I have always loved to write and had dreams of writing the great American Novel one day, however I was never inspired with an idea good enough nor lived a life exciting enough that anyone would care to read it. Besides that, I never realized I had an iota of talent for writing until I was a senior in high school. Oh sure I received high grades on all my writing assignments, but they weren’t about creative writing. Most assignments required research and presenting facts I had read in books and compiled for a report of some kind or another. So, when I was told that I would be placed in Honors English in my senior year of high school, I was shocked. The challenge of being with other honor students, who had probably been given creating writing assignments for years, made me feel insecure about myself. I never felt confident about my writing. And worse yet I thought to myself, how will my writing stack up to the thousands of students that this teacher has had throughout her teaching career?
Well, as I anticipated, after honors English got underway for a couple of weeks, the teacher asked us to write an essay. She specifically wanted one about an event in our lives that had a profound effect on us and changed us in some way. At first I panicked and thought it is going to be very difficult for me to even come up with an idea, my experiences were very limited, to say the least. I was hoping to come up with something I could write about with feeling and not just flub it to get the assignment done. Fortunately for me, my brain always kicks in after I sleep on something for a day or two. This time it sent me back to a day when I was in junior high school. I was in eighth grade, in was April 5th, 1968, the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. I wrote about what happened that day and how it changed me.
I went to school like any other normal day, but when I got there what I found was anything but normal. Many, if not all, of the black students in the schoolyard were off to one corner in a large group. There was shouting and making a commotion, and I was too naïve to tie it in with what had happened the day before. I know that I didn’t have the awareness to appreciate the enormous significance of Mr. King’s assassination at the time. I’m not even sure how much we had learned about civil rights in school at that point. Suffice to say I was clueless. And, so I passed by the “demonstration” and went into the school building prepared for a routine day of classes.
Now, I was in a very small class of 19 students, 18 girls and one boy. It was the top class of “gifted” students and we were all very close and all pretty much friends, after having spent two or more years together. The class was racially and ethnically mixed so that we had black, white and Hispanic students. There had never been any issue among us. I had never looked at any of us as “black” or “white” because we were all friends. When I had gotten to my English class that morning, the teacher said we would be going to the library. That was odd in itself because we never wen to the library, but nothing was going the way it usually does that day. Still, I didn’t think much of it because I thought to myself, whatever is going on outside is not going to affect my class, we are all friends.
When we got to the library however, the usual students didn’t sit at tables with their closest friends. As happens in any group, you becomes somewhat closer to some than others. It was normal for me to be having lunch with Dora and meeting her in the morning for extra French help. Dora was black. Sandra, who was a black student, was very close friends with my friend Barbara, who was white…and so on. But, when we got to the library none of the usual little groups of friends sat together. All of the black students went to sit together at one table and were whispering among themselves. Those of us who remained didn’t know what to make of this and didn’t understand it. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. We just took random seats at various tables. It was awkward, it was confusing, it was sad. Things pretty much stayed that way the whole day and maybe longer. When we walked through the halls to our classes, the breakdown stayed along racial lines. I was hurt, I didn’t know who to ask about what was going on. All I knew was that was the day I learned about “black” and “white” and that my classmates and I were not immune to this awareness of racial difference that kept others in society apart, as I had believed. I really thought that we saw beyond race to who the person was, but now I had to question that. We were all the same people that we were on the day before, but on April 5th, 1968 we didn’t see each other the same way. The teachers never stopped to address it either. Something unspoken changed that day. We would all go on to put this division behind us and finish out the school year as friends. We would all meet again in September and spend another year together, working and laughing and enjoying each other’s company. But we suffered a loss of innocence caused by our new awareness. Even though we were colorblind friends in our own classroom, in the outside world race made a difference, and it couldn’t be denied. My rose colored glasses had been shattered into black and white pieces.
I poured my heart out into this essay, which was the first time I had talked or written about the experience that had taken place four years earlier. I handed it in to my teacher, expecting to get maybe a B or B+. A few days later, she handed back our essays. On the top of mine was a big A+ and a note saying I was a very talented writer. My English teacher, who had read countless papers of gifted, honor students, validated my writing ability that day. I can’t even describe what it meant to me to see the grade and her words which made me think maybe I can be a writer. Maybe one day people will want to read my words and care about what I have to say. She built up my confidence to an all time high. And it couldn’t have come at a better time, because I was headed to college where I would be writing many more papers and getting many more A’s.