I've been thinking recently about my late paternal grandma, Kathleen Banks. She was a warm, jovial woman and an early role model for my love of the written word. She had been an English teacher and was a dedicated practitioner of personal correspondence, a lost art these days. When we'd spend time together, just the two of us, we'd take the bus to the Mankato library, where she'd return one stack of books and pick up another, often including something from the mysteries section. She enjoyed that genre on TV, too. She was later an eager fan of "Murder, She Wrote."
I never spoke with my grandma about politics or ideology; thus, I hesitate to evoke her memory in connection with the sordid matters of the day — but for a story that I think is worth sharing in the current environment.
When I was at an age I don't precisely remember — at least 9 but no older than 11 — I was at her house playing with another of her grandchildren, my cousin Katie, who was the same age as I was. Amid some disagreement I called Kate the "c" word. An atypical aggression, and I had no real idea what the word meant, but I could tell by her expression that I had said something seriously wrong.
She went to tell my grandma immediately, and the response was similar: not an explosive anger, but a cool and very even one, expressing in terse but certain terms that there would be no tolerance for my use of that word again. I had never before felt like a disappointment in my grandma's eyes, and I never would afterward.
But my education wasn't complete. In junior high school, which for me was a time filled with a self-loathing that sometimes spilled into my interactions with others, I discovered that one of my few qualities (as I saw it) was that I could write. I started making up stories — very juvenile ones — and sharing them with male classmates whose acceptance I craved. I got a few chuckles, which inspired me to make more. I didn't bother to fictionalize my characters.
Into one of these stories I placed some girls whose acceptance I also longed for (and indeed may already have had if only I had been able to see it). The tale I wrote was crude, and it found its way into their hands.
The response in this case, too, was cool and terse and even: that what I'd done was insulting and diminishing, and that they expected better of me — especially me. As a boy who usually modeled a higher standard of behavior, I was going to be held to it. This reckoning was followed by an open-ended but mercifully brief period of ostracization.
My purpose in sharing these memories isn't to unburden myself. I've made peace with childhood and the pockmarked road to maturity. The lesson, though, is that there were times when I needed girls and women to, point-blank, show me the way.
I went to high school in the early and mid-1980s, not in the same prep-school environment as U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh but roughly in his era. The yearbook memories that he described in congressional testimony last week as now making him cringe, and the drunken, lecherous behavior that he has vehemently denied — it's all plausible to me, wherever the truth lies in the specific allegations against him.
Kavanaugh argued Thursday that the spectacle of these allegations and of his nomination battle at large will ruin our country for decades to come, but I have some hope that it actually will change the up-and-coming generation in a way that previous generations (once mature) have aspired to but haven't sufficiently achieved.
The Supreme Court fight is about fitness to serve in a role of considerable power, and the larger #MeToo movement seeks accountability for power already ill-exploited, but in all of this there's a more basic message being sent to men. In its best iteration, it's not "shut up," and it's not "you must unquestioningly believe every accusation that you hear." It's simply: Listen. When the opportunity arises, learn. Because whatever any of us knows, and however wise we think we've become, we're always capable of understanding more.
David Banks is at David.Banks@startribune.com.