Facing Racism Made Me Better, Not Bitter - Jackie Leno Grant
by Al Siebert, PhD
THRIVEnet Story of the Month - March 1998
Jackie Leno Grant spent her early years in a comfortable world, surrounded by family and friends. Moving to another town changed all that. As a Native American in a nearly all-white school in rural western Oregon, Jackie felt out of place. Her unfair treatment at school could have made her bitter and rebellious, but Jackie refused to let bitterness rule her life. Here is her story:
During the seventh grade, Jackie became aware of the racism around her. "It usually wasn't on the surface. But I became aware of people looking at me strangely, whispering about my family, expecting me to do something wrong," she says. "my parents were out of their element in Tillamook, too. They didn't make friends. There were no visitors in and out of the house."
Jackie's sense of loss was magnified when her beloved grandmother died. An important link to the loving, accepting world of her childhood was gone. At about the same time, Jackie's mother took a graveyard shift job at a local mill. Jackie found herself getting less attention at home.
During the next couple of years at school, Jackie recalls, "I completely lost my bearings. School was a joke. My teachers didn't seem to care, and I cared less. I only went to the classes where I didn't feel humiliated, like choir and writing class."
Trying to connect with someone who might help, Jackie visited the guidance counselor and asked for information on trade schools. But the counselor stared at her and said, "School isn't for you. You're just going to get married and have a bunch of kids." The counselor's words devastated Jackie. "I'd been raised by people who had always told me, 'You can do whatever you want to do.' This was the first time I was told outright that I should not expect much out of life."
After that point, she says, "I hung out with my friends, smoked cigarettes, skipped school, and experimented with drugs."
Soon matters got even worse. One day, Jackie and some friends went to the local Dairy Queen for lunch and decided not to return to school. The next day they were called into the vice-principal's office. According to school policy, students caught skipping school for the first time were warned. The second time, they were suspended for three days. Jackie and her friends had never been caught before. The other kids in the group, who were all white, received the expected warning. Jackie was told to leave school and never come back.
"I asked my mom to call the school and see why I wasn't treated like the other kids," says Jackie. "But she wouldn't. I know she was worried about my behavior, but I also think it was because she didn't feel she was a part of that community. She didn't know how to assert herself there." Instead, Jackie's mother took her to see a juvenile counselor, saying, "I don't know what my daughter's doing. I can't control her."
"So," Jackie says, "I was made a ward of the court and sent to a reform school in Portland."
At the school, Jackie was housed in a cottage with fifteen other girls. "I was searched. My luggage was searched. We were locked in our rooms at night. There were bars on the windows. Alarms sounded if someone left the campus. Newcomers weren't allowed visitors for a month because we were considered runaway risks during that time."
Despite the institutional feel of the place, Jackie learned to like the school, where she found the housemothers and teachers "nice and caring." "I did a lot of observing and thinking there," she says. "As I watched the other girls, I realized that I had more good things in my life than most of them had. I had a sense of myself and where I came from. Although we hadn't always gotten along, I had people who loved me and had tried their best to take care of me. It was obvious at mail call time and visitors' day that many of the other girls had no one who cared at all."
Jackie began to think that she had arrived at the juvenile home for a reason. A surprising visitor convinced her that she was right. "The housemother called to say someone wanted to see me," says Jackie. "I walked out to see an ancient woman standing there. She said, 'You're Jacqueline Leno.' Then she looked at me for a long time and seemed so pleased. Finally, she stated, 'I knew your mother very well.' I was surprised. 'How do you know her?' I asked. She answered, 'This is the place where you were born.'"
Jackie's elderly visitor went on to explain that, years before, the school had been a home for unwed mothers. It was to this home that Jackie's mother had gone as a confused, pregnant, 15-year-old. The old woman, who had been an employee of the home, had taken a special interest in Jackie's young mother. "She spoke very fondly of my mom. Although she had retired years ago, she came back just to see me."
Learning that she had returned to the place of her birth filled Jackie with a sense of peace and purpose. "I knew I was completing a circle in my life, and I felt sure that things were falling into place for all the right reasons."
Jackie did well at the school, both academically and socially. After she had been there several months, a counselor called Jackie into her office. The counselor said, "Jackie, I just don't understand."
Jackie had wondered if she had somehow managed to get into trouble. "What is it?" she asked.
"You study hard," the counselor said. "You don't lose you temper. You never get into fights. You don't run away. Why are you here?"
"I skipped school," Jackie answered.
Within days, the counselor and teachers had come up with a plan for Jackie. The school's principal and English teacher had recently gotten married. The couple, Curt and Karen Prickett, volunteered to be Jackie's foster parents. She moved into their home, but continued to attend classes at the school. During her senior year, the Pricketts helped Jackie land a half-time job at the immigration service office in Portland.
"I couldn't have asked for better parents," Jackie says. "We had a terrific relationship. They let me use their extra car to go home and see my parents on weekends. They helped me develop my social skills. They loved to give parties, and they would tell me my job at the party was to 'mingle.' I did a lot of growing up living with them."
After graduating, Jackie moved back to Tillamook and worked as a waitress. "It was a very happy time of my life," she recalls. "I found that a lot of people in Tillamook remembered me. Some knew me just as 'that girl who got railroaded out of town.' But others remembered me for more positive things. I saw that I had more support in that town than I had realized. My own withdrawal had cut me off from people who would have helped me."
While working at the restaurant, Jackie met Steve Grant, a young man who was supporting himself as a carpenter as he worked his way through college. The two began dating. "Steve recognized in me abilities and drive that no one else had ever seen," she says. "He became my mentor, encouraging me to try college classes."
Hesitantly, Jackie enrolled for a summer term at a community college. Her placement-test scores were "horrible" in most areas. "I needed every remedial class that the college offered. But I wasn't at all discouraged by that," she explains. "As I look at it, I hadn't failed. I simply hadn't prepared adequately for college work, and now I was doing something about that."
Jackie continued taking classes until the school's Native American counselor approached her one day. He had observed her love for learning and encouraged her to enroll in a four-year college. "You're not sure what you want to do with your life, and a four-year degree will offer you many more choices." he told her. Jackie decided to trust his advice, and she and Steve both enrolled at Eastern Oregon State College, in LaGrande.
At the end of her first year at Eastern, Steve graduated with his bachelor's degree. The two felt the time was right to marry and begin a family, so Jackie left school. But eight years and three children later, Jackie decided to go back to college. She re-enrolled at Eastern Oregon and went to school for three solid years, including summers. She also held a part-time job in the school's Native American program.
After she earned her degree in psychology in 1989, Jackie became director of Eastern Oregon's Native American program. In that position, she advises the school's Native American and Native Alaskan students, teaching them to reach out and get the help they need from the educational system. She, Steve, and their children--Neesha, Joaquin, and Jack--open their home to the students she advised, often hosting potluck dinners.
Jackie Grant's ancestors walked a "Trail of Tears." While Jackie's trail has had it's own rough spots, her strong pride in her Native American heritage and the early lessons of her parents and grandparents have led her to achieve her personal goals. "They taught me that true satisfaction lies in doing your best, working your hardest, and reaching for the goals that you yourself have set, not those that anyone else has set for you," states Jackie. "I believed them when they told me that I could do whatever I wanted."
Adapted with permission from Everyday Heros, by Beth Johnson. Everyday Heros tells the inspiring stories of 20 men and women who have faced and overcome serious challenges in their lives. ISBN: 0-944210-26-0. For purchasing information contact Townsend Press, 1038 Industrial Drive, West Berlin, NJ 08091. Phone: 1-800-772-6410