Times Past

‘I’ll be there to hug you’: Poetry of a 16-year-old reminds us to embrace ‘the other’

Rita Goehner, then 5 years old, courtesy of Rita’s Rainbows, a nonprofit that continues Rita’s good works at www.ritasrainbows.org.
Rita Goehner, then 5 years old, courtesy of Rita’s Rainbows, a nonprofit that continues Rita’s good works at www.ritasrainbows.org. Courtesy photo

Love selflessly...

dive into the unknown

all you have is today

care about people

who don’t care back

and hope that they will be okay

be yourself

and no one else

and know

if you feel as if you’re in an empty room

arms stretched out

I’ll be there to hug you

The poetry of then 16-year-old Rita Marie Goehner, written shortly before her tragic death in an automobile crash in 2006, teaches us a lot about living in November 2018. It seems to shout out for us not to be afraid of “the other.”

Liz knew Rita as a voracious reader and regular at the San Luis Obipso Library. From 1998 to 2004, one of her projects in Girl Scouts was to serve as “Book Drive Coordinator,” collecting children’s books for the library. Every year, she and her friends trekked in with bags after of books. Her mom, Cassy, always came along, grinning proudly.

Today, Rita’s Rainbows, a nonprofit founded by Cassy and Andy Goehner, helps children and teens in need – including buying really popular books for the 11 class book and pizza parties at our home every spring.

Along with our many book angel volunteers, Rita’s Rainbows helps kids “grow their own libraries” and “fit in” and strengthen the American mosaic.

Rita wrote, “I wanna make a difference, I want to affect people every day, I try to bring smiles in a world of frowns.”

Rita’s mother, Cassie Goehner, told us that Rita was home schooled partly because of the bullying that is common in our schools today.

What’s disturbing to us is that we are no longer shocked that a beautiful, talented and giving person like Rita would be bullied.

Bullying has always been a tragic part of human history, often with fatal consequences. The narrative of David and Goliath may be read as the “revenge of the little guy.” The winners take all mentality in the Americanization of California led to what amounted to genocide of Native Americans.

Between 1846 and 1873, 4,500 to 16,000 Native Americans were killed by people of European ancestry. Local governments from San Diego to Kern to Humboldt counties offered bounties for Indian scalps.

Thousands of Native American children were forcibly placed in “Indian Institutes,” like the Sherman Institute in Riverside, where they were forbidden to speak their native languages and died in large numbers from a variety of ailments.

In Arizona, some Navajo children were sent as far away as Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania. Some of them used the very language that our government tried to suppress to become the heroic Navajo Code Talkers in World War II. Serving on the front lines of the campaigns in the South Pacific, they were instrumental in our taking Iwo Jima.

Locally, we’re reminded of the experience of Grace Eto Shibata at San Luis Obispo High on Dec. 8, 1941. Students turned their backs on her, and many teachers were less then sympathetic. Grace’s mother, Taki, wisely said that Grace need not return to SLO High. When the family moved to Tulare County, children refused to give Grace a place to sit on the bus. Grace later named her daughter, Naomi, after a girl who eventually made room for and befriended her.

In bullying, as cartoonist Walt Kelly once said of Senator Joe McCarthy and his followers, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

When will it ever end? Coming to find joy in and discover ourselves in “the other” is a beginning.

For more information on Rita’s Rainbows, visit www.ritasrainbows.org

This column is by Liz and Dan Krieger. Liz is a retired children’s librarian, and Dan is Professor of History, Emeritus at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo. He is past President of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.
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