When I was in fifth grade, I started a club by the swing set. Every day at recess, we would do cheerleading dances. For 15 minutes between snack and lunch, we were the jumping, dancing Cat’s Pajamas.
It was really quite exclusive.
The group got so popular that we decided to have tryouts. The space by the swings was getting crowded, and after all, what’s the fun of a club if everyone is invited?
I remember a black classmate (whom we will call Casey) who showed up to those recess tryouts. She could jump and yell. She had a beautiful smile.
So I thought to myself, Casey belongs in our club!
But another girl informed me that Casey couldn’t be in our club because the smell of her hair “bothered” other people. She was different from us. And because children are easily persuaded — or perhaps because there was already a shadow of prejudice forming over my very young heart — I agreed and took Casey’s name off the list.
I saw her crying in class the next day, and something in my spirit screamed that this was wrong! So I passed a note to my friend asking if she thought we made a mistake.
“Does Casey’s hair really bother you? Are you sure it isn’t something else?”
And the teacher picked it up.
My teacher was a black woman who always dressed to the nines and swung her AKA keychain around her finger.
“What’s AKA?” I once asked.
“It’s a special club,” she responded.
“Can I be in your club?” I asked.
“Yes.” She would always affirm me.
I knew my teacher was going to be disappointed when she read that note, and she was. She pulled me aside after class, and before she could get the words out of her mouth, I was sobbing.
“I just wanted everyone to be happy!” I added.
I felt that point was important because it totally justified my actions.
“Well, MK…was everyone happy?”
“No. Casey was definitely not happy.”
“And who else wasn’t happy?”
It turns out, I wasn’t happy.
I was in fifth grade when I learned that happiness at the expense of others isn’t true happiness at all. I still get a knot in my stomach, wondering what kind of life lesson was imparted to a sweet young girl who only wanted to dance with the other cheerleaders. I am so deeply ashamed and sorry for my actions, and the heart that I recognize was behind them. It doesn’t matter that we were “just children.”
Mean is mean.
No. Hate is hate.
And sadly, hurt is hurt.
I can only hope that event didn’t alter her in any significant way. But I know it altered me.
I share this humbling story today in hopes that it reminds us, the parents, of the dire task we have at hand.
It’s our job to raise the includers. The advocates. The openhearted. The kind ones.
It’s our job to teach our children how to love different people without pretending those differences don’t exist.
What we model in our homes will be replicated by tiny people with very big feelings.
So today I ask us: How are our children playing?
In the blink of an eye, those playgrounds will become our society.
We should want to send children out into this world who are better than us: kinder, more inclusive, and more aware.
But that starts right now, with us, the parents.
It starts with me, and with saying:
I was wrong, and I am so sorry.