An Outsider In My Own Community

October 22, 2010
By , Bellows Falls, VT
I stand in the hallway of a high school in one of the whitest states in the country. It is the first day of school and I watch all the students search for their new classrooms. There are new students, returning students, both younger and older. Watching the sea of students is like looking at a school of fish, seeing the different sizes, shapes and colors. They all seem like a blur, just one big mob of high school kids, when I know from experience each and every one has their own way of looking at this world.
As students wander one by one into my Career Center English classroom, I smile at them and try to seem as friendly as possible while thinking “this is the first of many classes. I wonder what this year will bring?” When the first bell rings, signaling the start of class, I close the door and walk into the room full of expectant faces.
At nine o’clock I walk over to the door and open it to let the stream of students enter the hall like tadpoles mixing together in a huge blob. I think that my first English class of the year went pretty well even though hardly anyone spoke. They did seem to listen, and I know as they become more comfortable with me and with each other, I will hear their voices. Now all I have to do is remember their names. I enter my classroom again and set out the handouts for the next stream of students to enter, for advisory.
I was assigned the Career Center dance program for my advisory, and this year all of the students are girls. They come in with that sort of confused look that every student has when they enter a classroom for the first time, trying to figure out where to sit. A few girls both with dark hair, immersed in conversation, came in early. They walked like dancers; feet sort of turned out and their backs very upright. Two more wandered in with backpacks and shoulder bags already stuffed full with books and binders. One had glasses and freckles and the other long brown hair with side bangs. A group of three girls walk in laughing and comparing their previous class. I notice that they all have different skin tones. One is very pale with light hair, another had tanner skin with dark brownish, reddish hair, and the last one had golden brown-skinned with jet-black hair. When the last girl enters I begin introducing myself.
“Hi, I’m going to be your advisor for the next few years….” After I have done the usual introduction I start taking attendance, but it’s very hard to remember which student is which. When all the names are called, there are still few kids missing, but I start handing out the required health forms anyway. When I get to the portfolios I realize I didn’t have enough for all the kids in the room. I look around the room trying to see where the girl without one is. I ask, “Who didn’t get one?” A girl raises her hand and I immediately see that she sticks out from all the lighter-skinned faces. She has black hair, darker skin and slanted eyes. I think to myself, “Why didn’t she get one?” and then I realize that I was supposed to get an exchange student and this must be her, she looks so different. I figure there was just some confusion in the office, so I ask, “Are you the exchange student?” She kind of laughs and says that she is not. I instantly feel awkward deep down, but I don’t want to show it so I keep on talking.
“What’s your name?” I ask.
As she tells me her name I notice that her cheeks start to flush.
“Hmm, I’ll tell the office to send me a portfolio for you,” I say, hiding my own feeling of embarrassment. The bell rings and the students exit the classroom.

As they file out I sink down into a chair in front of the fan, and gaze out the window going over in my mind what just happened. I wonder if the Asian girl, Jess, was offended when I asked her that, or if she gets asked that all the time. I see the way she looked at me, like I was stupid for asking; and how the girls sitting next to her, I’m assuming her friends, and others in the room, giggled. Now that I think about it I remember her walking in, talking and laughing with one of the other girls. It looked as if she was very familiar with the students here, and her surroundings. When she sat down with her friends she chatted with them very comfortably and almost non-stop.
Now I realize she wasn’t an exchange student at all, I think, but a girl who has lived here for a while. I wonder how she got here? Maybe her family moved here years ago from somewhere in Asia, maybe she was adopted and brought here or she could have been born here. I wish I hadn’t jumped to any conclusions, as people always say, ‘think before you speak’. Earlier, before the first bell, I had been watching all the students and thinking they all looked the same, but that they are all different. But this encounter introduces another, less obvious way of thinking about identity; some may look different, but they really are just like everyone else.
She has darker skin, darker hair and different eyes, yet it looks like she has been brought up in this country. Her clothes were the similar to those of the other girls around her, shorts and a tee shirt. Her gestures were familiar and the food she had brought was standard American chips. I completely judged her by the way she looked. It could happen to anyone though; the way any person looks is what other people will see before they get any other information. Appearance forms the first judgment, but there are so many more defining factors to a whole identity.
Between second and third block, I seek out one of my colleagues. I tell her what happened earlier in advisory. I asked her “I wonder if she feels like it’s hard to fit in where ninety percent of the people are light-skinned and have different features from her; where she is, whether she feels it or not, a racial minority.”
My colleague ponders this for a few minutes and returns with another question, “I wonder if any one is unkind to her; if they treat her differently because of the way she looks. Because we, as humans, have a tendency to treat people who look different, negatively.”
“Exactly!” I replied. “For instance, the way we have treated African Americans over the decades. Prejudice may not be as strong here in Vermont as it has been in the past, but everywhere we go we make assumptions about people who look different than we do.”
We stand for a few more minutes thinking about these questions and the realities that we have just brought up, but we are interrupted by the bell, signaling the start of block three.
Throughout the rest of the day, I think of my new student. She’s growing up in the one of the whitest states in the country. Does this mean that when people see that she looks different they assume she doesn’t belong, that she has a different personality, a different perspective, and different way of being? But, I believe that she would say she is just like them: trying to fit in along with everybody else.
I wasn’t mean at all, I don’t think. I wasn’t intending to be mean, at least. It’s not a crime to accidentally assume something and I don’t even think it’s really wrong. We do it all the time, whether it be in the halls of high school, or the streets of a city, but those quick judgments are everywhere in life. However for some reason those kinds of assumptions come out seeming mean, like you’re singling a person or a group of people out. I’m not sure there will ever be a way to prevent people from making prejudgments about others.
At the end of the first day back to school I stand outside my classroom once more. The last bell of the day has rung, and all the students are hurriedly making their way to their next destination. The halls fill with chatter and chaos. Students high-five each other, and playfully push each other. Each student that exits their classroom enters the big school of fishes. They mix in with the others and eventually the hallway becomes one whole, moving and swaying together.

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