We expect our six year old children to be shielded from how awful this world can be. It’s a time to play and learn. It’s a time to sit on Mom and Dad’s lap and ask questions like “why is the sky blue” and “can I have an ice cream, pleeeeeeaaasssseeee.” It’s a time for giggles and the occasional scraped knee that Dad takes care of. It’s a time for little people things. Coloring books. Learning to ride a bike. Nothing heavy. Nothing ugly. A time of protection and and a time of wonder.
She had all of that. She was innocent and pure. She never met a stranger and loved unlike most six year olds loved. We always talked about her old soul. Many have used that term to describe someone. We meant it. And not only was her soul old, it was and still is one of the most beautiful you will come to know.
She was six years old. First grade! Kindergarten was over and it was time to really start learning new and bigger things. She loved to dress in her school clothes and put on her backpack. The 5 minute bus ride to school was one her most favorite things. Time with friends at school was always on her mind. She loved her friends. And the ride home with Dad waiting? That was the best. She always came running out of the bus door with arms spread and a smile on her face.
Until one day, she didn’t.
One day she moped off the bus. When I went to meet her she burst into tears and was inconsolable. The things that raced through my mind as I tried to find out what was wrong! I’ve never felt so helpless. After a few a minutes and many more tears, she finally told me what was wrong. Or better said, she did what six year olds do. She asked a question.
“Where was I born?” I told her she was born right here in town. “You mean I’m not from Africa?” I told her unless her Mom told me a story, no, she was not born in Africa. I could see where this was going. I knew my heart was about to break into a million pieces, but we continued.
“A boy I my class said I was bad because I am black and I need to go back to Africa.”
She was six years old. First grade! And now, she had learned too early, a lesson in how cruel this world can be. I’m white. I’ve never known the pain she was feeling first hand and has many times since. I never will. All the same, I love this now grown lady with all that is in me. When she hurts I feel it. Maybe not like she does, but I feel it just the same.
This was nearly sixteen years ago. I though then that things had gotten better. I was wrong. All these years later, things have not changed much, and in many respects, it is worse. She went to school innocent and came back knowing that the rest of her life the color of her skin would make some people treat her terribly. What she didn’t know at six was that some would treat her badly without even knowing it. That when called on it they’d deny it. We must see the tragedy in that.
This is my first story of why these things matter to me. I hope you’ve taken it to heart and will look forward to my next.