UNALAKLEET — We were at the playground swings that day. It was fall. School just started. Some kids had new clothes. The air felt fresh and crisp.
In the fifth grade, I was becoming aware of power, influence and ego. I don’t remember my thoughts that day, but I remember the feelings. I felt cocky. The two others I was with were feeling the same, and those feelings buzzed between us, and like cowards we directed this newfound power toward someone we knew wouldn’t fight back.
She was different. Tall with curly hair. Heavy and comfortable alone. She went on vacation out of state. She brought fresh fruit in her lunchbox while we ate turkey tetrazzini from the plastic school lunch trays. Her dad didn’t hunt. Her mom wore skirts and heeled shoes. We knew her differences and our numbers could be twisted to our advantage for a short moment that day. We took it.
I don’t remember what we called her or what we said, but we teased her. We said words simply to make her feel bad. To make her have feelings that she was somehow less than us. To simply put this beautiful person down.
Shame in my marrow
As I think about it decades later, the shame appears as it did that fifth-grade night while I sat alone in my bedroom. Shame in my marrow. In my blood stream. I realize it has never left. It has lay dormant and reappears when I hear her name.
I won’t lie. For a moment it felt good. To sin is to satisfy, if only briefly. In the end, that moment tarnished my innocence and, ironically, made me feel smaller. Small. Unsure of myself. I told no one, and I did my best to file that experience in a case of locked memories.
The thing about this girl was, she held her head high. She corrected us with deep pleasure when we mispronounced silly things village kids didn’t know. “Kuh-WOSS-uh-kee,” we said while checking out her family’s green motorbike. “It’s KY-wuh-SAW-kee,” she corrected in a condescending, nasally tone. We laughed, not at our ignorance but at her delivery. At her thought that maybe for a second, she was better than us.
And that’s what the teasing was about. While we were the majority, she was privileged. And it made us feel bad. It wasn’t her fault, but we felt it. Shame is feeling something is wrong with you. At your core. In your being. Feeling less than others. Not important, wrong and insignificant. It’s difficult to admit, but that’s what we wanted her to feel. At least for a short moment, I wanted her to feel what I did. And instead those spiky feelings inside me grew, reaching deeper.
And they creep out today. They leak out of my skin and sting when I feel I’m being treated differently because my hair is dark and my face Eskimo. They burst out when I realize I did something really stupid. The feelings and thoughts of not being enough. Of being unimportant. Less than. Really stupid. Insignificant. And what I’ve come to appreciate is that while those feelings are real, I know they are a lie.
Back to the dark
I tell my aging self, and the 10-year-old cocky kid inside of me, that the feelings need to go where they belong. Back to the dark. My heart doesn’t have locked boxes, so I don’t file the experience. I release, pray for change and move on.
I imagine the 10-year-old Native girl taking that shame and slamming it to the ground and stomping on it. Asking the two she’s with to help her. I then ask the white girl on the swings. We’re all stomping and it feels good. We walk away clean, refreshed and light on our feet. It’s silly and I laugh at my method, but it helps.