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Trina, I need you to stay inside for recess today. You are a little Black girl in a world that’s White. You are a first-grader. You can read. You are a leader. You know all of the sight words before I assign them for homework. Today, I want you to stay inside and lead your people.

These words would resonate with me into adulthood. As an older Black girl in a White world, I would make direct parallels to “lead your people” with the likes of Moses, of Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglass–shoes I could never fill, role models who were as distant to me in elementary school as they would be years later as an adult. I could make parallels with those impactful leaders and insinuated message my teacher relayed to me, but I couldn’t carry the brunt of the lethal cuts imposed upon a people for centuries.

I may have only been six years old then, but it was the first time I realized that words have power. Yes, power. Or maybe my realization was different than that. Maybe I realized that there was a definitive separation between Black and white, educated and uneducated, innocence and knowledge. Is there really a word to pair with “innocence” that would truly capture the weight and ramifications of losing it? I may have only been six years old when I felt separated, called out because my teacher thought I was a leader, but I was only a small child whose parents valued education. Compared to my other Black peers, I was an anomaly. Yet, in my virgin mind, I was a normal, inquisitive first grader who learned basic academic skills at a very early age.

She simply took the opportunity to make sure I knew my place in society and my responsibility to my race. That year of first grade would teach me that separation is a cold shadow that clings closely to the soul. I would learn that being a Black child who could read and write proficiently at six meant that I owed the rest of my Black peers a slice of my privileged background. Instead of building my character, she unintentionally branded me as one who was above them simply because we had come from two different worlds. That first day my teacher asked me to stay inside for recess would be the first of many days spent leading. Over the course of nearly a month, I would internalize that weight of responsibility to lead my people, and it would stay with me well into adulthood.

Both of my parents grew up in large families. Their parents were sharecroppers just one or two generations removed from slavery; functional illiterates who instilled the importance of working hard for what they wanted, and that earning an education was the only ticket to a better life. Both of my parents went to segregated schools from kindergarten to twelfth grade because it was the law. Both of my parents attended historically Black colleges because their options were very limited. They earned degrees and became professionals. As a result, I grew up in a middle-class home where education was valued and strongly encouraged.

An adult always read to me, and my cousins understood the importance of reading and writing. In fact, one of my older cousins gave me one of his old books as my first Christmas gift. Honestly, I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t listening to an audiobook, memorizing entire stories from picture books, or tape recording the words of some of my favorite Disney characters. Literacy enveloped my young world. Learning new things and being inquisitive about the way society worked was as special, if not more significant than opening presents on Christmas morning.

I learned to read at around 3 or 4 years old. By first grade, I could read small books and frequently asked questions about how to write, how to spell, and how to pronounce new vocabulary words. I had even started keeping my own journal. Up until the first grade, I didn’t know that my background would become both a blessing and a curse.

Ms. Adams was a very demanding, strict, Afrocentric teacher who believed that Black students should know their place in society. As a child, I believed that her ultimate goal as a teacher was to ensure that the students who looked like her had pride in their race and took responsibility for how their actions would impact an entire people, but as I grew older I have come to believe that she was simply motivated by hate. Ironically, she was also one who didn’t mind showing partiality based on colorism. In her eyes, not all people of color had equal value. Through her actions, she demonstrated that some were more beautiful than others, that some deserved to know that because of their shade of color they were more privileged than others, and that being different wasn’t something to be celebrated–assimilation within their racial group was a necessity.

She sectioned off her class according to race, class, image, and intelligence. Her favorite students were never White, and she never took a liking to Black students who were poor. She would verbally call certain White students “mop heads,” and those Black students she didn’t like “eggheads,” or “piccaninnies.” As a child, the words would hit a sour spot in my heart, even though I didn’t really understand the meaning of such derogatory terms. However, I did understand the negative impact it had on each child, and little by little each word stripped away at their value as a person.

I just happened to be the different little girl, the wrong shade of black, who didn’t know my place in society and was too smart for my age. Matters in her class were quite paradoxical. She took great pride in the advances of other Black people; yet, she felt challenged by my minuscule, worldly viewpoint of how the world worked. She couldn’t quite understand why I argued with her about wanting to play with White dolls and children at free time. She couldn’t understand why I would question her, and rebel against norms other Black students accepted. In her mind, children should always color their Santa Clause faces brown instead of peach. In my childish understanding, none of those things mattered, and I would constantly defy her norms.

However, the one advantage she had over me was that my innocence and rebellious nature didn’t have a fighting chance against her skewed authoritative influence. To her, I was the perfect student to teach, to attempt to mold my impressionable mind into the liking of her worldview of blackness.

Looking back on my experience as a first-grader, I now understand that much was at play during that year. Most of the education I received didn’t come from the black words on white pages. Each lesson held a morally expensive price that I could not pay with the small amount of experience I carried in my pockets. The intended goal of each was learning how to see the world from a narrow perspective. Now I realize the lessons were based on a complicated power struggle between the two of us over ideologies, and it was a significant attack on my pure heart. Ms. Adams didn’t anticipate the collateral damage it would cause. To her, everything was black and white.

Sadly, she never wanted the White students in her class to learn more than her Black students. She strongly believed that one’s accessibility to literacy skills should for once in history be more in favor of her selected students, primarily based on the color of their skin. Or maybe, it was deeper than that for her? Even as an adult now, I don’t quite understand how deeply disturbing her mindset was as a teacher, or even as a person for that matter. To ensure that her Black students were better than the others, she would do anything, even if it damaged the character of one little inquisitive six-year-old.

In an attempt to make sure things were not equal in her class, she chose me to carry out her cunning, prejudicial acts. She first approached me with the opportunity to join her one day after our reading circle time. It’s ironic how a person can have such hatred for people who don’t look like them, yet also have that same level of hatred for people who look like them. I have never understood how a teacher could openly demonstrate racism, especially in a classroom with very young children. Little did I know, her racist acts would take more away from me than just 45 minutes of play outside. It was a breach of so many moral, ethical, and individual contracts. It was a breach in the trust between an adult and a child, a teacher and a student, a professional and an impressionable little girl. Her decision to take away a piece of my innocence by exposing me to the social ills in the world was a travesty to my psyche. It planted a seed of inferiority deep within me. One that would grow strong and require a lifetime of uprooting the source for a constant, questionable personal journey for my identity as a person of color in society.

It was an unusually cool Fall day when she asked me to stay inside for recess. I sat behind a circular white table with a hole cut out in the middle for the teacher to sit so she could work with all of the students in front of her. Instead of a teacher sitting behind the table, I sat in front of six angry Black children who either couldn’t read or didn’t know any of their sight words for that week. They looked at me maliciously. It felt like the air in the room had thickened, and the alluring sounds of children laughing and playing outside didn’t help ease the mood any.

I had this huge task at hand: to teach other first-graders new vocabulary words in an unsupervised classroom. In just one month of school, I went from being a precocious reader of children’s stories and play, to a small, adult child who inadvertently read children’s nonverbals during each lesson time. Disregarding my nervous state and ineptness, I had Albert, Chris, Channel, Demetrice, Sharease, and Eddie in front of me each day. They were counting on me to make our time together worth their while, since they didn’t get recess time either.

I instantly became a teacher when I held up the first sight word card for them to see. Naive to the fact that Ms. Adams was using me as a pawn, I honestly believed that I was making a difference by helping my peers learn what I knew. Unbeknownst to me, she would give me a new deck of cards that none of the White students had been introduced to in class. She would meet with me before the beginning of each new week and tell me things similar to:

“Trina, it won’t take you long to memorize these words. Know them well so that you can teach the others. I want you guys to shine in class on the days when the words are first introduced.”

There would always be times when my heart would struggle with the ideas of what’s right and what’s wrong. As the school year progressed, events at home and at school forced me to ask my imagination to leave because she wasn’t welcomed anymore; she had been replaced with survival and reasoning. That year I learned how to become a conduit for prejudice. There were several things I learned from these unsupervised lessons, but the most damaging realization of knowing more than my Black peers caused a social rift between us.

“Albert, what is this word?” I questioned a puzzled little boy.
“Th-rrr-ou-gah,” he slowly replied back.
“Say this with me. Thr-oo.”
“Th-rrr-ougah,” they exclaimed in unison.

This pronunciation game of sorts went back and forth every day for 45 minutes. Not knowing any strategies or special techniques to use, I just kept flashing the cards and asking them to repeat the word correctly with me. They didn’t acquire more vocabulary words, but their grudge toward me grew very strong, and Ms. Adams’s patience with me grew thin. At the end of one day, after another missed recess for us, she pulled me aside to speak with me.

Trina, I don’t know if you took your job seriously enough. You know all of the words, but the other Black kids do not know the words. You have to learn how to lead your people. You have to learn how to teach others.

My immature mind couldn’t comprehend the words or even read between the lines. Intuitively, I knew she wasn’t talking to the six-year-old me. Somehow, I knew she was speaking words into an inner part of who I would someday become.

Today I still feel the weight of the responsibility Ms. Adams placed on me. There’s this dichotomy between leading others and being led from within. I have been in education for nearly 13 years now and I have learned how to value people, to lead all people because I have a mission to serve others unselfishly. At the same time, I have learned to lead and value others, portions of my soul has a disdainful attitude toward who I am as a Black person. People have taunted me, judged my blackness, and refused to accept me simply because I am somehow still that little girl at the head of the table–separated, and trying hard to feel like I belong.

Ms. Adams taught me a great deal that year in first grade. She taught me that the shadow of separation, when first shown to me as a child, still clings closely to my soul–even now that I can have a recess.

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Trina Williams

Trina Williams is a humanities instructor for a charter high school that serves adults wanting to earn their high school diplomas. She is a cyclist, bibliophile, and novice writer who is determined to hone her craft.