“Life is short; therefore, I shall be a crusader in the struggle against ignorance and fear, beginning with myself.” —Dorothy Vickers Shelley
I looked around at all the other 1st grade kids as we faced one another in a circle, holding hands. We were at our elementary school Yankee Ridge, in Urbana, Illinois. Mrs. Shelley, the school’s librarian, was a tall, striking light-skinned black woman, with a short afro and big “70’s” glasses. She had just read us a book, and despite our youth, we all knew the drill. It was time to sing her favorite song, “We Shall Overcome.”
As Mrs. Shelley sang, I noticed that she always closed her eyes, as if deep in thought. I looked around at the other kids in my class. Although no one else had any blatant physical difference like my one finger on each hand, there were several kids that were quite dark skinned, many of whom I had met the previous year in Kindergarten. At six years of age, I was many years away from understanding the concept of integration and thought nothing of the fact that these kids were bused from across town to attend our school.
As I sang the same song week after week, “loudly, with compassion” (as instructed), it never occurred to me that it probably meant something extremely important. One thing was certain. I had no idea how much it would ultimately mean to me.
The day had arrived—it was time to read a book to Savanna’s Kindergarten class. My parents had sent her books the night before—just in time for her 6th birthday. As we entered the room, Savanna and the rest of her classmates were seated on the floor, ready to hear her selected book. Earlier that morning, Savanna turned to both me and John, clearly focused on making sure neither of us felt left out. “Mommy, Daddy—I want you both to be able to do something for my class reading. Daddy, why don’t you hold the book and then Mommy can read. You can even take turns if you want.” I already knew I didn’t “want.” If John held the book and I only read, there was a significant chance the kids would not even focus on my hands. It didn’t hurt that the day was chilly and rainy so I was wearing long sleeves and could hold my jacket. To my relief, John held the book, I read the story, and none of the kids seemed to notice my hands.
As I drove home from work the other day, I reflected on that birthday book-reading for Savanna. What if the day had been warm and sunny and I wore a short sleeve top? Did I really mind that the kids would have noticed me? Well, yes…and no. To start with the “no,” I am quite good at going through my daily routines, even if it means having children stare or (ideally) simply ask their questions so we can move on. But here is the “yes.” As I mentioned in a past post about raising my ten-fingered daughter, “Following Her Lead,” I still find myself caring how other kids will perceive Savanna because of her mom’s blatant physical difference. Since the boys share my condition, this experience really is new territory.
There is no question I have progressed light years from the days of hiding my hands in a photo, or to the general public. But that is when it has to do with me alone. As far as I have come, I have to admit that I am still wrestling with feeling proud of what I look like in front of my kids, and especially Savanna.
As I entered my driveway the same evening, the song from those days with Mrs. Shelley came ringing in my head. I delayed entering the house, choosing to remain in the car– glad to be alone with my thoughts. I think the first time I actually thought about the lyrics to “We Shall Overcome” I was in high school, studying the civil rights movement in History class. At the time, I presumed that the message was meant to counter the persecutions of the majority against the minority.
However, the embedded message of the song is far more powerful than my initial interpretation. So many people have said to me along the way, “Meg, you have overcome so much.” The statement never resonated well, since to me, I was simply born this way, and living my life. But the truth is, they are still right. I have worked to overcome the judgment of others. But the only way to overcome ignorance, fear or even the simple and uncomfortable curiosity of others is through not only accepting your lot in life as it relates to you, but to cherish yourself enough to allow it to impact your loved ones. If I can have the guts to believe that my children will be able to manage the unwanted attention as well as I do, then I will have achieved something real. I am still working on it.
I wrote this post right before the violence that occurred last week in Connecticut. I cannot help but cry every moment I reflect on the horror inflicted on the 1st grade and adult victims of this unimaginable and brutal murder. But my tears are shed also thinking about the people who have survived, but will bear the scars forever. It occurred to me this week that the lyrics to “We Shall Overcome” seem to transcend their original historical meaning and even my own personal interpretation, and find relevance even here.
|“We shall overcome,
We shall overcome
We shall overcome some day
Oh, deep in my heart
I do believe
We shall overcome some day.”
This post is dedicated to Dorothy Vickers Shelley, who passed away in July 2009 at the age of 74.