A TEACHER OF COLOR'S MOST MEMORABLE EXPERIENCE IN THE CLASSROOM
(EXCERPTED FROM HER BOOK ON RACE AND EDUCATION DUE OUT SOON)
BY: PAMELA LEWIS
Khloe was striking. Her skin was rich, the absolute last shade of brown on the color palette, and her eyes, the shape of almonds. She was absolutely stunning; however she hated her skin, and did her damnedest to hide her body from sight. Those ankle-length bubble coats that women wore were popular around this time, and Khloe wore hers all day long, using it more as a security blanket than for warmth. She wore the hood and often zippered the jacket up to her chin, hoping to become invisible. As disturbing as this image may be, it was the other ways in which she attempted to hide that were the most devastating to watch. Khloe created an armor of hate; she spewed obscenities that were unfathomable for a girl her age. At age eleven, she fought like a grown man. She intimidated every person she encountered, bullied her peers and her teachers, and had taken on a persona that pretty much said, “Fuck with me. Go head. I dare you.” She had even gone to the extent of creating self-inflicted insult figuring that if she had already done the job, there’d be no ammunition left for anyone else.
“I’m fat, black and ugly. I wish I could scrub my skin light,” she’d say almost laughing. I never found it funny.
“Your skin is beautiful, Khloe,” I constantly reminded her.
“You have to say that,” she scoffed. “You’re my teacher.”
“That’s easy for you to say. Ninety-nine problems but your skin ain’t one,” her nod to a Jay-Z song off his Black Album. She was right. I couldn’t relate. My life had been filled with complexion compliments and tress tributes. My “prettiness” was always in relation to hair and skin; it had little to do with my features. Skin and hair was all that mattered to my black community and I was considered lucky by all of my friends who coveted my color and my curls.
Being fortunate enough to grow up without such a devastating blow to my self- esteem allowed me to see beauty without a distorted sense of reality. Khloe, like so many little black girls, suffered from a warped perception of beauty similar to what girls who struggled with bulimia and anorexia experienced. Just as they could not look in the mirror without seeing themselves as fat no matter how thin they actually were, Khloe and millions of little girls in America and other countries in the world that were colonized and broken by white supremacy would be doomed to see ugly staring back at them in the mirror, despite how beautiful they truly were.
And so Khloe couldn’t fathom my truth. I truly believed her complexion was one of the prettiest I had ever seen. I could never be blatantly hurtful to a child, but I couldn’t lie either. God forbid she would’ve asked me if I thought she was fat, because she was on the hefty side. As Khloe got to know me, I think she realized that I wasn’t a liar, because she never asked.
As she began to trust me, our relationship eventually became a good one, despite her attempt to ruin it from the very beginning. Upon the first day of school, she had already decided that she would be the boss of the class, and started her shot calling as soon as she had sat down.
“I’m not sitting there,” she said in reference to her seat assignment.
“I’m not turning and talking to that nigga. He gets on my fucking nerves,” she spat when I asked her to ‘Think, Pair, Share.’
“Easy, breezy, lemon squeezie. You ain’t the boss of me!”
It was never-ending. If I didn’t keep reminding myself that she was only eleven years old, I would’ve punched her dead in the mouth. Khloe, like the parent who called me a bitch, were constant reminders of how close I was from letting my “ignant” side out, that is, the side that one develops subconsciously while growing up in a hostile environment. My classroom used to be a computer lab, of which the school no longer had, the door was made of metal, not wood, and the window in the door was a rectangular slither with a mesh metal gate. That meant no one outside could see or hear any of the crazy that went down in my room, and I used it to my advantage whenever necessary. When it came to Ms. Thang, having that door came in handy. Some call it unprofessional. Some in the DOE may have called it verbal abuse. I called it taking back my classroom.
Once I reintroduced myself as the HBIC of Room 303, (Google it), Khloe had a new-found respect for me, one that allowed me to get results from her that many could not. What I discovered was that she was brilliant. Sitting in a special education self-contained class, no one would ever know how creative she was. Her imagery was outstanding, and the girl could write poems that would’ve impressed Nikki Giovanni herself. She was a voracious reader, often taking out something from her own collection rather than the books I suggested from our classroom library. She read books not suited for child eyes, like Dutch by Teri Woods and The Coldest Winter Ever by Sistah Souljah, books that were definitely vivid and that captured the reader but were chock full of things that little girls shouldn’t read about like oral sex and flipping cocaine. I asked her mother if she knew that she was digging into her own reading material, only to discover that these books were indeed Khloe’s property, and that her mother had bought them for her because they were engaging and kept Khloe’s interest.
“As long as my baby is reading, you know what I’m saying, Ms. Jones?”
As much as I knew what she was saying, I still tried to turn Khloe onto books that were age-appropriate yet still tantalizing and she and I developed a strong bond. I realized that Khloe’s mental capacity to understand things, concepts beyond her years was astounding. She didn’t need to read about pimps and crackhouses to be stimulated though; America had plenty of jaw-dropping history that was mature in substance. She was ready to get the real, unadulterated truth about this country. She could learn and internalize matters that would normally go right over the head of someone her age. If Khloe wanted hardcore, she was going to get it.
“Today boys and girls, we are going to begin watching excerpts of a miniseries of videos called, “Roots” in conjunction with our slavery unit for social studies. It aired in the late 1970s as a television adaptation to a book by a man by the name of Alex Haley who claimed to have traced his family lineage all the way back to Africa and a man named Kunta Kente.” There had been reports that Mr. Haley had been found to have lied about it being his own family’s chronicled story, but I hadn’t cared enough to do a thorough investigation. I knew how the media loved to defame accomplished black men, and was suspicious of the accusation as it was. I had decided to play it anyway. Even if it was proven to be fabricated, I decided it was someone’s story. And for the purpose of my lesson, it wouldn’t matter. Slavery was real, and Roots was epic in its portrayal of it.
The class giggled over the idea of watching anything to do with people from Africa. But, we had some takers. And my number one sponge, as I had anticipated, was soaking up every word.
“Shhh ya’ll. This sounds interesting.”
I played Roots for days, weeks even. Even after our slavery unit was over, I found ways to continue playing it for other subjects, like writing. When we covered supporting details, proved a thesis statement, even literal versus figurative language, I played my Roots VHS cassette tapes, giving writing activities like, “Explain how Kunta was enslaved yet still “free.” I asked thought-provoking questions to prompt their critical thinking like, “Why is Kunta the only slave with shackles still on his feet?” For many, the answer was very surface.
“Cause! He kept trying to run away.” Christopher yelled out.
“Yes, but go deeper. Why was he the only one trying to run away? Weren’t they all forced to work against their will?”
Khloe sucked her teeth and rolled her eyes, disgusted by her classmates’ inability to see the symbolism in his shackles.
“Duh! He wasn’t a slave in the mind like the rest of them fools.”
I wasn’t disappointed in my other students like she was. I knew they were only ten and eleven years old, were special education studentsand were raised in a culture that never asked them to think or question what is, a community that told them that as children they had no opinion, and pretty much to do what they were told. For this reason, whenever a child did decide to speak his/her mind, going against society’s expectations, they would do so in a destructive manner that could only perpetuate problems rather than offer up any solutions. Those that did listen to what they had been told, which was to speak only when spoken to, and to stay in a child’s place, often had trouble expressing the simplest things, like why they were sad or angry, or picking chocolate or vanilla ice cream cups. “I don’t know,” seemed to be the standard response for anything you asked many children. I had realistic expectations. For most of them, Roots would serve as a story no different than Cinderella. I would still teach the things their young minds need to know, like plot, character, and sequence. I would still use it as a vehicle to test their reading comprehension such as finding the main idea, comparing and contrasting, and using context clues. But for my precious Khloe, it was intended to set her free.
And it happened just like that, as quick and easy as a key opening a lock. After being shackled for years, the right key was found to unlock her from her chains, and the burden she had felt because of her color dropped to the ground and shattered like shards of glass. We were watching the episode when Kunta becomes smitten with Belle. He says in an effort to compliment her, that the light-skinned mulatto girl isn’t attractive to him, and that he likes a different kind of face. Belle begins to blush but when he compares her face to the face of his Mandinka people she gets highly offended, saying, “I ain’t no African! I’m American! My daddy’s American and my daddy’s daddy was American.” I glanced over to Khloe, whose eyes hadn’t moved from the screen once. I stopped the tape. Discussion time.
Immediately, Khloe’s hand sky-rocketed. “Why she bug out like that? Like, Kunta had to be saying, “Damn trick. I was just trying to pay yo’ ass a compliment!”
I didn’t even bother to acknowledge her foul language. I let her continue.
“I mean, I know we make fun of Africans still even now, but, shiiit. She sounded like calling her African was like spittin’ in her face!”
“To her, it was.” I responded. “But where was she born, Khloe?”
“In America. She just said it. She was, and her daddy, and her granddaddy and back and back and back.”
“And where was Kunta born?”
“Duh. In Africa.”
“And does Kunta feel a way about being African?”
“Of course not! He loves it.”
“So, if someone told Kunta that his face looked African, what do you think he would say?” Come on, Khloe. I know you got this.
“He’d probably say, “No shit.” She cackled. “No for real, he would probably say ‘Thank You’ cause he was proud. Kinda like if someone called him handsome. He took it as a compliment.”
I waited for her to put it all together. I could almost see the wheels churning.
“So, Khloe, why do you think Belle isn’t proud to look African?”
“Cause in America, if you was black, you was a slave! Ain’t nothing proud about that!”
She paused. “So, you mean to tell me that I think my skin is ugly because I live in America and black people didn’t like being black cause in this country, black meant you was a slave?”
“You mean to tell me that I think I’m ugly, not cause I really am ugly, but because of what this country did to my ancestors? That they were ashamed and then that passed on all the way up to me?”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying, Khloe.”
“So, if I lived in Africa, I probably would’ve never thought black was ugly then, right?”
“Ooooh!” She fumed, banging her fist on her desk. “This stupid country!”
I knew of Africans that used bleaching creams, but I wasn’t going to share that at that very moment. They too were victims of imperialism.
“So, I’m sitting here believing the same thing these slaves believed about themselves?”
Khloe wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. She was mulling over all of this with a look on her face as if Ashton Kutcher had just ran into the classroom in a trucker hat screaming, “You’ve been punked!”
Hoodwinked. Bamboozled. Led astray. Run amok. Yes, Khloe had drunk the Kool-Aid. We all had. “Yes, sweetheart, you’ve been deceived.” I chuckled a bit in an attempt to lighten the mood.
“All this time I been thinking something that was never really even my own thoughts! I hate bein’ told what to do!”
I didn’t know if Khloe was going to punch someone or jump for joy. I didn’t even know how to respond. But finally it came. I looked her straight in the eyes. At that moment there was no one else in the room but her and I.
“So then stop listening.”
Khloe never took her eyes off of me. For a few seconds more she just sat there, her eyes locked with mine, as though in a trance. She then proceeded to the coat closet, hung up both her bubble coat and her shame and never wore either one inside my classroom again.