Go ahead — ash'k a silly question
By MEL TARDY
Anybody in our neighborhood who thought he was tough hadn't yet played Ernest in football. Though younger than most of us by a couple years, he was strong and quick enough to shake any of us. Even if he we did get hands on him, though, nobody could really tackle his burly form alone — except maybe Leo or Tookie.
Our arena for "Ernest-ball" was a vacant lot next to his house. "Vacant" was just a manner of speaking. It was actually full of weeds, bricks and broken bottles. I suppose it was more vacant than some of the other lots. The main thing is, it suited Ernest just fine.
Juke, juke, whump, FWAP! Nothing is as disorienting as being flipped through the air.
"You wimp! Baby!"
I ignored them, trying to shake off the fall, but it's hard when you land back first on a stone. Besides, my pride hurt more than my back. Sure, I was on the ground, but I was the one trying to make the tackle! Chalk up another touchdown for Ernest. Guys, why couldn't we play touch instead? Nope. Had to be tackle. "Ernest-ball!"
Tackle football it was. Being a little guy, it was hard enough for me to avoid tacklers (and, I suppose, running backs), but rocks and broken bottles too? Still, if you wanted to play football, that "vacant" lot was where you had to play. If you found yourself going down, you just had to decide, "Should I land on a rock or broken glass?"
Picking teams was easy. First, you would pick Ernest. After that, you would always pick the ashy guys, like Tookie. Why? Ashy guys just always seemed tougher. In fact, if you ever saw a whole team of ashy guys, you could plan on losing. That's like fighting with an ugly guy. He's already ugly ... what's he got to lose?
My grandmother was always on "ash alert" with my brother, sister and me. We had to wear lotion, no matter what, and it was always cocoa butter. If we came over for a visit with dry elbows and knees, WHAM — out came the cocoa butter. In fact, she had this uncanny way of replenishing our home supply.
No sooner would we squeeze the last drop of lotion onto an elbow at home when Mom would say, "We got another package of cocoa butter from `Maw' today!" How she could be so accurate with her timing, I'll never know.
Even my first year at Notre Dame, many years after "Ernest-ball," my grandmother was on "ash alert." Sure enough, every couple of months I'd get that shipment of cocoa butter from hundreds of miles away. That was good too, because my first PE rotation was swimming. Talk about your ashy! If I ever forgot to bring that cocoa butter to PE — especially in the winter, I'd almost prefer skipping class to walking around ashy blue.
Now, my colleagues didn't understand ashy. They just jumped in the shower, blow-dried their hair (a topic for another day), got dressed and were good to go. Me? I had to get something on the elbows first. They didn't understand the ritual. Why couldn't I do that later? What the heck was "ashy," anyway?
It never dawned on me that some people didn't know ashy! I often thought, what a silly question. I'd look around to share the laugh with a fellow African American, but OOPS! Once again, I was the only one around.
Silly questions. How many times have we heard the phrase: "The only silly questions are the ones not asked!" Still, sometimes, that's more easily said than done.
Many of us in the racial or cultural minority are asked a lot of "silly questions," perhaps with no ill-intention from the curious questioner: "How do you comb hair like yours?" "What sport do you play?" "You mean you actually get a suntan?!" After dozens of such questions, even the most patient of us can get burned out. In fact, I know an African-American alumnus who swears that he, as a frustrated student, presented a "bill" to then-president Father Hesburgh for all the man-hours he put in "teaching" his classmates about Black folk!
On the other hand, who doesn't arrive to this Notre Dame community without some "silly questions" about unfamiliar others? After all, although on the verge of a new millennium, we still live in an essentially segregated country, with homogeneous school systems, neighborhoods, places of worship and the like. If this community can't ask the questions now, then when? If we don't answer, then who will?
How we deal with the "silly questions" can shape our definition of the "Notre Dame community." The natural course of dorm life is not enough. Discussions in neutral settings, with trained moderators, are also necessary to facilitate forthright discussion. In such settings, where the goals and objectives are obvious, people are less likely to get defensive and real progress can be made.
Some such programs ARE available to us. They are no good if no one uses them. It is unlikely that any such program will be perfect. In our country, however, it IS likely that each could be called a good beginning. By the way, the next time you go by one of those "vacant" lots with broken bricks and bottles strewn about, don't ignore it. Clean it up!
After all, somebody might want to play a little "Ernest-ball" there with some other little, ashy kids who can't tackle.
Mel Tardy, '86, '90, is an academic advisor for the First Year of Studies.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Viewpoint Stories for Monday, October 4, 1999