I remember that day. I was 13 and everything that comes along with it. A little awkward and a lot unsure. Those were the days of testing out my cool — the right words, the right clothes, the right friends. I spent a lot of time wrestling with an oversized image that I couldn’t quite fit. I wanted nothing more than an invitation to the in-crowd. A seat at someone’s popular table. That was my 13 …
So there I was, awkward and unsure in the school library with a crowd of equally awkward and unsure teenagers. We were tossing our images around with bravado, trying to mask the fact that we really had no idea how to navigate this thing called junior high. It was our social hour. Those sweet moments between classes where you try to get away with whatever you can before the bell rings. Images were born and destroyed in those 3 1/2 minutes.
“Hey, Jai! Look what Sean wrote on his Trapper Keeper!”
*Sean Harms was a grade older. Not my friend. I turned just in time to see him walking out of the library. Why would I care what was on his Trapper Keeper?
And then I saw it.
“GO BACK TO AFRICA.”
Oh. That’s why.
It was written in all caps. Angrily and with great conviction. And as a small crowd gathered around the table where the Trapper Keeper sat, the room went a little quiet. Eyes darted from the binder to me and back to the binder again before finally settling on me.
All I could do was look at the words. They shouted silently at me. “YOU ARE DIFFERENT! YOU DON’T BELONG.”
I remember wishing they would miraculously evaporate or turn into something else like “SCHOOL SUCKS!” or “I HATE MATH!” or ANYTHING that would make these eyes stop looking at me. My peers were waiting for an answer. No, I take that back. They were waiting for a reaction. A story to tell.
I, however, was utterly lost. I felt small and rejected and so incredibly different from all the white faces looking at me. My brown skin hid the hotness of my cheeks. My heart, thundering inside me, suddenly felt so raw and exposed. I had no idea what to do.
I was lost.
The bell rang. The crowd scattered. And at once it was over.
For them, at least.
Not for me. My mind revisited that moment often. I blamed myself for not being better. I thought of cruel comebacks, smart comebacks and funny comebacks. I have pictured myself throwing the Trapper Keeper across the room. Telling a teacher. Sobbing hysterically. ANYTHING but standing there lost in silence.
It was the same a year later when Edie Tygers looked at the wall poster of Martin Luther King, Jr., and said in disgust, “Who’s that black guy?” I wish I could have found the voice to tell her “that black guy” gave his life to make sure I would not be known as “that black girl.” But I couldn’t. I just stood there. Embarrassed and ashamed as if the error were mine to hold and own.
It was the same every time a kid called me Buckwheat. Or greasy. Words I tried to shrug off but still found lodged in my heart. They were like shards of glass reminding me of my different versus everyone else’s same. My black versus their white.
Race is a funny thing. It can be so dividing and so uniting at the same time. We argue for and against it with raised voices, pounding hearts and tears in our eyes. We construct our lives and our laws around it. We accept and reject it. It is yes and no. Good and evil. Right and wrong. It is hate speech on a 14-year-old’s binder, a peaceful 1963 march on Washington and everything in between.
It is 13-year-old silent, awkward, unsure me.
Then came college.
I chose a university where there were a lot of faces that looked like mine. To this day, I am still not sure whether the choice was a conscious one. But looking back, I know it was necessary. For the next four years, I nestled into a sea of brown, and for the first time realized there was more than one standard of beauty. Can I tell you how much I needed that? No, I CRAVED that. Being in that place gave me permission to grow into my own skin. To grow into my own self. And through it all, I found my voice. It was there — shaky, but very much alive.
That was years ago. I grew up. Along the way, I met a lot more Sean Harmses — some of them with white skin, and yes, some of them with brown skin. But I had my voice this time, and I could answer the Seans of this world. Sometimes shakily, but very much alive.
My life today is full of skin of all shades, and I love it. My husband is brown-haired and blue-eyed. My children are caramel-colored and curly-haired. My friends are brown and red and white and yellow. And every day, all of them give me courage to use my voice again and again.
So let’s rewind to 13-year-old me in the library. When I see her there, awkward and unsure, I feel a little achy inside. I understand now she’s just a kid in an impossible situation. I don’t blame her anymore. I want to tell her that hate on a binder can’t compare to love that can be found in the heart of just one person. That yes, she is different, but different is only that. I want to tell her it’s okay. But sometimes there really are no words … so I simply reach for her. And again, I am silent. But this time, I am able to rest in knowing the unsaid often speaks louder than anything else.
In the quiet, 37-year-old to 13-year-old, I know I am moving mountains.
I am growing up me.
*Names have been changed.
-Jai Wallace Tracy