BY: WHITNEY BROWN
Whitney Brown is a junior studying forensic science at Penn State.
I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what exactly. I saw thirteen disgusted looking faces, heard light laughter, and caught a glimpse of slight confusion. Why were my peers making these faces? Why were my friends laughing? Why did my teacher look confused? I was the coolest kid in class, but at this particular moment I felt everyone was out to get me. I felt like I was at the bottom of the food chain. I was inferior.
It was mid-May of the year 2003, and I was a second grader attending George Mason Elementary School. Second grade students in Ms. Pittman’s class had spent approximately two weeks preparing for this big day — “Meet the Parents” Day. The goal of this assignment was to introduce our parents to both the class and instructor in order to build stronger relationships within the classroom.
I spent two whole weeks interrogating my mother, Rhonda, about my childhood life so I could be ready for the presentation. My mom instructed me to sit on her monstrous sized bed as she went to search for a couple of items. I patiently waited for her to bring back whatever it was that she was looking for in the first place. Through the abundance of weird noises coming from boxes and papers she had searched through, it was safe to assume that she had found what she needed, because the noise had stopped. “Ma, hurry up please!” I said aggressively, yet with much excitement. Finally, she had come back with a little old black Nike shoe box. She had struggled to get it up on the bed but eventually was successful and began to pull out items from the box.
There were about 20 pictures, some toys, and a blanket in that one little box. Mainly through pictures, my Mom selectively pieced together information about my childhood that was appropriate to discuss with my class. I learned a lot of interesting things and knew more about my childhood than I ever did before. She showed me pictures from family trips, some of me as a naked infant, and even a few of me in the hospital.
After listening to every little detail and seeing a handful of childhood photos, I was convinced I was prepared for my presentation. I began to put the photos away, but something had caught my eye. “Ma, what’s that?” I asked. She turned her head towards me and quickly responded, “Oh nothing.” I dropped both of my shoulders, took a deep breath, looked at my mom, and gave her a straight face in disbelief. I ran past her, proceeded to investigate it myself, and soon realized it was just a picture. The picture was old and almost disintegrated, but I could still make it out. It was a photo of a husky, dark toned woman holding me. “Who’s this holding me, Mom?” I asked politely. She paused for a quick second and said, “Oh, that’s your Aunt Debra.” With a confused look on my face I replied, “Oh. Okay, why don’t I ever see her now?” She told me this elongated story about my aunt, but all I remembered is that apparently she was dead. This time I was really done interrogating my mother and I went to bed because my presentation was the next morning.
Finally it was the day of the presentation, and I was super excited. Everybody’s parents were there; it was so nice to hear everyone’s life stories and to just observe. Some people only brought their mom, their dad, or even both parents. That day it was just my mom and I, and unfortunately, I was the last one to present, so the wait was overwhelming due to my high level of enthusiasm. About an hour had passed and my teacher finally said, “Whitney, it’s your go.” I leaped out of my chair like a frog, grabbed my mom by the wrist, and began my presentation.
As I began to introduce my mom to the class, I knew something was wrong. All I could see were eyes and all I could hear were whispers. These eyes were of second graders who seemed to have been confused or disturbed by something, but I wasn’t sure why. The whispers were rather chilling and gave me a type of discomfort, but I fought through it. My presentation was finally finished, and I got a very light applause at the end. Before I could walk back to my seat, my friend, Jabria had raised her hand as quick as the speed of light. “I have a question, I have a question!” Jabria said ecstatically. “Why is your mom so light, but you’re so dark? Do you look like your dad?” I thought to myself for a moment and began to think about the question and examine for myself. Finally, I was about to answer until all my other classmates had started to talk about our difference in appearance and make negative comments also. “Yeah, they look nothing alike,” or “I’ve seen her dad before, and he’s light skinned too,” and “Why don’t they look the same?” were all the questions I was being bombarded with. I couldn’t even answer them, because my classmates didn’t give me the chance to.
My teacher stopped all the commotion and announced, “There is no more time left for questions, thank you all for bringing your parents, and enjoy the rest of your day.” Presentations were officially over with, my mom went back to work and I went to the nearby recreational center where all my friends hung out.
I saw almost everyone from class, and was excited to see them, but it didn’t seem the same the other way around. “Hey ya’ll!” I said as if I haven’t seen them in years. Everyone responded back, but not like the way I expected them to. I was expecting a greeting in return, but all I received were sly comments and teasing due to my presentation earlier that day. Keron, who I thought was a close friend of mine repeatedly chanted while laughing, “You don’t look like your mom. You’re so dark and she’s almost white! That’s not right! That’s not right!” Soon after, more people began to join in and tease me also.
After a while it all stopped, but I was emotionally hurt by what had happened. I had never been teased to that extent before and I didn’t think looking like my mom would be an issue. Instead of crying to my mother, I decided to take the situation in my own hands and observe the problem myself. I had become more aware of the physical appearances of my mother and my findings were astonishing.
Everyone was right. She was nothing like me, and I was nothing like her; however, I continued to compare myself. Stopping was something over which I had no control. Beginning with our skin tones, hers shone gold while mine remained an ordinary brown. Her eyes were squared at the corner, mine rounded. I watched her every day from my second grade perspective as others constantly questioned, criticized, and teased me for not looking like my mother. The difference in appearance wasn’t serious to me at first, but then I started to question myself and the self-criticism overwhelmed me. Jabria looked like her mom, Keron looked exactly like his dad, but I didn’t look like anyone. My looking turned into gazing, from gazing to staring, and from staring to pure scrutinizing, but one day she caught me!
“Why in the world are you giving me those killer eyes?” laughed mom. I leaned to the left, nodded questionably, cocked my head slightly, and then nodded some more. “Ma, why I don’t look like you?” I asked in my most angelic voice. All she could give me was this look. It was a look of curiosity, a look of shock . . . a blank look. To this day, I still don’t know if the look was due to my grammar or my question. After six seconds of silence, I started to watch the clock numbers flip. It took my mom twenty-three seconds to respond to my question. Finally, words came out of her mouth as she managed to stop stuttering and crying. At last, she told me an abridged version of my life-story. It seems I was abandoned, abused, and neglected, but all I could remember from her account was, “I’m not your real mom, I didn’t birth you, and you’re adopted.”
Whoever knew such a few simple words could have a life changing effect? At that age, I couldn’t look at her anymore, and I most definitely couldn’t call her “Mom” anymore. A lot of stuff had finally made sense to me. No wonder I didn’t have pictures of me as a new born and no wonder we looked nothing alike. I thought of her as a complete stranger, and I looked away, telling her I no longer loved her. She didn’t bother to become more emotional over my senseless comment, but she made the one remark I will always remember. “Birthing someone only makes her a mom; doing whatever you can, caring, protecting, and loving their child is what truly makes her a mother.”
I was utterly stunned by her words and had no response. I glanced away with a look of defeat on my face, because I knew she was right. That statement gave me a more positive outlook on the new relationship between her and continued to remind me that she was, indeed, my real mother. I never looked like my mom and will never look like her, but I loved her. Being teased for that was truly fine by me.
Art: Rob Beschizza