We are great, we like saying in this country, because of our differences, still how often during our current enlightenment has this started to sound less like a guiding principle than a marketing euphemism? Are we blessed or merely noble? Do we really know a good thing anymore, or are we afraid of not checking that box?
This goes for politicians of course, and for the journalists who might as well be, though more and more troubling is the sort of everyday eloquence about diversity that seems completely detached from experience. I can’t be that easy, right? Boy, you hear some poetry. My son comes home talking about Martin Luther King Jr. every January, and I’m sure I sort of cringe. Here, smack in the middle of our nation’s melting pot, he attends a public elementary school where approximately seventy percent of the student body shares his ethnic make-up – I swear it looks like the von Trapp family some mornings at drop-off. The closest public school to the south of us enrolls a population that is eighty percent black and Hispanic. Nine blocks separate these two institutions, and the pattern repeats itself up and down our particular district. This is nobody’s fault, goes the wisdom, unless you count the visionaries who gerrymandered such catchments thirty years ago, and yet exactly the right moment to begin to moderate these disparities never seems to roll around. Not this year. Maybe next. And in the meantime we grow more and more alike, all the while nostalgic for how different our ancestors used to be.
Here is the part where I’d like to tear us all away from our rationalizations with a children’s book – something soaring and biographical – but sorry. Instead I give you Marshall Armstrong is New to Our School – a brand new title by a brand new author and illustrator, David Mackintosh – that will probably be gone from the bookstore before you read this, and is not coincidentally a little stranger than it looks on its surface. With a tie and a briefcase and a porkpie hat, Marshall Armstrong will match nobody’s liberal conception of the disenfranchised, yet “Marshall Armstrong doesn’t fit in at our school. Not one bit,” notes the boy who sits next to him him in class, with candid – often catchy – fascination:
“Marshall Armstrong’s ear looks like a shell.”
“His freckles look like birdseed on his nose.”
“Marshall Armstrong’s arm is too close to mine. It is all white with red bumps on it. He says it’s because mosquitoes like him more than me. His watch doesn’t even have hands.”
Oh, we could skirt right over these and about a hundred other potentially extraneous details – Marshall Armstrong sitting with the medicine balls at recess, Marshall Armstrong playing a piano that he built with his father, Marshall Armstrong eating “space food” out of silver wrappers. We could jump straight to the point of him – “Marshall Armstrong is out of this world,” is how he is summarized on the book jacket, possibly on the publisher’s recommendation, possibly for the promise of aliens. We could put him in his neat little box - labeled “nerd,” labeled “freak,” labeled “help” – and get back to coaching or congratulating ourselves on acceptance, or we could marvel at the breadth and bewildering variations of human performance, and our singular good fortune at having landed a front row seat.