Reduced lunch, poverty, and the lack of stigma.

Our playground was old. Wooden seesaws that would give you splinters if you weren’t careful. Metal merry-go-rounds that during the summer, would literally burn your skin if you sat down on it….but you didn’t care because the metal one went fast. Ancient oak trees lined the back border of our playground, and when the teachers weren’t looking we’d try to sneak a taste of the wild honeysuckle that wrapped around the trees. I spent a good chunk of my life in that school and on that playground I’ve many fond memories.  I also have fond memories of running my small hands along the storefront glass windows that were littered with bullet holes that didn’t quite puncture all the way through. They left an interesting pattern and texture, by which I was fascinated. Let’s not forget the small graveyard of the family that owned the land the school was built on in the mid 1800s, they were—not kidding— the ‘Adams’ family…it was the early 1990’s, so of course we would go and play and sing the theme song to the show/movie. Which is likely one reason I have such a dark sense of humor to this day.

Our stories shape us, and this was the backdrop of my narrative for six years of my early childhood.

Obviously, my elementary school was unusual, but the oddities don’t stop there. Socially it was an enigma. Somehow it was zoned for all the kids who lived outside the city bounds, way out in the country, or from the ‘inner city’ projects. Our town was too small to actually have an inner city, but not too small to have clear socio-economical boundaries.

My third grade teacher, Ms. Ricketts, would let the girls play with her hair while they pretended to be at the beauty shop. Ms. Ricketts once, while engaging in this play, told an African-American girl in my class that she loved African-American hair, she liked the way you could shape and style it. The girl glowed with pride that only shows when you are a kid and an adult has given you a huge compliment. Ever since then, I’ve wanted to be another race. Not because I don’t like my own, or because I felt bad about myself. But because somehow that teacher giving that compliment to a classmate instilled a desire in me to see the beauty in everything, and especially in people.

Majority of my school was at or below poverty level. Free or reduced lunch was something I thought everyone got, although I wasn’t really ever concerned with the reason my parents sent me to school with money for lunch. Probably half of my classmates lived in project housing, and I KNOW all of my friends did. I remember friends telling me of being scared at home, or how they liked being at school best, and as a nerd I agreed adamantly, but never really understood why they were didn’t like home. I honestly didn’t know what they bullet holes were until I was in the 5th grade, and even then I thought it was typical for a school to have that.

I’m not sure if my parents choose this school for me or it just happened, but I am immensely grateful. Having that social climate in that setting has created something in me that I love. I notice differences, but I do not let them alter my actions. I knew that the kids in my classes lived in dangerous neighborhoods, that they got free lunch because their parents couldn’t afford it, and that yes, I was playing on the ground that had dead people in it. I knew that my life was different than others, but that never hindered friendship or bonds. We had a commonality and that was all that mattered.

I’ve heard that only white people use the phrase ‘color blind’ as an aedent expression of their race inclusion and I believe it. Being blind to our differences only creates an ignorant society. I never felt pity for my friends and classmates who lived a different life than I did. Which, perhaps is why I hate pity so much today, it was never a part of my childhood when I perhaps had the most reason to delve it out. This, no doubt, is a huge credit to my family, for teaching and explaining the differences as I asked, but never judging or assuming. The only emotion left to give when we deny the differences in our narratives is pity. Observing our differences and valuing them;  they offer us an opportunity to learn something about the world that we didn’t know and can teach us to live without stigma.

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