“Daddy, what color does a person have to be to get a taste of colored water?”
from: The Taste of Colored Water
written and illustrated by Matt Faulkner
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2008
1968, I was finishing my sophomore year of high school. I had in my mind I might be an elementary school teacher after college. Head Start, a new Federal preschool, was looking for summer volunteers. I didn’t tell my parents I would be expected to go into a dangerous neighborhood three times every week for most of the summer. Although I suspect they knew that, I never will understand why my parents, both of them, said yes. But I’m glad they did.
Head Start was in its infancy, created in 1964, as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's “War on Poverty.” A summer volunteering at a school seemed like a good idea to me. I would be around children. I loved that. I would have the mentorship of a certified and qualified teacher, dedicated to the education of the children in her care. I could learn from her.
1968, a difficult year for Cleveland, and many other major U.S. cities. The Hough Riots were history, but just barely. My assigned school was in the middle of this calmed-down, but still-tense area. I arrived on my first day, ready for work, but far from ready to understand how my experience would change my life.
My parents moved to a mostly Jewish neighborhood when I was entering first grade. They wanted me to be around people with similar backgrounds and values. Back then, I didn’t know I was a minority. I remember being surprised when I discovered I am.
Back in my Head Start classroom, I was a minority. If my teacher was surprised to see a young, white teenager, she didn’t show it. All the children were black. If they were surprised to see someone who did not look like them, they didn’t show it either.
We got on with the business of education. We played games to learn numbers, shapes, colors, and letters. We learned how to line up to go to the restroom, go outside to play, and to buddy-up to go on “nature” walks in the neighborhood. We listened to birds, paid attention to the shapes of the leaves on trees, and watched squirrels chase each other.
Especially on these neighborhood walks, I was very aware of looking different from everyone around me. I felt like an outsider, someone not familiar. Maybe even someone to fear.
My classroom, though, was a haven of safety and acceptance. We practiced good manners and took turns. The children loved to get hugs and I loved to give them.
One time a little girl, who I’d played with for several weeks, drummed up enough courage to ask me if she could touch my arm. She was very relieved to discover my skin felt just like hers. I’m not sure what she expected, but I told her only the color is different. Then we got on with the rest of our day.
I’ve thought about our shared experience many times since then and what she taught me:
How we really are all the same on the inside: organs, blood, bones.
How we are alike is so much more important than how we are different.
How seeing color and learning about it is so much better than pretending to be "color-blind."
I learned that from a 4-year-old, one summer, a long time ago.