Over the spring break, I attended Kweli’s book conference (the third annual Color of Children’s Literature Conference) held at CUNY graduate center in Manhattan.
I was super excited about going to the conference because I enjoy reading and writing stories for children.
The Kweli conference keynote was given by author, Angela Johnson. A trendsetter for children books and an admirer of mine. It was my first time meeting her and hearing her speak.
Her speech set the tone for the conference. It was full of purpose, yet very comical and light. She began with short funny anecdotes about her book tours at schools. The following story (paraphrased) is one story she told that was my favorite. It made me think of a little girl in my class:
She began, Every elementary school has a little third grade girl who just knows everything. When I arrived at this particular school, I was assigned THAT girl. Her name was Ashley. When I told Ashley I needed to use the bathroom, she replied, I’m going to take you to the bathroom no one knows about; and she took me up to the third floor…I stayed in that bathroom for about a half hour or more locked in! Finally, when Ashley returned. She asked, Ms. Johnson, are you ok? Yes, I replied, I’m locked in. Ms. Johnson, she asked, did you push or pull the door?
I laughed out loud at this story as I could see and hear the little girl in my class asking the same question.
As she continued her speech, the theme of memory and high expectations kept recurring. Even though she spoke about serious topics like race and acceptance, the mood was very settle and light.
She spoke of her traumatic experiences as a first grader in 1967. It was interesting to hear how her parents did their best to prepare her for a world that was not welcoming to people of color and at the same time, her parents also seemingly managed to keep her sheltered enough so she could enjoy her childhood and the skin she was in.
“I had been told earlier on, she said, that the world would expect a little bit more of me”. Many parents of color often tell their children even today, that they have to work extra hard. However, her father put it in a more subtle way.
“My father, she continued, “had told me I couldn’t be ordinary and I didn’t understand that…I been told gently by my father that some people wouldn’t accept me…I knew it had something to do with maybe the color of my skin. He never came out and said it”.
It seems like Ms. Johnson was given an opportunity (as most children) to look past people skin tones and treat everyone equally and expect the same fairness back, because her parents guarded her innocence.
Nonetheless, in first grade, she begin to understand the the world wasn’t all it was cut out to be.
On the first day of school during roll call, her teacher escorted her out of the classroom, pinned her against the wall then proceeded to ask her why was she there.
She continued, “I ached to be in the first grade…I always felt like I belonged in my world…they had showed there was no difference in all of us…so why was this teacher who was suppose to be my first grade teacher asking me why I was there?”
‘As a first grader, I understood very little of what was going on’.
Eventually, she was moved to another first grade class. Nonetheless, the memories stayed.
In her story, I learned that the person who placed her in the first- first grade class was seemingly a daring person. She was painted as a hippie, someone who believed in change and taking chances. However, this hippie teacher, an adult, had to know how this other teacher was. As Ms. Johnson spoke about this hippie character, she praised her. But, I wondered, was she really praiseworthy and fully innocent? She probably could have saved Johnson the trouble of experiencing this trauma as a little girl by not placing her in this prejudice teacher’s class altogether.
Johnson went on to explain how much [we] are responsible for children and I would even say, their memories. True we do not control how children perceive experiences but if we work really hard to give them great ones, (and we know when they are great because a happy adult makes a happy child) then we have met them half-way.
I relate this story only because it was one of my earlier memories, I relate this memory because it was one of my earliest traumas, I relate this trauma because it’s gone a long way in my understanding children and those people that are responsible for children and how we treat them on this planet.
I am very happy I was able to attend the Kewi book conference. It was like a breath of fresh air to hear many authors and illustrators speak about their work! Ms. Johnson’s welcoming and friendly tone set the mood for the rest of the conference. I walked away with a strong sense of who my work was for and why I am responsible for their experiences and memories.