“You can’t sit here,” the little boy said as he looked down at me with his bright blue eyes.
You’d be right if you guessed that most people wouldn’t remember the first person to speak to them on their first day of first grade. Though I find that humiliation and realization tend to jog the memory. I don’t remember it clearly enough to tell what else was said to me that day, but the vision of a white boy hissing at my brown skin and kinky roots that grew into mountainous afro-puffs. I hear the bark of rejection as if it was a law to be obeyed. I remember the thick feeling in the back of my throat when I nodded politely and tried to find acceptance in a secluded corner. The thought of that day ushers the deflation of a battle to resist constantly being told you can’t sit here, you can’t play with us, you can’t do that, you can’t learn here black girl.
I also remember the next day. I remember walking into the same classroom and climbing into the empty seat next to that territorial boy. I ignored him when he repeated his favorite new favorite command. I took out my notebook. I practiced my addition. I know he watched me.
That boy was the first of many strangers who branded me with expectations and doubts until they were forced to know otherwise. That day was the beginning of a lifelong struggle against rejection for not fitting the norms in my neighborhood, my classroom, my state, the world. At birth, ‘black girl’ was written across my skin in ebony and along with all the devastating beauty and history that the mark delivered to my soul, it brought the cursed expectation that I would grow to project a folkloric balance of submission with seduction and idiocy with impudence. As I grew, I felt these expectations most when I walked into a classroom. It was because school was where I wanted to belong and where my love of learning transcended the boundaries of social expectation. Yet that was where the stereotypes assigned to my race and gender were most damning.
I spent my education in an environment where I was one of few black faces amongst a mass of students whose skin brought higher expectations. These were kids who scorned me because I was a discolored outsider and yet they were the only friends I had in my formative years. Regardless of the ostracism, I learned to speak with them, I learned to read with them, I learned to exist in the same ways they did. I was conditioned to want their privilege, to envy it, to dissect it until I found the difference between us that made them more worthy of high expectation. Unfortunately, for a painfully long time, I believed that my worth was decided by those deemed by society as the model by birthright, by gender, by race. For such a long time I was proud of every minute I spent learning to imitate white, wealthy students. Today I can’t help but be ashamed of how happy I became to be headed to the right side of the white side.
That belief system changed when I changed school districts from a charter school in one of the most affluent, homogeneous areas in my state to my public high school in one of our most diverse towns. It was a place where no one would ever say,“you can’t sit here” because of my race. For the first time, people looked like me in my classrooms. Yet ostracism reared its familiar face when it caught word of my defiance of the stereotype that was never countered in many of these students lives.
I remember that one day in ninth grade gym class a girl asked me, sincerely, if I was half white because of they way I spoke and much I liked school. I had grown up surrounded by kids who rejected me because of my color but they showed me that defiance of stereotype was a weapon that few knew how to combat. So while I cursed my upbringing for forcing me to sit stubbornly outside of the norm, while I hate the feeling of validation I craved and sought from my charter-school companions, while I wish that things could be different, I know it could be worse. I could have believed them when they said: “you can’t.”
Looking back on my educationCommonwealth Ave, where I live in an ivory tower with a much different tolerance for divergence, it aches to know I was lucky.
I’ve learned from my experience in education that there is no lasting safety in bending to the will of stereotype or those who assign them. In the past, I accepted that the rules of their world didn’t apply to my family of minority students in the crowded mazes of a diverse, underfunded school. Yet I didn’t learn until recently, until now, that discrepancy in race, gender, and social class close the doors that had been opened to my white peers and no amount of buttoned ties and “proper” speech would open them. Those doors have to be pushed, dismantled, set on fire. I’ve spent too much time waiting for someone to hand me a key. For so long, I forgot the little girl who wanted to sit wherever she wanted and knew that whether that white boy acknowledges it or not we were equals and I would sit at his table.