I had the pleasure of giving a library story time for the first time in about five years last Friday. In our area, the library is tiny and we were only expecting about six kids. Most of those kids come from one preschool. A woman I’ll call Ms. Bad Ass, because she is*, runs this preschool.
Before story time started, I got to talking with Ms. Bad Ass. Turns out that she too was an Air Force brat. She too grew up overseas. We started comparing our experiences and sharing memories. I’m not sure how, but before long we were talking about how different it is living on an Air Force Base. One giant difference we both experienced was being color-blind.
Up until fifth grade, I attended Air Force schools. I went to school with kids who had everything in common with me–that is, their family was in the Air Force and they could move at any time. Now I realize that I had classmates who were African American, Hispanic, Asian, Indian, and literally every color in-between. We just didn’t notice. Tameka was the girl who could draw better than anyone. Bianca was the pretty one (she’s also the one who walked face first into a pole, which I will never forget). Daniel was funny (and I had a crush on him). Stephen was sweet. I was the bossy white girl.
It wasn’t until I moved and started going to school off-base that race and discrimination became a reality in my life. The city we moved to had two basic groups of people–white people and Native Americans. It was abundantly clear what the stereotypes were. It wasn’t just race–learned quickly that if you wanted to be liked, you had to dress a certain way as well. A neighbor girl openly criticized my shorts because they weren’t jean shorts. Come. On. Even certain schools had better reputations than other ones. The nice schools? The ones with all the white kids.
The kids who weren’t used to moving didn’t care about making me feel included. They had their own friends and were at no risk of losing them. The saddest thing is that even though I felt ostracized in my new surroundings, I wasted no time in making others feel ostracized when I did find friends. It is one of my greatest regrets.
There is a clear demarcation in my life–living on an Air Force Base and living off of one. Base kids were automatically more friends and allies than not, just because we were all stuck in unfamiliar situations and a life of uncertainty together. But how sad is it that when we were dumped in the ‘real world’, we were schooled in judgmental cliches? What I’m getting at is that assuming things about people because of their race or their appearance is definitely a learned affliction.**
I suppose that now, as an adult and a parent, I am wiser. Hopefully I can walk the walk and teach my kids to do the same.
For your enjoyment, my Kindergarten (you almost got 2nd grade, but it was too embarrassing) picture, circa 1989 in Germany:
*Ms. Bad Ass is a bad ass because a) her husband left her, b) instead of moping around, she started her own business, and c) said business is now so successful she hasn’t even ever had to advertise. Plus she teaches kids about things like grammar when they’re four.
Ms. Bad Ass is also like a small-town hit woman, in that she’s elusive but also infamous. A real conversation I had, paraphrased:
Me: “I’m interested in sending my daughter to her school. How do I get in touch with her?”
Coworker: “Um….she’s just…Ms. Bad Ass.”
Me: “What do you mean? Does she have a web site?”
Coworker, laughing: “No! You just have to know her.”
Me: “Okay, but how do I get in touch with her? How do I find her?”
Coworker: “Uh…I don’t know, she’s in town. I might have her phone number.”
**Here I’d like to write a shout-out to my Mom and Dad, because for all the hardships we’ve been through as a family, you did a great job teaching me to be color-blind.