Long before the pink cinder block wall went up, and the balconies of the apartment house next door looked down into the squalor of our backyard, there was what had once been a bright blue picket fence, so weather beaten that when brushed against, its paint burst into plumes of powder. The fence did its best to separate our back yard from our neighbor, Mrs. Crawford, a pearly headed old woman who tended an abundant rhubarb garden that grew against the fence on her side. Every year, at Christmas, she brought us six jars of rhubarb preserves… magenta and green chunks aglow in a row of Mason jars on the window sill.
How quietly she tended her purple veined garden, never greeting us except with a silent nod, and never complaining about the wanton children that we were. Just as silently she died, and her still little house was sold. We never thought about her when we’d sneak over the fence to the sawdust scented construction site to steal the golden oak planed planks to make see-saws. My brothers collected the long heavy nails just for the joy of having such a forbidden thing in the pockets of their corduroy school uniform pants.
Then, one day, the picket fence was gone, replaced by the spindly, metal, Giacometti like girders of what would soon become a massive concrete wall between our two properties. As the workmen mixed the thick cement paste, I remembered the long roots of the rhubarb plants when Mrs. Crawford used to pull them up in the sunlight. My father seemed to like the wall, seeming almost proud of it…it was new and sturdy, like nothing else on our property, but, to me, it was an affront; an effort to keep us out – a high high wall, without any foot holds to climb.
Mrs. Brown, our neighbor on the other side, and owner of the neatly groomed courtyard apartments with the pansies all in a row, often complained about us, once even warning my mother that if she didn’t stop letting her children run wild, she would report her to the police for child neglect. And so we played, squabbled, accumulated scars, celebrated birthdays, ran through sprinklers, stepped on the occasional bee, sprained our wrists, made forts, and did the dirty job of growing up in our back yard, squeezed between two impenetrable forces: the thick cold wall and the glare of Mrs. Brown from behind the pretty lace curtains of her upstairs apartment.
“I will build a great wall-and nobody builds walls better than me-and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.” Donald Trump
“Sometimes you put walls up not to keep people out, but to see who cares enough to break them down.” Socrates
One of the best children’s stories about tolerance and coexistence is “The Sneetches” by Dr. Seuss. In a way that only Dr. Seuss can, this book points out the absurdity of intolerance in an allegorical style that children can easily understand, “Ronald, remember, when you are out walking, you walk past a Sneetch of that kind without talking.” (Dr. Seuss – The Sneetches)
Walls, whether they be brick and mortar or metaphorical are designed to keep out the other. It’s time to break down these walls that degrade, deride, and segregate us. It is time to build inclusivity, compassion, and understanding. It begins with the children.
Happy New Year