We sat together at lunch, in music class, and in the classroom. We played together for five recesses, then we sat under the birch tree, then you were gone. I don’t even remember your name. How I want to know your name. How I want to unpunch you.
My seven-year-old brain thought that if I was nice to you, people would say about me what they said about you: you dressed funny, you smelled bad, you brought your weird lunch in a brown paper bag, your teeth were all capped with silver, you were no doubt poor, and you lived at one of the less-desirable trailer courts in our district.
For all of these reasons I punched you in the face under the birch tree at recess that day. Every one was watching, the girls and the boys, so I had to save face. They said I loved you. They said I was a n—– lover, even though you were pale, pale skinned with blonde hair and blue eyes, and not African American at all. So I kept punching you in the face, in the sides, just like on TV, but when the teacher came over, I lied and said nothing happened. Even then I didn’t have the heart to face what I had done, and it was a good thing I wasn’t very strong because you only had a faint red patch on one cheek. You were too stunned to cry, and too scared to tattle.
You were different and a little bit weird. I was too, but my second-grade brain didn’t think about that. Our mutual oddities were evidenced by the fact that you and I had been having a lovely time sitting under the tree, watching the ants crawl on the blades of grass, talking about what they might be doing or where they might be going. We had previously broken off small bits of the birch bark and pretended we were pioneers taking notes with our charcoal pencils on those fragile pieces of bark, oblivious to the fact that our fantasy was so historically inaccurate.
The day before, which was your first day, we held hands while running through the field next to the playground and fell down laughing when you tripped on your long skirt. You didn’t make fun of my jeans that had to be rolled up because I was rounder than I was tall, and I didn’t ask about your beautiful, shiny, silver teeth. I was transfixed by how pale you were, the opposite of my darkness. Your long blonde braids were the perfect complement to my short black bob. I knew we’d be friends forever.
But then there was that horrible moment under the birch tree.
I need you to know that I’ve learned a lot since then, and I haven’t learned a lot since then. I would like to think that I’d not hit you today. I’d like to think I’d embrace you in the face of adversity. I’d like to think that given a challenge by my peers to chose someone who needs me over them, I’d chose you. I’d like to think I’d let people call me names for being friends with you.
But I am not sure I can promise you that. All the time. With complete assurance.
I strive every day to be the person I wish I would have been that day under the birch tree, but I still miss the mark sometimes. I strive to stand with those who need me, to recognize that my freedom is bound up with the freedom of those who have been oppressed, to be kind, to show grace, to be the person I know I need to be.
In my mind’s eye, I stand with you. I chose to be that person. I stop making excuses and I hold your hand under that birch tree, and tell every one else to just piss off. I give you grace, and I unload my shame.