by Angie Mack Reilly
I was raised 115 miles outside of Chicago in “The Hardware Capital of the World” of Sterling, Illinois. Steel manufacturing was a primary industry and the population was quite diverse. In fact, I went to a bilingual preschool. Most of my classmates were hispanic. My first boyfriend was hispanic. My dad was a traveling Gerber babyfood salesman. My mom was our main caretaker. The population in 1970 was around 15,000 people.
The color of my classmates’ skin versus mine didn’t enter my mind until 3rd grade…….
“The last one in the room loves Virginia!”
I shouted as I was the first one to run into the classroom after recess.
I don’t know why I picked her particular name. It certainly wasn’t said in any harm at all. I think I was excited to be the fastest runner from that particular recess. I had won the race! That fact was definitely on the forefront of my mind. My endorphins were strong and my self esteem was high. I felt proud. Accomplished.
Now Virginia, as I recall, was newer to the school or newer to our class. I considered her my friend. She had a huge smile and a unique voice that I can distinctly recall. She didn’t speak often. But when she did, she had a deep throaty tone with a bit of a growl to it. I remember liking her voice.
Virginia had a huge smile that reminded me of a bright ray of sunshine. Her teeth were big and white. Her eyes were animated. Her short hair was tight to her scalp. Her nose was wide. Her facial expressions were more dramatic than the others. I loved that about her. I enjoyed laughing with her. I looked up to her. I knew that she had something special.
Next thing I know, my mom gets called by the principal.
The school is sending me home. I am incredibly confused because I had no idea what I did wrong. I don’t recall how it was explained to me. I think that I was in shock. I was eight years old.
As I sat in the principal’s office, I fondly remembered how much fun the girls and the boys had chasing each other at recess. As I recall, Virginia was the fastest runner. She was even faster than the boys. That inspired me. But the boys didn’t like it because she could outrun them. Maybe that’s why I ran so fast that day and was the first in the classroom.
“Boys chasing girls” was my all time favorite activity at recess. I just forgot to “turn it off” once I got into the classroom. (It wouldn’t be until 42 years later that I was diagnosed with ADHD for the first time.) Playful teasing was part of our game. The competition was tough because there were a lot of boys in my class that year. But Virginia gave a lot of strength to “the girls’ team”. That got me so excited that I triumphantly ran into the classroom and hollered, “The last one in the room loves Virginia!”
I was told that I needed to be careful what I said around “people with black skin”. I was sent home from school and colored with crayons.
From that day on, I tried to be careful.
I was so careful that I was afraid to say anything wrong.
People who are afraid don’t laugh freely like Virginia and I once did.
I acted different. And she acted different.
I don’t think that we ever laughed or ran like that again.