Trouble. It was a word that followed me from birth. That echoed in the halls of school. That seemed to exude from my dark black skin and the way kids would look at me like I were an enigma. A problem. Trouble.
It was the inexorable weight placed on a young black girl’s shoulders by a society of expectations. A Georgetown study calls this the adultifaction of young black girls finding that “girls as young as 5 need less protection and nurturing than their white peers” which itself is linked to higher standards and harsher treatment.
In a word, trouble.
It was the word that passed through my mind as I was forced to stay after school and do fall decorations with Miss Kaufman. A way too cheerful grade school teacher -- exactly the type of cheerful I didn't trust. The type that marks you as either a very happy person or a complete psycho.
Looking back, I believe she was caught in that age between hope and disillusionment. A hope that could see potential in even the most troubling students but a lurking disillusionment that caused her to recognize the ones that had potential versus the ones that were a lost cause. But even as I cut another leaf from the construction paper, I figured I was in the latter category.
Do you know what the Matthew effect is? It comes from a passage in the bible that says, "To whom that has much, much will be given and to he that hath not it will be taken away." In psychology, this is the tendency of teachers to focus heavily on kids who they see as having potential. They push them so that they become even better. The children who they see as ending up on crack ten years from now they ignore making school even harder for them.
Jane Elliot confirmed this effect in 1968 with the blue eyes/brown eyes experiment where she told blue eyed children in her classroom they were not as smart or clean as those with brown eyes. The effect was the blue-eyed kids struggled in class and the brown-eyed children thrived. As Elliot revealed, this same process goes on in all our schools except with white and black kids. White kids get validation. Black kids get constant rejection.
Matthew's effect was playing out with the slow snip of paper: punishment disguised as an art project. Miss Kaufman knew art was my least favorite subject. I hated how clunky the scissors felt in my hands. How everyone else's art projects seemed so perfect and beautiful and mine so ugly and jagged. Even as a precocious seven-year-old the entire thing seemed so pointless to me. Why couldn't we just buy the decorations? Why did we have to make them? Why did she have to remind me of how terrible I was at art?
These epithets were running through my mind as my teacher asked '"Are you alright?"
I just looked at her. Why would I tell her? She couldn't understand. She was white. And I was a little black girl messing up her class. A BAD little black girl. Still, she somehow picked up on my frustration.
"Look," she said.
And then she took my hand and guided me in cutting the leaf.
"It helps if you do it like this. You have to just let the scissors melt into the paper."
I don't know. Somehow the way she said it made sense and I slowly was able to get the hang of it. Eventually, I was getting a little creative with it and with each leaf, she would look at the design I made and say; "That's pretty." or "Gorgeous."
And while I know you would never tell a little seven-year-old their leaf looked like trash -- even today I still believe she was giving her honest opinion. I certainly did then. Turns out this was just a part of her nefarious scheme. Her scheme to get me to open up.
I'm ashamed to say it worked -- what can I say I was a sucker for ass-kissing and not yet privy to the subtle psychological tactics adults use on little kids. It's quite unfair when you think about it. Still, she took her newfound trust and asked a question, "Tasha, do you know why you're here?"
A stinging pulsed through my body because I knew what this was. This was the now-you-can-think-about-what-you’ve-done part of the punishment. The part where I admit what a terrible girl I was and go home to my parents who will scold me mercilessly. I lowered my head and shyly squeaked out, "Yes, ma'am. I know."
"And why are you here?"
"Because I'm a bad girl," I admitted.
Her response was not what I expected. she took me by the chin forcing me to look her in the eye.
"What? No!" she said with an anger I had NEVER seen in miss Kaufman. "Why do you think you're a bad girl?"
"Because I hit Britany in the face. That's what the principal said."
Her face. Her “pretty” face. It would not be until many years later I would read about the Doll Test. A 2006 study where children were asked to pick between two dolls -- a nice one and a “bad” one. The results were staggering: the white doll was continuously associated with goodness and the black with badness.
One girl, when asked why she picked the black doll, said, “Because she’s Black,”
The little girl was black herself.
I remember right after the event sitting outside the door of the principles office. He and Miss Kaufman were in a heated argument. I remember Miss Kaufman's voice going to levels I had never heard. Whatever the two decided, Miss Kaufman emerged from the office and took me to her class to stay until after school.
Obviously, I figured, I was being punished for being bad. Because I was a bad girl. But much to my confusion, Miss Kaufman revealed, "You're actually here because you're a good girl."
"You have been nothing but good in my class. So I know that if someone as shy and thoughtful as you hit someone, you had to have a very good reason."
Brittany Herrington was the popular kid-- well as popular as a first grader could be. She had the right kind of parents and was beautiful as could be. I remember her getting put into all those pageants. However, she also had influential parents -- and some thought that’s why she never got in any big trouble despite being -- well -- not so nice.
I remember the bouts Miss Kaufman would have with Britany, sending her to the principal’s office for snide remarks only for her to come back with a smug smile because her parents read the principal the riot act.
This was personal to Miss Kaufman, too.
"What did Brittany tell you," she nudged.
A part of me didn't want to say because I was used to people not believing me. People thinking I was exaggerating. And even if they did believe me. They wouldn't care. And even if they cared, I didn't want to relive it. I did not want to say why I hit her and knocked from the stands as we were about to take group pictures.
But the desperate edge in Miss Kaufman’s voice convinced me this was a thing of urgent importance as she asked again, "What did she say?"
There was some relief in hearing her request. Like I was being given permission to hurt. To feel. A permission snatched from me on a daily basis.
"She said," I finally squeezed out, "Don't stand next to me in the picture."
"Did she say why?"
"She said because my skin was too dark and ugly." And that's when I cried. All the pain held back from that moment was not just confined to the interaction between me and Britany but all the people who looked and stared at me or just looked at me as less than. That's when Miss Kaufman picked up the pile of leaves we had made -- first she picked up a red one. "What did I tell you about this leaf?"
"You called it pretty."
She picked up a green one "And this leaf?"
"You called it pretty."
"And this leaf." And I hadn't noticed it before but this one was a deep bronze. it seemed like looking in a mirror as I gazed at it for an eternity and finally out came the words, "It's pretty."
"Pretty is not a color Tasha. it's an attitude, a form. And it doesn't come in one size or shape. And it certainly doesn’t come in one color. You in all your sweetness. your thoughtfulness, your brilliance are pretty. People who do things like Britney are the ugly ones. You are more beautiful than you know."
I don’t know what happened to Brittany. I don’t even know what happened to Miss Kaufman. And I’d like to tell you this moment changed me in a profound way such that I never doubt my value.
But in my darkest days on an autumn stroll, I look at the myriad of leaves falling from the heavens and it confirms my hope in myself. It renews my hope in the world.