In high school, one of my junior year classmates was an exchange student from what was then West Germany. This young woman, Elisabeth, was a kind and quiet student who was well-liked by teachers and students.
One day, I offended her deeply.
Of course, I didn’t mean to. For some reason, a few of us were in a classroom, unsupervised, and we did what bored young students typically do: we talked and walked around, and a few of us stood at the chalkboard. In my teenage foolishness, I picked up a piece of chalk and started writing ignorant Cold War-era sentiments. The exact statement, I believe, was “Kill All Commies.” Such a charming young boy I was.
“Please erase that,” Elisabeth said, in a quavering but decisive voice. I looked at her, confused.
“I have family that are communist,” she said. By now her eyes were watering. “I do not hate them.”
I grabbed the eraser and furiously wiped the board and wished I could disappear. I apologized but she wouldn’t meet my eyes. The damage, as they say, was done.
Did I mention I attended a Christian high school?
Yes, I should have known better, but in many ways – and more than I card to admit – I was a product of my culture. The rah-rah patriotism and attitude of superiority and distrust of The Other and the nonchalance of violent sentiments was just part and parcel of being a young and arrogant Reagan-era boy. It took someone from another culture to show me how remarkably insensitive and monstrous some of my attitudes were.
It took many more years for me to outgrow those kind of attitudes, but I often think that evolution started that day. I was a chest-beating boor, and it hurt someone, probably deeply.
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