I watched, my heart thumping in my chest, as the group of boys slowly formed into a higgledy-piggledy starting line. I was there with him, vibrating with nerves (just as I always had when I too had stood on the start line so many times, so long before), disproportionately anxious that he should win. “Ready!” shouted the teacher, and my heart doubled its efforts. “Get set!” she called, and my legs trembled beneath me. “GO!” She dropped her arm, and they were off.
Twelve sets of feet skipped across the lush green grass of an uneven English field. Small bodies responded to the demand for speed, and almost immediately, my son began to pull away from the pack. Jumping up and down on the spot, I watched with joy and then dismay as he shot towards the finish line but was rapidly overtaken by a small boy moving at a speed far in excess of that which was fair. The usurper passed my offspring and blazed across the line, a smouldering line of scorched grass in his wake.
A few minutes later after ribbons and drinks had been handed around, I sat on the grass with my red-faced and slightly sweaty little trooper.
“I thought you were going to win!” I said, as cheerfully as I could manage.
“Yeah, me too.” he said, looking down and irritably pulling blades of grass out of the ground.
“Oh well.” I said, the soul of fatherly wisdom. “Sometimes there are just faster runners out there ready to surprise you.”
I’d already lost him. He’d spotted a friend across the field, and in a trice was up and away to greet him. I smiled. Kids.
Perhaps an hour later we were walking home after the afternoon’s activity and I wanted to make sure that second place hadn’t become a problem for my first born. “What was his name then?” I asked. “The little boy who won the race?”
Taken off guard, Anthony looked at me, puzzled. “Huh?”
Not in the mood to drag out the conversation any further, I tried to make it easy for him to remember what had happened. “What’s the little black boy’s name? The one who won the race?” Anthony stopped walking and looked at me, profound confusion written across his face. “Who daddy?” Mildly irritated, I tried again; “…the little black boy. He was really fast, wasn’t he?” My son looked at me as if he was dealing with an idiot. “Do you mean Eko?” “Is that his name? Eko?” Obviously still questioning my sanity, Anthony nodded. “Eko won the race, daddy, but…” and he shook his head as if to rid himself of an annoying insect; “…Eko isn’t black!”
He continued to walk home, leaving me to stare after him as the truth dawned on me. Anthony had no idea that his new friend Eko – his family having arrived from Ghana only weeks before – was different in any way. At five years old, he didn’t see the difference between himself and Eko (although Eko did have a troubling tendency to run very fast indeed). At the age of five, he was wiser than I.
I had just begun the ruination of that beautiful condition. With one clumsy question, I’d begun the construction of a difference between my son and his friend; one that until that moment he hadn’t been aware of – and in a perfect world would never need to be aware of.
I shared my experience with a black colleague and friend the next day. By the end of the story, we were both in tears. In different ways we had both witnessed a beautiful part of a human’s nature, and we were both intensely aware that it – just as Eko’s brown skin had been to Anthony – had hitherto been invisible and unknown. I’d ruined it.
So much of what our society teaches us could – or should - remain forever unknown…some things we need never become aware of.