I remember it was a hot day in August. My friend’s neighbor dragged her 9 year-old little girl by the collar during the annual block party I attended in Philly. In front of all the women standing around the punch and potato salad, she said, “Dede, stop dragging yo’ feet and tell em’ the word that won you the spelling bee.” I looked in the little girl’s eyes who nervously stood with flawless brown skin sparkling in the sun, and hands behind her back. She said, “Extrapolate. E-X-T-R-A-P-O-L-A-T-E” and the ladies clapped. Then her mama said, “that ain’t nuthin. Tell them what the word means!” The little girl’s eyes never left the concrete as she said, “to attempt to solve, to deduce or estimate.”She fell silent under the sound of applause. As if putting your child on display like some circus sideshow wasn’t enough, what her mother said next sent me into a quiet rage. “Now take yourself over there and sit down. She’s just as ugly as her daddy but at least she is smart. Mama always said, ‘if you are ugly, you better be smart and sweet.’” My eyes followed the little gorgeous girl with bouncy curls as she settled down on the pavement near a fence that blocked off a basketball court.
Unfortunate. Unattractive. Dragon. Troll. Ugly.
These are the labels thrown at some children and threaten to define them. Girls are taught to ‘make up’ for what they lack in ‘beauty’ with achievement and accolades. Yet, we carry those labels with us into adulthood and despite our successes we cringe every time we pass a mirror.
When I was young, I had thick side burns and was teased mercilessly. Boys used to call out behind me, “Elvis has left the building!” I was the nerdy church girl that wore orthopedic shoes, white stockings in the summer time and I was socially awkward. The teasing turned into labels: Unfortunate. Unattractive. Dragon. Troll. UGLY. So I studied. I read. I wrote. I became the queen of debate in the classroom. I worked.
I saw myself in that little girl that day. She was determined to leave an imprint, determined to prove to the world that she was worthy of their admiration. I reached in my bag and pulled out a beat up pocket thesaurus. I crouched down beside Dede and said, “When I was a littlegirl the teacher’s told my mother that I belonged in the ‘special’ classroom. My mother was ashamed. But my aunt gave me this little book and told me to write down an adjective for everything that I was and everything I wanted to be.”
She smiled as I handed her the beat up book that was given to me decades before. “So,” I continued “get a notebook and make a list. Let that list be your mirror and do not allow anyone’s opinions change what you see.” I paused. “You know what?” “What?” she asked scrolling through the book. “I think I have the perfect word for you to begin with,” I flipped to the front of the book and pointed to what I had highlighted in 50 different colors and written in the margins, “here it is.” She smiled so hard I saw all of her gorgeous teeth. The word was BEAUTIFUL.
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