slim, but obviously a woman. She dressed nicely at a time when grunge was in on the campus. Other than having complained about my failure to be a cog in the machine, I had not had other contact with her. Neither of us spoke much in class. I thought that her being black and talking with a southern accent was irrelevant to my dislike of her. Although I had not had much contact with black people in my life, as they were rare even at Madison, and since I harbored the same ill feelings for Flower, a white girl from New York I attributed my dislike to their insistence we guys had to make fools of ourselves to please the teacher rather than any racism.
Denise and I picked Thursday at 1:00 pm to 2:00 pm to be the time to do the exercise. We met at the student union. She brought a black narrow scarf to be the blindfold. I balked at it, saying that we could just close our eyes for 30 minutes; but she didn’t trust me to do it. We flipped a coin to see who was to be the leader first and she won. She tied the blindfold snugly with enough layers so I couldn’t see anything.
She tried giving me instructions as we walked down the sidewalk, across the busy street, over curbs and up steps together, but I stumbled and rambled in wrong directions until in frustration she took my hand. She had a warm, soft, dry hand that felt nice on the cool fall day. She held it like a mother holding her child’s hand. We continued on our walk, Denise giving instructions and warnings and after a few minutes I could follow her guidance almost wordlessly following her hand, tugging to speed up or slow down, raising or lowering to indicate a curb or stairs. I soon felt safe and comfortable in my blindness.
With no need for instructions, she began a conversation by asking me about my deciding to be a teacher. I told her about graduating 4 years earlier; protesting the War and becoming a CO; getting married and then deciding to try teaching when I felt I couldn’t handle the 5 years of graduate school that I had planned to become an astronomer before Viet Nam took over my future. I told her about working in a nursing home, meeting and marrying Margo and sort of drifting into deciding to try teaching. The 30 minutes was up quickly and we switched roles.
We continued to hold hands as I led her through the campus. I tried to lead her as gracefully and wordlessly as she had led me so we could continue our conversation. We were now holding each other’s hands, fingers entwined like old friends.
I asked her about her background. She came from Alabama; the first in her family to get to college; the oldest of many children, she came north to Madison on a scholarship having graduated from a crappy school system where all the whites had left to form private schools during the integration fights of the 60s. She desperately wanted to get through college and go back and teach in her home town. Being a teacher was the highest calling she could think of.
“How old are you?” I asked. “I will be 21 in December” she replied. “I will be 26 on December 10th .” I answered back. “Amazing!” said Denise, “my birthday is December 10th too!”
The time was up quickly and the blindfold came off. We walked back to the Union still holding hands, still talking. It was, we agreed, for each of us our first real contact with a member of each other’s race, a happy one that relieved us, at least this time, from worry about being unconscious racists. The professor smiled at us as we recounted the experiences. Most of the others had the same result. For the rest of the semester our group tasks went better as we cooperated with Denise and I leading the others.
I never ran into Denise after that semester. I left school to practice teach and then get a job. I am sure she is somewhere in Alabama, now a superintendent in a public school system. I like to think that on one or two December 10ths since that day in 1972 she remembered holding hands with an uptight guy who happened to be white.