Society can break people. On the day I realized this, I was in a 6th grade classroom in Manhattan, Ks. It would be my first opportunity in life to look someone in the eyes and try to help them heal. I was a sparkly-eyed bilingual elementary education student teacher with dreams of changing the world in what I considered to be a diverse school. That’s when a 6th grade student, Francisco*, broke my heart.
The other students all filed out to the playground for recess with the lead teacher but as he often did, Francisco stayed behind to chat with me while I graded papers. Most of the time we’d chat a little in Spanish, his first language. He never wanted the other students to hear him speak Spanish, and insisted that everyone else call him Frank. I, however, was allowed to call him by his given name, “because it doesn’t sound ugly when you say it.”
This particular day he looked like he was hiding tears behind his smile.
“Miss, I don’t like being the only Mexican here,” he spoke softly.
I raised my eyes to his with a smile and asked, “Why not?”
“People here, they say bad things about Mexicans.” Tears welled and his long black lashes blinked them away. Francisco had recently moved from New Mexico where he’d lived in a predominantly Mexican- American community to a town in Kansas where he was, indeed, the only Hispanic kid in his grade.
“Francisco, let me tell you something. I want to be sure you hear me, because this is important.”
His eyes held mine so I continued with an earnest look, trying to hold back tears of my own, “Never be ashamed of who God made you to be. He made you special. It’s okay to be different, differences are to be embraced. Wouldn’t it be a boring world if we were all the same?”
“Yeah, but, no one else here speaks Spanish, and people look at us weird when my mom and I are at the store and she speaks to me in Spanish.”
With a smile to hide that my heart was breaking for him, I teased, “I speak Spanish. Am I no one?”
“But you are different, Miss. You like Mexicans.”
Really holding back the tears, I pressed on, “Francisco. You are special. I actually know very few people who can speak two languages, and that makes you MORE special than you apparently even know. Be PROUD that you can do that. Don’t hide it! Speak to your mom in Spanish in public and understand that the people who stare may just be jealous that you are smarter than they are.”
I said this last bit not exactly believing it, but wanting to. It was apparently enough for him though, because he lowered his eyes and said a quiet, “Thank you.”
“Now get on out to recess before you miss the whole thing,” I said cheerily. But as soon as he was out of the room, I lowered my head and cried. I cried for him, I cried for our narrow-minded ignorant society, I cried because I felt righteously angry, filled with a passion for changing the world, but not knowing how.
More than twelve years later, as a mom in her mid-30s, I keep reenacting that same conversation. This time I’m trying to find the words to help heal new friends. This time they are LGBT friends (yes, at least one of each of them!) I found that when speaking to people who our society treats unequally, people who are sometimes stared at and whispered about in public, that my words are continually echoing, “Never be ashamed of who God made you to be! YOU are special. It’s okay to be different, differences are to be embraced!”
However, when speaking these truths, that EVERY child should hear over and over, to people who are MUCH older than twelve and who have BELIEVED for SO long the negative things our society says about them, I see that it’s going to take more than just nice words from a straight, Spanish-speaking white woman to heal their pain. The words of love and acceptance spilling from my lips will only act as a soothing balm for an hour or two at best. The kind of healing they need, really, is going to take our society changing. For the first time since I stopped teaching to have a family of my own, I have found my passion again to change the world, starting with the children in my own community in Wichita, Ks. I will be their ally, their advocate and their mentor if needed. I will show kids how to embrace each other’s differences so that new generations can give hope to the ones who came before them. Will you join me in bringing GLSEN to our schools so that ALL kids can feel safe, respected and loved?