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A refreshing meeting of the minds

The day started out with the same routine.

I stuffed my wallet, loose change and 1960s ideals into my pants pockets and set out to spend another eight to 10 hours making the world a better place.

I persist in that daily ritual even though it usually ends with me nursing bruises to my head and ego where I've slammed them against an unyielding brick wall.

Then I dump my wallet and loose change on a night table, check vital signs on my '60s ideals, and muster the fortitude to do the same thing the next day.

Once in a while though, amid the pessimism and disappointments, a sliver of hope pokes through. Sometimes, it is from the most unexpected quarters.

That's where Staci Corkum comes in.

Staci doesn't look especially like a sliver of hope. There's no golden glow surrounding her, no spotlight from the sky lighting her way. In fact, she looks a lot like the 22-year-old nursing student that she is.

If I had met her in a restaurant or on a sidewalk, we doubtlessly would have walked past each other and said nothing, probably not even acknowledged the other's existence _ unless one needed the other to move out of the way.

That's not an indictment of either of us; it's just a reflection of the habits we've learned.

Among all the things Staci might be _ including wife and mother of two children _ she is white. And were we to have passed on the street, that obvious feature might have precluded an acknowledgement of the other person.

But we met as captives. I was trapped in a St. Petersburg Junior College classroom full of composition and journalism students _ one disadvantage of being a writer is that people often ask you to discuss your trade. She was trapped by the requirement to be there.

My intention was to tell Staci and her classmates that a black reporter, like any other, has a responsibility to bring his or her perspective to the newsroom, to educate co-workers and readers on things that those without his attributes may not see.

En route to that point, I said the once-popular notion that the only difference between black people and white people is the color of their skin is fantasy, as true as saying color is the only difference between vanilla and chocolate ice cream.

"What are some of those differences?" Staci asked.

I tried to answer her anecdotally, by telling her that my great-great-grandfather's slave job was stud service. He was big and strong and caught on to tasks quickly, and those were valuable qualities to have in a worker. He apparently was _ to steal the dog-breeding term _ prepotent: He "threw" those qualities to his offspring.

He undoubtedly was required to breed with his offspring, to increase the odds of more big, strong, smart slaves.

I told her of the anguish of having that legacy, and the suspicions that those indiscriminate breeding practices are behind some physical defects that have plagued my generation.

I told her how, for the first half of this century, the black population was clustered overwhelmingly in the rural South, and remnants of the speech patterns and rhythms developed there still can be heard. I said I have an appreciation _ even a love _ for the feeling that speech captures and would like to see a time when we can use it in our newspapers and not fear that readers will judge the speaker stupid or illiterate.

Staci took issue with affirmative action, not understanding why she should suffer while a minority worker is promoted ahead of her. I suggested to her that many indicators seem to show that more black people are not hired, not promoted, because of race than are.

"We've gone so far to the extreme that we're not being fair either way," she said.

After the discussion, she said she understands the reasons behind affirmative action but still thinks it's unfair.

She said she has a better understanding of why some people "dwell on the past," something she said she could not understand before.

In the end, though, we hadn't solved any of the world's problems. We hadn't figured out how to atone the sins of our fathers without visiting the house of the sons. We hadn't found a way to appreciate differences rather than weigh them.

We hadn't resolved the resentment descendants of slaves feel toward descendants of masters.

In fact, we didn't answer any of the riddles that have forever stumped multiethnic societies.

But we did gain the courage to ask the questions. And we listened enough to know that the answers aren't easy, not nearly as easy as any of those guys who call themselves conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat, try to tell us.

But more than that, Staci Corkum, who has been out of Florida only once, and a man who has lugged his battered 1960s ideals around the world, appreciated the opportunity to meet each other.

We thanked each other for being there.

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