Author Ranjit Souri reads “Through a Child’s Eyes” for Chicago Public Radio’s 848. Audio courtesy CPR.
1973. BARNESVILLE, OHIO
I was the only person of color in my kindergarten class.
Barnesville was home to three black families, one Indian family (mine), and about 2,000 white families.
One day my kindergarten class did a project on shadows. First, Miss Gardner taped a large sheet of black construction paper to the wall. Then she turned off the lights. Kimberly Burkhart stood directly in front of the black paper. Steve Carter shone a large flashlight onto Kimberly’s head, so that the shadow of Kimberly’s profile was projected onto the black construction paper. Miss Gardner took her huge wooden pencil and traced the shadow of Kimberly’s profile onto the paper. Then Miss Gardner removed the black paper and replaced it with a fresh sheet. Now it was Steve Carter’s turn to stand next to the black paper, while Angela Cutshaver took over flashlight duty. This process continued until Miss Gardner had traced each student’s profile onto a separate sheet of black construction paper.
That night, Miss Gardner cut out all of the profiles.
The next morning, each child glued his or her profile onto a larger sheet of white paper. What had previously been 25 jagged pieces of black construction paper were now magically transformed into images of the profiles of all of Miss Gardner’s students. When we were finished, we looked at each profile and discussed it.
When Miss Gardner showed my profile to the class, Matt Fenwick grinned and said, “Ranjit looks like an ape.”
In front of these 24 classmates with whom I would spend my next 12 years: “Ranjit looks like an ape.”
The laughter was deafening.
1998. DAYTON, OHIO
I was the only person of color in my east-side neighborhood.
Dayton’s inner city was divided into two distinct parts. The west side was poor and black. The east side was poor and white.
I was a Head Start teacher. Head Start is a government-funded preschool program for children of families in poverty. I taught in the part of town that was poor and white.
One day we got a new student. Rachel was 4.
When Rachel’s mom brought her into the classroom that morning, Rachel would not look at me. When I approached her, she looked away with defiance.
We had two other teachers in the classroom. I noticed that Rachel had no problems interacting with them. Before Rachel’s mom left, I asked her whether there was a problem. She was a bit flustered and said, “Well …”
I asked, “Is it my skin color?”
Relieved, she answered, “Yes, I think so.”
All at once, I realized that—in my own classroom—I was back in Barnesville in 1973.
During the day, I made several attempts to speak with Rachel. She acted as if I did not exist. So I focused my attention on the other children. Rachel still ignored me as she interacted with her new classmates, her new environment, and her other new teachers.
Suddenly, about halfway through the day, I sensed Rachel watching me.
Soon I began reading to a group of kids. We were well into the story when Rachel joined our group. She sat far away from me. But when a few kids left she moved and sat next to me. Soon, Rachel was laughing and conversing with me, and even calling me “Mister Ranjit” as the other children did.
At the end of the school day, when Rachel’s mom returned to pick her up, I was on the other side of the classroom. After zipping up her coat and shrugging on her backpack, Rachel suddenly ran across the room, threw her arms around me, and planted a big kiss on my lips!
Yes. These ape lips.
All of a sudden, the laughter from 25 years earlier did not seem quite so deafening.
|Ranjit Souri (rjsouri [at] gmail [dot] com) teaches classes in improvisation, comedy writing, and creative non-fiction in Chicago.|