Ms. Jenson had been a third-grade teacher for most of her adult life. Every short grey hair on her head was scribbled there by chalk-dusted adolescent hands. Yet, the girl she’d kept after class that Friday afternoon had her stumped.
Toni was normally a well-mannered and obedient student. However, a few days earlier, Ms. Jenson had caught her signing her mother’s name next to titles of books she’d read. There was no doubt the girl had read the books, so why the forgery?
Then that afternoon, the normally shy girl had come back from a bathroom break with green teeth and a purple mustache. Toni had walked to her desk and started on her schoolwork without saying a word.
Ms. Jenson sent Toni to the bathroom to wash her face then gave her a detention slip. Toni had made no argument, and now she sat quietly, looking up at Ms. Jenson with unblinking green eyes. There was still a shadow of the purple mustache over her lip.
“I don’t know what’s gotten into you, Toni. Are you bored?”
“I’ve asked you before — please don’t call me ma’am.”
“My mama taught me to call adults ma’am and sir because it’s respectful.”
“I know you mean well, but in my class, either answer with “no” or “no, Ms. Jenson. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Ma- I mean, yes, Ms. Jenson.”
“Much better.” Ms. Jenson smiled then kneeled to Toni’s eye level.
Toni smiled back shyly.
“I didn’t keep you after class as a punishment, Toni. Your science teacher, Mrs. Edwards, and I have noticed that you are very bright. You scored high on the tests we gave you, and we will be sending you to some extra classes for gifted students.”
Toni didn’t look pleased.
“What’s wrong, Toni? This is a good thing!”
“I like the classes I’m in,” Toni responded.
“You’ll still have classes with us. Don’t worry. The gifted classes are only two hours out of your day.”
Toni didn’t respond for a moment. Then she raised her hand. Ms. Jenson nodded.
“You don’t have to raise your hand when it’s just us. What would you like to say?”
“I don’t want to start in a new class with new kids. May I please stay here?”
“We’ll talk to your parents about it, but I think it’s the best idea. In the meantime, I’d like you to begin staying two hours after school.”
“Why? What did I do?”
Ms. Jenson stood before she responded.
“You’re a smart girl, Toni, but your accent makes you sound like ignorant white trash. I’m going to help you learn to speak correctly.”
Ms. Jenson’s lessons were mostly spent with me playing video games while she graded papers. It was a nice time for me because everything was hectic at home.
Mama and Dad yelled a lot, and my three little siblings cried a lot — not to mention the toddlers Mama babysat during the week. Staying after school was a vacation.
However, the only lesson I took to heart was shame. I’d never heard the term “white trash” until that day, and it’s still a stain on my psyche.
However, once I became an adult, I started embracing the music of my accent. It took some time before I spoke comfortably again, but the journey was worth it.
Teachers hold more power in their hands than they realize. I believe my third-grade teacher meant well, but her words still hurt over thirty years later.
I Hate My Voice
I sometimes hate my voice, especially when I’m depressed. However, I refuse to go quietly.
Please remember that you — just as you are — are beautiful. Now, say it out loud.
“I’m beautiful exactly as I am!”
And if someone’s thoughtless words still sting you? Yell it so loudly that you drown them out!
A Note from the Author
I learned my mom’s signature because she told me to sign for her. I read so much that she was tired of signing! I may have been “bright,” but it didn’t occur to me to hide my crime. I was happily writing Mom’s signature as my teacher walked past.
* Green Teeth
I still don’t know what came over me that day. I asked for a bathroom pass and happened to have markers in my hand. I placed the markers on the counter while I washed my hands. Then I made some faces in the mirror, glanced at the markers, then proceeded to color my teeth green and draw a curly mustache on my face.