“Why does your skin have red spots?”
My insides tightened a little on the first day of my internship.
“I don’t really know. I guess I got sunburnt the other day,” I explained to the sweet little girl sitting in front of me.
Her curiosity persisted the next day that I saw her.
“It’s all red. Does it hurt?”
“Not anymore,” I reassured her, a little confused. My sunburn wasn’t extraordinarily prominent.
She poked my arm and it turned white momentarily, then back to red. She poked it again. And again. She was fascinated with my skin, shades different than hers. “Why does it do that?” she asked me.
I admitted that I didn’t really know; a scientific explanation of pale skin evaded me. I took her dark brown arm in my hand and gently pressed on her arm, to see if her skin changed pigment with the pressure. “See,” I began, but realized there was nothing to see. Her dark skin didn’t react like my fair skin.
I tried again. “See, my skin is pale and blotchy. And yours,” I told her, looking at her smooth, dark arm, “Yours is a lot more beautiful.”
Before starting this internship, I was initially wary of one thing:
How were these kids going to react to this white, 21-year-old girl urging them to write from the most sacred corners of their hearts?
The kids at St. Florian are primarily African American and some are considered “at-risk,” an unfair and obtuse generalization. They know a different Indianapolis than I do. Some hear fireworks on the Fourth of July and confuse them momentarily for gunshots.
So who am I—a complete stranger—to saddle up next to them in tiny classroom chairs and ask them about a time they weren’t heard? Or a time when they felt that being black mattered? Or worse, didn’t matter?
I deeply believe in the power and value of storytelling not only for readers, but for writers as well–especially these young writers. One of our fearless leaders and director of the Indiana Writers Center, Barb, helped approach the Black Lives Matter topic with the younger campers. She explained that sometimes people make us feel bad about who we are, how that hurts, how we don’t want to drudge up those feelings again. However, she gently explained that sometimes it’s good to write about these not-so-good feelings and experiences. She said it takes the heavy stuff out of heart and makes us feel a little better.
In just a few minutes, she explained the root of writing.
This entire experience has complicated and transformed the way I view writing. I knew that writers need to focus on the audience, yet I had been seeing what my personal calling to writing looked like with tunnel vision:
Aspiring author. Possible journalist. Part-time freelancer. Occasional PR stuff.
I realize now that I enjoy helping others write, helping others tell their stories, almost as much as I like to write myself. Amplifying usually-hushed voices, asking young minds about how they felt when ________ happened, watching their brows furrow with concentration and little hands move across the paper in a creative flurry. Opening these conversations with kids, asking Lauren how long it takes to braid her hair, earning a bit of cool cred with a group of middle school boys when I knew that Dwayne Allen was a tight end for the Colts, being invested in what they have to say, watching Roderick come out of his shell as the trust began to build, watching Jeremiah dance to Sevan’s beat boxing, giving high-fives after Author’s Chair readings, Da’Vion asking if he’d see me next year at camp.
After one of my first days of the internship, I went to the optometrist. Usually eye appointments consist of a routine colorblind test, something that my right eye struggles with immensely. The colors blur together and the number is indistinguishable, but with both eyes open I can see well enough and go about life with functional vision. The individual division of the colors, not being able to distinguish and separate the colors, divide the colors, doesn’t have a huge impact on my vision as a whole. On the bigger picture.
My friends Sevan and Lauren, who were fascinated by the physical quirks of my different skin, seemed to be colorblind to the “social implications” and historical pre-existing ideas surrounding those physical differences. The other younger campers didn’t quite grasp the concept of writing about their experience being black. They’re at that blissfully accepting yet insightfully observant age, right at the cusp of beginning to profoundly understand the world around them, while still being extremely impressionable. A tender, crucial stage. They don’t see me as “other” or “different.”
Probably because I’m not.
Probably because they’re not.
These children have been so welcoming, vulnerable, resilient, hard-working, intelligent, and hilarious. They have embraced this stranger walking into their life, handing them a pencil, asking questions. They have entrusted me with their stories, a gift that I don’t deserve yet cherish so profoundly.
If you’d like to support these young writers–the future movers and shakers of this world– and read their stories, the anthology of their work from this summer will be available for purchase July 30th through INwords as well as Amazon.com.