Lyn waited on the sidewalk facing the front of the school. It was ten minutes after two in the afternoon, and the September air felt crisp like new beginnings. Lyn watched little boys and girls walk out to meet their parents or their nannies. Some of the older boys and girls came out in groups and walked with purpose (and an underlying sense of pride), trailblazing up and down the block, chartering themselves back home.
It was Dora’s first day in first grade, and one of the exciting parts of being in her grade was being able to walk herself out of school when school was done. Parents were still required to be there for pick up or have a trusted adult waiting at the front gate, but gone were the days of the eager sea of parents coming into the classroom at the end of the school day. Dora was a big girl now, and that came with wonderful perks: she could now get herself ready to go home, and she got to walk herself out of school. Like all the other older students. Dora hummed happily as she exercised her new rights when her teacher said it was time to get ready for home.
Lyn couldn’t help but feel a bit nervous standing there. She tried to smooth out the creases in her clothes and expertly tuck parts of her shirt to hide the stains. Where she stood was squarely and securely outside her home turf, and as the sea of mothers in athleisure and perfect makeup passed her by (followed in their wake by the help who looked a lot like Lyn), she knew she’d never find her place in their social circles. Nor would she ever have the spare time to keep up with all of that.
But Lyn was happy that her little girl was going to one of the best schools in the district. Little Dora was whip smart and eager, something Lyn both loved and chagrined. How long would Dora have before she realized just how eager she would need to be to survive in this world? However, Lyn decided not to dwell on this too much. In so many ways Dora was still a baby, untainted by the world, and Lyn would let her little girl believe everything was possible for as long as she could before the real world caught up. It was the least she could do for her daughter. In a sea of pink and rosy-cheeked faces, Dora stood out like a ray of sunshine to her mother. She smiled and wiggled with joy and couldn’t contain herself when her mother met her wide, open grin.
“Momma!” she shouted (much to the irritation of the more demure families) as she half skipped, half ran to her mother.
Dora tumbled into Lyn’s waiting arms and immediately started talking about her day. All the new rules and routines. What books she read, the things she painted, the other new teachers she met. Lyn smiled and oohed and aahed at all her daughter’s stories, and she sighed inwardly, relieved that Dora seemed to be riding high on the crest of that wonderful wave called Childhood. Too many of her friend’s kids were learning too many things too quickly. Even at Dora’s age. Some even younger. Inwardly, Lyn felt around for her own wave, now heavily depleted, and her heart quickened when she pondered whether or not this day would move Dora’s life closer to her own. Mentally, she crossed her fingers. You never knew what would happen when you were surrounded by people who looked (and probably lived) vastly different to you.
“Did you make any friends?” Lyn asked.
And her heart ached (and tensed) when she saw her little Dora’s bright, happy smile turn inwards. Suddenly, the garrulous, laughing child fell into a strained silence. Lyn could almost hear the confused vexation stomping around Dora’s mind. Lyn held her breath and waited. She understood this feeling all too well. She knew what was going to come next, though she wished desperately that it would be anything but what she expected.
“Momma…can rules sometimes be bad?”
Lyn did her best to stay calm. “What do you mean, Dorrie?”
“Well, I was playing on the playground and met some girls. And at first I thought what they said was fair…”
Something in Dora folded inwards. Her mom watched her little eyes reliving whatever happened earlier on the playground. Her mind was in a flurry. What words were said? What rules were made? Lyn knew all too well how easily kids could turn into reflections of the things they saw and heard at home. And Dora was joining a whole new world at this school. With people who weren’t like her. But the promise of something better, of a rare opportunity seized was too great for Lyn to shield her little six-year-old from these particular facts of life.
When Dora got scared and confused, she got quiet. When she was going through her “Terrible Twos,” Lyn learned that if she encouraged Dora to turn her anger or confusion into a fairy tale like the ones read to her at night, she could distance herself just enough to feel safe to tell the truth. In story form. So Lyn waited a few minutes for Dora to compose herself before she started.
“Dorrie, let’s do ‘Once upon a time’ okay?”
Lyn helped Dora along, “Once upon a time…”
And Dora began:
“Once upon a time, there was a little girl who traveled a long, long way away from home. She was going to go to a new school to learn new things and to make new friends. Her teacher was as beautiful as the most beautifulest princess. In fact, she was a real princess. And part of being a princess in her kingdom was to teach kids everything she knew about everything. Her name was Ms. Princess Nora. And the little girl liked her princess teacher so much because her name sounded like hers. And when she told Ms. Princess Nora this, the princess smiled and laughed and said, ‘You’re right, Dora. We have names that are almost the same.’ And that made Dora feel good.
But when Dora shared that with the other boys and girls at her table, they laughed. But not the same way that Ms. Princess Nora laughed. It felt mean, and one little boy said, ‘That’s the only thing you have in common. Ms. Princess Nora is pretty, and you’re not.’ And this made Dora feel bad. Because she didn’t know why the boy would say something so mean when they just met. And she didn’t know why the other boys and girls at the table laughed too. But then Ms. Princess Nora said something to the kids, and they all started doing something fun. And Nora forgot about how the boys and girls were mean to her.
And they read books and sang songs and had snack time. Then it was time to go to the playground, and Dora was so happy because it was the new playground where all the big kids went to play. She was happy to be a first grader and not a kindergartener because she could go to the playground and slide down the big slide. It was the biggest, most hugest slide in the whole kingdom.
When she climbed up the ladder to go to the slide, Dora saw a line. So she waited in it, and when she finally got to the front of the line to go down the slide, two older girls stopped her from taking her turn. ‘What’s wrong?’ Dora asked. One girl said, ‘You were in the wrong line.’ Dora didn’t know that. She only saw one line. The other girl said, ‘It’s a rule. Stand over here and make the second line. When the first line people all go, then the second line people can go.’ So Dora stood and waited and followed the new rule she learned. And so many girls and boys got to go down the slide, and then three other boys and girls waited with Dora in the second line.
Dora felt sad. Because the boys and girls in her line were dark like her. And the boys and girls in the other line were not. And they even got to have two or three or four turns. And when they said that wasn’t fair and that they waited long enough and should have their turn, the two older girls said they still had to wait. And they were big and scary, so Dora and the others kept waiting. That was the rule, and they didn’t want to know what would happen if they broke it. So they waited and waited so long that the teachers blew the whistle to tell all the boys and girls it was time to go back to the classrooms. So they only got to slide down the big slide once. And that made Dora and the other kids who were waiting feel sad. And they felt a little mad”
Lyn couldn’t stay quiet. “Did that happen at the next recess too?”
Dora nodded her head.
“Did you ask them why they wouldn’t let you slide?”
Dora nodded her head again.
“What did they say?”
Dora folded inwards again, and Lyn could tell it was something bad. And as she saw a flicker of something run across Dora’s little furrowed brow, and she knew. Dora had learned something new about her place in the world, and now Lyn had to prepare herself for all the questions that would come. She would have to recall all of the stories her own mother and father told her. She would have to prepare her little six-year-old baby the rules of Life. For people like them. Something caught in the corners of Lyn’s eyes, and she shook the pain away quickly. There wasn’t time for any of that just yet.
“Momma, why did they do that to me? I wasn’t being bad.”
Lyn breathed heavy and long, thinking about Dora’s crest toppling down. Her daughter would have to understand some things today. And everyday following. Things Lyn had hoped she had more time to protect her from. Things that no little boy or girl should have to learn. Things that no one should have to endure. But perhaps she could make that crest last a little longer. So Lyn decided to tell her the truth through a story of her own:
“Well, once upon a time, there was a little girl who looked just like you. And she went to a school just like yours. Except everyone looked like her, and no one had to wait in separate lines for turns on the slide. Her life was very happy in her neighborhood, at her school and with her family. But there was evil in the world that wouldn’t allow her to go to places or do things with people who didn’t look like her. She was not allowed to go to the kind of school little Dora went to.
The whole kingdom was separate. People who looked like the little girl had their own schools and restaurants and neighborhoods. They were never allowed to go anywhere else. They even had to go to hospitals through back doors made especially for them. People said that was just the way it was. People said it was fair and it was equal. And sometimes they believed what those people said because, after all, they got all the same things, but they just had to keep to themselves and never mix with others.
But one day, the little girl and people like her (who all looked like Dora from your story) said that wasn’t right. And they fought with the kings and queens of the kingdom. And they fought with people who thought that being separate was right. And one day, they won. And it was wonderful for everyone because that meant that boys and girls who look like you could go to better schools and have a better life. And they could be treated more fairly, and—”
“But momma, I don’t think they really won,” Dora interrupted.
“Why do you say that, Dorrie?”
“Because they made me stand in a different line today. And that wasn’t fair.”
Lyn knew deep down in her heart that Dora was right. She knew that what happened to Dora at school that day was just a small glimpse of what was to come. Wherever Dora went and whatever Dora chose to do, she would always be met with opposition from someone. Or from something. Lyn didn’t know how to talk her way out of this reality. She had no stories to tell that would make Dora believe that the world was completely fair to people like them. She didn’t know how to give her daughter hope, so she sat silent in the car and kept driving further and further away from Dora’s new school and all the picture perfect homes.
Neighborhoods transformed slowly along their economic gradient, becoming less pristine, showing more cracks, looking more and more forgotten, as they neared their own home. Lyn parked the car. She helped Dora out of the car and grabbed her bag from the backseat, throwing it quickly over her right shoulder as she held Dora’s hand and walked to the front door.
When they were inside and Dora settled down at the kitchen table with her afternoon snack, Lyn sat down next to her little girl and said, “There’s a bigger story I want to tell you tonight, Dorrie. One about boys and girls just like the one from your story. Like the ones who waited in line with you. But also like the ones who laughed at you and who made you wait in line to slide. And when you hear it, it will give you courage to stand up for yourself when the boys and girls at your new school try to make you follow rules that aren’t fair.”
“Yes, Dorrie. You need to know that it might make school a little less fun for you. But it will make you stronger. Do you want to hear it?”
“Did grandmama tell you this story?” Dora asked.
“And did it make you strong too?”
“It did. But sometimes being strong is scary.”
Dora leaned into her mother’s side and looked up at her with determined eyes.
“Well, momma. I want to be strong like you,” she said definitively, taking a bite out of her apple.
Lyn thanked everything in that moment and hugged her daughter tightly, scooping her up and holding her close. Indeed the crest was falling for her daughter because the real world had caught up to her little Dorrie all too soon. But that fall would meet a wave. A tidal wave of other little girls just like Dorrie and women and men who all somehow lived the same but different lives. A tidal wave of people who weren’t afraid to be different. A tidal wave of black people who refused to let their own falls from Childhood innocence take away their belief that they deserved dignity and peace and happiness, just like everyone else.