Sixth grade. Berkeley. In the middle of one of the most horrible years of my life – the year I was eleven – I transferred back to Franklin Elementary, a shabby gulag of public education on the fringes of West Berkeley (read: ‘the ghetto,’ and not the Gourmet variety).
Franklin had several bilingual classes and I was assigned to the Spanish-English classroom of Mrs. Mock, a Panamanian matron some might describe as a benevolent matriarch but who showed me a very different side.
Like I said, it was a bad year. My attendance was spotty, my state of mind stressed, and my behavior probably subpar. So one day, she kept me after class, and that’s when she dropped the bomb on me I’ll never forget.
She started by saying to me, ‘You know, I work very hard for my students of color. They have a lot problems and they really need the help. But you – you’re white and your father drives a Mercedes. What kind of problems do you have?’
She couldn’t know. She probably couldn’t even conceive of my suffering – the absentee parents, the empty cupboards, the subcultural hippie trash that seemed to wash up on my Dad’s couch with regularity. She couldn’t know about the loneliness, the hunger, the confusion, and the dirty laundry with no way to wash it.
All she saw was my face, and it’s color or lack thereof. She judged me, the way white people have judged those with darker faces for hundreds of years, the way people have judged other people somehow different from them since time immemorial. But here’s the difference – she was an adult, while I was a child. Not only that, she was an educator, and I use the term with copious irony considering what it was that she taught me that day.