In third grade, I authored a story called, The Girl with the Green Face. I remember being so proud of the story I wrote. It took so much time to think of an idea, write the first draft, and we were even fortunate enough to be able to use the word processor to type our story out. I also remember how careful I was with the illustrations. I felt like a real artist and could add the details the way I wanted them. I remember paying attention to all the little details too, like words on labels and doors, adding speech and thought bubbles. That was 27 years ago and I still remember the emotional and physical experience of writing that story.
Fast forward 5 years ago cleaning out my parents’ basement and I came across the story. I was so excited to open it up and read it again because again I remembered the emotional and physical experience of writing my first “real” book. As I began to open the cover and read each page with laser sharp eyes, as a way to somehow transport myself into the experience once more. I didn’t feel excitement but rather extreme sadness.
My family lived in a small town at the time in Illinois. We were one of two African-American families in the town and the only non-white children in our school. In fact, this was mostly true for me until my junior year of high school.
The story I wrote was about a girl named Kelly who was a cheerleader with brown hair, brown eyes, and peach colored skin. She believed that all the other cheerleaders were beautiful because the got to put this “green mud” on their face but Kelly’s mom wouldn’t let her. Ultimately Kelly decides to use it anyway when she gets to school. Unfortunately for Kelly the “green mud” won’t come off and her face is green. She begins to try everything to get it off and makes up excuses and devises plans to explain why her face is green. In her last effort to get the “green mud” off she tries her mom’s most special cream. But this cream was worse in her mind…”It didn’t make her beautiful at all. It just made her face dark brown.” In the end Kelly went to her mom and she took her to get a facial and she was back to “normal”.
As I stood there in complete silence and utter sadness, I recognized what I hadn’t allowed myself to process. That I, at a very young age, recognized myself as “other” and measured myself against the majority without even having words or the understanding to articulate what I was feeling. The characters in my story were White and I am African-American. In fact, I fully expected to open my book and see African American characters.
In the story Kelly was searching for something to make her “beautiful” like the other girls. Kelly was a cheerleader…just like I was in third grade. Kelly did things she wasn’t supposed to even after her mom told her not too…just like my younger self. Kelly’s mom’s actions and phrases resembled my mother exactly but she didn’t look like my mom. Her dad in the story traveled like my dad did but he didn’t look like my dad.
This story was my story. As I relived this experience recently by sharing it with a friend I began to question. What was it that stood in my way of telling my story? A story where the characters looked like me and felt like me. Did I feel connected to the classroom community? Could I see myself on the walls, in the talk, and the stories that were told day-to-day in the classroom community? Was there someone in the classroom community to affirm that beauty isn’t prepackaged or look one way? And ultimately, in the story Kelly concluded that the worst possible thing to happen was her skin turning dark brown, which as the author of the story was the color that mirrors my own.
How do we as educators work each day towards a classroom community where students feel free and safe to not only write their story but be their story? How do we work towards my story not repeating itself in classrooms across our world?
First it starts with us. We as educators must take inventory on our own lives and our own experiences in order to step back and view the community in front of us. This happens even before the students step foot into the classroom.
Mariana Souto-Manning in her book, Reading Writing, and Talk: Inclusive Teaching Strategies for Diverse Learners K-2, offers this, “The inventory must start with yourself and with your own practices…teaching is not culture-free. Nor are curricula. Teaching practices should be (re)centered to both honor children’s cultures, languages, and identities and to foster academic success.”
In order to create and maintain a healthy classroom community where students are free and safe to be themselves and love themselves, I offer that it first starts with us. We must take inventory of who we are and recognize the power these identities have in the classroom community.
Secondly, building classroom communities is about allowing students to see themselves on the walls of our room, the conversations that happen, and as a valuable participant in the learning community. What if at 8 years old I looked around the room in my third grade classroom and saw brown faces like myself? Or books that had stories of many kinds of people that weren’t just about struggle?
Allowing students to fill the walls with their stories, their thinking, their learning process, their faces encourages them to use their voice in conversations, problem solving, and day-to-day happenings in the classroom community. Which in turn hopefully gives a sense to each child that they are a valuable piece of the learning community.
Lastly, it’s committing ourselves to understanding a culturally relevant pedagogy. Culturally relevant teaching is a mindset that puts the classroom community as the most powerful agent in learning. Where students use their experiences to connect with the content in order to learn with each other, from one another, and the community as a whole. How do we commit ourselves to this kind of pedagogy each day so that our classroom communities are thriving with students who know and understand that they are valued and their experiences are legitimate?
I often wonder what I would say to “me” in a writing conference as the teacher after reading the book that I had written? I’m not sure what words I would say. One thing I know is that I would be reflecting on what I missed. I would be asking, what space in my classroom did I not allow for this child to feel free to write their true story? What kind of community do we have where students are not seeing themselves? I would be questioning and reflecting a lot.
My life experiences have taught me that as educators we have to pursue our profession with reckless abandon to do what’s right for children. Classroom communities start before students walk in the door. They are cultivated the moment the first child enters, and are fostered all year-long. What we do matters. How we listen to children matters. Honoring all community members matters. How will you create a classroom community for all students this year?