Thursday, November 10, 2011

"I am sorry" - a 36 year old apology

Me, circa 1975
In 1975 I was an innocent five-year-old making my way through kindergarten, while our country was navigating through the after effects of the Civil Rights Movement.  Little did I know that a piece of this country’s strife would dramatically play out in my classroom.

It was a typical cold spring day when I arrived at school.  But, this day was different.  Instead of diving into our lessons on colors, or letters, Mrs. Kramer*, instructed us to gather on the rug in our “special groups”. 

“Today, a special new student will join us.” She explained.

As we sat on the rug, Mrs. Kramer implored, “Please be nice to our new friend when she arrives.”  She looked over to my group and said “She will join your group!”  I was elated!  I would surely have a new friend!

The room filled with chatter and much anticipation.  As I waited, I noticed that something was different.  When I was the “new girl”, just two months earlier, the other kids were not eagerly awaiting my arrival.  Instead, I remembered entering the classroom while Mrs. Kramer was teaching, being greeted kindly, given my seat, and promptly the lesson continued.  I wondered why today it was different. 

We heard the door open, as she and her mother entered.  Mrs. Kramer greeted them, helped the little girl hang her coat and then turned her toward us and said “Class, this is Sylvia.” 

To this day, I clearly remember smiling at her and admiring her beautiful red and blue plaid jumper.  She looked so pretty.

Meanwhile, my classmates were talking amongst themselves.  Abruptly, Brian*, another kindergartener, pointed at my group and loudly exclaimed, “You’ve got a blacky!”  Before long, other children began repeating his words, and steadily, the entire room became filled with five and six year old voices chanting “You’ve got a blacky!  You’ve got a blacky!”

Immediately, I knew that something was wrong, but couldn’t make sense of it.  I looked at Sylvia, and took inventory.  Her dress was not black, nor were her shoes.  Her hair was black, but determined that couldn’t be what they were talking about since many others’ in my class also had dark hair.  I wondered, “Could they be talking about her skin?”  Immediately, I thought “But, her skin is brown, not black.”

I was uneasy and confused!  “What was going on?”

All my classmates surrounding me were chanting.  I felt as if I were the only one who remained silent.  I did not know what to do. 

But, I did do. 

And, (to this day) I am ashamed to say, that I joined in on the hatred and added my five year old voice to that chant.

Tears roll down Sylvia’s face as her mother hurriedly helped her put on her coat and quickly steered her out the door. 

Afterwards, the students quieted.  Soon Mrs. Kramer began to teach and we returned to familiar routines of our school day.  The sense of normalcy calmed me.

I never saw Sylvia again.

I didn't speak about that moment, to anyone, until many, many years later.

As I grew and matured, I realized how ghastly that experience was.  I was mortified for Mrs. Kramer, angry at whoever taught such hatred to my classmates, and shameful of myself. 

I have often wondered about Sylvia and how that afternoon affected her life.  How could that moment have been different?  What I could have done to prevent such horribleness?

I wish that it hadn’t happened.  I wish that Mrs. Kramer would have done something.  I wish that I would have remained silent.  And, I wish that I could have been brave enough to do something - anything. 

But now, mostly, I wish that I could tell Sylvia, “I am sorry”.

*names have been changed.


  1. Thank you for the courage to write about this, Kim.

    Your brave step reminds me of one of my favorite quotes:
    "Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future." ~ Paul Boese

    I hope you can meet up with "Sylvie" again.

  2. Debbie-

    Thank you for the quote - it is beautiful!

    It was a time in my life that periodically, has replayed over and over again in my mind. Looking back, I realized that it was the first time I witnessed racism. It was confusing. But, I am thankful that I was old enough that I can remember a time in my life that I didn't know that such hatred existed.

    Thank you for reading and sharing your wonderful wisdom.

    :) Kim

  3. Thank you for sharing such an intense memory from your past. Most people would not have the courage to speak up and apologize for such an incident but rather just remain silent. Talking about such issues hopefully helps to erase the ignorance that created the hatred in the first place. Racism evokes shame for those who participated and certainly harms the victim of the hatred but an apology can heal so much. Bless Sylvia - I am so sorry that happened to her.