Howdy, Dear Reader. For this entry, I’ve decided to turn to the vault and dig up some more creative non-fiction. This fragment comes to you straight out of my childhood.
In the near future I intend to move to Toronto. As I consider this next step I realize that if I ever have children and my future husband says, ”Let’s live in the country/suburbs/outside of the GTA,” we’re going to need to have a chat. I was born and raised in Southwestern Ontario, Canada. Whenever media folks talk about how “diverse” Canada is, I feel like they’re talking about a parallel universe. To me, urban centers like Toronto are diverse. Yet other parts of my country can be incredibly monocultural.
When you’re a person of color, it’s inevitable that you’ll encounter racism. But I don’t think a child should have to endure being teased about her appearance on a regular basis.
Regarding the tone of this piece: I tried to write in the voice of a child looking back on her somewhat younger self. It’s a work in progress. Enjoy!
When I left the house, I felt nothing but love. My mom had helped me get dressed. She had spent a really long time making me some new clothes. It seemed like days and days. That day I was wearing a brand new vest and skirt—she’d sewn them just for me. There were itty-bitty flowers all over the fabric. I wore my new outfit with a plain white blouse. I felt as pretty as a princess.
I remember that I was happy. But I also felt a sense of wonder. Specifically, I wondered what school would be like. I’d never been there before. I barely understood why I had to go. All I knew was that my being there meant my life was changing. My days wouldn’t be spent with Mommy or the babysitter any more. When you go to school, you have to be there every day. Except for the weekends.
Daddy had to leave early. He went to school too. Except that it wasn’t my school. He was a teacher. All I knew was that he got to tell the kids what to do.
“Let me give my girl a hug and a kiss!” He held me close for a minute before walking out to start his car. Then, it was just Mommy and me.
She helped me get dressed.
First, she combed my hair. Mommy put it into three big braids. Two at the back of my head, and one in front. She brushed my hair carefully, making sure every thick, curly kink was as it should be. I sat patiently.
“See, Claire,” She smiled. I couldn’t see her face, but I could tell by the sound of her voice. “It’s almost time to go. I want you to do your best and listen to your teacher today. But don’t worry. I’ll come with you for the first few minutes. I want you to be ok.”
Then, she helped me into my outfit. I held my arms in the air, and Mommy slipped my blouse over my head. Then it was time for my skirt. I stepped into it carefully. She zipped me up in the back.
After that, I stuck my arms out to put on my vest.
Mommy helped me straighten up. “You look lovely, Claire. Lovely!” She smiled again, and dusted off my shoulder. Then, she took me over to the mirror to see.
“Woooow!” Now it was my turn to smile. I looked so pretty! I couldn’t wait for the other kids to see me.
“Let me take a picture of you.” Mom took me out into the living room and sat me on the arm of a nearby chair. She darted into her room to get the camera. I shifted around a little bit but basically stayed put. I perked up when she came back into the room.
I did. I couldn’t wait to get to school.
Mommy was nearly ready. She went off to grab her purse and keys.
“Let’s go.” She smiled and guided me downstairs to the foyer. She helped me slip on my shoes and put on her own.
All along, Mommy and Daddy had said that they were sending me to school to learn. I don’t know why. I already spent a lot of time with them reading and writing. What else was there for me to figure out?
I also knew that going to school meant spending time with other kids. I couldn’t help but wonder what that would be like. I didn’t have any brothers and sisters. I didn’t know any kids who weren’t from the same church as me. What would these other kids be like? I kept hoping that at least school would be fun.
And what would I do all day?
I’d know soon enough. Mommy and I walked out to the car.
“I want you to have a nice day, dear,” Mom said as we got inside. There was no need for her to tell me to behave though. I was always a good girl.
The drive to school was a short one. But in my little-girl mind, we were headed to a different galaxy. After a couple of minutes Mom parked the car. Then she helped me outside.
I remember there were a lot of other kids. The school belonged to the church, and I remembered some of them from Sabbath School. But there were many others that I’d never seen before.
And they were by themselves. Where were their parents? Was I the only one with my Mommy? I saw a few other grown ups around, but they didn’t seem to care about the kids one way or another.
The school was made up of two buildings. One was beige, with brown trim. It was rather plain, shaped like a large rectangle.
The other was across the street. It was grey and unhappy looking. Mommy held my hand and we went inside.
Soon Mommy had to say goodbye. She gave me a hug and a kiss. I was taken with the other kids into a room. Each one of us was told to sit in a chair, at a small table called a desk. Our day began.
The woman at the front of the room was our teacher. She was brown. But not brown like me. Also, her hair was different from anyone else I knew who was my colour. It was shinier than mine—and straighter. Even her voice sounded different from any grown up that I’d ever heard. She wrote her name on the board. There were so many letters.
I remember…She said her name, and had us say it back. “Mrs. S-O-M-A-S-U-R-A-N*.” I was excited. I knew I could say my teacher’s name. Mommy and Daddy had taught me to read. I did my best. But I got it wrong—“Mrs. Somasurang.” Somehow I had come up with an extra letter—a “g”. I didn’t mean it, but the way she said her name reminded me of one of my favourite desserts: lemon meringue pie.
The other kids thought my slip of the tongue was funny.
They began to laugh.
I didn’t understand why. I had tried so hard to say our teacher’s name. I’d wanted to get the ending just right.
The teacher explained that yes, I had made a mistake. She said nothing to the other kids about their laughter, though. She just told them to hush. Quickly, we moved on.
Eventually, Mrs. Somasuran stopped talking. She said we could go outside for a special break called “recess”.
In the yard, I was able to speak with the other kids. It was then that the questions began.
“What’s your name?”
“Claire.” I perked up. “What’s your name?” I asked back.
The exact timing of the shift in way that my fellow students responded to me remains a blur. I can never remember if they noticed that I was different on that first day, or within our first week together. But on one occasion during our usual attempts at small talk, one of their faces changed.
“What’s wrong with your lips? You look funny.”
I didn’t know what to say.
At home, I was normal.
As the days went by, the other students in my class never hesitated to remind me that I was strange. My skin was brown, my lips were big, my nose was flat. And then there were my parents. Why did my mother have to come and see me at lunch? She did it only occasionally, but from the way some of the kids reacted, you’d think she showed up every day.
I’m different. I don’t understand. I know I don’t look like any of the other kids do, but so what? Why does it matter so much? There are a couple of other brown kids who are in other grades and they don’t get teased. In fact, one of them picked on me along with the other kids. I didn’t get it. Kids back then in this area didn’t have the same crude vocabulary as some do today, so I guess I was spared. And if time didn’t spare me from absolute depravity, then perhaps it was religion.
And yet, still, I didn’t understand. If, like our teacher said, Jesus loved me, and God made everyone, then why did the way I looked matter so much to my classmates? I just wanted them to like me. I wanted to have a bosom friend, like Anne in Anne of Green Gables had Dianna Berry. Instead, I felt like a little alien.