I was in my late 20’s when my oldest son was in kindergarten. I worked as a receptionist in a medical library, but I was able to go in three hours late every Wednesday so I could volunteer in Michael’s classroom. I never was a fan of being around little kids, but I’m crazy about my own kids, so it was alright. Back then if you volunteered at school they let you work in your own kid’s classroom. Nowadays, most schools won’t let you volunteer in your own kid’s classroom. And really, what would be the point?
That whole volunteer experience stands out for me because of one particular Wednesday morning. I guess I learned something about the world I hadn’t known up to that point. Something I really wish wasn’t true, though I can’t say I wish I didn’t know it. I never was one to stick my head in the sand.
I can’t remember the task I had been given that particular morning. A lot of the volunteers just spent their time making copies or some crap, but Mrs. Walsh was cool because she always let me work with the kids. That morning I was supposed to get a small group of kids together and do some kind of lesson with them. Typical kindergarten work. I grabbed the first four kids that had finished the previous task and got them seated at the little table. I didn’t notice anything unusual. Mostly I was focusing on the fact that I was trying to sit in one of those itty bitty wooden chairs that make you feel as though you are Alice in Wonderland and you’ve just had a bite of the cake that makes you grow too big for the room you are in.
Four kindergarteners, fitting perfectly into their own itty bitty chairs, sat across the table from me. Three were looking at me expectantly, waiting for whatever task I was going to set upon them. The other kid briefly glanced at her classmates, and then spoke.
She was a kid I’d noticed before. I’d been volunteering just long enough that I knew some of the kids and didn’t know the other ones. Looking back, I’m not sure why she’d caught my eye but she had. That day she caught me so completely off guard that I will never, ever forget her.
“Why do I have to be in this group? I don’t want to be in this group. My daddy says I shouldn’t have to be in this school with these black kids and I shouldn’t have to be in this group with them!”
Only she used the ‘N’ word.
If this were to happen now, over 20 years later, it wouldn’t have such an impact on me. Which is actually quite sad. But I’ve run this five minute segment of my life over and over in my head, trying to figure out why her words hurt me so badly. I’ve come to the conclusion that right up to that morning, I was living on the unspoken, and even unrealized assumption that as I got older, as my son got older, all of the old, mean, hateful people would die off and we’d be left with a world of open minded, kind people who tried to understand each other’s differences rather than instantly judging anyone who is in any way different from themselves.
It’s hard to believe I was ever that naïve.
Maybe my response was due to the shock of seeing such intense and innocent hatred in such a little girl. Or the instant realization that ignorance could be passed on from generation to generation without question or examination. But I think it was the fact that the three boys I had chosen for the group, the three black boys, I realized now, all had their heads down. As if they had heard it all before, expected it even, and somehow felt shame. It would have been oh, so much easier for me if they had been angry.
Whatever the reason, I felt the back of my throat constrict and my face grew hot and my heart beat faster, and I knew there was absolutely nothing I could do to prevent myself from crying.
I’ve always prided myself in being a take-charge kind of person. Life throws things at me and I automatically prioritize and respond. In the years since that day I’ve done everything from teaching anger management in a men’s prison to earning a second degree black belt in mixed martial arts. I do not cry when faced with difficult situations. At least not until I’m at home.
But the 28 year old me hadn’t yet encountered anything quite that ugly, I guess. All I could think at the time was that I could not cry. And all I knew for sure was that I was going to.
I didn’t want to cry there in front of the kids. I didn’t want to cry at all. I couldn’t stay where I was. I couldn’t leave the room because I could hear teachers marching their little rows of children past the door. I ended up making a last ditch effort to maintain some thread of dignity by crossing the room to where Michael’s teacher sat at her desk. She looked up at me, such a look of concern on her face that despite my desperate attempt to keep it from happening, my eyes instantly and completely filled and one tear fell onto my bright blue blouse, a dark wet spot leaving indisputable evidence of my failure as a kindergarten classroom volunteer.
I knew that if I were to open my mouth, I would start sobbing and if I were to blink, my eyelids would act like little squeegees and tears would fall freely. I did not want to make more of a distraction in the classroom than I felt I already had. And I desperately did not want my son to witness this horrible display of ugliness and incompetence.
That poor teacher had to have been completely confused. There had been no screams. No child was lying injured on the floor. I’m sure it was completely unprecedented to have an adult volunteer standing in front of her desk, close to bawling as though she were one of the kids who had been uninvited to her best friend’s birthday party. But Mrs. Walsh only showed concern. “What’s wrong?” She waited a minute, patiently. “Mrs. Elliot?”
And I said, almost whispered, “Melissa,” and I pointed to the table where I’d left the kids. All four of them were completely still, staring over at the scene I was trying so hard to avoid but nonetheless had created with my very uncharacteristic lack of control over my emotions in the presence of my own, and other, children.
In retrospect, I realize that Michael’s teacher must have been dealing with this child’s racist attitudes all year because her sudden anger seemed so out of character. In an instant, she was across the room, grabbing that little girl by the arm and dragging her out the classroom before I was able to grab a tissue off the desk and try to do some damage control with what was surely a mascara nightmare.
And the last thing I heard before the door shut behind them was, “. . .and now you’ve upset Mrs. Elliot!”
I felt like a moron.
I don’t remember anything else about that day. I don’t remember finishing my work with the kids. I don’t know what I said to the boys when I went back to the table. I don’t know whether I said anything to the class about the teacher leaving. I don’t remember talking to anyone at work about what happened and I don’t remember talking with Michael about the incident when I picked him up that afternoon. Surely I did.
Usually the kind of knowledge that has changed my whole way of thinking about the world comes gradually; a vast collection of very minute bits of information building up over a period of years until a certainty is unavoidable. But every once in awhile, it comes almost instantly, like it did that day in Mrs. Walsh’s kindergarten class.
Mrs. Walsh, a young woman herself, died of cancer the following year, when Michael was in first grade. I wonder sometimes if she knew she was sick or even dying that Wednesday morning. I wonder what kind of relationship developed between her and Melissa during that year. Whether she was able to reach Melissa on some level. Or whether Melissa is somewhere now teaching her own child the same things she surely learned from her parents. Teaching her daughter the least favorite thing I ever learned in kindergarten.