I can’t quite conjure up my earliest memory any more. I can go back to my sister’s birth in Austria in 79, which would put me at about five years old.
I remember the castle we lived in at the foot of the Rax mountains, and I remember the school that I went to before it burned to the ground after someone left a candle burning all night.
When our family left Austria in the early 80s, it was during my awakening, or so I call it. A time I can remember and which was formative for me.
Growing up as the son of missionaries working in Eastern Europe certainly left an impression deep in my heart, but moving to an Armenian neighborhood in Pasadena, California was a very different life than the one I was used to.
I was seven when we moved to the United States. I spoke fairly decent German and had grown up with all the customs and traditions of our host country, Austria, as well as those the missionaries brought back from the far corners of the world.
My parents sent me to a small private school, where it became immediately apparent that I was far better at socializing than studying.
I had been raised, up until this time, in a multicultural setting with no preconceived notions about any particular way of seeing other people.
There wasn’t a lot of diversity in Austria, necessarily, but our missionary castle at the foot of the Rax mountains was like a revolving door for people from so many different backgrounds.
I started first grade when I was halfway through my seventh year. Which means I was almost a year and a half older than all my classmates.
Of course this added a certain boldness to my behavior, which was already characterized by a lack of fear and a questioning nature born out of so many experiences from my childhood.
There were two classmates that stood out to me.
Her name was Arissa, and I think she was Iranian or possibly Armenian. She was dark-skinned and had these ridiculously olive-colored eyes.
I chased her on the playground, until the other kids started accusing us of being boyfriend and girlfriend, which I did nothing to try and convince them otherwise.
His name was Jamar, and he was a funny African American kid with the most awesome hair I’d ever felt, and I asked him if I could feel it often.
I’m a very tactile person.
Jamar and Arissa were the first two real friends I remember having. They were interesting, fun and completely accessible to me at school.
Jamar and I were hard to separate, even when I was chasing Arissa around the playground.
We did everything at school together, including standing in lunch line and reading the Bible for chapel.
I remember one day during a spelling test, I had turned and whispered something to him that made him laugh suddenly, and a stream of white snot shot out his nose and down his face.
It was fascinating to me, because he was so dark, that it contrasted perfectly with his skin.
We both lost control and started laughing, and we didn’t stop all the way to the principal’s office, where our parents were called, and we had to write sentences on the chalk board.
A few months later, Jamar and I were standing in the lunch line, and we were told to keep our chatter to a minimum. Of course we started one of our famous laughing sessions, and when Jamar fell on the floor laughing at one point, the principal, the aptly named Mr. Swift, pulled us both out of line by our ears and told us to wait around the corner for a paddling.
This would be my first school paddling but not my last.
When Mr. Swift questioned us about what happened, I suddenly felt very guilty, because I knew I had enjoyed trying to make Jamar laugh. I think I always wanted to see snot come out his nose again when he tried to hold in his laughter.
I told him that I had tried to get him to laugh, and that it was my fault.
Mr. Swift told Jamar to go get back and in line, and I was taken around the corner and told to reach over and grab my ankles.
Mr. Swift pulled out a ping pong paddle and swatted me very hard about five times. The whole time I was trying desperately not to laugh.
When I got back in line, I could see the worry on Jamar’s face, so I smiled at him, and when his face broke into his huge smile, I decided that using humor to get something out of him was doing neither of us any good.
I will always remember Jamar for several reasons. He was my first real friend. He was black. And he never saw me based on anything other than real friendship.
After second-grade, when I was king of the school, my father moved us away to the Pacific Northwest, a beautiful but far more homogenized experience than the Pasadena of my first and second years in school.
I started out at a private school for third grade when we moved to Salem, Oregon. I was no longer king of the school, and my two new best friends were a brother and sister raised by carob-eating, ultra-religious parents.
From there it was all downhill. I lost my mojo, so to speak. I lost my confidence, and by the time I was enrolled in a small country school called Cloverdale, for fourth grade, I was a nobody.
My friends at Cloverdale were all rural white kids, many of whom had never traveled outside the county, let alone the state or the country.
I quickly fell into a sense of boredom that impacted my grades.
The only saving grace were the summer trips back to Europe that we would take with my parents, or the summers spent in Pacifica, California with my Ukrainian grandparents.
I was raised on culture and new traditions, and Oregon had very little to offer me.
When I reached middle school, I realized there was a black kid in our classes and in band with me, but he had been adopted by a white family, and the only difference between him and everyone else was the color of his skin.
It’s not that I found him boring, it’s that I wanted to be friends with people with different experiences than my own.
And I wasn’t finding it there.
By high school, I was so bored with my life, that I vowed to leave on graduation day and travel the world. I had dreams of becoming a merchant marine or doing any job that required travel.
I challenged the school principal when he told me that my grades were not good enough to graduate. I told him I would be living in the South Pacific in less than six months. He laughed and told me I’d be pumping gas.
He was right, or close to it. I was changing oil at a local garage six months after my class graduated, but I was saving up for my trip to Fiji.
After three months of living in Hawaii with a bunch of missionary kids from all over the world and traveling to Fiji with a smaller group, I found that I was happy again, no longer filled with that pent-up high school energy born out of seeing the same people in class day after day for four years.
I returned home, married my wife, and we set off for Hawaii again shortly after our first year of marriage. We worked with troubled Korean teenagers and served groups of people returning from all over the globe.
After we moved back to the mainland, we took trips back to Europe to work in places like Bosnia after the war there, and we spent some time in New Zealand.
We made friends from around the globe. We had friends from South Africa, Thailand, the Cook Islands, Palau, Germany, Madagascar and Siberia.
It was a wealth of experiences, and we soaked in as much of it as we could.
In between our travels, we would move back to Oregon, where we had our stable cadre of old friends who had settled down in the area. It was delightful to catch up with them when we returned home, but we thrived on the diversity and differences of those we met along our journey.
Eventually our luck and our money ran out, and we returned to Oregon on a more permanent basis. I worked, my wife worked, and we fell back into that pattern of predictability that we dreaded.
I went to school to study to be a journalist, and she worked to support me. When I graduated, I took a job at my hometown paper, because the alternative in Twin Falls, Idaho seemed even smaller to us.
After a year, I realized we had to leave Oregon, or we’d go crazy.
I took a job at a small paper in Missoula, Montana, which is a little slice of heaven in the Rocky Mountains.
I remember somewhere after our first year there, going to the local brewery for a beer with one of the pastors of our church there. He brought his son with him and he propped him up on a bar stool at the bar.
They’re cool with that in Montana.
The bar tender, a fellow by the name of Marcus, was one of the only African Americans I saw on a daily basis in Missoula.
The town sits just off the Flathead Reservation, so it doesn’t necessarily lack for diversity, but there are very few African Americans in the town not associated with the University of Montana.
Marcus was gracious about being the only black person most people ever saw.
My pastor’s kids piped up that day, “Dad, why is his skin so dark and his hair so curly?”
Marcus smiled and leaned in.
“Am I the first black person you’ve ever seen?”
The boy smiled and nodded, even while his father was arguing otherwise.
“Well, it’s the way I was made,” he said. “I’ve got more pigment in my skin than yours does, but inside we’re exactly the same. The same color organs and bones and blood.”
It was a profound and beautiful statement that still resonates with me today.
After a few years, I was laid off from the paper there, and we made our way to Anchorage, Alaska, which is surprisingly diverse.
I was happy to have an African American colleague and to know many wonderful Alaska Natives during my time there.
My daughter had a cute little African immigrant friend named Mumna, who would come to our driveway and yell out for Gabrielle to come and play with her. She was from a large Muslim family and wore a head covering, and her experiences soon became familiar to my daughter.
After another couple of years, we left Alaska for Chicago, Illinois. The frontier for the big city.
Hoping for even more diversity in friends and experiences, I found myself living in a white enclave in the Southwest Suburbs of Chicago. A largely Catholic population of Eastern European descent.
I’m happy to say my work life is full of a diversity of people from all different kinds of backgrounds, and that provides a richness to my life that has been lacking up until now.
But as a family, I’ve realized that our collective experiences still are limited.
I don’t have enough black friends. When I ran into one couple we had become friends with before they moved away to Detroit, we hugged as if we had known each other forever, and it made me feel good, but I miss their input in my life and learning from their experiences.
After watching what happened in Ferguson and the reaction to the police killing in New York recently, I’ve come to the conclusion that my life and the lives of my children are infinitely improved by the diversity of relationships that we have.
When our bubble reflects our own color and our own experiences back at us, we cannot even pretend to understand what it’s like for others out there.
For the first time in my life, I have a diversity of friends from many different backgrounds. I have transgendered friends and Jewish friends and Asian friends and black friends and Latino friends.
But these friends need to become friends with my wife and children, who don’t get the same level of interaction as I do.
Their lives need to be enriched by others as mine is.
Because this enrichment process is what breaks down the barriers to understanding between us.
I’m committing to diversify my friendships in 2015. I want to enrich my life even further, so that I might become a better person.
And wherever you are today, Jamar, I want to thank you for seeing nothing more than a smiling face when you looked at me. You taught me from my most impressionable age, that skin color is nothing more than a difference in pigment and that things like laughter and loyalty are universal.
And I want to challenge all of you, my friends and my readers, to diversify your friendships this year. Go out and invite new people into your life, because their experiences will only enrich yours.