Dear Ms. Lily,
That was your name. A flower. Delicate and sweet. I have so much to thank you for. You taught me the ways of the world, and for that I cannot begin my endless list of gratitude. With each interaction I have had since your class, I have been reminded of your crucial life lesson, reminded of the ways you so eloquently instilled within me at my tender age of five.
When I entered your class holding my father’s hand on that first day of school in that rural midwest town, I saw your smiling eyes go from another child to me, the Indian, and watched your smile vanish completely. It was like magic. I held on tighter to my father’s hand, hoping he would understand not to leave me with you, but you see, he had to go. And he did. He was sick and needed to go to the hospital. Could you not see the pain in my eyes?
I found my spot at a table far from you as you walked around the room, handing each student a coloring sheet. K FOR KING, it read. Being preoccupied with my dad’s health, I missed your directions on what you expected, all while stuck in my inner worried world. I wanted to be with my dad. Reaching for the fresh box of crayons within my backpack, I opened the cardboard case to find untouched, shiny colors. One color stood out the most; it had a tiny speck of glitter right at the top. My hand instinctively reached for it and rubbed the flat tip with my finger. It was smooth and slightly sparkly. Without thinking, I colored in the K, then the word KING, then the king himself, all without noticing my monochromatic choice of crayon.
“Time is up. Put your names at the top, and I will take your sheet.” I remember those words so well because they were what had cracked my quiet, innocent, and peaceful inner world, where letters were being categorized as boys and girls, and numbers were fighting with one another to be right.
You took all of the papers, hit them softly against the table, stacking them neatly. One by one, as you looked through the bunch, you began calling out each name and commented on how nice of a job each child had done, and you made it a point to say something special about each. I did not look forward to anything you had to say about mine because I was the child that did not want attention, I chose to hide in the back for a reason. But the time came, and you found my paper — it was the last one. You did not follow the same pattern you had for each child before me. You held it for some time, looked at it, then without showing it to the class you started talking.
“And here, children, is what you should NEVER do.” Turning the paper towards the class, you used my name, it sounded so ugly when it came from your mouth. “Look at what she did. She colored the king all black! Can kings ever be black, children? Noooo, kings can never be black. And look how she used only one color. I never want to see this type of coloring, OK?” You then crumpled up my paper, and effortlessly tossed it into the trash.
Throughout my years, I have thought about you often, like the time in middle school when boys chased me down the hall trying to pull my scarf off my head, calling me a “rag head.” And the time on the school bus when the kids refused to let me sit next to them, chanting the word “terrorist” the entire ride as I stood in the aisle. And the day after 9/11, when I took my two-year-old out for a walk and had rocks thrown at me because I was visibly Muslim.
I also thought about you when Obama became this country’s first Black “king.” I wondered where you were and how you were feeling about it. I thought about you when Trump came next, whether you were resting peacefully because of it. I wondered how you felt about all the protests around Black Lives Matter, or if you still believed that only white lives mattered.
I write to tell you today what you could not see through your prejudiced, monochromatic, white-focused lens on my first day of my first year of education in my country, the land of the free. You broke a part of my innocence while teaching me the colors of life. You did not care to hold my heart the way you held a white child’s. You did not comfort me when I needed help. Instead, you taught me what hate feels like, what it looks like, what it sounds like. You taught me that I was different because of my darker color. You taught me that I was being treated the way people of my kind should be treated. This was the lesson that carried me into adulthood. Had I not been in your class, had I been in the next classroom instead, I would have missed this crucial lesson from you and what to expect from people of your kind.
Miss Lily, a lily you were definitely not with those thorny words that cut sharp and deep. For that and all the hate you spread into every child that walked through your classroom, thank you from the bottom of my cracked (and patched-up) heart.
The Girl Who Colored the King Black