I was five when I started Kindergarten at Rushford Central School. By the time I went to Kindergarten, we had lived there for two years. My parents’ four biological children are much older than I am, so they had already been attending school there.
In the early years of school, me being different didn’t really seem like a big deal. I don’t remember people asking me why I looked different. We only went to school half the day in Kindergarten and I was in the afternoon class. The teacher’s assistant was a member of my church so I felt comfortable there. And I made friends. And I loved school.
First grade was one of my favorite years. My teacher was also from my church and she played her guitar at school like she did at church. We would sing songs like “Puff, The Magic Dragon” and my teacher would always compliment my singing when I saw her in church on Sunday.
We were in what was considered “experimental” learning back then and I was in what was called an open classroom. This can best be described as being like the Montessori model. There was no limit on your reading. If you read at a 2nd grade level in the 1st grade, you went to the 2nd grade class area for reading. Our class areas were divided by a tree house and a castle that were designated quiet reading areas. I always loved being able to go read in the upstairs of the treehouse.
Again, during this time, I don’t remember having really big issues with the fact that I was a mixed race kid living with all these white people. I was smart and well behaved. I never wanted to be a problem. There was enough of that going on at home with my parent’s kids.
I can say though that this was the beginning of internalizing beauty standards that would take years to overcome. I remember really wishing I had long, straight hair like all the other girls. And since I was starting to get chubby, I wanted to be skinny. I don’t necessarily equate this with a race issue. Although I will say that when I became part of the Black community, I learned that body size is not as much of an issue as it is in the White community.
I was a pretty good student.
School was always easy. I love to learn and read. My school was very small, about 400 students kindergarten through twelfth grade. So as we all grew up together, the other students in my class were my close friends. I had a best friend and many other friends. I loved to come to school and see my friends everyday.
Then I went to third grade. And I had the most hateful teacher that just made all of our lives miserable. I don’t really know why she had such disdain for our class in general and for me, specifically, but school went from being a fun place to go to being someplace I dreaded being.
At the same time our house became a place that I dreaded being as well. These things had been building up. My parent’s children were doing things they ought not be doing and so there was turmoil. In addition, they have one son who liked to make it his business to torment me in anyway he saw fit. That’s all I will say about that except to say that lifelong hate isn’t instilled from harmless teasing and his actions caused me years of anguish and body image issues that were very unnecessary.
So third grade was a time when I started to really feel angry about my adoption, angry about being different and angry at being hurt. But I couldn’t say anything, I was too afraid to rock the boat. There was already so much going on and I had been told that if I was any trouble that I would be sent back to where I came from. So I stayed silent. And my hurt grew.
My third grade teacher sent me to the downstairs classroom for fourth grade. I guess it was her last revenge on me – after a year of picking on me and everyone else in the classroom, her final act was to tear us all apart for the upcoming year. To those of us sent downstairs, it was like a death sentence. No open classroom. No tree house. This was where the slow kids were sent, why had I been sent there?
So the early years of my school ended with a lot of confusion. My idyllic world of butterflies and zebras and fairy tales had evaporated into hateful words and painful moments. It just made sense that I had been sentenced to the downstairs classrooms. Little did I know then that in would meet the boy I would have a crush on all through school there. It would begin the time when me being different mattered a lot.