When I was twenty-nine years old, I began a rather harrowing year as a public school teacher (okay, I made it to April and then couldn’t make it anymore). I was hired as a fifth grade bilingual language arts teacher except that I had one bilingual class and one regular class. There weren’t enough bilingual kids left by that age in this particular school.
At that time in my life I had a Hispanic last name to go perfectly with my bilingual teaching persona. My ex-husband was of Mexican origin and I still carried his name after my divorce. So to those kids and those parents in the year 2010, I was Ms. Armenta. Coincidentally, the name also went well with my pale olive skin tone, brown hair and dark eyes.
I sputtered through my days, sometimes sleep walking and sometimes collapsing into a crying heap on the floor as soon as my kids left the room. It was one of the hardest years of my life but one of the most heartfelt ones, too. The notes and gifts I’d get from my kids, especially when I was gone for a day or when a holiday came along like Christmas or Valentine’s Day, are memories I will cherish forever.
But a memory that sticks like a thorn is the time I had to host my first open house for the parents on a balmy Tuesday evening. It was the kind of evening you have in late September where the muted sunlight says fall is coming but the temperatures haven’t kept up because, well, it’s Texas.
For the non-parents and non-teachers in the audience, an open house is where all of the parents arrive at school in the evening to see some group projects their kids have done (I’d chosen a social studies project to display in the hallway) and review their kids’ recent work (I’d left various graded assignments on their desks). The teachers are also available to chat with parents in sort of a mini-conference about how their kids are progressing and whether or not there are any behavioral or academic issues.
I’d hoped to have enough energy to make it through the event after a long day at work, but I’d also worried that my Spanish wouldn't hold out long enough to communicate effectively (it tends to disappear when I’m stressed or tired).
I remember speaking with a stream of parents that evening, one after another, and leading them to their child’s desk to talk through some of what they saw. I remember struggling to switch between English and Spanish depending on which parents were next in line, and feeling weary because it was 7:30 p.m., I’d been up since 5:30 a.m., and I’d already put in a full day with my kids.
At some point there were more parents than I could handle and my classroom turned into a waiting room rather than an academic display. I was trying my best to give each parent my full attention while being mindful of those who were still waiting, but I suppose you can never please everyone. I had about forty kids in my care every day and each one of them had parents in tow.
Carly was one of my non-bilingual kids, and she started the year so far below grade level that she was already in danger of not moving on to sixth grade. She was also a perpetually absent student who seemed to formulate a new illness anytime she didn’t want to go to school.
Carly's mother arrived fairly late that evening and I guess didn't like having to wait a bit while I was speaking to some of the Hispanic parents (in Spanish) who had arrived on time. I eventually walked over to her with my best smile, but was greeted sourly with, “You’ve been spending all of your time talking to those parents. I think you’re racist against white people.”
I was understandably unprepared for such an assault. But, being a teacher and therefore exceptionally capable of remaining composed in the most trying of circumstances, I quickly formulated a reply in my head that I knew would shut her up quickly.
“Well, my maiden name is actually Schaeffer. I'm part German.”
She looked at me wide-eyed for a moment, blinked a few times, opened her mouth a bit, and then began to backpedal.
Too late, lady. Too late.
What could I do – myself the product of an interracial marriage – but cross my arms in annoyance when I was accused of being racist toward my own kind? The rest of the night is a blur and so is my conversation with that bitter woman, but the memory of the accusation remains vivid to this day.
I write this story because it’s come up again in my life recently. I’m thirty-eight years old and almost a decade has passed since that open house, but I’ve been accused – again – of being a racist. Except this time I’m apparently racist against black people.
Never mind that my husband is black.
Sure, that accusation makes sense this time too, right?
The racism card is an especially touchy one these days. But even with my own mild experiences with racism as a mixed-race college kid in the Midwest, I still can’t pretend to understand what my husband might experience. Or what an immigrant might experience. Or what people living 50 or 100 years ago experienced.
And I humble myself to this and know that I can only have empathy and will never gain full insight.
But I can sure as hell get angry when someone accuses me of something I’m so vehemently against – that being racism or intolerance of any kind.
So as I sit here tonight and write this blog, chewing on the accusations, I find myself focusing on the fact that accusations are thrown by people who are probably projecting. People who perhaps have their own biases, or their own anger, or their own frustrations.
And if you look at the way humans behave, there’s a broken record pattern that always plays out like this: Most people who are unkind act that way because they’re unhappy, and many people who are intolerant are actually afraid of something else.
So how about we all start being a bit more aware and a bit more in touch with our own prejudices? How about we stop accusing people of things that are hurtful and instead start taking the time to learn more about that person across the room, or across the way, or next to us on the train - before we make a decision in our heads?
Maybe you’ve labeled someone based on a certain interpretation that's built on your own information. Maybe. It happens to the best of us at one time or another and I catch myself (and course correct) on a regular basis.
The world needs more kindness, especially right now. I sure wish humans could do better.
The Big Pause