ThE Final Chapter: Fifth Grade

I’m still working on Crazy, Cracked, Warm and Deep.  It is slowly finding it’s wings.  As I was wrapping up what I thought was enough of the old stories and pieces – my fiftn grader rose up.  I knew this piece needed to be included.  Here’s a teaser for the book.

The Final Chapter: Fifth Grade

There are moments in life best to just forget. Right?

Often those moments don’t really go away. Instead, they lurk beneath the surface of our psyche, waiting to resurface, and play havoc.

For me one of those moments occurred when I was in fifth grade in the early 70’s in the inner city of Richmond, VA. My city school system was going through a LONG period of finding a solution to social injustice and racial segregation with the latest attempt to integrate.

The plan was to bus kids into an inner city building while a new better school was being built.

The building I was bused to held only fifth grade.

There were about 350 fifth graders, 90% black and 10% white.

Looking back, I would definitely say there were some flaws in the thinking of the people who devised the plan. I also get the intense injustice and justified anger of the disenfranchised black students.

However, at the time, I was simply one of the 10%, and determined to find a way to survive my first year of being bused out of my neighbor and into a new school district.

I struggled.  I was a young girl of 10 years, who apparently looked a lot like a boy.

Day One 

“Susie Clarke – are you here?” Ms. Childs, a tall, thin, black women standing in front of the classroom holding a clipboard, picked up her eyes to look for a raised hand as she went through the class list.

“Susie Clarke – where are you?” 

“Here!” I called out.

“No, I said Susie. Do not start off on the wrong foot young man!” She said with a stern look.

“I am Susie. I am not a boy.” I could feel a lump forming in my throat, as everyone in the class laughed, but I spoke with a determined strong voice.

No way was I going to show any tears.

Ms Childs’ looked, and finally, after what seemed like an eternity, she checked me off.

That was the start of day one.

Things got worse.

Later that day Ms. Childs told me to come with her. She took me to the girl’s bathroom. Then she asked me to pull down my pants to confirm I was indeed a girl.

I was horrified but agreed. She was finally satisfied.

Though Ms Childs created some of my initial problems with that opening day event, she also strongly encouraged me to stay positive, and not give up on my efforts to engage in making the school a better place.

Charlotte – A Girl on a Mission

Charlotte was one angry young girl. Clearly, she had good reason to be angry growing up black in Richmond, VA.

Unlike many of the other black students, Charlotte took every opportunity to let me know she had the upper hand in this school environment.

When we had to be lined up in the hall, she’d slap me across face. Then she’d remind me I should be in the back of line. I didn’t belong upfront.

In the girls bathroom, she’d push me into a stall. She’d tell her friends, “Behind this door is the boy playing a girl.” She’d make sure I stayed put by leaning against the stall door making it impossible to get out.

I wasn’t her only target.  Any light or white skinned person would attract her wrath and it really didn’t matter if a teacher was present or not. She was taking a stand against white people.

Charlotte was the ringleader of a gang of playground bullies who were relentless. Our playground was a two block walk from the school, creating ample bullying time. My hunch is this was their way of channeling their much deserved rage of being discounted in a white culture.

As a 5th grader, it was difficult to be the target. So I took Ms Child’s advice to stay positive.

I decided to run for Student Council President under the platform of “no bullying.”

We had the school event of speeches. I stepped up on that stage and said “I am running because I want to stop the bullying.”  You could hear a pin drop, then there was a rolling, rising wave of laughter.  Yet, I was committed and thought I delivered a solid message and concern.

I talked to anyone who would talk to me.

I believed I had a chance to win, and eagerly put my posters around.  I didn’t get flustered by any side comments or the popularity of some of the other’s candidates running.

Voting Day

I arrived early to cast my vote. Like any confident candidate, I put my vote in the ballot box with a check beside my name.

Later the principal came over the school’s public address system to announce the winners.  I thought he’d only list the winners.

No. He chose to read each name and how many votes they got.

I did not win.
I had one vote.
I knew it was my own.

I was horrified.

I slipped out to go to the bathroom.

Guess who was there.

Yes, Charlotte.

She grabbed me, spun me around, saw the tears, give me a slap across my face and started laughing.

“That will teach you white girl/boy – whatever.”

I did manage to pull away and collapsed in humiliation and shame in the stall.

That crushing moment was seared into my cells.

I am not quite sure how I recovered.

I did get through 5th grade.

However, I did make a vow to never, ever put myself in a situation where I was asking people to choose me…Never step into that kind of leadership.

Then I did what any good survivor does. I buried that moment.

The memory has stayed unearthed longer than other painful blows, many of which, on a physical level were much worse.

What I didn’t realize though is that memory has played havoc with my efforts to speak out with my own my voice, to market my services, to write and share my stories.

Don’t get me wrong, I have stepped out into leadership, but under someone else’s platform. I lead other people’s programs, and coach under the umbrella of other people’s models.

More recently though, at thrive!, CrisMarie and I  have been standing forward with our own voice and our own model.

Our platform is the beauty of conflict.

Hmm, someone could make the connection that making conflict beautiful may be about as popular as a white girl running on the platform against bullying. I really had not given that any thought until just now. (That may need some more processing.)

Selling the beauty of conflict hasn’t been easy. No one likes conflict. Not even us and we’ve written two books on it.

However, conflict is natural, normal and creative.  This is when used – which is what we do helping leaders and teams.  Bullying is really just conflict, not being dealt with.

As we work on our marketing efforts for our business, and define our voice and brand, I have bumped into that old crippling doubt and unearthed roots of my fears: Fifth Grade!

This book, Crazy, Cracked, Warm and Deep has taken forever to write and share.  There are all sorts of reasons I wrestle with getting these stories out.

The various demons have all become little pieces of the book making their way out.

This damn book is only about 50 pages but it has felt like the writing of centuries.

As I have was coming to some sort of conclusion in assembling the book, guess who showed up?

No not Charolotte. My fifth grader, “Why am I not in the book? Are you still so ashamed of me?”

I needed to listen. I am turning towards that little eager, humiliated fifth grader. I am crying with her as I write.

My fifth grader deserves a chapter.  So this is her piece to the puzzle of me.

There wasn’t any reason for me to be ashamed of my efforts in fifth grade.

As Brene Brown would say, “I entered the arena.” It’s okay that I lost, and I am glad I voted for myself.

I don’t want to bury the moment. I want to release it. Share it.

No matter what the color of your skin, your economic status, sexual orientation, gender preference, I am guessing you’ve experienced a humiliating moment.

Maybe you buried that humiliating moment too, only to have it play havoc with some part of your life.

If so, I hope this story will inspire you to remember and embrace that part of you. I hope to let you know you are not alone.

Don’t bury it. Don’t hide. Lead through it.

This recent moment of mine is already different than fifth grade.

One, because it unearthed the earlier moment, and has helped me re-frame and rewrite those old vows.
I will step up to lead with my voice.
I will ask people to choose me (and us).
Yes, I will cast another vote for myself.
I will learn from, rather than, bury a negative result.

Bottom-line: I didn’t bury the impact or lesson this time.

I learned how to lean in.

I am leading through it.

For that I am grateful.

Take that Charlotte!