From Black and White to Color
I was a happy child. Throughout my childhood, I received everything I needed, and most of the things I wanted. I was gifted with expensive dolls, toy cars that imitated luxury vehicles and were driveable, costume gowns for my favorite Disney princesses; I had an abundant early life. I had a nuclear family with parents who loved each other and my sister and me deeply. I lived in a good neighborhood and had friends at school and that lived on my street. Everything about my childhood was picturesque. I was not a silver-spoon baby, but I never had to suffer or wonder where my next meal was coming from. Little did I know, the bubble world I was living in was going to burst and my memories of my home forever tainted.
For everything Murrysville had, it lacked diversity, that was by design. Racial relations were not at the forefront of my mind as a child and I never noticed the discrepancy. It never crossed my mind that I was the only black person among my friends and in my class. If I had ever felt different from the other children it was for being overweight, not my race. I was fortunate to not have to face the cold realities of racism at such a young age. Make no mistake, racism is absolutely rampant and unchecked in the small predominantly white suburbs, I merely avoided being a victim to it. The morals of the community sat comfily with the ideals of conservatives. Their beliefs were backed by Christianity and expressed through judgment and hate. I was not aware such hate existed in the world, but my sister had to face it head-on.
I was five years old when my parents decided to pack up and move our lives out of the only home I’d ever known. They announced, “We’re moving to Monroeville!” as if it was an exciting new adventure. My sister, who was seventeen at the time and a senior in high school, had been at the backend of bullying for months and her tolerance had finally been met. She had been targeted for the color of her skin. Arielle was one of two black students in her senior class. She had previously attended a private Christian school named Greater Works, however, the school closed for her class group. Arielle had to enter a new school in her senior year and was faced with harassment undeservingly. This was the first time I learned about racism, and at five I did not fully grasp what my parents were trying to explain to me. The white picket fence around my childhood was crashing around me. I did not understand the reality of the torture my sister faced at the hands of her peers, I could only understand that my life would soon be irreversibly changed.
The day my parents announced the move was the mark of a period of time I can only describe as tumultuous. I was angry with my sister for being the reason we were moving, I was angry at my parents for deciding to move us, I was angry with the world. For the first time in my short and spoiled life, I was not getting what I wanted. It was like a bitter taste in my mouth. It made me want to scream and cry and break something. I settled on crying, and cry I did. I cried until my head was pounding and I had no more tears to cry. All at once, everything I knew was going to cease to exist. The things I loved were no longer going to be mine to love. The thing that troubled me the most was moving away from my childhood best friend, Maggie.
Maggie lived three houses up my street and we had been attached at the hip since I was two years old. She was a mousey white girl with brown wavy hair, inviting brown eyes, and an impenetrable smile. Maggie was the kindest soul I knew, the kind of child that had true purity of the heart. The thought of being ripped away from her tormented me. I had no idea how I was going to share my devastating news with her. When I finally did tell Maggie about my parents’ plans we cried together, we both knew what that meant for our friendship. Even at the tender ages of five and seven, we knew that the distance would drive a wedge between what was our inseparable bond. Now, a twenty-minute drive to go see a friend is nothing but a quick car ride, but as a child, you might as well be on Mars. With that knowledge we did the only thing we could think of to save our relationship, we started scheming on ways I could stay in Murrysville. Maggie suggested I move in with her; I didn’t think my parents would agree to that. Then we thought that if we cleaned my entire house my parents may reconsider the move; that plan fell flat. We also tried convincing my sister to change her mind with our big puppy dog eyes, with zero success and numerous attempts Maggie and I decided to face the facts. I would be moving and we’d go from seeing each other every day to an occasional playdate here and there.
I was incredibly dispirited at the time and my parents took notice. They, in turn, did everything they could to make the move exciting for me. My parents let me pick the paint, carpet, and furniture for my room. I got everything I wanted once again. I designed my room with pink walls, expensive pink shag carpet, and bunk beds even though I had no one to share them with. Even with my new room being exactly what I wanted, I was oppositional about the move. Nothing seemed worth giving up what I had in Murrysville. However, the choice was my parents’ to make so in January of 2007 I left behind my old life and entered one in a new home, at a new school, in a new neighborhood.
My first few months in Monroeville were hard. I had already been a shy kid, being new over halfway through the school year made it extremely difficult for me to make friends. I started playing with the girls in my neighborhood, but they could not fill the hole Maggie had left. It was during this time I became more reserved, I started crawling into my shell. I felt out of place at my new school. No one had made an effort to be particularly friendly and because I was so quiet I spent the rest of the school year, more or less, alone. Those were not the end of my new kid blues. After kindergarten, I was once again the new kid in primary school. The school district I would end up attending for first through twelfth grade only offered half-day kindergarten and since both of my parents worked I had to attend a separate kindergarten before attending that school district. There seemed to be no light at the end of the tunnel. The only thing I could do was survive.
Survive I did. For my first five years in Gateway School District, I struggled through school without any concrete friends. I was the new girl up until I was the fat girl, those two reputations caused me to shut down. It was not until I was in sixth grade that I began to slim out and come out of my shell. I befriended the other “weird girl” in my grade and for the first time since my move, I had someone to be close to. Alanya and I got along because we felt discounted and devalued by our peers. Together we were the alternative girls that liked black nail polish, boys with long hair, and hardcore metal and screamo bands. My new identity did not help me with popularity at school and it effectively drove my family and me apart. My family watched as I listened exclusively to white musicians and held primarily white friends and they must have wondered if the decision to move had been effective. The truth of the matter was I felt lost, and I was still harboring resentment towards my family for the move. Even though my friendship with that girl did not last, the lessons my friendship with her taught me did. From Alanya I learned how to be a patient and understanding friend and I will always owe her a debt of gratitude for that. As I grew out of my middle school phase and entered into junior high school I began making solid friends. Things were finally beginning to look up for me.
Finally, when I had arrived at my senior year in high school I had a building excitement inside of me for all of the things I would be able to do. I was on the cusp of adulthood, and activities such as senior prank, senior concert, prom, and graduation all tantalized me. I was encouraged to spend the year having fun, and I accomplished that easily. The friendship I had cultivated in the years prior grew stronger in our last semesters together. When it came time for prom in the back of my mind was my sister, who did not go to her senior prom because she had only attended Gateway for four months at that point. I felt saddened for her realizing all of the things I enjoyed, the things I took for granted, my sister had missed out on. I remembered how I felt as the new girl in kindergarten and first grade and pondered on what that must have been like for my sister entering a school where everyone else had bonded for the past thirteen years. My prom night was possible because my sister sacrificed hers.
As I sat amongst friends, peers, faculty, and family at my high school graduation I took that time to reflect on what my twelve years at Gateway had meant to me. It was that moment as I waited for my name to be announced that I realized the sacrifice my parents made and the choice to move our family was for me to have a better life. In my high school gym, with the stands filled with alumni and family and rows of chairs sitting on the court, occupied with graduates, I saw a coalition of colors around me. Students of different races, ethnicities, and religions were all together in one place, celebrating a milestone together. I scanned the room and saw an Arab girl I had done orchestra with, a trans boy who had initiated the gay straight alliance at our school, a Jewish boy who claimed to know every other Jewish person in the school, and directly before me was my black female valedictorian. Speeches were given and names started getting called. “Minahal Abbas, Zoe Abel, Elijah Adams,” with each name I felt a surge of adrenaline and anxiety; the first chapter of my life would be coming to a close in moments. “Jenna Beam, Conner Beatty, Samantha Beley,” I began to hold my breath as anticipation grew. “Marc Caggiano, Stephanie Cansler,” the sweat in my palms accumulated, my breath was released. I walked to the front of the gymnasium and shook hands with my school counselor. I made my way to my principal and I shot my attention directly across the gym to where my family was sitting. I took my diploma into one hand, and shook hands with him with the other while thinking, “This is for you, sister.” A smile spread across my face as revelation and relaxation came over me. Had I never moved I might have been one of the only people of color at my school, just like my sister was. Thinking now about the different life I almost had, I am eternally grateful that my parents created a new path for me.