A few days ago, the television was blah-blah-blahing in the background when a single sentence broke free: “Each of us is born with beauty in mind.” I had to stop and listen.
The speaker was the actress Lupita Nyong’o who, as a Google search reminded me, in 2013 won an Oscar for 12 Years a Slave and appeared in last year’s super-popular superhero movie, Black Panther. I recognized her mostly for her stunning beauty, her beautiful gowns on red carpets everywhere, and her radiant smile.
Thus, I was quite surprised that this Kenyan-Mexican star spent much of her childhood feeling unworthy because of her skin tone. She poignantly reminisced about the scads of positive attention her much lighter-skinned sister regularly received. Because her favorite stories of Cinderella, Thumbelina, and Rapunzel were populated by fair-haired and fair-skinned characters, she used the cream-colored crayon whenever she drew her own pictures of little girls.
Having lamented that she did not learn until adulthood to “love the skin I was in,” she talked about her recently-published children’s book. The title character, Sulwe, learns that her brightness and beauty come not from her skin color, that her brightness and beauty are just who she is.
I thought about so many children who feel likewise unworthy because of some physical characteristic and whose self-image, perceived or assigned by others, has kept them from loving themselves – often for an entire lifetime.
I turned to YouTube to hear a child read aloud the book by Miss Nyong’o. My heart felt bittersweet pangs when Sulwe tries to brighten her pigmentation by eating only light-colored foods and uses the largest eraser she can find to rub off a couple layers of dark skin.
Another favorite children’s story came to mind, one by David McKee, about Elmer, the patchwork elephant whose naturally sunny disposition is dimmed by the unhappy fact that he is not “elephant-colored.” Echoing Sulwe’s eraser experiment, Elmer searches high and low for a tree of elephant-colored grapes that he uses to cover his whole body. It is not until a thunderstorm eventually washes away his disguise that Elmer realizes the other elephants love him as he is – patchwork and all.
I concur with Lupita Nyong’o in wishing childhood would not be so often plagued by experiences that cause children to feel unfit or not good enough: unkind comments by adults who should know better, bullies who try to assuage their own sense of inadequacy by directing ugly words at others, media outlets that glamorize or shame certain physical images and attributes.
Whenever I consider self-positivity, I recall the passionate conviction of a former colleague of mine, Marcia Ward. She maintained that every child is gifted; we just need to help children discover and develop their gifts.
In forty years of teaching, I learned the truth of Marcia’s words. I found no greater classroom joy than to witness the moment a student uncovered a talent special to him or her. But I fear we are forced to diminish or even dismiss such spirit-affirming opportunities by abandoning child-centered lessons in favor of the test-driven curriculum mandated in today’s schools.
I recently added yet another wonderful story for youngsters and adults alike to my reading repertoire: One Big Heart by Lindsey Davis. The charming illustrations and enchanting rhymed sentences present a “celebration of being more alike than different.”
A classroom of children, whose “faces make a rainbow,” recognizes and accepts what makes each classmate special: “wavy hair, freckles, bright blue eyes; Amanda sings, Sam tells stories, Noah runs with speed; no matter what they choose to eat, their taste buds shout hurray!”
Then comes the discovery that while they all have “elbows, hands, eyes, and feet,” the “thing that matters most is something they can’t see…the place where kindness grows and where love gets it start…the most important heart.”
Now, would that not be a beautiful environment for every child to inhabit – one in which they could feel comfortable in their bodies, where they learn about the fascinating world around them, all the while discovering what they do well and receiving help for what is not so easy.
Lest others write my sentiments off as Pollyanna gazing through rose-colored glasses, I most certainly understand life is much more complicated than a couple of kids’ books. Maybe we should distill it all down to the old adage that warns us not to judge a book by its cover – and just be done with it.
And yet, therein lies the problem. Why do we have to judge book covers at all? Can we not teach our children – and perhaps learn for ourselves – to accept others and ourselves just as they and we are? What does skin color or a grade point average or a religious custom or an annual salary have to do with anything anyway?
In our current culture, so fraught with divisiveness and those who would purposely divide us, along with a disconcerting level of mental health difficulties, we all need to judge each other less and celebrate ourselves and each other more – just the way we are.
I will allow Dr. Seuss to offer a conclusion. As this master of endearing, enlightening simplicity shared in Happy Birthday to You! – “Today You are You! / That is truer than true. / There is no one alive who is Youer than YOU.”
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.