The First Time You Were Worried That You Had Come Off Sounding Racist.

I was five and in Mrs. Pagano’s morning kindergarten class. Trichelle wasn’t there on the first day of school. I don’t recall how late into the year she arrived, but she was definitely the new girl and definitely the only black student.

I suppose at the time I didn’t realize my first reactions to seeing this girl were racist. I really didn’t know any better.  Growing up in a mostly upper middle class suburban town that is only about a mile wide, I had formed certain habits such as keeping the car door unlocked and waving hello to strangers. Diversity was something that happened on the west side of the town next to mine. The town I grew up in has one school, kindergarten through eighth grade and my graduating class had 63 kids. In this graduating class we had one Japanese girl, one Indian girl, one African-American boy who was actually only half, and 60 clean-cut, wholesome white kids.

But getting back to Trichelle. I remember feeling incredibly awkward in her presence and secretly amazed by her hair. How in the world did her hair stay all twisted up in those pigtails while mine just fell flat? I went home one day after school and asked my mom if she could do my hair like Trichelle’s. She said, “No, you don’t have that kind of hair.” Well, this was certainly news to me. I mean, I knew my colors. I knew Kelly’s white blond hair was not the same as my honey brown, but “kinds” of hair? I didn’t know anything about that.

Weeks later, the nurse called Trichelle out of the room during playtime. My teacher told us to all sit in our seats. “I want to talk to you about Trichelle.”

“Is she okay?”

Mrs. Pagano told us that Trichelle was fine but felt left out during playtime and if we could please include her. This idea had never even occurred to me. She had just seemed so profoundly different to me right from the start that I wasn’t even sure if she knew how to play our games or wanted to. She hardly spoke and when she did it came out in whispered mumbles, so I figured maybe her English wasn’t so great, either. And the fact that Mrs. Pagano had Trichelle leave the room so she could address the rest of our all-white class made Trichelle seem that much more alien.

Trichelle came back into the room at the end of playtime and again that awkward feeling overcame me. Would we have to explain to her the rules of House? Did she like the same foods as us?  Who was going to step up and include her?

Me. I volunteered as tribute. One day, I noticed she was playing alone at the clay table. I thought the clay smelled weird, but I was a fan of the stuff no less, so I took a deep breath, walked over to her, and without saying a word, I started playing with the clay too.

I eventually told her my name, she smiled at me and that was all. As much as I wanted to tell her how cool her hair was, I didn’t. Conversation felt much too uncomfortable and I still wasn’t sure about her English. So instead we continued to share the tools and our love for clay and when playtime was over, I felt like I had done my part.

Mrs. Pagano never spoke to the class on the subject again and Trichelle didn’t come back for first grade. I’m not really sure what happened to her. I sometimes wonder if I had any sort of impact on her as the girl who made her feel more welcomed or if she even remembers me at all. Although I’m sure to her, we all looked the same.

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