My day begins supervising fourth-grade recess. It’s a nice way to ease into being in the school building, where I often cringe at how we insist that small children stay tethered to their chairs for so many hours in a row.
I love the 10-second conversations that occur between bursts of running, yelling and cracking up. And even more, I love being an audience to the group of students that uses recess to practice harmonizing on pop songs.
I love fourth-graders for their innocence. Recently I heard a fourth-grader tell another, “You’re pretty.” “I know,” she responded matter-of-factly. “I get it from my auntie.”
So it makes me sad whenever one of them combs their fingers through my hair and says something like, “Ms. Craven, you got such nice hair. It’s so soft.”
Because nearly all of my students are black and I am white. I want to go on a rant about the imposition of a European style of beauty. I want to rail against the idea that hair should be smooth and straight rather than curly and coarse. I want to tell them about the sociological symbolism of hair. I want to urge them to resist conforming and especially conforming to a norm established by a group that has been historically oppressive of the group to which they belong.
But then I remember they are fourth-graders. And I remember that they are just giving me a compliment, even if it is potentially loaded (unbeknownst to them) with an internalized belief that Caucasian hair is somehow better than their own.
So I say thank you and tell them I think their hair is beautiful. I encourage the positive things they say they like about their hair, and about themselves. Because a small interaction that’s superficially about hair has big potential; it can be used to encourage self-confidence and a belief in beauty’s many unique forms. And that’s part of my job too.
Craven is a middle school English teacher in Louisiana.