You probably do not remember who I am and even if my name means any significance, you probably do not remember the way I look, as it is a few years later when I write this to you. But you may remember my words, my cursive writing and the small doodle I always sketched on my worksheets before I turned them in. I must apologize in advance, meaning no harm what’s so ever from this letter but knowing that this letter may cause you some shame or uncomfortableness. Reactions, I felt continually during my 8th-grade year when I had you as my English teacher. I have always been the odd one out: the only African American girl in class and most would forget my race, however, you always seemed to find a way to bring it up. I do not share this letter to punish you with harsh words or make you cower in shame from my story, I only mean to make you aware.
Though I had many encounters with you, ones where I felt belittled and underestimated, one event has always stayed with me, one that my thirteen-year-old self-thought about daily, rolling it around her head like an eight cue ball seeking a socket. Rethinking everything she knew because of one woman, one teacher who said one sentence and caused a title wave. One that drowned my self-worth and made me wish my skin was a few shades lighter. We had just finished a book on the civil rights movements and all the students sat down as you discussed what words could be used for someone that is African American. In just a few moments, a table was drawn up and everyone shouted their answers, some saying awful names that produced laughter. And I sat there, silently, receiving pitiful looks from my friends as I became the brunt of the jokes, I thought it could not get any worse until you called out my name and asked, “What does your family call each other?”
Seven words, a question starting with a pronoun, such a simple thing to say but it seemed to freeze time. The loud clatter that once flowed through the classroom came to a halt and all thirty sets of eyes were on me. I crumbled under the stares, my tongue a weight in my mouth and you watched me as I stumbled over my words and spoke, “We call each other by our names.” I do not think you thought about what your words could do as they left your lips. I do not think you knew I was only half black. I do not think you imagined how cruel the students were after, forgetting I had a name and calling me by anything else.
When you asked me that question you ripped away what made me human to everyone else and created an object that people laughed at for entertainment. Later when you played Strange Fruit by Billie Holiday, her soulful voice could not heal my wounds, it only seemed to dig the knife in deeper as I watched people that looked like me being lynched and burned alive. I did not want to be black. I wished I had never been born. And that is why I write this to you, to a caucasian woman who has hopefully never felt true hatred for a having a skin color I never chose.
You do not know what it was like to hide away in the bathroom to cry after that day. You do not know what it was like to tell my Mexican mother why I needed to switch classes. You do not know how hard it was back home. School was meant to be my safe space but you made it a prison. This letter is to show that words have more damage than you think and I want you to know that I forgive you because you are only one of many that have hurt me. But you also taught me to prove everyone who underestimated me for the way I look, wrong. So I have to thank you because without you I would have never found the value of my name and the beauty of it.
I really enjoyed reading your piece. Your overall message was really powerful as you were able to display how this teacher affected you. The way you were able to demonstrate why she made you feel the way she did was what made your piece project more. I am especially fond of your line, “I crumbled under the stars, my tongue feeling like a weight and you watched me as I stumbled over my words and spoke,”We call each other by our names.”” With this line I was really able to get the message as to how you felt. It is important to make teachers aware of how much they can affect a person based on their unconscious actions. Thank you for a great piece!
Hey Kenya! I am sorry for the way your teacher has made you feel, I too have had experience with a teacher who was unaware of how words have the ability to not only cut deep, but also leave scars. I think that it is extremely important that teachers watch what they say to their students and respect their students because they have such a huge impact on our lives. I do not think that just because they are older and are our teaches give them the right to say whatever they want to us and even make us feel disrespected in any way. They should be there for us and treat us respectfully and do everything in their power to keep us feeling safe and respected and comfortable.