March 08, 2012

Lasting Impact

I met my first black person in kindergarten.  To be honest, I don't even remember ever seeing a person that wasn't as lily white as me until that day that I walked into my new kindergarten class midway through the school year. I remember that it was "center time" when I walked into the room and all the kids were busy playing at the pretend kitchen, or doing crafts at the art center.  My eyes immediately went to the sand box.  First of all, I was shocked that my awesome new school had a sandbox in the classroom.  But more importantly, I was drawn like a magnet to the kids that were in the sandbox.

There they were.  Three kids.  My same age.  One of them looked a little like me-a girl with a long brownish- blond braid falling down her back.  The other two?  They were black.  I wasn't quite sure how to make sense of it.  When I look back on it, I wonder if we really just lived in a bubble or if I was just completely oblivious to the world around me until that moment.  Either way, I was completely mesmerized, confused, terrified, intrigued and drawn like  a moth to a flame to those children that looked like all the other kids I knew but who had skin that looked like chocolate.

I don't remember saying goodbye to my mom.  I don't remember meeting my teacher.  I do remember getting in that sandbox.  One of the brown kids introduced himself.  I think I told him my name.  Mostly, I'm sure, I just stared at him.  I remember that we were digging around in the sandbox together when our hands brushed each other under the surface of the sand.  I think that I was almost shocked when nothing happened to me.  This kid who didn't look like anyone else I knew touched me and nothing happened.  It was weird.  I'm not sure what I expected to happen, but the whole experience just left me completely dumbfounded.

You see, my parents never once talked about African Americans.  Not at all.  Not in a derogatory way.  Not in a positive way.  Just nothing.  I wasn't poisoned against black people, but I was so completely ignorant that I was scared when our hands brushed each other.  Ignorance is like a breeding ground for fear.  I stood up, brushed the sand off of me and went to a different center.  I never told my mom about it.  I wonder if it's because I was worried that I'd be in trouble.

I couldn't figure out as a kid why no one was talking about how people were different colors.  I assumed that by not talking about it, it meant that people who were different colors weren't good.  When I was in the fourth grade, there were two girls from Japan who were in our school while their dad was working on a special project at one of our local plants.  Those were the first Asian people I had ever seen- and y'all, I was 10.  But again, no one talked about it, so I though that meant that we were supposed to ignore those girls.  Those girls came into a new school and a whole new environment and hardly any of us reached out to them.  Not because we were mean children, but because we were ignorant.

When I got to middle school, our classes finally became more diverse.  But in all honesty, most of the races stayed in clusters amongst themselves.  The Latino children hung out with the other Latino children.  The African American children hung out with other African American children.  I thought nothing of hanging out with my other middle class white friends.  After all, there were no black people in my church, so black people must not want to be with white people either. My parents didn't have any black friends. I was on the swim team and there was not one single black person on our team (or any other team in KY for that matter). None of my boy crazy girlfriends had crushes on any boys that didn't have a skin color that matched their own.  In my mind, it just was what it was.  At the time it never occurred to me that maybe we just weren't creating an environment where everyone felt comfortable being together.

Then something happened to me in the eighth grade that was so profound I can remember it like it was yesterday.  I had this teacher named Mrs. Miller.  She was one of those teachers that you loved, but you were also a little bit afraid of.  She was the kind of teacher who ran a tight ship.  She was the kind of teacher who expected so much out of you that even the kids who didn't give a rip about school suddenly found themselves trying to rise to the occasion.  She demanded a yes ma'am and a no ma'am and I always thought that it was kind of funny that the "bad" boys in class who would address the other teachers as "bitch" would always give Mrs. Miller a yes ma'am when she asked them a question.  Mrs. Miller had a very predictable schedule in her eighth grade language arts class.  On Monday we always did vocabulary.  We got a list of 20 new words every Monday and we had to look up the words in the dictionary and write the definitions.  That's how I know it was a Monday on that day that is so etched into my being.

I was midway through my vocabulary lesson when there was a knock on the door.  Two grown African American men were at the door.  Mrs. Miller obviously wasn't expecting anyone and the whole class looked at her when the knock came. These men obviously didn't know that you were NOT supposed to interrupt Mrs. Miller's class.  In walked the two men and the always put together and proper Mrs. Miller practically skipped from her desk over to those men.  She stood on her tippy toes and hugged their necks so tight I wondered if their heads would pop off.  There was some chit chat and then I'm not sure how it came about, but Mrs. Miller introduced those boys as her "sons".  In all my life of no one talking about race and ignoring that fact that we all look a little different, here was my prim and proper teacher, the picture of a what a perfect, white, Southern woman should be telling me that these two black men were her sons.  In that instant, that teacher showed me more about race and tolerance and love than any other moment in my previous 13 years of people acting like it was an issue we could just push under the rug.

You see, Mrs. Miller and her husband were foster parents.  It wasn't something that I knew about them.  I knew that they had a biological son who was several years younger than me.  Those men that walked into her classroom were former foster kiddos of hers who were home from college visiting a women who had made a profound impact on their lives.  At 13, that was the first transracial relationship I ever saw.  And what I saw was love.  Pure joy and love and respect.  It didn't matter that some of the people in that family were white and some were black.   I never told her this, but something in me changed that day.  It wasn't like a light bulb went off and I had a dream for my family to be all different colors.  It was something smaller and more intangible.  It was tolerance and a desire to understand that at the root of it all, we are all just people.  I realized that day that the reason nothing happened when the boy brushed my hand in kindergarten was because he was just a kid and black wasn't a disease.  I'm ashamed that it took me so many years to figure that out.  Ignorance is not bliss.

Mrs. Miller taught us so much just by living her life out loud and not being ashamed.  She didn't introduce those men as her foster kids.  She introduced them as her sons.  But some things she taught us were more intentional.  I remember that she spent a whole week devoted to teaching us about disabilities (which probably had nothing to do with language arts, but meant infinitely more than vocabulary and sentence structure).  She made us feel like what it felt like to have to push yourself down the hall in a wheel chair, or how it looked to read a book when you had dyslexia, or how to walk around and make sense of your environment when we had our sight removed with a blindfold.  We watched movies about people with mental disabilities and mental illnesses. She took The Diary of Anne Frank and taught us lessons about hatred and religious persecution and the power of what happens when good men do nothing.

In a world where no one would talk about any of those things for fear of being taboo or looking racist, Mrs. Miller did it.  She did it with authority and with no apologies. At the time, I probably shrugged it off like any teenager who is too cool for school would, but those moments stuck with me.  The first time I ever kissed a black man or felt what African African hair feels like, that thought that we are all just people that Mrs. Miller ingrained in me was there on the surface.  The first time friends of mine from high school entered into interracial relationships, I didn't think they were bad people like so many others thought. The first time a girl in my class wore a hijab to school, I knew that being Muslim didn't make her scary and radical. The first time I saw a mom walking around in a store with her adopted Chinese daughter, I flashed back to those thoughts of Mrs. Miller's sons and how families can look any way you want them to.

Tolerance has to be taught.  If we aren't teaching our kids to accept people, they might not have a Mrs. Miller to step in and do it.  I often wonder how much longer I would have gone in life without someone having those tough conversations with me.  College, perhaps?  Maybe never.  I wonder if the whole trajectory of my life hinged on those lessons.  I wonder if having a family that looks like this...

...would have ever been a blip in my mind without having been shown that it was okay.  The point is, we never know who we are impacting with our actions and our words.  I know that Mrs. Miller could probably have never foreseen that her sons showing up at school one day to visit her would have planted a seed that nearly 20 years later would result in my family having a son from Africa and foster children on the way.  I'm so thankful that somewhere along the way in my life, someone had the courage to have those tough conversations about race and acceptance with a group of teenagers.  The reach and the impact we can each have on someone's life can make ripples we will never see or even hear about.  But those ripples are important.  They matter.  They show someone else down the line that acceptance is okay and that talking about hard things is GOOD.  If only everyone could have a Mrs. Miller... 


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