I crowded into the MARTA bus headed towards downtown Atlanta. I grabbed a seat as the bus filled up. A black lady in gray dress and heels got on and I noticed that there was no available seat, so I rose and moved towards the back giving her my seat. As I got situated near the rear door, I wrapped my arm around the rail of the bus and placed my feet appropriately to keep me steadied as the bus stopped and started along the rest of the trip to Central City Park. As I sat there I started looking at the man sitting near me and realized it was Mr. Olivares. He was heading to his job downtown. I had not seen him in years and initially he did not recognize me.
I had grown tremendously since I use to run through his living room alongside his children that were near my age – Paul and Vivian.
I met Paul in about third grade after his family emigrated from South America. The family included at least two youth near my age and included some older siblings as well. I don’t know what drew me to Paul initially. Through most of my elementary school experience, all the students were white. Despite going to school after integration, and during a program referred to as M to M transfer where the county would bus students to schools that were demographically different.
As best I recall, Paul was the first student from a different country or culture that I met, especially, someone speaking a different language – Spanish.
We became fast friends and began playing during recess together at school and soon I would start visiting his home and joining his family for dinner and he would visit ours as well. I began learning enough Spanish to get by as I visited his home or as I spent time among his siblings.
I guess it was my parent’s open and caring attitude about people that some Southern whites of this era may have held different attitudes about because of color, culture or faith that allowed me the freedom to reach out and not feel I was doing something out of the ordinary.
In fact, perhaps it was those early boundaries that my own parents’ faced as they overcame the “hillbilly” stereotypes as they migrated from Appalachia into the city and sought acceptance in Atlanta society that helped them later form the attitudes that shaped me.
So the fact that Paul was from somewhere else never fazed me as a child, it just made our time together of greater interest to me.
At some point, I lost my friend Paul, as his parents were able to move him from public school to private school.
I still remember the conversation when he asked me to see if my parents would consider moving me as well. We did discuss it but my folks stuck with the public school route, so our diverging paths forced us to focus on new friendships. Sadly, I had no need of speaking Spanish anymore until I reached my studies in high school and by then, it was like starting over completely.
It would be a while before Dresden Elementary would see another student that was not white; the next family would be Chinese from Hong Kong. In my grade was Nin Chung Szeto, and once again, I found another friend. In this case however, I didn’t learn Chinese, but in two years time, I certainly had an impact as I helped teach Nin Chung English. I am sure he was handicapped with my Southern accent for years. Like Paul, his path also diverged as his family moved west. We kept in touch by letters for some time but eventually the practice faded but I knew that Nin Chung, by then he had chosen the name John and was carving out his own future in America.
When the seat next to Mr. Olivares opened up, I sat down and re-introduced myself and explained that I was on my way to classes at Georgia State University. He caught me up on Paul and Vivian and his family. I asked him to pass my greetings to them and Mr. Olivares and I would regularly exchange greetings as we both commuted. It would be years later in a Winn Dixie grocery line when Paul and I would next meet. Now, both out of college and making our own lives, we were miles away from those young boys we were when our friendship started. Though we said we would get together sometime, we were in different places and did not follow through.
While the path that life had in store for Paul, John and I were not ones that would keep us connected, for me those youthful experiences enriched my life and allowed me to continue to expand my opportunities to know more about people I meet, whether from a world away or just down the street.