The Day Thomas Leonard Came Back

We found him in the creek.

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He was crouching low over the water just like we were, looking for crawdads. It was June, the hottest, longest day of the year, and he was just there, like he’d been there the whole time, only he hadn’t. Not five minutes ago. Not one minute ago. We were certain we hadn’t seen him, and all of us agreed. Just this little boy. Dusty blonde hair, lots of freckles, striped red shirt, white shorts. He wasn’t wearing any shoes. We weren’t, either, so that didn’t feel too weird, but the fact that none of us had seen him there earlier, we just couldn’t shake how strange that was.

He said his name was Thomas Leonard, and that he lived in the big house on Morrison Street. We told him the only big house on Morrison Street was torn down two years ago to build condos. He said his mom would be missing him, and he was already late for dinner, and he should get along home before Marcus Welby. We didn’t know who that was. We let him walk away. What else were we supposed to do?

We didn’t realize this kid was THE Thomas Leonard. Every kid in our town knows the name Thomas Leonard. He’s the biggest, saddest secret, the scariest bedtime story. Or, he was. Thomas Leonard disappeared fifty years ago.

It happened like this.

One day, Thomas Leonard tells his mom that he wants to go to the creek and try to catch crawdads with his friend. His imaginary friend. He hasn’t had an imaginary friend all that long, and his mom thinks it’s weird that he’d make one up at his age, but apparently he’s always been a lonely kid. She’d hear him in his room all the time, by himself, but not acting like he was by himself.

“You can’t be G.I. Joe ‘cause I’m G.I. Joe. You gotta be Mickey Mouse.”

And then silence.

“Fine. I’ll be Mickey Mouse this time, but next time, I’m G.I. Joe. You’re awful mean sometimes.”

Stuff like that. See? He was a weird, lonely kid.

Anyway, he asks his mom if he can go play in the creek, and she says fine, go, but be home before dinner, and please remember to wear your shoes back this time. He says okay, and leaves the house at about 3:00 in the afternoon. He never comes home.

They only ever found his shoes.

Everything changed after Thomas Leonard disappeared. The town installed street lights, for one. And they built this huge bridge over the creek, just in case Thomas drowned in three inches of water. And no parent ever let their kid go to the creek alone, not even fifty years later. People remember things forever in this town.

We all thought it was silly, how we had to follow rules just because some dumb kid probably got lost in the woods, like, almost 40 years before we were even born. It’s not like they found any evidence that Thomas was kidnapped or murdered or something. But every time we saw a missing kid on the news, some parent in some house would say, “It reminds me of Thomas Leonard.”

No one ever talked about him out in the open, but this was the town that Thomas Leonard made. The street lights, the bridge, the rules. We heard this rumor once that his mother paid for all of it, out of some family inheritance or something.

She goes up to the mayor one day, after Thomas disappears, and she looks terrible. She looks like she hasn’t slept in a year, which would probably be about right, actually, and she says, “As long as I live, this will never, ever happen again.”

And the mayor looks at her and says we’ll try our best, and about a month later the street lights go up.

Thomas Leonard’s mother lived in this town until the day she died. She sold her house and moved into a little apartment above the antique shop. She stopped going out in public. And about a month before the evening we found him in the creek, she died.

“So sad,” everyone said. “But at least she’s with Thomas now.”

We saw the procession for her funeral. It was only, like, three cars.

But everything she paid for must have made a difference, because there hadn’t been so much as a sprained ankle at the creek in fifty years.

The day we found Thomas Leonard, we’d decided to go out one last time, before we got too old. Kind of like trick-or-treating. No one went to the creek after they turned fourteen. It was considered childish, something you only did if you weren’t cool enough to do something else. We weren’t really sure what that something else was, because hanging out in the grocery store parking lot smoking cigarettes and listening to music from your car radio just didn’t seem all that cool.

So we walked down to the town square, and around the corner to the picnic pavilion, past the swings and down the hill, over the train tracks and across the bridge. We’d only been there for an hour or so when we saw him, and we talked to him for less than five minutes before he walked away. Sure, we thought it was strange, but it wasn’t until about fifteen minutes later that we made the connection.

We got ourselves together as fast as we could and went in the direction we’d last seem him walking. We made our way back up the hill and into town, and we didn’t see him anywhere. And nothing seemed wrong. Like, we asked everybody we saw, and nobody had seen him. A couple of people actually yelled at us for playing such a terrible joke. We started to wonder if we were crazy, because it was impossible. No one disappears for fifty years and comes back looking exactly the same. No one disappears for fifty years and comes back, period. But we knew we’d seen him. We didn’t make it up.

We started to wonder, though, if someone had played a prank on us. So when we got home, we Googled his name. And there was his picture, clear as day. The boy we saw was definitely Thomas Leonard. Without a doubt. Same hair, same freckles. We tried to tell people, but no one would listen. We went to bed thinking we’d seen a ghost, and that it was probably the weirdest thing that would ever happen to us, and that maybe we didn’t want to go to the creek ever again.

And then, the next morning when we woke up, we saw the news. We couldn’t believe it. Who would believe it?

See, on the same evening that we found Thomas Leonard, on the longest day of the year, at the creek down the hill from town, Rebecca Bishop disappeared. She’d ridden her bike down there alone right after we left. We’d just missed her.

It’s been about three months, and they’ve only ever found her shoes. She’s the new biggest, saddest, scariest bedtime story.

Maybe fifty years from now we’ll go back. We might be crazy, but maybe we’ll do it. Maybe we’ll all still be here, in fifty years. We’ll be old. It’s so long, and we make promises to each other all the time we know we won’t really keep. But maybe we’ll keep this one, and we’ll be there, at the creek, waiting for her.

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I will never stop learning.

Here’s something I know: I am white.

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Here are a few things I also know, because I am white:

I have never had to change how I speak, dress, or do my hair for people to take me seriously and respect my intellect. I have never feared for my life during a police encounter, or worried that, should I be pulled over for a minor offense like speeding, I could be removed from my car and restrained, searched, or handcuffed for no stated reason. I have never questioned my place in society, my ability to access educational institutions, or how others see my humanity. I have never, ever been the minority in any room, ever. I have never been asked if I own my property. I have never been told to “act white.” No one has ever called the police on me for walking in a park, having a barbecue, selling bottled water, or playing with a toy in a public space. No one has ever asked me if my hair is real, and I can go to pretty much any stylist I want to get my hair done. No one has ever attacked me, hurt me, lied about me, or threatened me when I’ve shared my thoughts and stood up for what I believe in. There are no mechanisms of power currently in place to curtail my rights and opportunities in this society, and almost all of my elected leaders look like me. I know that I will be given the benefit of the doubt in my interactions with authorities and employers. I know I will never be treated poorly when moving into a “nice” neighborhood, and that an overwhelming majority of people living in that “nice” neighborhood will look like me. I know that my name will never be laughed at or questioned. I know my family’s name and history going back generations, because they were not stolen from my ancestors, and because my ancestors were not brought to this country in chains.

That’s a lot, right? And these are not things I know because they’ve been taught to me in school. I’ve not read them in books. These are things I know because I live in a society that looks at whiteness as standard, as normal and basic, and everything else as different and other, and, in the worst cases, as dangerous and threatening. These are things I’ve internalized, been born into, without even realizing it.

I’ve always considered myself a smart, curious person, and so it’s been humbling, humiliating, and eye-opening to realize just how much I don’t know about my own country’s history, and how much I didn’t truly understand about how people of color experience life here. As I’ve come to see just how many gaps I have in my knowledge, I’ve been doing a lot of reading (and a little bit of watching). There are lots of lists out there right now for people who want to learn. Here’s one, and another. Here’s one for children. And here’s one for movies, if that’s more your style. And one more. I don’t want to rehash these lists, and I certainly don’t think I can put together anything better, but I do want to share, because people have asked me, just what I’ve been reading and watching.

MEMOIRS AND NON-FICTION

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and Me

A memoir from father to son. Powerful, emotional, personal, eloquent. I’d wanted to read this one for a long time. I’m glad I finally did. I cried a lot.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Devastating, heartbreaking, and inspiring. I read this in college, about thirteen years ago. I felt like it was important to revisit it now, in this moment, with older eyes and more life experience. I was right. And, also, I cried a lot.

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for What People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo

White Fragility

Helpful, but humbling. It’s worth noting that this is written by a white person, and specifically targets a white audience.

White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson

White Rage

Shocking, eye-opening. I needed a drink once I finished this one. I couldn’t believe just how much I hadn’t learned in school. It made me angry, and then made me sad, and then made me resolve to keep learning.

ARTICLES

“The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates

“Now we have half-stepped away from our long centuries of despoilment, promising, ‘Never again.’ But still we are haunted. It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.”

“How I Discovered I am White” by renegademama

“In other words, it’s ‘white’ until further notice. It’s ‘white’ until proven otherwise. It’s ‘white’ or it’s the ‘other,’ and it has nothing to do with actual numbers, percentages of ‘minority’ population. It has to do with power. It has to do with the culture of power. What do I mean? If a comedy film features a white family, it’s a comedy. If it features a black family, it’s a comedy for people of color. Think about it.”

“It’s Time to Listen and Believe” by Ben R. Williams

“But when someone points to the iconography of the Civil War era and says, with heart-breaking honesty, that those symbols are a painful daily reminder of the horror that their ancestors endured? When someone says that many of these symbols were erected during the Civil Rights era to intimidate people like them and keep them in line?

My responsibility is to listen to them and believe them.

When someone tells you what hurts them, you don’t get to tell them they’re wrong.”

MOVIES

13th

This was so, so hard to watch. But is so, so important to watch. You think slavery is a thing of the past? This documentary will make you think again.

C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America

A mockumentary that plays with the idea that the Confederacy won the Civil War.

WHAT’S NEXT?

How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi

How to Be an Antiracist

I’m reading this one now, and I’m a little less than halfway through. So far, I’m struck by Kendi’s honesty, and this book feels very personal and intimate.

Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor by Layla F. Saad

Me and White Supremacy

This one was recommended to me by a friend. I’m intrigued and excited by the title and the premise. I’ll probably start on it next week.

The Pittsburgh Cycle by August Wilson

This is a collection of ten plays, each of which takes place in a different decade of the 20th century. I read all ten in college, and I think it’s time to reread them. They made a huge impact on me back then, and I expect they’ll do it all over again.

This is not a conclusive list, and I am not done. I won’t ever be done. I will keep learning, because even though I am sad, ashamed, and exhausted, it is my responsibility to educate myself and be better.

I’ve been encouraging others to do the same. It has not always gone well. It’s hard to hear that your people are the villains in someone’s story. It’s hard to see that your ancestors weren’t on the right side of history. It’s hard to contend with being part of systems you didn’t build and didn’t notice but have still benefitted from. I know that. I’m struggling with it, too. But it’s a necessary struggle, and it’s part of a necessary change that’s incredibly, tragically overdue.

Loving Day

I am still not a political person, but I am proud that Richard’s and my name is on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness, and the family that so many people, black or white, young or old, gay or straight seek in life. I support the freedom to marry for all. That’s what Loving, and loving, are all about.” –Mildred Loving

Today is Loving Day.  It commemorates the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized interracial marriage in this country.  The case was Loving v. Virginia.  The court issued its decision in 1967.  That’s only 53 years.

Today is also the day that Medgar Evers, a civil rights activist working in Mississippi, was assassinated. He was only 37.  He was a World War II veteran.  He was murdered in 1963.  That’s only 57 years.

Today also marks the anniversary of a mass shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.  49 people were killed, and it was deemed a terrorist attack by the US government.  It happened in 2016.

When I was in first grade, I had a boyfriend.  I don’t remember a lot about him, but I have a vivid memory of walking up and down the gym floor, holding his hand and smiling.  My skin is almost scary white.  If I were a condiment, I’d be mayonnaise.  My boyfriend was black.  We were “boyfriend and girlfriend” for less than a day, because later, after the hand-holding in the gym, someone told me that some people don’t like it when black people and white people are together, and they might be mean to me.  It scared me, and made me feel like I’d done something wrong.  This happened in Virginia, in 1992.

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When I was in high school, I was part of an amazing community theater.  It was just good fun to be up on a stage, in a costume, singing and dancing.  But even then, and especially looking back on it, I saw what inclusiveness, what love and listening, could mean to kids who were afraid to be themselves, because they’d been told by the churches in the area that who they were and what they wanted was something evil and abominable.  No one should ever be afraid that way.

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I’ve had trouble writing much of anything lately.  My heart and mind are not in it, and I feel like my (white, straight) voice is not the voice for this moment.  I don’t even know what to say, really.  These hurts are not in some faraway past.  They are now.  Ruby Bridges, the first child to desegregate an all-white school, is only 65-years-old.  George Floyd died a free citizen of this country, deserving of every single right and privilege that entails, with a knee on his neck in the street, pleading to breathe.  He was murdered on May 25th.  That’s less than a month ago.  The Trump administration has rolled back health protections for LGBTQ people.  It was announced today.

As we celebrate Loving Day today, I’m thinking of how far we still have to go here in the U.S. before we truly love all of our people, and before all citizens have the equal protection under the law that they deserve, and before all lives truly do matter.

I decided several years ago, when I started this blog, that I would try to stay away from politics.  I wanted to write about reading and writing and ideas and crazy adventures.  And I didn’t want to ruffle feathers.  I’ve spent a very large chunk of my life trying not to ruffle feathers, worrying about saying the wrong thing.  But I cannot stay silent, especially today, especially now, and sit complicit on the wrong side of history.  Make no mistake – what’s happening now is a fight for America’s soul, and it’s been going on for a long, long time.  This is not about politics.  This is about humanity.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” –The Declaration of Independence