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An old friend came to visit me yesterday—an unusually cold day in Arizona, not even 70 degrees. We sat in my warm, cozy living room drinking tea, and we would have gossiped, but since she’s in a relationship and I’m not, she has grown kids and I don’t, and we run in different circles now, we have nothing to gossip about anymore. So I just listened as she put her cell phone on speaker and played the best of her wealthy ex-husband’s hateful messages:
1. “My son needs you to look after him! He doesn’t understand things like insurance and paying bills! That’s your job as his mother. He's only 23 for God's sake!”
2. “You need to get a better job! You’ve always been lazy! There’s no reason for you to work part-time now that the kids are old enough to take care of themselves.”
3. “All I hear from you is complain, complain, complain about that house you’re living in that I'm still paying for. I don’t want to hear about exposed wires or a leaky roof. Fix it! You come from a farm in Alabama; you should be glad you're not living in a trailer.”
After fifteen years of hearing this ass spew vitriol over the phone, I’m still taken aback every time I hear his most recent efforts to strip my friend of dignity and self-confidence. Her ex is 64 years old and showing no signs of going anywhere anytime soon, except on his next African safari.
Verbal vomit comes with my own territory of teaching, but at least I get fresh stuff from new people, not the same old abuse. Several years ago I had twins in my class, a bright young woman and her bright but sleepy brother. She wrote all of his papers for him, and I caught them. “You both just failed this class,” I said one day after everyone else had left. Their grumbled duet of the B word and F word provided a nice soundtrack to the scene where they backed out of the classroom sneering at me, invisible sabers slashing me to bits.
Of course, writers who put themselves out in the public eye also have to expect some level of backlash from those readers who can’t contain their loathing, right? Like in my case, if I write about a cockroach who skitters across the kitchen floor during an otherwise lovely dinner date—or the termites who would eat my home if I didn’t renew our pact every year—some reader somewhere is going to send me a comment calling me a filthy whore. And I’m not filthy.
Interestingly, sometimes writers themselves get caught up in lashing out at people or groups of people who don’t deserve the bad publicity. Case in point: Now that Tucson schools have banned a bunch of books and stopped offering a Mexican-American studies class, some writers are publically denouncing the entire state of Arizona and all the people who live here. Sherman Alexie is one of them: “I'm also strangely pleased that the folks of Arizona have officially announced their fear of an educated underclass,” he recently wrote in The Progressive. “You give those brown kids some books about brown folks and what happens? Those brown kids change the world.”
Arizona is not full of “racist folks” (another Alexie term). We have some of those, like any state does, but mainly we are full of people from all over the country and all over the world who have come here for a new and better life. That’s what I hear in my community college classrooms from the brown kids who have left the reservation, or Mexico…or any of the Midwestern kids who just want a tan in February. That’s what I see at my gym when the elderly members of our Silver Sneaker club come in for ice cream socials, yakking in their New Jersey and Alabama accents about core strength and stability. That’s what I know from living here for over twenty years, getting an education here myself, and spending lots of time and money exploring the forests up north, the desert wilderness down south, and…oh yeah…the Grand Canyon.
We are so much more than that ignorant group of people who canceled a much-needed class in Tucson. Nobody I know supports the cancellation of Mexican-American studies or the banning of any books, and I know a lot of people because remember: I’m a filthy whore.
The State of Arizona currently suffers from poor leadership, yes. We have a bad foreclosure problem on top of our immigration issues, yes. But we have these problems because so many people want to be here in the first place. Not only are we hosting the relatives of the world who want a free place to stay on vacation, we’re leading the way in all things immigration because it’s a fact of our daily lives: we have to. We’re not doing a perfect job, but we non-racist folks are trying and voting for better.
Don’t throw the good people of Arizona out with the bathwater. Keep the bathwater too—hey, we use that to water our lawns this time of year.