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The First Grade by Quela Jules

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Table of Contents

  1. The First Grade

  2. My First Kiss

  3. America’s Next Top Model

  4. A Peoples History Of The United States

1. The First Grade

This Christmas in my mother’s stocking was a clear square box full of cards. On the label the words said “table topics”. On each card was a question intended to spark either debate or conversation at any family gathering. My mother likes to be the one to ask the questions so one day on the car, with her cards in hand, she turned to me and asked “what was your worst fear as a child?” I didn’t know, I didn’t remember. I then returned my question to her, “I don’t know, do you remember?” “Yes I do” she nodded. Through a smile she said “It was Harriet Tubman. You used to make me check under your bed every night.” I laughed hard, that is hilarious! A little black girl terrified of Harriet Tubman! Hahaha! But after the laughter I started to remember, and I started to think, I was afraid of Harriet Tubman. I think maybe I was too young to be taught slavery when I learned it. I was in the first grade.

The first grade was my first year as an artist. In school we called our teachers by their first name and voted on a name for our class, A cultural element of our school which responds “yes” to Dewey when he asks:  “Does not the principle of regard for individual freedom and for decency and kindliness of human relations come back in the end to the conviction that these things are tributary to a higher quality of experience on the part of a greater number than are methods of repression and coercion or force?” (Dewey 12)  The Mission Hill School was and continues to be a place a where students are given the benefit and trust that calling an Adult by their first name will not deteriorate their understanding of respect for elders, but be an addition to it.

  My teachers name was Alicia and our class name was The Dolphins. Everyday a friend and  I would giggle as we planned our outfits for the next day. Many of us had the same shirts, shoes, jeans, coats all from the neighborhood Marshalls and Old Navy where every ones mother shopped. I sat on the rug two spots away from my best friend Cydne in the mornings. We had braids with matching beads that we liked to swing and hear the clicking. When getting our hair done, we sat patiently during afterschool as we watched Miss Delicia weave our strands one over the other until our braids were complete. We shared the same pink sandals, shirts, and wide smile as we sat and waited for Alicia to begin facilitation of the morning meeting and pin up the cards listing the day of the week, the month and the year as well as the schedule for the day. That year was a great year for me, until I learned who I was. 

Two years before, as the elevator doors of our South End apartment closed, I turned to my cream and coffee colored mother, looked up, and asked her “mummy, are you White?” “No, I’m not.” She replied calmly. Now in the first grade, after learning I, by default of my mother was not white, I soon understood myself as “non-white” as well and nothing  made the difference between black and white more clear than slavery. 



From Oakes and Lipton I continue to learn how extensive and systemic my presumed failure as a black child was. “As children of color and from southern and eastern European immigrant families began attending school in larger and larger numbers, a new “science” of intelligence began offering theories and data that provided seemingly scientific evidence that they had mental deficits that would limit their school achievement.” (Oakes, Lipton 13) At the age of six, of course I had no understanding of the impact my racial history would have on my merit, or why it was normal for my mother and I to go to Goodwill weekly.  All I knew was that black was often associated with the things that scared me most.

When we learned about the big dipper, the little dipper and the North Star, the bright white stars and the black night sky all seemed to be brewing to steal me from my first grade story time. When I learned that the Underground Railroad was not a train, but a long dark walk through the woods with no shoes, I was put off. I did not want to be a child wading in the water, or be stolen, forced in line, or smuggled into some strange white lady’s attic. When I thought about how bad I was at hide and seek and how much hiding the slaves did, I was struck by anxiety. Images of slaves that were brown and round with head scarves like my grandmother’s gave me the understanding that no, I was not white, I was one of them.

I don’t remember what scared me about Harriet Tubman apart from her association with slavery. I used to be perplexed by her last name in particular. “Tub. Man.” A woman who was not a tub or a man with that name just made no sense!  I wanted my braids, my best friend, our Marshall’s wardrobe and my non-white mother. In the first grade I loved my life enough to fear any threat against my happiness. Today, while I now respect rather than fear Harriett Tubman, I am happy to say not much else regarding my love for life has changed.