The following chapter is excerpted from the autobiographical book, "The Gift." We will be sharing a new chapter in each issue.
The sad truth about bigotry is that most bigots either don’t realize that they are bigots, or they convince themselves that their bigotry is perfectly justified.
Wayne Gerald Trotman ~ British independent filmmaker
The Gilbert of my youth was a much different place than the suburban lifestyle of today. In 1956, it was a dusty little town famous for the amount of alfalfa grown in the surrounding farms. Gilbert was situated along the Southern Pacific railroad line amidst cotton and alfalfa fields. It was a southwestern version of a Norman Rockwell painting with cowboys, cattle, and cotton.
When we arrived, the town's population was about fifteen hundred people. Three separate and distinct communities comprised our little Arizona town. My family was part of a small, but growing, group of people who didn’t fit the existing demographic.
Roughly a third of the people came from Oklahoma to escape the dust bowl during the Great Depression of the 1930's. Another third were the Mormons who came in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. They came from either Utah or the Mexican state of Chihuahua. A few of the Mexican inhabitants of Gilbert were in the area long before there was a Gilbert and before the flood of white European immigrants arrived. Most of the Mexican people came to the area from Sonora, a northern state of Mexico. There were three distinct communities. They knew little about each other and weren't interested in learning more. As for black people, few lived in Gilbert or the surrounding countryside. The people who had once occupied the entire Salt River and Gila River Valleys were on their reservations and invisible. The original people were non-existent in my youth in mid-twentieth century Gilbert.
In racial terms, the Gilbert of the 1950’s was like every community in America. People expressed intolerance in racial, religious, as well as other differences. No group in Gilbert was exempt from the strange American past time of unbridled bigotry. Prejudice in mid-twentieth century America was unavoidable. The prejudice toward Mexican-Americans was paternal rather than the in-your-face pure hatred. It was the precursor to the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’ that unfortunately became the standard.
I started Gilbert Elementary in the first grade. Most of the bigotry directed toward me by kids and adults alike came in the form of polite avoidance. Blatant prejudice seldom happened, but it happened enough for me to become a master of hiding my real feelings. There was a boy my age that had a cleft lip and palate. To this day, it's uncomfortable to admit, but I stayed away from him. It was my own variation of polite avoidance.
When I was a boy, I wanted more than anything to walk into a room and not stand out in the crowd. I wanted more than anything to have friends and to fit in. My hope was someday people would not notice me. I would just be there enjoying the moment as a normal person. In the end, it would turn out to be a dream that was never meant to be. I learned early on in my life I had to ignore the continuous barrage of stares and the comments if I ever hoped to live a quasi-normal life. Even in my youth there were those who made it clear I was definitely not welcome.
I kind of understood the comments and stares from some of my classmates. When it came from adults, it was devastating. My third-grade teacher thought I was mentally challenged. She believed that because of my disfigured face I must have been lacking normal intelligence. My mother got involved in my defense, but to no avail. The teacher recommended I redo the third grade. I hated the feeling, even at nine-years-old, that I had no control. It was the first time an adult was blatant about my appearance and responded with unbelievable zealousness to put me in my place.
When I started high school I had envisioned following in the footsteps of my two older brothers. I intended to be a good student, an above average athlete, and most of all, I’d be popular. The reality of my high school experience was much different. For one thing, my grades were mediocre at best because I was too busy feeling sorry for myself. My atrophy and paralysis thwarted my athletic ambitions. As for being popular, I was much too busy being a nonconformist, the rebel without a clue. I was most comfortable going out with a few of the other high school misfits to drink beer and smoke cigarettes. It was the only thing I could do since I didn’t fit in with any other high school group. I was the quintessential nonconformist and pretended all the other stuff was of no importance. Yet deep down inside in a place I kept to myself, I would have given anything to fit in. When I look back at the way I acted in high school, I don't know how my mom and dad put up with all the stuff I put them through. I was so consumed in self-pity I barely noticed my father's life-threatening respiratory illness.
I had no idea how to deal with high school. I dealt with it the only way I could, by creating my own world full of barriers where no one could meet the real vulnerable me. I wasn't about to confide in anyone. I didn't trust anyone because it was my issue not theirs and I wasn't anyone's charity case!
I can't speak for everyone but, for me, being a teenager was just awful. Perhaps some of my misfortune was a self-fulfilling prophecy. I suppose no one ever knows about such matters, but I can tell you, for me, it was not what I expected.
I remember thinking I had only one life and when it's over, it’s over. Why do I have to have such an ugly face? I hated my face, and I loathed the stares that it seemed to engender. I resented the stares, the snickers, and being one of those weirdoes who didn’t fit in. I especially disliked those who felt sorry for me and treated me as though I was a caricature of a so-called “normal” person.
I floundered throughout much of my youth because of self-pity brought on by my facial difference. The fact of the matter is I chose to wallow in self-pity, but the truth is I had a choice. I didn't realize at the time nor did my parents, but I could have seen a counselor. I believe it would have settled me down inside. If I had a child who was different for any reason, he or she would receive counseling to develop coping skills to interact with people.
It was a silly notion but at the time I wasn't going to let people judge me by my face. The fact of the matter is everyone’s face is kind of hard to ignore for obvious reasons. Over the years and in spite of all the bumps and grinds, I've grown to like my face, even the parts that don't work. I was in my late forties before it dawned on me that my face, although banged up by life, was just fine and dandy. If only I had realized that years sooner.