Mrs. Wozniak avoided eye contact with me while she rocked a tired baby, awkward and messy in her attempts to console it. I thought perhaps the baby was a relative, but I was empty of the patience to feign interest. She could have been using the baby as a prop to look busy, too busy with the wrong things. When she eventually lifted her head, and our eyes met, she saw my hurt. The flush of red to her cheeks betrayed her words. I’m getting to the bottom of this. I’ve been meeting with the students involved all day. There was no apology or inquiry about how my Ella was doing. I didn’t know this woman except that she was the vice principal of the junior high. I had no reason to. My girls were excellent students and never had any disciplinary issues that required us to have met in the years prior to this moment in her office. I didn’t know this woman’s heart, but the pounding ache in mine was only met by a dismissive, distant beat of hers. I was angry that I didn’t get a call from her hours earlier when the incident happened.
My daughter Ella was called the N word by a male classmate one morning in October of her eighth-grade year. When she told me who it was, I wasn’t surprised. He was the same fledgling bigot who, the year prior, told her twin sister, Simone, that she doesn’t belong here. I still remember the name of the first person who called me the N word 48 years ago when I was in 10th grade. And the sharply sweet smell from the wads of dip he spat into sheets of loose-leaf paper and crumpled into balls that littered the floor under his desk behind mine. Ella will have a similar scar, a sharp memory of the name of the boy who first called her the N word. She went straight to the principal’s office when it happened and relayed it to me as soon as she got in the car that day at pick up. As I listened, I could hear sadness and confusion in her tone. Like a mom on the playground checking for scrapes after a hard fall, I began scanning her psyche with questions. Who did you speak with in the office? What did they tell you? Did they call him to the office? Her answers were lacking in clarity due to the blinding gaslight wielded by all the reckless administrators in her school that day.
All of 6th and 7th grade of middle school had passed without such an overtly racist incident. I drove my girls to and from school so that they would never be exposed to the racism that I knew was there behind the doors of the houses on the tree-lined streets. There was no love for us behind the door of the house five blocks away, the one with the pick-up truck that had the confederate flag glued to its back window.
For protection against the elements, I amassed a collection of warm hats, gloves and socks, and got everyone in the family a pair of snow pants. I planned outings for us to discover hiking trails around town and signed us up for cross-country skiing lessons. I did all of this so that we could be outside, normalizing our presence and our sense of belonging in this place we called home.
Most days I would walk, alone, to the lake. When temps dipped below freezing and wind whipped up funnels of fallen snow, being outside lifted my mood. Sunrises over Lake Huron are the most spectacular in the dead of winter. As I walked, I’d notice the warmth of each exhale and how it shielded my face from frostbite. I felt every heartbeat as I’d lift my legs high and lowered them cautiously on the snow-covered walkways. I found presence and stable footing in the icy grooves of various footprints where others had marched before, and it was all life affirming. This was how I stayed upright for that longest, coldest season and survived the loneliness and isolation of otherness. Winter made me stronger, and now winter is my favorite season.
While the vice principal and I were meeting for the first time that day of the N word incident of my daughter’s 8th grade year, I did not have to introduce myself. I had no anonymity in that building. She knew why I had bypassed the secretary’s desk to find someone who could please explain to me.
How is the racist assault on my daughter, Ella, going to be addressed?
I was intentionally calm in my delivery, but my whole body was trembling from anger and hurt that this happened and that no one in the administration called me at home to let me know. I had to learn about it from Ella.
I’ve already spoken to his mother.
Then she relayed what his mother said, as if it would help, as if it wouldn’t make it worse.
He would never say that word, because we have black friends.”
I remained silent and allowed the expression on my face to respond. This was followed by her discouraging shrug of uncertainty about what to say to me to fix the hurt in my eyes, and to make me go away. I didn’t know her, but I wondered if she knew what the N word meant. I deeply regret that I didn’t use that time in her office to make sure she understood its full meaning and violent charge. It’s not just a word that was used by a bully against my daughter in the halls of her school. It was a threat to isolate and humiliate. When it’s spoken, it carries centuries of torturous, dehumanizing brutality. It was the last word heard by countless souls before their Black bodies were raped, whipped, lynched, mutilated, burned, beaten, dragged, and spat upon. Throughout our ugliest history, and even now, that word presages violence. She couldn’t have known that as she sat there in her office chair in Lucifer’s dungeon, too busy for me, while holding a baby, someone’s baby, not my baby, and said, I will have to follow up with you. I’m still trying to get to the bottom of this.
She told me she spoke with students who had witnessed the incident looking for corroboration that his hate wasn’t hate, that racism wasn’t racist, and that maybe it didn’t happen.
My Ella is honest. If she says it happened, then it happened.
The vice principal wouldn’t look up at me while she spoke. She sat there in her office chair and said she wanted to get to the bottom of this, to a place with no apologies, no reconciliation, and no safeguards to prevent the N word from being hurled at my daughter again. Her eyes were cast down, heavy with shame, perhaps as heavy as the shame I felt my sophomore year of high school that first time I was called the N word. That same shame that kept me from telling anyone. Not Mr. Simms, my trigonometry teacher sitting at his desk just out of earshot. I didn’t tell my mother, too worried that she would have to take time off work that we could not afford. I didn’t have the strength to cast off shame. My Ella knew that this was not hers to carry and went directly to the principal’s office to dispose of it. While I would love to claim some part in her knowing how to respond to that moment, her pride is born of the progress of a generation. Ella held her head high with the strength of her ancestors who survived many long, cold winters to march before her. Winter made us stronger. We no longer carry the shame of that word that is not ours and never was. We don’t let the weight of its trauma rest like a yoke on our shoulders when it’s spoken. We use every collective muscle to lift it off our backs and set it down at the feet of its owner.