Briggs: Facing up to the past online

Last month I started a Facebook page as a way of making good on my talk about the importance of reaching out by digital means.

Facebook is one of a growing number of social networking sites where people post pictures and other information, often profession or hobbies, about themselves. My friends coached me about how to block stalkers and eliminate spam. My cousin warned me not to spew my inner feelings. But I wasn’t afraid.

Then my former classmates from a Catholic primary and middle school on the well-to-do side of Spokane, Wash., started asking via Facebook’s electronic magic to be my friends. I knew I had opened a door that I’d kept locked for almost 30 years. Since graduation from the eighth grade I walked away from this crowd, vowing to myself to outclass them, and running hard enough in my career and life to never have to look back.

Sherman Alexie, the Spokane and Coeur D’Alene author who is the same age as I am, has written about growing up 40 miles northeast of the city where I lived. He talks about a white border town high school where the only other Indian was the mascot. He talks about the pain of growing up poor. But for me, growing up more or less affluent didn’t make things any better.

Where I grew up, the affluence of my family and, for that matter, their whiteness, didn’t change the way I was made to feel at school. Nor did my academic achievement, which was top of the class in most areas. So was it because I was Indian? I don’t know that most of my classmates had any idea. All they knew was that I was different. 

I was a half-Indian child, raised in a single-parent family home after the death of my mother. It was a school of two-parent families, where mothers were home when most students got off the school bus. Their presence at the bus stops or in kitchen windows made me ache with grief over the loss of my mother. When she died, I lost not only my most important person, but also my mooring in my Yakama identity.

 I once thought that our generation would do so much better economically than our parents. But I don’t know anymore.

In my school, the diversity population amounted to one half-black child and me. It’s hard to imagine the lack of diversity now when, according to the 2005 U.S. Census report, nearly half the nation’s children under 5 are racial or ethnic minorities. When Barack Obama started his run for president two years ago, I would have sworn that the world I grew up in didn’t exist anymore.

In my case, in this school, there were differences in my physical appearance from the petite, pug-nosed Euro-American children that led to a pattern of years of name-calling, shunning and sexual harassment that would get the abuser fired in a corporate setting. I was called ugly, my name changed by even girlfriends to “pigs.” As I developed, the boys in classrooms called me “boom boom,” and in a final break one called my house to tell my father that I was easy. Easy? I didn’t go out on dates until I was in college. The kids who had been my friends in earlier grades stood by, letting it happen, complicit.

Everyone knows children are cruel. Up to this digital age, as long you moved out of the ZIP code where your parents live, it could end there.

But I, maybe foolishly, decided to create a Facebook page.

Almost immediately, though I didn’t identify a history before college, a woman who in grade school had always been kind to me, then another who in some years I had called best friend. Then another classmate asked in the lingo of Facebook to be confirmed as “Friend.”

I squinted at the thumbnail picture of a man who I wouldn’t recognize on the street. Then I clicked Facebook’s “Ignore” button.

Then another former classmate sent a note. I clicked “Ignore” again.

I don’t mean to be all “Carrie” about this, I ranted to myself, but I’m not interested.

A day went by. Then another note: “hi kara, I have been trying to make contact with you for years. did I do or say something in the past I need to apologize for? mike.” [sic]

I read the man’s Facebook page. He was by no means the worst of my tormentors; he was only one in the crowd. By “employment,” he wrote: “In between jobs.” I’d be that myself right now if I hadn’t launched a consulting business. It made me start to think that maybe what is the same about us is bigger than what is different.

I once thought that our generation would do so much better economically than our parents. I thought my classmates, having the right race and right connections, would do better than me. But I don’t know anymore. The large houses in the staid wealthy neighborhoods of our childhoods are not attainable for many of us now.

A search of some of my former classmates’ Facebook pages shows that people have moved away from Spokane, undoubtedly many for the career and business opportunities elsewhere. They are certainly in the age group that bridges between elderly parents and children at home or in college. Now, with the economy in freefall, we – like everyone else past 40 – have to wonder if we can expect to receive the benefit from our 401(k)s, retirement funds and Social Security.

Maybe in this uncertainty, my former classmates take comfort in knowing each other, in posting our kindergarten class picture on Facebook, in the way I take comfort in the one friend I kept all these years. She is now a beer-swilling, Harley-riding, fiercely working class, white lady. On the surface, I don’t have much in common with her either, except that neither of us has much interest in looking backwards.

But Mike’s e-mail reminded me of my childhood Catholic education. “Contrition” is a Latin word for sincere apology. Another word I remember from my schooling at All Saints Primary and Middle Schools is “catharsis.” That’s a Greek word for a purging.

I suspect, Mike, that both are good for our souls. If you ask again to be my friend, I may surprise you and say yes.

Kara Briggs is a Yakama and Snohomish journalist. She is former president of the Native American Journalists Association. She has worked in several daily newspapers and has been a columnist for Indian Country Today since 2005. Reach her at briggskm@gmail.com.