Her hair wound in a braid down her back, always. She was Indian, her dad a professor at Duke. Sonja was her name. We were in the 7th grade, she a part of the group of girls who had welcomed me, the new student, into their friendship. She wore tennis shoes to school and the long black braid.
One time, at a spend-the-night party, I saw her hair freed. It was beautiful, thick and lifting. It nestled around her neck, kissed the air like a black halo. I talked her into wearing it loose to school. She’d never done that before.
Monday, I saw her at the water cooler, her hand whipping around to braid her hair back into place. “No,” I said, when she told me they’d made fun of her, laughed at her hair. “It’s beautiful.”
“I listened to you,” she said, wiping away the tears with the back of her hand then taking a drink of water to hide her crying. “I won’t do it again.”
I had forgotten how much I hate giving advice to kids. Then yesterday I spoke to a roomful of 10th-12th graders about writing a speech for a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Oratory Contest. I was asked to speak because I believe in encouraging every writers’ voice. I believe in giving folks an opportunity to express what they want to express in their own particular, personal, creative way. I also believe in elbowing room at the table so others will listen to what they have to say. But until yesterday, my audience had always been adults.
In the middle of the night last night, I woke up in a cold sweat wondering what I had done. And I remembered Sonja.
I saw the clump of boys. They were down the hallway where Sonja had pointed. Her taunters weren’t other girls. They were boys. Our group was not the popular girls. We were the smartest girl in the class; the only Indian girl in the grade; the skinny Black girl in heavy glasses; the new girl who wore inappropriate clothes (my Lord, when I read this, I see an awful after-school special). The boys were the athletes, the cute boys. Boys who never paid one iota of attention to us. Now they are making fun of Sonja. And it was all my fault.
The topic for this years’ MLK speech was bullying. The facilitator asked me to use an example of a “good” speech as part of my talk. To comply, I had to do some research. I don’t remember reading anything about those who inadvertently put someone in a situation to be bullied, because it was only in the middle of the night that I remembered Sonja. When that happened, I lay there thinking, I told those kids to talk about what was interesting to them. I told them what they had to say was going to be what really mattered. I told them to put themselves out there, the very thing that could wind up leading someone to bully them.
What I can only hope is that Sonja grew up into a world that appreciated her beauty. I hope she did not spend her life with her hair tightly braided because releasing it had not worked well for her in the past. I hope she does not remember me as a rash girl who thoughtlessly stuck her nose into a place it didn’t belong, resulting in hurt. I hope that if one of those kids writes an amazing speech that reveals his or her heart in an extraordinarily odd way, their peers will clap and cheer, the sound of applause drowning out anyone who might jeer at a child’s willingness to be vulnerable.
here’s to creative synthesis . . .