Setting Fire to the Soul

While reading Anne Bérubé’s beautiful book Be Feel Think Do on the train yesterday, I was reminded of an experience I had roughly 30 years ago.

The year must have been 1987. I was in the fourth grade, sitting at the back of the classroom next to a girl named Lachelle. Our last names began with R (mine) and S (hers) and since the teacher sat all of the students in her classroom alphabetically by last name, our proximity left Lachelle and I no choice but to get to know one another.

Lachelle was someone I both feared and admired. She was outspoken, tenacious, and always getting into trouble. I, on the other hand, was shy, insecure, and afraid.

I can’t remember what day of the week or month it was when Lachelle asked me to look at something she had inside her desk.

Among the crumbled up papers and No. 2 pencils crammed inside, she pointed to a matchbox and a can of hairspray. I didn’t understand why she had them or what she planned to do with them.

Lachelle and I were seated all the way at the back of the room… the land of the forgotten students. And with almost 30 rambunctious fourth grade students in the classroom, there was no way our teacher would have noticed what happened next.

Lachelle surreptitiously slid the matchbox to the edge of the desk and lit a match. Holding the burning match with one hand, she grabbed the aerosol can of hairspray with the other and aimed it at the match. Suddenly a big, bright flame spit out of the can.

Before either of us could process what had just happened, Lachelle’s desk was on fire and all of those crumpled up school papers had turned to ash, floating slowly out of her desk and up into the air.

What happened next is a blur.

Neither one of us was on fire. Of that, I was sure.

I remember Lachelle tipping over her desk and screaming… which finally caught the teacher’s attention.

I remember running out of the classroom down to the principal’s office (the only thing my 10 year-old brain could think to do), not realizing that something inside me shifted that day. It took me years to realize that the events of that day taught me: So this is how you are seen in the world.

I never saw Lachelle again.

The next day at school, I looked at her empty, charred desk next to mine and I felt sad. For not knowing where they sent her. For not understanding, at 10 years old, that I thought the consequences of being seen meant getting into trouble and disappearing. I realized there was no middle-of-the-road option. It was black OR white. Lachelle was black and wanted to be seen. I was white and didn’t know how to be seen.

Now that everything is gray and I am unlearning all of the things I learned along the way, I am ready to set my soul on fire and be seen.

I hope she is still out there doing the same.

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