Regardless of my theological doubts, I soon learned that being Jewish was more than a matter of religion. It was part of my cultural identity and if I momentarily forgot my Jewishness, certain members of the non-Jewish population would be there to remind me (as were so many Jews in Europe during the mid-twentieth century). My reminder came at recess one day, on the elementary school playground.
There were two grade seven classes and a bit of a rivalry had been building between us. On this particular morning, we were dismissed for recess several minutes after the other class. By the time I reached the wooden fort on the adventure playground, the boys from the other class were already immersed in a game of ball tag.
“Can I play?” I called up to the kids in the fort.
“No way,” yelled Greg, a cocky smile on his face. “You’re not one of us.”
There was a pause in the game, as some kids tried to figure out whether Greg was serious or joking. Since Greg and I were friends, I was assuming the latter.
But suddenly Mark stepped forward, sneering loudly, “Yeh, you’re Jewish! Go away!”
His words hit me like slap across the face. I had played at Mark’s house before. And he had played at my house too, watching T.V. together and eating my Mom’s homemade cookies. I felt betrayed.
A few kids stopped playing, recognizing that some sort of line had been crossed.
“That’s. . . that’s. . . not what I meant,” stammered Greg, suddenly looking confused. “I just meant that you’re in the other class. Anyway, I was only kidding.”
But Greg’s words were lost in the din of more aggressive voices.
“Yeh, get lost, Andrews! Jews can’t play with us!” hollered another boy.
Several other kids joined in, an ugly chorus of blind hatred that I didn’t understand (and still don’t fully understand today).
My heart was suddenly racing. Yet I just stood there, staring at all the other boys, unsure what to do next.
Just then, something unexpected happened. It was my old friend, Jeff. Since kindergarten, we had remained friends on and off again over the months and years of elementary school. We argued frequently – best friends one week, barely speaking to each other the next – as kids of that age were apt to do. Lately, our friendship was in an off-again phase, due to a major disagreement over who got to be David Starsky when riding our bicycles around the neighbourhood investigating imaginary crimes as undercover detectives Starsky and Hutch.
Our most recent disagreement notwithstanding, Jeff was suddenly there beside me, facing the other boys on the playground. Looking directly at Mark, he called, “If Ken can’t play with you, then I won’t play with you.” Then, turning to me, he said softly, “Let’s go.” And we walked away.
While the other boys continued playing ball tag, the two of us wandered aimlessly around the schoolgrounds for the few remaining minutes of recess. We never discussed the blatant declarations of anti-semitism I had just encountered. Jeff simply said to me, “Mark’s such a jerk.” And I nodded, extremely grateful for his support, saying nothing for fear I’d start crying if I tried to speak.
To this day, I believe Jeff’s actions constituted a genuine form of heroism. He didn’t chastise our peers with an eloquent condemnation of prejudice and discrimination. Yet in the face of peer pressure, he refused to be party to it. With friends on all sides, he stepped forward to make a stand for what was right.
By lunchtime, to my enormous relief, the entire incident seemed to have been forgotten by everyone else. Both Jeff and I joined in the noon-hour game of ball tag and the matter was never mentioned again. Yet I have never forgotten this incident, neither the sting of discrimination nor the lesson that – however cliché it may sound – one person really can make a difference.
By Ken Andrews, 2003
- Do you recall a moment of everyday heroism in your life? Please share your story or feedback in the comments section below.