by Melissa Lee
The ride to school was forty-five minutes, so my mom and I listened to soft rock music on the radio. As we pulled into the parking lot, I could see a green illuminated sign with the words The Imani School. The school building looked more like a commercial building rather than a school. As we entered the school, we were greeted by Mrs. Robinson the assistant principal. Suddenly, I heard five loud dings over the intercom. I said goodbye to my mom and Mrs. Robinson escorted me to my first class, sixth grade Algebra.
As we entered the classroom, I could feel the eyes of the entire class staring at me. My palms began to sweat profusely and my heart began to beat fast like hands creating a rhythmic beat on the drums. The math teacher was explaining his expectations to the class. I looked around the classroom. There were two stationary blackboards on both sides of the room and above the blackboards were pictures with inspirational quotes and of famous black mathematicians. I was puzzled but started to become overjoyed by the pictures, I was accustomed to viewing pictures only in textbooks and not adorned on the walls of the classroom. Adjacent to the door was a beautiful mahogany bookshelf with several math books.
My heart began to skip a beat. I enjoyed math. These lovely intricate books on the shelves were only reserved for the rich and in private schools in Grenada. I was astonished and thrilled to see such an expensive piece of wood design in a class. On the island, the rough dusty wood floors under my seat are where I was allowed to store my backpack. The math teacher introduced himself as Mr. Price and informed me I could sit in any open seat. I was overjoyed and happy to be in a classroom of this caliber, I felt like I was floating to my own seat. Having my own seat this was rare. In primary school in Grenada, a long desk was shared by six of my classmates.
On my way to an open seat, I passed up three girls who were giggling and laughing from the moment I walked into the room. They whispered among themselves looking at me up and down puzzled by my zig zag cornrow, nude stocking, and black loofah shoes. One of the girls said, “Gosh, her hair is ugly. I guess her mother does not know what a perm box looks like.” My heart started to race and I became nervous about my entire outfit. I felt like I did not belong in this classroom. I was different from the girls in my class who had straight permed hair. Mr. Price and the assistant principal were having a quick conversation.
Two of the three girls had long black hair that was permed and styled beautifully like the feathers of a bird sitting so precisely on their heads. Their uniforms were neatly ironed it was difficult to locate any wrinkles. Both of the young ladies were tall and skinny like super models, with beautiful expensive silver earrings and bracelets. Their beautiful chocolate skin glowed with a youthful appearance. The three girls introduced themselves. The ring leader’s name was Kimberly. She was a short stout girl, with permed hair cut in a bob hair style which covered her round face. She had beautiful bronze skin and wore gold diamond earrings and beautiful expensive flat leather shoes. For that entire week, while standing in line or in the classroom she would always come up to me, pull my hair and touch my skin. She would make comments like: “why is your skin so dark and ugly?” “Your mom needs to perm your nappy hair girl!” She would laugh and say, “Don’t cry now, I’m just playing.”
One Friday in February Kimberly’s attack would be especially vicious. School had finished at 2:30 pm, and the entire middle school sixth through eighth grade were allowed to be outside from 3:30 to 5:00 pm. The playground was gated with an enormous green field and large oak trees. Close to the building there were large green and yellow jungle gyms, two basketball courts, and a huge concrete area for drawing with chalk, jumping rope, and hopscotch. I was excited that school was out because the girls in the seventh grade were kind and loved my Caribbean accent; I ran to join them.
While I was playing Double Dutch with the seventh-grade girls, Kimberly, and her followers came and demanded the rope for them. The older girls told them no. I was standing in line when Kimberly said, “I don’t know why they are allowing you to play with them. I guess they are not scared they will catch AIDS. You need to go back to Africa where you came from.” She shoved me over and over again until the teacher Mr. Price came over and escorted her to the office.
I wanted to burst into tears but my grandmother’s words came to mind, “Missy, be strong and courageous. Never let anyone see you cry.” The seventh-grade girls ran to me. With genuine compassion and sincerity on their faces, they asked many questions and made comments. Are you okay? Can I help with anything? That type of behavior was uncalled for! They seemed upset and saddened by what had happened to me. This made me feel horrible, deep down inside I felt like this was my fault. “I am okay,” I said. When my mom picked me up, she looked at me and could sense that something was wrong. As we slammed the door on her green impala the tears began rolling viciously down my cheeks. We sat in the car for the next hour, and I told my mom everything starting from the first day of school up to today’s incident. My mom was heartbroken, angry and wanted to go back into the building to talk to the principal immediately. “No, mom please don’t,” I said.
Over the weekend, I prayed that my situation would get better in school. I was very angry and was unable to focus and do anything my mom asked me to do. I could feel myself changing from the person I use to be. At that moment, I felt like getting on the first plane and going back to Grenada. I felt like my life had no meaning and I started to detest my dark chocolate skin color, my flat nose, and my curly kinky afro hair. I felt depressed and I hated myself so much I wanted to commit suicide. I prayed every night that weekend, I wanted God to change the hatred in my classmate’s hearts. Each time I got down on my knees and prayed the tears came rushing down my cheeks like a waterfall. I never hated my life more than I did at that very moment.
On Monday morning, my mom parked the car and walked into the building. My heart was pounding because I knew my mom was going to rage analytical warfare in the Principal’s office. I tried to follow her to the principal’s office but she instructed me to go to class. We were one hour into class when there was a loud static coming from the intercom, “Melissa and Kimberly please report to the front office.” As we walked to the office, she turned to me with fire in her eyes and said, “You ugly black troll you turned me in.” I replied, “Please leave me alone.”
When we arrived at the office, our parents were sitting in Mrs. Williams’s office. “Hi, girls come on in,” said the principal. As we sat down she explained, “I have interviewed Mr. Price and the witnesses of the incident that took place on Friday and I am very disappointed in you Kimberly. We are all black in this room. The way you treated this young lady was unfair and inhuman. You will be suspended for the remainder of this week and if this bullying and racism continue I will expel you from this school.” Her mom pleaded with the principal: “This is not fair my daughter would never do this.” Mrs. Williams said, “Mrs. Balterzar, we have an eyewitness, and video to prove the incident did occur.” At this time, the principal dismissed my mom and me.
Before I entered the classroom my mom said, “No matter what, always be kind. Focus on getting a great education. Regardless of what Kim or anyone else says, the color of your skin tone is insignificant.” As I sat at my desk, my mother’s words were a broken record in my head on repeat. I sighed and thought about being back home on the island. The moments of happiness with my family and friends at church here in Texas was overshadowed by the bullying and invisibility I was experiencing in school. I knew I was black but I did not know that the shade of blackness in my skin would get me crucified by some of my classmates. In Grenada, bullying, colorism, and racism were things that were almost nonexistent. Everyone shared and cared for each other as one big happy family.
I felt happy and carefree my old classmates never ridiculed me. These horrible degrading experiences shattered my self-esteem. I became fearful, felt alone and unable to express my feelings the way I needed and wanted to. Deep down inside I felt like I would never overcome this. Ultimately, my mother sought the help of a therapist to help me overcome the fear and insecurities I was feeling. My mother’s fearlessness and confidence helped me navigate out of the darkness that had clouded my life. Eventually, though it would take many years, I found confidence in my strengths and truly felt comfortable about my skin tone.