Our school had a new play structure, and I was excited to run carelessly across its magical suspension bridge. With its ropes and wood slats, I thought it was reminiscent of an ancient castle. After running back and forth a few times and feeling so much joy, a foot stretched out in front of me, and before I could do anything about it, I was falling towards the dirt several feet below. Reflexively, I stretched my arms out and landed on my hands first and then my knees.
“Fucking bilagáana!! Get off the bridge!”
It took a moment for me to realize what had just happened. One moment I was filled with joy, and the next, I was in so much pain. My hands had rocks embedded in them, and my knees were bloodied. I squealed in pain, but nobody came to my side, so I rolled over on my back and looked up. A group of kids stood laughing and staring down at me. I quickly sat upright and knocked the dirt and rocks off my hands, and blood started appearing on the base of my palms.
“Don’t let them see you cry. Don’t.” I chanted that over and over in my mind. Crying is a weakness, and I wasn’t weak. I was small and skinny, but weak? No. I nervously looked around for a teacher. Didn’t anyone see what had happened to me? The adults were all somewhere else, and I knew that telling the teachers what happened would only make things worse, not better.
I rose to my feet and looked up at the kids defiantly and decided I’d come back sometime after school and play with the kids who lived around us instead of those who came in by bus. The kids in my neighborhood didn’t hit or pick on me. They knew better than to do that because my sister would kick their ass. There are perks to having a “tomboy” sister. People are scared of girls who don’t act like “girls.” My sister was tough, and really, she had to be. She lived with this kind of stuff longer than I had, and she had my mother to contend with as well. However, I knew that as long as I was near home, nobody would touch me. Nobody dared.
At school though? Those kids didn’t know who she was and they didn’t care. Up until the 3rd grade, things weren’t like this. All of the kids got along, but something happened in the 4th grade that I can’t put my finger on. All I can figure is that it is an age where you start questioning things around you and where adults or older children in your life begin to shape some of your thinking. You see, little children don’t know about hatred on this level. This stuff has to be taught by example.
I took myself, with my head down, to the nurse’s office. Something I’d end up often doing after this, as I was always getting tripped, poked, or having things thrown at me. These assaults often came with the Navajo word “bilagáana.”
Sometimes that word was trailed with “chąą’”
Which roughly translates to “white person.. shit.”
I often thought I should say something back to defend myself, but I never had anything clever to say because I didn’t understand any of it in the first place. Children I once got along with became hostile, seemingly overnight, and the abuse, well it spread like a virus. A few of my Navajo friends thought this was unfair and kept hanging out with me, but a lot of them kept their distance for their protection or joined the ever-increasing gang of kids who looked at me like I was a “white” devil.
My skin became a curse, and I hated it because I didn’t choose it. I didn’t get to decide what color I was. All of the stories I told myself about being a pale Indian came under personal observation. However, I knew based on television and with my experience in Texas that there were others out there in the world that looked like me. There were even three others in my school. A majority of the teachers were also pale. We had some Navajo teachers, but not many. The skin pigment of the school faculty was definitely in contrast with 99% of the children there who were Navajo.
I finally got the courage to talk to my mother about what was going on at school.
“Mom…. why am I this color?” I inched closer to her, so I was standing near her at the table.
She looked at me, “What do you mean?”
“Well, why am I this color, and nobody else is at school?”
She looked puzzled. “I’m not sure that’s all that important of a question, is it?”
I shifted my feet and looked down. “Kids at school seem to think it is.”
An extended period went by, and she didn’t respond.
Finally, I cried.
I had held in so many tears at school, but in this moment of vulnerability, my mother gave me space to let out a whole month of frustrations.
“Oh dear, you are just an ugly duck, that’s all.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. My mother had a habit of telling my sister and me that we weren’t pretty or beautiful, but in the context of this conversation, being told I was ugly didn’t help.
I started sobbing more.
She stared right at me “You know the story, don’t you? The ugly duckling grows up and becomes a swan!”
Well, swans are the opposite of ugly. Swans are beautiful. I still didn’t know how a duck becomes a swan, but it seemed like she was trying to tell me that it would all be ok. Someday I’d somehow be something better than I was, and I just had to accept my ugly duckling status for now.
Seeing that I was crying less, she finished “Keep your head down low, stick to your friends, and you’ll be ok. Someday you won’t be here anymore, and everything will be just fine.”
I took her advice, and I carefully stuck by my friends, and we all had one thing in common. Whiteness. I hated that we were all together and in a situation that was us vs. them, but it seemed like the only way to survive. It didn’t help that two of us were in the gifted program, and we vanished three times a week. This was something that was seen as a privilege by the other kids because they imagined we were off eating candy. I must admit that what we were learning was pretty impressive, but I wouldn’t let them know that. I’d come back to class and try to pretend that I hated going to Mrs. Haney’s room. I hated the ship's travels and couldn’t wait to get back to normalcy with the rest of them. I’d fake excitement upon returning to the room and try to crack jokes with the other kids because I was determined to win over their hearts again someday.
Someday I’d belong.