When most of the people on the Norwegian ship Sky partied, swam or ate at endless buffets, I settled in at the ship’s library to do some reading.
The cruise earlier this year from Miami to three ports in the Bahamas was packed with activities and fun, but the nerd in me sought a quiet place to study and write. I wasn’t the only person seeking refuge. Not long after I sat down at a library table to read, two African-American boys entered to check out the library. They were brothers ages 12 and 8.
They were dressed alike and had short haircuts. The older boy wore horn-rim glasses like my brothers and I wore when we were that age.
These kids looked as nerdy as my brothers and I did. As it was for us and our children, any library was always an inviting, safe place.
I looked up when one of the boys said to the other, “There are a lot more books here than I thought there’d be.”
The other brother responded, “Yes, but not as many books as Dad has.”
That got my attention so I said hello and started to ask them questions. They were very smart kids. The older boy was in seventh grade. His brother was a third-grader.
It seemed incredibly cool to be speaking to a younger generation of African-Americans who were like me more than a thousand miles from home and aboard a multistory ship with thousands of multicultural, multinational passengers and crew. But as excited as I was to learn more about them, they were appropriately wary about me.
The older boy quickly asked why I was asking so many questions. He also responded that he would have to talk with his dad before he or his brother could say more.
They were clever kids with the right “stranger danger” concerns. I would’ve wanted my daughters to be as apprehensive.
I dug into my wallet and gave the oldest boy one of my business cards, showing that as a journalist I ask questions for a living. What intrigued me about the boys was knowing they were being raised by parents who had a library of books, and they demonstrated a great value for reading and education.
Talking to the boys made me recall the “Horatio Alger Exercise” used often in diversity training to help people understand that books and reading can greatly improve one’s future. But the pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps notion is affected by race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, education, and whether one’s parents are poor, middle- or upper-class.
Participants in the Horatio Alger Exercise line up shoulder-to-shoulder and take a step forward or backward in response to the trainer’s questions. They include:
If your ancestors ever learned that because of your race, skin color or ethnicity you were ugly or inferior, take one step back. If you turn on the television or open the front page of the paper and see people of your ethnicity or sexual orientation widely represented, please take one step forward.
If you have ever been called bad names because of your race, ethnicity, gender or skin color, take one step back. All those who went to school where the majority of teachers were of your race or ethnicity, take one step forward.
If you were ever told you must dress or act in a proper way because it reflected on your whole racial or ethnic group, take one step back. If as a child, your parents kept more than 40 books in your home, take one step forward.
All those who have a parent who completed college, take one step forward. All those who were raised in a rented apartment or house, take one step back.
The boys reminded me of the privileges parents afford children. We then pass on the advantages to our kids. The boys’ father joined them in the library.
I shook his hand, learned that he was a college-educated professional on vacation with his extended-family from Florida. I praised his sons and wished the family well, saying they helped make my vacation richer and more memorable.
Lewis W. Diuguid is a member of The Kansas City Star’s Editorial Board.