Friday, January 28, 2011

Black and White

"Mrs. Seely?" A quiet voice broke my concentration as I scanned the ingredients of a tomato soup package in the natural foods aisle. I glanced up, wondering who would be calling me by that name here. Standing a few feet away, a beautiful young lady dressed in the store uniform smiled nervously. I returned her smile, but there was no recognition in it. I have been teaching for seventeen years. The students I taught in the earlier years of my career have now grown up. Their sweet little faces, which are the only faces I remember them by, have evolved into adult faces. On this day, my mind was frantically scrolling through my memory log, clumsily tripping over facts, faces, and figures in a desperate attempt to match this adult face before me with an appropriate name. "Do you remember me?" she smiled hesitantly. Reluctant to admit the truth, I cheated and glanced down at her name tag. A-hah!

We chatted pleasantly for a few minutes, catching up on the years that had passed, her family, and where others from her class were now. She gave me a hug before returning to her duties and promised to keep in touch. My smile lingered awhile as I resumed shopping and began reminiscing.


She was a skinny, awkward, nine year-old when I taught her, but her smile could light up a room. Still at the age when kids love their teachers, she often presented me with crayon masterpieces and sweetly penciled notes and hugs. A naturally happy child, her brown eyes twinkled and her whole face sparkled, even when working out those dreaded long division problems or fractions. But the day she cried at school still stands out in my memory.

The words of children are often unkind and thoughtless. But the words on this particular day stung horribly. A few children had begun to mock her darker skin color and she sought me out in tears. Sobs shook her thin shoulders as she poured out her hurt to me. "I don't like the color of my skin!"

Trying to console her, I opened my mouth to tell her how beautiful her skin was and how special God made her and ... But the words never came. It was almost as if, Jesus slipped His hand across my lips to stop my speech. Instead He whispered into my ear, "Remember?"

Suddenly, I was once again a skinny, awkward, white-skinned nine-year-old girl. I heard the voices laughing at my extremely fair complexion. The words, "Stand her against a white wall and she'll disappear!" came ringing back to me. The frustration of never being able to tan like the other kids filled my heart once again. It was mean. It was cruel. It was unfair.

I looked into her tear-filled eyes once again. But instead of delivering my pre-programmed speech, I simply said, "I understand how you feel. I didn't always like my skin-color either." "You?!" she asked incredulously? I smiled, put my arm around her, and led her to a nearby bench to share with her my story.

The next day, my sweet student bounced off the school bus and greeted me on the playground. "Mrs. Seely," she bubbled, "Thanks for talking with me yesterday. I think I'm going to like my skin color from now on." And with that she was off to join the other kids at recess. I smiled to myself as I watched the living portrait of children before me painted in varying shades of skin-color. "Thank You, Lord," I prayed, "for blessing us by making us different!"

P.S. I also had a talk with those kids who had teased her. It was a learning day for all of us.