The other side of privilege

Mrs. Shannon’s first-grade class with Michael Smerconish in center of middle row and Darryl Chatman to his left.

'White privilege is a topic that surfaced during the recent presidential election. In 1,000 words or less, describe how you understand the term white privilege. To what extent do you think this privilege exists? What impact do you think it has had in your life - whatever your racial or ethnic identity - and in our society more broadly?"

So reads this year's essay contest question sponsored by Team Westport, the diversity council in the eponymous gold-coast Connecticut town. The contest, open to local high school students, has received some backlash, so Team Westport felt obliged to issue a "fact sheet" replying to that which "stirred controversy and brought international attention," including:

9. Bottom Lines:

a. The essay topic is intended to allow Westport 9-12th grade students to write about what the challenge means to them.

b. It is not and should not be about what

i. Older people think

ii. People outside Westport think

iii. The press thinks

iv. Political groups think

c. The only voices that matter are those of the Westport student essayists

I've been thinking about what I'd say were I permitted to enter as an out-of-town adult. White privilege was not something I thought about while growing up in Doylestown Borough and being educated in the Central Bucks public schools.

I had one black friend at Doyle Elementary, Darryl Chatman. Darryl was steady, loyal, and compassionate. We were both in Mrs. Shannon's first- and second-grade classes; he was the only person of color in both.

In our first-grade class photo, we're standing next to each other, among 23 other classmates. Darryl is smiling and wearing a red turtleneck and sportcoat. We were not classmates in third or fourth grade but were reunited in Mrs. Bentrum's fifth-grade class. Once again, Darryl was the only nonwhite student.

We attended different junior highs but were back together in high school and ran in the same circles. In my Central Bucks West yearbook for the Class of 1980, I count 448 student photos, only six of them black, including Darryl. Despite his yearbook invitation scrawled over his picture ("So if you're ever out in California, give me a call"), we haven't stayed in touch.

Thirty-seven years later, I figured that call was overdue.

The immediate comfort of our conversation on a matter that so often divides was testament to a long-lost friendship. Today, Darryl is a service engineer for Toshiba based in Fort Lauderdale. He told me he previously worked for 24 years at Xerox. He has two adult children and thinks he will soon remarry. And he did indeed head to California after high school to take a shot as a rock-music drummer. He then returned east and lived in Atlanta for 16 years before relocating to Florida.

Darryl sounded confident and said he was happy. As we swapped stories, it became apparent that we each remember odd things about our childhood. I have a vague recollection of Mrs. Shannon having us to her house when we were in second grade so that her daughter could sketch us side-by-side for some type of celebration of diversity. I was sorry to hear from him that his father has passed, and he was surprised to hear that I recall his father's service in Vietnam because of a particular jacket he wore with a map of the Southeast Asian nation on the back. Darryl wanted to know if I remembered coming to a birthday party at his house in elementary school when we were the only boys surrounded by a room full of girls. (Sadly I do not!)

We have common ground in our political outlook. He spoke for both of us when he said: "Things went well with Obama. . . . They could've gone better if he'd had some help from the other side."

When I told him I didn't think about race in elementary school, the only African American in my class said he didn't either. "I thought it was a great place to grow up," he said wistfully of Doylestown. But I learned from him that things got more complicated as he grew older.

"There were only a handful of us [African American students in high school], and I got along with most everybody. But there were a few knuckleheads," he said.

I was sorry to learn that in senior year, during a welding class at the vocational tech school, a rich white kid lit Darryl's pants on fire "just because I was black."

"We were friends, but it was because I was black," he said of his antagonist without a hint of irony. "And that was pretty messed up. I was like, 'Wow, really?' "

He has found Fort Lauderdale a hospitable home due to the multitude of ethnic groups.

I read him the essay question about white privilege that caused a furor in Connecticut and asked his reaction.

"I would say there was a white privilege. And yes, I was aware," he said. "Everything that happened in the lives of everyone else was because of opportunities being more available. I could see it in school. But it didn't bother me or stop me from doing what I wanted to do. It was there. It was a part of something I had to live through."

"My parents taught me well," he said.

They did indeed.

Essays are due Feb. 27. First prize is $1,000. If Darryl could enter, I'm sure he'd win.

Michael Smerconish can be heard 9 a.m. to noon on SiriusXM's POTUS Channel 124. He hosts "Smerconish" at 9 a.m. Saturdays on CNN.