When I was in the first grade, I learned that I wasn’t as good as the other children. I learned it from my teacher.
The lessons children learn in school aren’t all from arithmetic or geography lessons, but a lot comes from the messages we get from teachers and other children. Some of those lessons hurt – and those often have more impact and last longer than the others.
When I was five, I started first grade. I remember my first day. I woke up early, excited, and was ready to go an hour early—new dress, new shoes, new socks, and a new box of Crayolas!
We had just moved from Alabama to Texas, so I didn’t know any of the other children, and I stood back, a little timid. Then my teacher, Mrs. Thompson, opened the door. I thought she was beautiful and kind. As we filed in, she smiled and said something nice to every student. Except me. When my turn came, she didn’t smile. Actually, she made an ugly face and I could tell she didn’t like me. I’d never before met anyone who didn’t like me, but now, I was meeting one of the most important people in my life, and she didn’t.
I was confused. I didn’t understand why my teacher didn’t like me or why she treated me differently, so I thought there had to be something wrong with me.
Much later, I learned that she hadn’t wanted me in her class because I was only five when the school year started. She thought I was too young. I didn’t turn six until mid-September. The school had made an exception to accept me, and she was angry about it.
I was learning about prejudice before I ever heard the word.
Before she even met me, Mrs. Thompson had already made her decision about me. She had made up her mind that I did not belong in her class.
The second day, I learned that I wasn’t as smart as most of the other children.
Mrs. Thompson divided us into four groups based on how smart we were. I’d thought I was as smart as the other children. I had been in kindergarten, but she put me in the lowest group. All the other groups got workbooks
I was embarrassed to be in the “worst” group, even though Inez, who became my best friend, was in that group too, and she was smart. She even knew two languages, and she taught me words in Spanish.
The better-group children sat in a circle in the front of the room.
When the better-group children did good work Mrs. Thompson hung it on the wall. I worked hard because I wanted to show Mrs. Thompson I was smart, and I wanted to make her like me and put one of my assignments on the wall too.
The worst day of my life, up until then –
Mrs. Thompson gave the whole class pictures of Little Red Riding Hood to color. It was my chance to show her I what a good job I could do. I was good at coloring. I was half finished when I heard her say to color the cape “bright” red. I thought “bright” meant “light”, and my heart sank. I’d messed up again. My cape was shiny, dark red. I tried to fix it by scraping off the red crayon with my fingernails. Mrs. Thompson saw it, snatched it up, slammed it back down in disgust, and snapped at me. “I said bright! Don’t you ever listen? This is just a mess!”
I kept my eyes down on my paper. My face was hot. I knew all the children heard her and were looking at me.
I wanted to shout, “But I did listen!” But I was too embarrassed to tell her I didn’t know what “bright” meant. When I went home, I was ashamed to talk to my parents about it. These were new feelings. I more than felt sad. I felt angry-sad. It felt like waves of red-hot tears started in my chest, swelled up through my throat, like a scream, and pushed at my eyes. “It wasn’t fair!” “It wasn’t fair!”
In the middle of the year, Mrs. Thompson quit, and we had a new teacher. She taught me different lessons. She did away with the groups except for reading, and Inez and I were in the higher group for that. The new teacher smiled at me and put my work on the wall too. So I learned that I was as smart and as worthy as the other children, and I deserved a place! I learned the difference between being judged and being accepted.
Mrs. Thompson lessons were valuable. She taught me about prejudice, discrimination, and unfairness.
Today I’m glad I learned Mrs. Thompson’s lessons. Because of her, I understand what prejudice feels like and the damage it does. I couldn’t stand up against her, but she taught me the things I would stand against, because I know how much it hurts to be judged without being given a chance, to be falsely accused, or to be treated unfairly.
I hate the expression, “Life’s not fair.” It implies that unfairness is okay because it’s just the way things are. No! Life’s not as fair as it can be, and we need to recognize the unfairness and work, every day, to and make life better.
What lessons have you learned “the hard way”?
What have those lessons taught you about standing up for your values?