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‘Prodigal Son’ from SF’s Lowell High? Communication gaffes and forgiveness in a diverse world

Emil Photo Again Edited 61b7dabb61239

This past weekend, I attended my high school reunion, the exact number attached to said celebration shall be left out to protect the innocent.

All I will say, is that it was a round number, more than Miley Cyrus’ age. And less than the current U.S. debt ceiling ($16.7 trillion).

Aw, but who’s counting?

I went to Lowell High in San Francisco. Founded in 1856, it’s one of the best high schools—public or private—in the nation (No.43 in the U.S., No. 8 in California, according to U.S. News). In the Top 50, it’s also one of the largest high schools with 2,600 students (only Bronx High School of Science at 3,000 is larger).

But surprisingly it was more diverse in my day.

Take a gander at the breakdown on race and class. Asians are at 70 percent. Whites,14 percent, Latino, 8 percent.  Two or more, 5 percent. Blacks, just 2 percent.  American Indian, .01 percent.

Not many Native Americans, but to the school’s credit, it was the first to dump its use of the “Indian” mascot in the ‘70s.

The school makes up for racial diversity by excelling on class. This elite school isn’t just for the elite. Forty percent of the students come from economically disadvantaged families.

I thought of these things as I stood looking at the big “class panoramic” photo of the 1,100 or so in my 12th grade class. You can tell there were more blacks in my day by all the big Afro styles in the picture. My pal Mark Simeon could have been an AfroSheen model. He was smaller than me when we both played on the football team. But I refused to cut my shoulder length long hair and was benched. “Funny thing about big hair,” Mark said to me Saturday, “My hair was longer than yours, but it wasn’t straight, it just went up.”

My revenge came when everyone was hurt. The coach had to play me. And on my first touch as a tailback, I went 60 yards on a dive play for a touchdown.

But neither Mark nor I went on to play in the NFL.

Mark ultimately left California, to attend Morehouse College. And then went on to get his J.D. at Howard. He later became a defense lawyer in Durham, North Carolina. He also grew to be at least 6 inches taller than me.

As we talked, another lawyer, a partner with a big firm that represents Indian tribes, came up to chat. Let’s call him Jack.

I hadn’t seen Jack in 40 years. We were once very competitive in all things non-sports, and then when I went back East we lost touch.

At the reunion all was forgotten. We hugged and embraced as the good times demanded. And then we vowed to get together for lunch soon.

I genuinely looked forward to it. Still, you don’t see someone for 40 years, and not wonder—maybe you really don’t like them.

The very next day, Jack sent me a text to let him know when “the prodigal son” would come into the city.

Whoa. Now I’m religious enough to know the “prodigal son” is not necessarily a compliment. People throw the term around like they know what “prodigal” means. It doesn’t mean you’re a prodigy. It pertains to wastefulness.

The P.S. is the guy who got the early inheritance and squandered his wealth. Ended up living with swine. Comes crawling back for forgiveness to the father. Though there’s the dutiful older son who wonders why should Dad be so nice to the younger brother.

I texted Jack back to see if he preferred another metaphor since I wasn’t exactly begging for forgiveness.

I mean Jack’s white and Jewish, so he should know his biblical references. He’s also a lawyer who argues over words. I’m a word guy to whom words matter. And he’s calling me the “prodigal son”? Then where’s my early inheritance.

He texted back that he had just finished reading the definition and was dutifully mortified by his glibness. He apologized.

This is how misunderstandings occur in a diverse world—quite by accident.

Of course, I accepted the apology, and after getting a column out of his gaffe, I am ready to move on.

No need to wait for judgment day. Life’s too short for the next reunion.

Emil Guillermo writes on issues of race for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (  Like him at ; twitter@emilamok

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