He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation.  He who chooses his plan for himself employs all his faculties. He must use observation to see, reasoning and judgment to foresee, activity to gather materials for his decision, discrimination to decide, and when he has decided, firmness and self-control to hold his deliberate decision. — John Stuart Mill – On Liberty

When I need to forget about life’s responsibilities for a time, I will watch with my wife some of the sitcoms she enjoys. Blackish, a widely acclaimed show focused upon the foibles and mishaps of trying to stay in tune with American black culture, has spawned the prequel Mixed-ish. Here we are taken back to the childhood of mixed-race Rainbow (or just “Bow,” the wife on Blackish) who started life in an idyllic commune, where supposedly race (among many other distinctions) was completely ignored. This wondrous paradise (with no flushing toilets?) was abruptly ended by an FBI raid, for undisclosed violations. The hippy-dippy white father and the now professional executive mother,  along with their three kids, are then forced to live in the strange world of 1980s suburbia.

Twelve-year old “Bow” doesn’t know which clique – white or black – she should try to engage, and is uncomfortable with having to make the decision at all. When a minor altercation breaks out between a white and a black girl over a notebook, Bow is asked by the teacher who started it.  She politely refuses to say. Both girls get detention, and now both sides hate her. She is reduced to eating her lunch in the girls room. On Bow’s next visit to the cafeteria to try to make friends, the white girl dumps spaghetti on her.

I was only half-watching, but now they had my full attention. I know precisely how someone like Bow would feel in that moment. Not about the race thing, mind you, but about rejection – sometimes public and humiliating – from one or more school cliques, if you don’t quite “fit in.”

I didn’t. “Fit in,” that is. My mother died when I was two, and my father rarely exercised much control over me – perhaps because when he looked at me he saw my mother.  (This was not without irony; my dad was a WWII Marine). I was free to roam all around our small town, camping in whatever woods I and my few neighborhood chums chose, fishing, swimming, building forts – you get the idea.  Think Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. When I was not outside roaming about, I would spend time with my Grandfather, who lived in his own quarters in the back of the farm house.  He was an Episcopal priest, a Harvard PhD., and the oldest man in town. My rainy days were often spent in the attic, where there were literally more books than in our local library.  Thus I became a bit of an eccentric, even for a child.

Then came junior high (as it was called back then) exposure to the youths of three other surrounding towns, and the need to demonstrate my skill at fisticuffs – in the boys room or across from the school.  Though slight of build I did on rare occasion win some of these contests, but never did gain full acceptance with any particular group.  I was no “jock” by any means.  The “nerds” thought me uncouth and rather rough around the edges.  And yes, like poor Bow, there were food fights.

Sanctuary for me was finally found among the “hippies,” who like Bow, were disgusted by forced conformity and social bullying. They were bemused by my oddities, and curious about them.  They were “different” too, but each in his own way.  I felt at home with them, just as I always have with the couple of friends I grew up with who have always accepted me.

So how did Bow resolve her dilemma, as must be done by the end of any sitcom show?  She retires to the girls room on the verge of tears, to clean the spaghetti off.  She discovers she is not alone – another girl appears from a stall and confesses that she eats alone in there, because the other kids make fun of the rice and beans her mother always packs for lunch.  The show ends triumphantly, as Bow and this girl ostentatiously drag a picnic table into the cafeteria from outside, and plunk themselves down. Within minutes, other obvious “misfits” join them.  All are welcome at this table.

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