Nineteen seventy-six was the year of the bicentennial graduate: Me.
It was also the year of The Hustle, Average White Band and the landmark song “American Pie,” which was played over and over again on the radio even though it had been released four years earlier. Disco music was on the rise, but not yet in the mainstream.
Nineteen seventy-six was also the midway mark of a decade that presented a world beyond my small-town view.
I attended a half-private, half-public high school in central Maine. The student population included day students (all white) from three surrounding small towns and boarding, or “dorm” students, as we called them, from away.
Our school also offered a fifth-year post-graduate program. The post-graduate program drew dozens of gifted athletes from the big cities. Six-foot-five black basketball stars from New York and Chicago graced our main street. They came to our school to play one more year of sports and to improve their grades before heading to college.
Our majority-white and Protestant 300-student population included black students, Puerto Rican students, one Jewish student and a student from Ethiopia who was sent to the United States to escape the 1973-74 revolution.
In the global village we call Portland, where I live now, there is nothing unusual about meeting people from all parts of the world. I work with people from Cambodia, Bosnia, Croatia, Iran and Burundi. Portland High School claims that 26 different languages are spoken and 41 different countries represented among its 1,000-member student body.
Now people move to Portland because of its diverse population. But in the mid-’70s in the middle of Maine, meeting a black person or a person from a different ethnic background was exceptionally rare and an opportunity to expand my horizons that I took full advantage of.
My first boyfriend was a Puerto Rican from New York City. Instantly, the music of Tito Puente replaced Carole King. The Hustle replaced the “slow dance.” Three-inch-high platforms replaced work boots. I bought my first blow dryer.
Instead of driving around in cars and listening to “Hotel California” and “Stairway to Heaven,” I spent my time perfecting the box step and learning how to do The Hustle. Silver Convention, Kool and the Gang, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes and Billy Preston guided me toward the light of dance, music and all things ethnic.
When I left Maine to attend Northeastern University, I assumed that the rainbow tribe I had helped build in my small town would help me continue to shine in the big-city atmosphere of Boston.
Instead, it became my fish-out-of-water phase. I was the only white person in my black studies class.
Undeterred, I somehow got myself invited to all-black parties. “Why are you here, short white girl with flaming red locks?” was what I imagined the other partygoers thought.
My teenage assumption of “we’re all one big happy diverse family” was replaced with the understanding that I had a lot to learn about being ethnic in America. For one thing, I was not ethnic.
Drawn to difference, I continued to seek out friendships with people from different backgrounds and different cultures. In the early ’80s, I became friends with a Chinese-American woman from San Francisco. She was the first person of Asian descent I had ever met.
Joni liked to remind me, when I asked questions about her family background, that she was a fifth-generation American.
“My relatives have been here longer than yours,” she would say.
As a full-grown adult, I now have a big-picture view of how groups group. Like tends to find like.
Hanging with Irish-Americans may feel familiar, but reaching beyond my clan continues to deliver a richer experience on this planet we call home.
Do The Hustle.
Written for Port City Post, Portland Press Herald, May 9, 2015