A suspicious tan

The Czechs have a phrase they say when the good ol’ sheetrock hits the fan that I wish we had in English, “Uz je to tady!” (Blandly and completely inadequately translated as “It’s here already.”) It means that although the usage is closer to “the time has come” and the connotation is usually ominous.

On Tuesday morning, the preschool teacher who has taken to giving three-year-old Shaye a ride to school, came to the door and in the midst of morning pleasantries blurted out, “Where are your children from… er… I mean I know they are adopted but are they from an orphanage?” I said that they were. She stammered, “From here, from the Czech Republic?” I said yes again. “Really?” she asked incredulously. Neither of my children have typical Romani features, so people don’t always realize their background unless they know they are adopted and in the winter, sometimes not even then. This preschool has only known my children since February. Hence the fact that Shaye already has a darker tan than any Czech will have in August is a news flash.

I can always think of bright comments for things like this LATER, when I’m not on the spot, but at a moment like this I tend to freeze up. I just nodded and let it pass. The fact is that it is guaranteed that this woman knows the score. By “really?” she means, “So, you’re telling me they’re Roma, right?” but she won’t say it because she doesn’t want to poke the sleeping elephant in the living room of the country into wakefulness in her preschool classroom. Given that she almost certainly is convinced that my children are Roma, there seems little point in my pretending that she doesn’t. And yet, I have no more desire to see the elephant stomp around in the preschool either.

Shaye returned from preschool happy and bubbly. In the evening, I settled down to read her a bedtime story. But when I pulled out a story that had a preschool scene in it, she didn’t want a story anymore and wanted to go to bed without a story. This isn’t typical, so I asked her gently what was wrong and asked detailed questions, such as, “Do you like school?” She has always answered yes to this, even on days when she was so terrified to go with a new class and a new teacher that she was quivering and crying. This time she said “No.” Then, I was worried.

I tried probing for what had happened but she wouldn’t say, until I asked, “Did someone say something mean?” And immediately she nodded. “They” said she is “brown”, she said. More than a bit uneasy I asked if the teacher had said this and she said no. The kids? Yes.

So, she’s three and the only child of any ethnic minority in the preschool, one of only four in the whole town, and one of those is her little brother, one is in high school and the other looks even whiter than she does. I cuddled her and told her that her skin is beautiful and her nose is beautiful and her eyes are beautiful and so forth. I showed her my arm and pointed out the moles on it. I giggled and said I have a pock-a-dotted arm and Shaye has a pure tan arm. I said she is a little more brown than me and that’s okay. Pock-a-dots are okay and brown is okay. She lost interest. It is a puny response to such a huge problem. And yet, she is only three and what else do you do. I don’t know how mean or not the comments were. It is altogether possible that the children simply pointed out the difference. It is also altogether possible that a slightly older child said something with negative connotations but I can’t really respond unless Shaye can tell me more.

I called the preschool teacher and asked if she had overheard anything. She said she had no idea and seemed mostly concerned that I might be upset, not concerned about the children’s intereactions. But she is generally very kind and now she is alerted to the potential for issues and to the fact that I will be watching and listening very closely.

Shaye has been fine since. She went to preschool without complaint on Thursday, though she was perhaps not joyful in the morning. The only difference is that, while in the past she has never requested the same book over and over again as some children do, for the past two dys she has been requesting an unremarkable little book called Chrysanthemum, about a little mouse named Chrysanthemum who is teased at school because of her long, odd name. In the end, a wildly popular music teacher with an equally long and flowery name (Delphinium) magically appears to save the day and all the kids want to have long flower names after that. Well, okay, it isn’t exactly realistic but I’m counting my blessings that that is what Shaye wants to read over and over again.


3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. George Lederer
    May 18, 2012 @ 16:59:28

    Hana Shaye is strong and beautiful, secure in the love of her family. She will grow up knowing that she is an individual. Give her a kiss from her uncle.


  2. Julie
    May 18, 2012 @ 18:03:00

    You are an incredible mama.


  3. pocoloconat
    May 22, 2012 @ 07:54:25

    The idea that someone will try to make your sweet little Shaye feel bad about herself because of the color of her skin makes my blood boil, as I know it does yours.


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