Mahopac Shame

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I’m from Mahopac, N.Y. It’s a town located, oh, an hour from New York City. There’s a big lake, rolling hills, lots of green fields and lovely trails. I had a terrific boyhood there. I truly did. There were games of night tag, long walks to town for gum and a Coke, bike rides up Prince Road.

Lately, however, Mahopac has brought many great shame. Myself included.

In case you somehow missed the news, in the aftermath of a prep basketball game between Mahopac (mostly white) and Mt. Vernon (mostly African-American) on February 27, a bunch of students at my former school were suspended for unleashing racially-tinged Tweets about the opposing team—including the one pasted above. Another kid wrote, “tough loss boys, but at least we can talk to our dads about it.” According to a Mt. Vernon official, during post-game handshakes, one Mahopac player refused to engage, saying, “None of you ugly gorillas deserve it.” Then, in a follow-up report in the local paper, athletes and officials from other schools said that they, too, had heard racial taunts from Mahopacians. For me, the worst part was the reaction from many Mahopacians—not exactly a shrug of indifference, but a “Hey, our kids were provoked” or “Why aren’t people looking at both sides?” It’s infuriating. Absolutely infuriating. Once the racial line is crossed, any defense permanently erodes. You crossed a line that cannot be crossed. There is shame, and more shame.

As I read all this, the guy I felt bad for—truly, truly awful for—was Kevin Downes, who is not only the Mahopac High coach, but African-American. Kevin and I actually went to school together. He graduated when I was a junior, and I’ve followed (with great happiness) his success at the school. Then, earlier today, I learned that he decided to resign.

And my heart sank.

Being Jewish is not the same as being black. I can hide and blend in a predominantly white, predominantly Christian area, whereas an African-American person cannot. However, I do believe my experiences growing up in Mahopac were somewhat similar to Kevin’s—both in the good (quality schools, lovely neighborhoods, safety) and the bad. Back in the day, I had pennies thrown at me. I was referred to as a “Cheap Jew” repeatedly. In my yearbook, someone actually scribbled JEW JEW JEW JEW JEW all over a bunch of pages. I once had a teacher who made a joke about “burning Jews” during the Holocaust. My closest friend, who was African-American, had two crosses burned in his yard. He heard the n-word repeatedly. I still remember him walking up my street, some uncomfortable older neighbors staring. When I was, oh, 12 or 13, a petition on a nearby street was signed by myriad people. The cause: A black family was considering moving in.

Mahopac, I’ve long believed, has changed. People grow, and evolve. Times move forward. And yet, at the same time, I wonder how much. During the past two presidential elections, every “Obama is a socialist” and “Go back to Kenya” and “He’s not American” posting was from someone raised in my hometown. It was purely racial, and it took me back in time, to great awkwardness and discomfort.

Tonight, fresh out of a job he did very well, I’m guessing Kevin Downes, my classmate and friend, feels that awkwardness and discomfort.

It’s a horrible thing.