Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Elementary Years

Raised in Louisville, KY.
Population: 597,337  Race breakdown:W(hite): 70%  B(lack): 22%  L(atino): 4% A(sian): 2%

I went to elementary school with a lot of black kiddos, a few black teachers, and one black principal. Mrs. Hodge-Trice, my 1st grade teacher, was my favorite teacher of all time. She was black. But I remember her most because at the end of each grading period she would buy a slew of toys and place them out on a table and, based on our work ethic in math activities, we were allowed to go select one. What kid doesn't like toys? Truly, human children are shallow creatures.

My principle, Mrs. Johnson, had the longest, most glamorously long legs and wore her hair in a highly-perched bun nearly every day. If I'm being honest, I thought Mrs. Johnson was the most beautiful woman I'd ever known up to that point.

I tell these stories because they said to me, while still color-blind, "Mrs. Hodge-Trice sure is nice. She likes me. I like her. She buys toys." and "Mrs. Johnson is who I want to be... she is smart, happy, and tall." (P.S. When I was in kindergarten, a girl on the bus said that I ought to check to find out if I was a midget... I mention this, because I have always been hopelessly short-legged and in elementary school particularly pip-squeak-like. Tall women made me salivate.). So, there really was no valuable take-away at the time outside of toys and height. But I do think visiting Mrs. Hodge-Trice every few years in her classroom all the way until she retired (The last time I returned with a fellow student, Rachel Jacobs, when we were young adults) sure was cool. And I think observing a black-AND-woman in a position of leadership as a child (principal may have well = God) had to have gone a long way. They were both ladies I admired and respected. And they are both black. That's not novel or all that unique. But it's a very special part of my story.

Hillary Jackson was one of my buddies at Chenoweth Elementary School. Maybe I was an idiot, but I don't think I did the best-friend-thing in elementary school. I had lots of girl pals. And Hillary was One Of My Girlfriends. Hillary is black. Things were honky dory until I remember that at recess one day during whatever-game-it-is-that-3rd-graders-play, I must have somehow left her out. Did I not tag her for re-entry into a freeze tag game? Not invite her to do clapping games? Not pick her for my kickball team? Or maybe a group of us kept her "it" too long without offering to switch out? I didn't know what I did then, and I do not know now. But Hillary knew. And she told me about it. Her words were something like, "You're going to be like that... I see," and stormed off. You have to know that I didn't do Be Like That. If I hung my hat on anything as a young tike, it was least-likely-to-get-into-trouble-or-cause-a-rift. I was the essence of innocence, compliance, and non-conflict. Basically, I was a weenie. And so, I was dumb-founded by this. The next day was science fair day and my stand-up presentation board was right next to Hillary's. So I approached her about her earlier words, wanting to understand. "You know what I'm talking about," she responded. I SWEAR I DID NOT KNOW WHAT SHE WAS TALKING ABOUT. What I do know is that although we remained friendly with one another for several more years, Hillary and I split up on that day. Something inexplicable was between us. And I let it happen, because I didn't know what else to do. I'm pretty sure I processed this out with my parents, because it bamboozled me so. I have NO CLUE what they said. None. But I, to this day, have a sad spot in my heart for having lost Hillary. And for her having lost me. It took a few years for me to reflect on this life event with any degree of clarity. But at some point I concluded that Hillary was noticing something that I had the priviledge not to
notice. She was noticing that we 4th graders were slowly ceasing to be colorblind. Perhaps her wordlessness surrounding it reflected that she hadn't quite put all of her observational pieces together yet either. But it was clear that she FELT it.

I tell this story, because it said to me, "Black kids notice stuff white kids don't." Even as I still assert
that Hillary's beef with me that day was most certainly something done unknowingly on my part, it still matters. It STILL matters. It still deserved examination. And discussion. I only wish there had been an opening to do so.

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