Mrs. Williams was a great first-grade teacher.
She was kind, cheerful and honest.
She always encouraged us with phrases like, “You’re cookin’ with gas!”
She regaled us with stories of her little girl.
She used Girl Scout Thin Mint cookies as prizes when she REALLY wanted to motivate us.
Heck, she put up with ME as a first grader. That’s no easy task.
She was also the first Black teacher I had ever had.* And she was willing to talk about race.
One day, Mrs. Williams decided that she was going to teach us about skin color. Looking back as a teacher, I might guess that wasn’t just a random choice. I might guess that Mrs. Williams was responding to a comment or situation that came up in class. Or maybe there was something going on in the world that my first-grade brain wasn’t quite aware of. Whatever it boiled down to, Mrs. Williams decided that it was time for us to talk.
I’m going to guess that the lesson was longer than I remember, but what captures my memory most is when she held up two crayons: one white, one black.
Mrs. Williams held up the white crayon and said, “When people say they’re white, does their skin look like this color?”
A crowd of giggling first-graders yelled back, “Nooooooo!”
She held up the black crayon and said, “When people say they’re Black, does their skin look like this color?”
We again yelled, “Noooooo!”
And that was at the heart of it. It was the first time I had ever engaged, on-purpose, in a conversation about what being Black or being white really means. About what race means, and what it DOESN’T mean. It was a way to tell a group of six- and seven-year olds that race is complicated. It’s not just what we see. It’s more complex than a label we might wrap around someone.
Thank you, Mrs. Williams. You were cookin’ with gas.
*I’m also beyond grateful to be able to say that Mrs. Williams was just my first Black teacher, and not my only. For all of the shortcomings that may have accompanied my schooling, I am glad that my school district made an effort to hire a diverse range of teaching and instructional staff. It was important for children of color in my community, but I’d say it was also important for me.