The First Time #SOL23 2/31

One of the prompts I offer during our memoir unit is “The first time I…” (NB: when working with high school students it is best to *immediately* complete the sentence with a few mundane firsts, otherwise minds tend to wander in directions that are, ahem, not compatible with the classroom.) It’s a funny little prompt because first times are, I have learned, simultaneously memorable and hard to remember. This is one of those prompts that sees students’ pens hover above their notebooks before they drop, scribbling furiously; their writing stops and starts then stops again; sometimes the ideas don’t come until the next day or even many days later. 

Around the time I use this prompt, I often share a short memoir by Willy Conley which opens with a question about when he first realized he was deaf. This ‘first’ can perplex students. “How did he not know he was deaf?” they ask, and I have no ready answer. “How did you realize things about yourself?” I offer as a response, and we often physically look at ourselves. As I ask probing questions, students respond, “But I’ve *always* known I was a boy. I never realized it” or “I just *knew* I was Canadian; I didn’t have to think about it” and on we go, the discussion touching on aspects of their identity that they take for granted. Sometimes we are able to dig in; other times, I gently move the discussion back to riding bikes or ice skating. Physical firsts, it turns out, often stick in the memory.

Each semester, after the discussion, my mind inevitably turns to Zora Neale Hurston and the line in Their Eyes Were Watching God when, as a child, Janie sees a picture of herself and realizes she is Black: “Aw, aw! Ah’m colored!” she exclaims. The first time I read that line, I had to pause just like my students do now when confronted with Conley’s realization of deafness: How did she not know? And, of course, when I asked that question about Janie, I had to turn it on myself and ask “When did I first realize I was white?” 

The first time I realized I was white was in high school Spanish class. Even though my southern school was intentionally integrated (by bussing), almost no Black students were in any of the “Honors” classes I took. I had finished up all the French classes the school offered and switched to Spanish my junior year. There I met Kiki, who was Black. Spanish was easy for me as it was not for her, and our teacher asked if I would help with her. Ever a teacher, I was delighted. We got along famously, but things were the way they were and there was no moment when getting along well would have had a chance to veer into true friendship. One time, as we worked, she said something about me being a “white girl.” I was surprised. I had heard people talk about “the Black kids”, but never “the white kids”. I had never really thought of myself that way, but clearly she did. My mind lingered on that thought for a minute, then Kiki and I went back to the Spanish work in front of us, a white girl and a Black girl, trying to figure out new words in a world that saw our skin color before it saw us.