This Is Why I will Never Forget 1996

One of the most transformative and influential years of my life was 1996 – the year I transferred to a new school. I was in fourth grade, and I was nine years old. My school experience to this point could be easily defined as isolating and lonely. If it wasn’t for my buck teeth, weight, hairy legs, or connecting eyebrows, it was the way I walked (I’m a slew-footed queen). The girls in my class would mock and taunt whatever distinctive quality shined the brightest that day. So, the idea of going to a new school seemed like the pot of gold I was searching for. Not that anything about me had changed, but maybe all the vile and rotten children had been quarantined to my third grade class, and I would have an opportunity for a fresh start.

Despite my oozing optimism, my introduction at the new school was less than stellar. I entered my fourth grade classroom beaming with excitement with two pigtails and my crooked smile. Unfortunately, I was met with disappointed eyes and puzzled faces including the face of my teacher, which was cloaked in a cold grimace. I immediately stopped smiling. Maybe my teeth frightened them (I was still anxiously waiting braces). I stood up a little straighter and turned my feet forward. After adjusting, I surveyed the room again only to find the same puzzled faces staring back at me. After an awkward few minutes, my teacher welcomed me and showed me to my seat.

I quietly tried to catch up with the day’s task and refrained from asking any questions in an effort to avoid any additional attention. When the teacher announced it was lunch time, my optimism returned. This would be my chance!

Well, lunch was a bust. I ate alone. Before I knew it, lunch was over and my class was called to line up. While we waited for our teacher to arrive, I saw some of my classmates playing a hand game. I knew this was my in. I confidently walked over and asked to join. One of the guys in my class turned around and informed me that I couldn’t play because black people have rough hands. I was stunned. I’d endured taunts before, but this was different. Before this experience, I relied on a promised cosmetic transformation later in life that would serve as payback to all of my bullies.  However, being black wasn’t something I could change or knew to be ashamed of.

It wasn’t long before I discovered that I was the only girl of color, more specifically black girl, and one of three black students in the school. The statement made in line that day served as the onset of my experience with racism and prejudice. One of the most unsettling incidents occurred when a teacher addressed me in front of the entire class. While working independently, the teacher exclaimed that she felt like me the previous night because she was the only white woman in the room. She was a proclaimed evangelist and spent a few nights a week spreading “the gospel”. The night prior was her first time preaching in a jail to inmates. My teacher’s comment that day pained me.

Even at a young age, I understood that her statements were callous and abrasive. However, over time, as I have learned more about the black and brown experience in America, I’ve come to understand the layers present in her words. I’d originally gone to my new school expecting relief from the treatment I’d previously endured and walked into an even more isolating and troubling experience. At a young age, I learned that people will sometimes find things about you that they don’t like and sometimes the thing they hate about you is something that you can’t change or control. SO DON’T FALL INTO A TRAP OF CHANIGNG YOURSELF TO FIT EVERY ENVIRONMENT LIFE THRUST YOU INTO. HOLD ON TO WHO YOU ARE AND KNOW THAT YOUR BEAUTY IS BIRTHED FROM YOUR UNIQUE AND UNWAVERING QUALITIES.

LOVE,
ARY

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