Getting Woke, A Retrospective — Part Two

Getting Woke, A Retrospective — Part Two (in which 8 year old me gets called a nigger and has no idea what it means)
Getting Woke, A Retrospective — Part Two (in which 8 year old me gets called a nigger and has no idea what it means)

There’s some stories I can only tell because I’m sitting on this side of the computer screen, typing, and I can just release the words into the void. If we were together, face-to-face, having this conversation, there are some stories you would never hear. This is one of them.

From first through fifth grade, I went to a private school that my family couldn’t actually afford. It was a great school. It was a mostly white school.

That year, I took a long yellow bus to school everyday. The seats were cracked green vinyl and smelled like sweat and Cheetos when the bus heated up. In the mornings, I would always sit on the left hand side in the first few rows and lean my head against the window as I read. I loved the way the cool glass felt against my forehead.

There was a little gap between the side of the bus and the seat back. Maybe three of my adult fingers wide. And when I leaned my head against the window, my hair was right there. And so, every day (or near enough to it), another third grade boy, one of my classmates (and, like most of them, white), would sit behind me and pull my hair.

Not just pull it, but pull it out.

One individual strand at a time.

“He’s just teasing! Maybe he likes you! Boys do that kind of thing sometimes.” That’s what the bus driver said when I told. That’s what the teacher said too.

And every day I plunged into the world of Redwall and other books up until the moment he got on the bus and would pinch and yank one strand of hair at a time. I was resigned to it.

But one day was different.

(I stopped writing there. It’s three days later. I’ve opened this file a dozen times since, but couldn’t get myself to continue.)

One day was different. One day this little boy leaned forward and spit that word at me. That awful word. I had never heard it before. I didn’t know what it meant. I just knew it was bad by the way he said it.

I didn’t tell anyone at school, why would I? They hadn’t defended me before and already I could tell that this insult was something to be ashamed of.

I think that’s the worst part. I was 8 years old and he made me feel ashamed and powerless to get help.

I went home and told my mom what happened and asked her what it meant. She told me it was a bad word that mean people used for people with brown skin. And then, she went on the war path.

(When I started writing this, I texted my mother. I wanted to confirm that I remembered this accurately. She didn’t remember this specific incident because, in her words, “I remember having to call the school about a lot of [racist] things”. Not just in elementary school, she’s remembering my entire elementary/middle/high school years, but still.)

After a couple of days, he stopped pulling out my hair on the bus. I don’t remember him using any more slurs. I remember thinking about it every time I had to interact with him though. Later that year, he transferred schools. I wasn’t sad.

In tenth grade, we ended up at the same school again. He came over to talk to me the first day in the first class we shared — “Do you remember me? We used to go to school together. I used to sit behind you on the bus and pull your hair.”

Somehow I don’t think our memories match because, if they did, he never would have invoked it as a light-hearted touchpoint of shared experience. But he did.

And with his words, I was reminded of the way it felt to know someone looked at you and saw something to destroy, to push down, to hate. No one should have to carry that burden.

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