What Color Are You?

What Color Are You?

From A 5th Portion of Chicken Soup for the Soul

What Color Are You?

As a second-grade teacher in an inner-city school, I am often faced with the task of answering questions that really have nothing to do with our course of study for the day—questions that you won’t find on any national standardized tests. Some of these questions can be recycled into research for the class (“Mrs. Eastham, why are butterflies all different colors?” “How does the grass die in the winter and then come alive in the spring?”) Others are much more ponderous and may not have an exact right or wrong answer.

Since I am not one to squelch curiosity, we often take these opportunities as they arise and have short class discussions on them. I let everyone comment on the subject and then tell them we can each make up our own minds. (“Why do we have homework every night?” “Are there really such things as angels?”)

Our discussion on differences started innocently enough. I asked the class if they could tell me whether a very tall man was good or bad. They agreed that you couldn’t tell if someone was good or bad just because they were tall. I told them that I knew someone who couldn’t walk well and so she rode in a wheelchair most of the time. I asked if that person was bad or mean because she uses a wheelchair, and they all agreed that you couldn’t tell. We went on for a while in this vein and came to the conclusion that being different doesn’t make someone good or bad, it just makes that person different.

I decided to take the discussion to a more personal level and explore our personal differences. We talked about how we are all different from one another, how no two people are exactly alike, how even twins have different personalities or features that define them as individuals. I went on to tell them that I was different from everyone in the room because I was the tallest. I was also different because I lived in Red Oak and everyone else lived in Dallas.

Then I planned to have each of them tell the class how they were different. But before I could call on the first pupil, my quietest student raised his hand and announced, “Mrs. Eastham is different because she is a different color.”

As I think back now, I realize that if this had been said in a room with fifteen other adults, this simple statement of truth would have laid out on the floor, floundering like a fish out of water, while embarrassed glances waited for someone to break the awkward silence. Not so in a classroom of fifteen second-graders. They jumped on it!

“Yeah, Mrs. Eastham is white.”

“No, she’s not, she’s peach!”

“I think she’s really just bright brown.”

“She’s creamy.”

“She’s kinda yellow.”

“She’s just really shiny.”

Trying to hide my grin, I told the class they could have small group discussions on it while I turned the attendance report into the office. I barely made it out of the room before my smirk turned into a full belly laugh. I chuckled all the way to the office and related the story to a fellow teacher while there. I couldn’t wait to get back to the room to hear them discuss this!

When I opened the door, they were already back in their seats. They had finished their discussion. (Darn, I had missed it!) I picked a spokesperson for the group, and he said that they knew what color I was but they wanted me to tell them if they were right or not. I said that since this question had only one right answer, I would tell them if they had guessed right or not. Then he told me that the class had decided that I was clear.

Clear? Somehow I was able to suppress my laughter. How did they come up with that? I was saved by the bell, as it was time for them to go to gym. I told them we could talk about it after gym and sent them on their way. Looking back now, I know someone was looking out for me.

While grading papers, I began to muse over our morning again. I was reminded of the times I had been at conferences and workshops and even dinner parties and had been asked, “How many of your students are black? How many white children are in your class? Do you teach many Hispanics?” So many times I have had to stop and try to count out the answers. “How many black students do I have? I know I have fifteen kids. Is it ten black and five Hispanic, or eleven and four?”

The person posing the question is very often amazed and perplexed that I don’t know the ethnic makeup of my classroom. I guess it’s because when I am teaching, I am teaching children, not colors. I began to realize that it was the same for my kids. They don’t see me as black or white or Hispanic; they see me as a person, someone who cares about them, encourages them to do their best and works hard with them every day.

When my students got back to the room, they were all still abuzz about our morning discussion and begged me to tell them if they were right or wrong. I had to tell them the truth. They were exactly right. I am clear!

Now when I am asked that inevitable question at dinner parties or conventions or workshops—“How many black and Hispanic and white children do you have?”—I have a pat answer that works every time, with no fumbling or counting. I look the person straight in the eye and say, “None. They are all clear.”

Melissa D. Strong Eastham

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