By Grace Calder
PROMPT — Who am I today?
How Expressive Writing Is helping Me Feel, Deal and Heal with a Traumatic Memory of Racism in the Classroom
I have a writing coach who is listening to me tell my story. When you have a memory hidden from your past, and you don’t think anyone understands, and then you tell it, and see it, in writing, and you feel it, and you are crying your eyes out, the tears you could not cry on that day, the tears you held in for many years, and you have a chance, today, to cry those tears, that is what I mean by feeling, dealing and healing.
In 1984, at the age of twenty-four, the Harlem State Office Building in New York City is where I found a sense of closure from feeling alone and being the only one, and being ashamed of my color. Walking into Harlem, I had an aha experience of healing. The Harlem State Office Building is what drew me to the neighborhood on 125th Street. But it was walking under the sign for the Apollo Theatre that I felt a sense of pride about being Black for the first time. Harlem welcomed me as a place where Black people evolved. Here I was in a city where Black people were doing something beautiful through the arts. This was the first place where I began to really feel a sense of hope and belonging.
When my education began in the 1960s, I was the only child of color in my school. Growing up in the suburbs of Saxonville, Massachusetts, I had only white teachers and white classmates. I was the different one. But, suddenly, at the Harlem State Office Building, most of the teachers and administrators were Black, which was mind-blowing for me. Except for Mrs. Brown, who taught me to type––she was white. She was in my role: the only one, the different one. Except she was white in an all-Black community. She was teaching me a viable skill. I can still see her. Thin and strong in a roomful of Black kids. She was wonderful and I learned to type fast. In this class, we were so close knit. I got good, because she taught me, and she was not afraid of me, or all of us, so many of us Black students surrounding her. She taught me it was okay for me to just be who I was and learn. Being in the classroom of the HSOB I felt included, like I had a sense of purpose, like my voice wasn’t going to be shut down.
2nd Grade Memory
Mrs. Ferrone is my white teacher. One day she gets so mad at me. I have no idea what I could have done to upset her so much. I am the only Black student; she flips my desk over--what could I have done to upset her so much? Here I am, in front of all the white kids–– look at the Black girl, she’s bad.
From that day, I have the biggest resentment against teachers, white people, like her. I didn’t want to name it racism, even though it was all around me, because people have told me all my life that it was all in my imagination. I can still see the teacher’s face. I can still see her mini dress and her black shoes. I never dealt with it. It stayed hidden, and now I can learn how to vanquish her and not let her pop up in other people I see––a racist authority figure. Now, I cried it out and wrote it out:
To Little Grace from Big Grace
I knew the way you felt in the school, smelling crayons and lunch food, it was scary, it was dark, specked with some goodness (white friends), yet I know they were not enough, because they too were white. You go home smelling the cookies mama is baking, food to be put on the table while waiting for pop. We were the Black Leave it to Beaver. What I want to tell you is to stay strong. Everything that happens to you will bring you to a place to help others, Black and white going through the same traumas.
Do not worry dear child, it was not your fault, it was not your fault that she may have had an argument with her husband before the incident. But you know what it was, it was racism at its best. You do not treat an animal like that. The color of your skin and her hatred of it is not your fault. As you grow, you will be blind to what truly is. The demons will follow you for years until you look at it. She is gone. She will not turn anything of yours over ever again. There are those who will try, but you will make them fear you the way you feared her. There are many Mrs. Ferrones running around. I have made them fear me the way I feared her that day. What I am doing is learning to take myself out of places where I’ve been fighting. And I am taking myself to places where I feel I can be me, where I feel like I am with others, Black and white, who make me feel loved and accepted for who I am. And I don’t have to fight. I am not wrong.
That whole time, she took away my innocence and turned it into anger. The principal, the kindest man. Others treated me so well, but they couldn’t protect me. Back then they didn’t have child services or therapists to go to. All they had was nothing to heal the soul. Nobody asked me how I felt, are you okay? I have overcompensated by helping the people that people don’t want to help. I can go with the loudest, swearingest person. The people society doesn’t like.
When I was younger, I was a really good writer. I loved the arts. But I expressed myself in a rush, pushing past the hurt. Now I am learning to breathe and take my time. Writing this out now, it’s transitioning me smoothly into being able to express myself, knowing that I can take my time, and I will be heard.
Grace Calder is a woman who has overcome many obstacles to begin to embrace her writing life and share her stories. Born in San Jose, Costa Rica, Grace emigrated to the US as a child. She grew up in the suburbs of Massachusetts as a Black child in mostly white schools. Today, Grace is a grandmother of four and mother of five, who lives in Natick, MA, where she works with recovering alcoholics and addicts to thrive in a life of recovery.