Harold's abduction took place in the final legs of a legendarily abysmal family vacation. After contending with a car breakdown that scuttled our plans to stay in our camper, leading to us tent camping out of my mom's Ford Escort instead, we had also dealt with a gas leak in Old Orchard Beach, Maine, our final destination. Then, on our return home, we stopped in Boston, where my dad ignored the guidebooks and parked on the street instead of in a secure parking garage.
When he returned to our car to feed the meter, he discovered that someone had smashed the back window and stolen a few items, including an Apple laptop case that my brother used to store his favorite items, such as a well-worn deck of cards, a variety of cassette tapes, and Harold.
This meant that we got to see an unexpected tourist location, as my dad put it: the inside of a police station. The police officer was no-nonsense and, when he leveled with us that we probably wouldn't get our items back, he seemed surprised by my little brother's tears.
"But what about Harold???" my brother wailed.
My dad asked if they had any leads. The police officer told us that a young Hispanic man had been spotted in that area that morning, tossing items pilfered from cars into an accomplice's pick-up truck. There was reason to believe it was the same ring that had been operating in that area of late, stealing items from cars. This would also explain why, when we parked, there was already broken window glass on the sidewalk.
With resignation, we slouched back to our car to complete our journey, trying to make ourselves feel better about it all by telling each other jokes about the awful trip.
A few months later, I wrote a humorous column about the vacation for the high school newspaper, lampooning it so hard it could have starred Chevy Chase. Describing the Boston theft, I referred to a "Puerto Rican with fast running shoes" making off with the loot. The completed column was one of the first humor pieces I'd had published, and I was proud.
That was, until my Language Arts student teacher, Miss Diaz, pulled me aside a few days later. She had the article in front of her and asked me to sit down. Then, she pointed to the paragraph about the robbery. Gently, she explained that what I'd written could be considered a negative stereotype of people of Latin descent.
Flummoxed, I told her that I'd based it on an actual description from the Boston Police. Well, except for the fast running shoes.
Miss Diaz nodded quietly, then told me that wouldn't be clear to readers because of the over-the-top tone of the piece. Instead, she said, it would more likely confirm negative views that people might already have about people from Puerto Rico. People with Hispanic names. People, I suddenly realized, like Miss Diaz herself.
In an instant, I went from being proud of my piece to being deeply ashamed of it. And I was equally confident that Miss Diaz, whose bright smile and enthusiasm made our L.A. classes seem special, would never see me the same way.
What must it have been like for Miss Diaz, teaching in my nearly homogenously white school? I'd heard rumors about exchange students finding threats written on their lockers, but Elenio, the Brazilian exchange student who stayed with family friends, never had it happen to him. Then again, he was a football player who instantly fit in with the popular crowd. He looked so much like Elvis that it had become his nickname. But what about Carolina from Venezuela, the quiet girl with severe straight bangs and acne? What was my school like for her?
As a chubby geek with glasses, I'd been picked on for my own essential traits. Still, I could only imagine a fraction of what they must have faced. There was so much I didn't know. Did Carolina cry in Miss Diaz's classroom during lunch?
And what about the kids who'd lived their whole lives here, but didn't fit the prevailing ethnicity? What about Dee and Gladys, African-American girls in my class? I was on good terms with them, but had I ever said anything accidentally prejudiced? How had I lived 16 years of life without thinking about that?
All I could do, in that moment, was apologize to Miss Diaz and assure her I wouldn't make another mistake like that. And while I wish I could say that was true, that I never again unconsciously used a stereotype or accidentally offended, I can say I've kept listening and learning. That's all you can ever really promise to do.
Thank you, Miss Diaz. And thank you, too, Harold, wherever you are.