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.