A conversation occasionally emerges here in Portland about whether political correctness is a virtue or a vice. One camp maintains that it’s important to always use inclusive, non-demeaning language when speaking to and about others. The other camp believes this approach only enables sneaky and inauthentic people’s true colors to remain unexposed. Proponents of this latter approach have been known to say, “If someone holds an ignorant, insulting opinion about me, I’d rather know it than have them hide behind their PC language.”
This debate got me thinking about Sarah Kendall.
Sarah Kendall was the daughter of the wealthy Kendall family who lived in Sharon, Massachusetts. Sarah was a year younger than I, and rather than attending public school with the rest of us, she went to boarding school during the school year. I first met her at her family’s annual Christmas party when I was 10 years old. They traditionally invited neighbors each Christmastime for a festive gathering. That year, we lived on Moosehill at the top of a rising slope outside of Sharon proper. Moosehill was home to Sharon’s Audobon Sanctuary and whaling museum, and to numerous homestead-type houses owned by the Kendall family, as well as one mansion-like house they themselves occupied. The Christmas party was held in this latter house.
The entire crowd of party-goers – probably 50 or more of us – fitted easily in what I thought of as their living room. Now I’d call it a ballroom with couches and a fireplace. I’d been told the Kendalls had a girl my age named Sarah. I don’t know what I expected, but I was convinced someone who was rich would appear rich in some way. Yet Sarah was as normal-looking a nine-year-old as I’d ever met, with straight, shoulder-length brown hair, brown eyes and an open face. She and I both played the flute – a fact we discovered because party-goers had been asked to bring an instrument to play. I’d brought my flute without thinking through the consequences, and once I realized that at some point sheet music would be passed out and said instruments played, I anxiety-stricken for much of the party. Sarah Kendall and I shared the music for We Three Kings of Orient Are and I played quietly, hoping everyone would think the flute they heard was both of us.
Several grownups, Sarah’s mother included, suggested that, since we were so close in age, perhaps Sarah and I should get together some time. I was not against this idea. I may even have called her once so my mother could feel I’d been polite and followed through on the suggestion. I didn’t not want to get to know Sarah. But I was perplexed about how to go about it. She’d looked like a normal kid, but she wasn’t. She was rich, and I didn’t know how to behave toward a rich person. It seemed to me that trying to befriend a rich person opened up more opportunities for faux pas than my usual brand of friendship contained. A friendship error equivalent to using the wrong fork at a fancy table seemed probable when one was friends with a rich person. I wasn’t sure how to navigate this social minefield, and so I didn’t pursue it.
Fast forward three years. I was 13 now and had moved away from Sharon at the beginning of that school year but was back visiting my dear friend, Tina, for a few days. Tina and I were hanging out in her room. Tina’s mom, Donna, was a professional flautist and the flute teacher in Sharon if you wanted the best. She’d been my teacher when I’d lived in Sharon. Donna told us, “Sarah Kendall is coming for her lesson in a few minutes so I’d like you two to decide where you’re going to be and then stay there during her lesson so you don’t interrupt us.”
“We’re good here,” Tina said. She turned to me and said, “Sarah Kendall.” I told her about the Christmas party.
“Let’s see if we can see her come in,” Tina suggested. We went to their den where you could look out into the street. A large car pulled up. A chauffeur sat at the wheel, complete with chauffeur cap and uniform. We watched the car. We talked about the situation, sneaking small glances at each other then back to the chauffeur-driven car. “Man, what’s it like to have so much money you have a chauffeur?” “How can a parent be so busy they have to have a chauffeur drive their kid to their music lesson?” “Do you suppose she ever even sees her parents?” “Does he have to take her wherever she wants to go, or do her parents decide?”
We waited, and waited, and Sarah didn’t emerge from the car. Now that we were in the den, the upstairs seemed a boring place to be during the music lesson. In fact, not only was it boring, it did not have a refrigerator. Tina said, “Let’s go down to the kitchen before she comes in so we can make a snack.”
I followed Tina down the stairs. As we skirted the flute lesson area, I was seized with nastiness. I said in my most snide tone, “Well, Sarah Kendall’s so rich she has to have a chauffeur drive her to her flute lesson.”
Tina snickered and we continued on to the kitchen to make snacks, our ears cocked, waiting to hear the doorbell that would signal Sarah’s entrance. Tina found bagels in the freezer and remembered I preferred pumpernickel. She handed one to me. Still no doorbell. She handed me a fork to pry my bagel in half and found some orange juice in the refrigerator. Still no doorbell.
Then wafting down from the flute lesson area, we heard the strains of a fourth-year flute student warming up with her scales.
Tina gaped at me. “Oh my god, she was already here.” She made a strangled sound. “She had to have heard you.”
I covered my own mouth, mortified beyond words. This was unprecedented. Usually, I was careful not to be heard when making less-than-kind comments except by those I knew wouldn’t judge me unkindly for it. This comment had been meant for Tina’s ears only. I didn’t know what to do if my comments were overheard – especially by the person they were about.
We sat at the kitchen table, staring at each other and not daring to even speak while the lesson commenced. The front door was on the other side of the kitchen wall, and I hoped that Sarah would simply leave without seeing me.
Fat chance. Instead, at the lesson’s end, flute in its case and sheet music in her hands, Sarah came into the kitchen accompanied by Donna. Sarah wore glasses now, as did I, and her hair had grown past her shoulders. “Girls, this is Sarah Kendall. Sarah says you and she have met, Katrina.”
I looked up. Sarah shifted her sheet music into her left hand, which also held her flute case, and extended her right hand to me. “Hello. We met at my family’s Christmas party a few years ago,” Sarah said. “It’s nice to see you again, Katrina.”
I took her hand and shook it. “Hi. Nice to see you, too.”
Sarah nodded to Tina, then said to Donna, “Thanks again, Mrs. Hieken. See you next week.”
When she left, Donna stood next to the kitchen table. She looked toward, but not at us, and said, “Sarah is a quality person. Truly one of the nicest people I know, and a pleasure to have as a student.”
Perhaps this painful moment is one of the reasons I fall into the pro-political correctness camp. I can think of no way it did Sarah any good to hear how I “really” felt about her. It could only have served to make her feel more isolated from her peers. And of course, I didn’t really even know Sarah. I wasn’t saying anything true about her, or even true about my feelings about her. My comment was simply a 13-year-old’s uncomfortable, ignorant snarkiness, uttered to impress Tina. And probably most of us make similarly cutting remarks into adulthood. How could it have done Sarah any good to have yet another experience to prove to her what I’m sure she already knew: that people have preconceptions about what it means for someone to be from the upper classes and some of those preconceptions aren’t very nice?
If, on the other hand, I had kept my mouth shut on the walk down to the kitchen – if I’d been PC about it – when Sarah came to say “hello” after her lesson, I could have just said “hi.” She could have made whatever she wanted out of that “hi,” and maybe she would have made something of it that would have been a comfort, that would have been a balm to her aloneness. Instead, because I was not especially thinking about political correctness, my humiliated “hi” on the heels of passing judgment on her because she rode in a chauffeur-driven car to her lesson could not have been mistaken for kindness in any universe.
My mother tells a story about something she overheard at the Christmas party. A brazen adult came up to Sarah Kendall and asked her, “How does it feel to be rich?”
Apparently Sarah said quietly, “I don’t know. It’s my parents who are rich. I myself am quite poor.”
I would have liked to know the Sarah Kendall who enjoyed playing the flute and who at age 9 already had a sense that she herself had not earned these riches. That Sarah Kendall sounds like someone worth knowing, whether she was driven by a chauffeur to her flute lessons or not. I hope to never be judged by something so small and not of my doing, and if I occasionally judge others on details so insignificant, I’d like to keep that to myself until I come to my senses. Maybe that’s what political correctness is for: putting forth a proscribed nicety until you remember that we are all so much more than the trappings we present.