By Sheila Arnold
As a 4th grader, Sheila was given a new nickname – the “N” word – and that nickname led to an unlikely friendship, and down the road, led to forgiveness and reconciliation.
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Name-Calling-at-Masonville-Elementary-Hurtful-Words-Forgiven
- Have you ever been called a derogatory name? How did it make you feel? What did you do when called that name?
- Have you ever called someone a derogatory name? How did that make you feel then? How do you feel about what you said after hearing this story?
- Finish this statement: Forgiveness is… Explain your answer.
- How can you make someone new to your school, church, club or organization feel welcome and at ease?
- Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Beals Patill – a book about another very different integration of a school. (Perfect for Middle School Students.)
- The Story of Ruby Bridges by Ruby Bridges – a children’s book about the integration of an Elementary School
- List of books about name calling for all ages: http://www.welcomingschools.org/pages/books-on-name-calling-bullying/
- “No Name Calling Week” January 16 to 20, 2017 resources at: http://www.glsen.org/nonamecallingweek
- African American/Blacks
- Education and Life Lessons
- Family & Childhood
- Stereotypes and Discrimination
- Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
Hello. My name is Sheila Arnold. And when I was in third grade, in 1972, I integrated my elementary school, Masonville Elementary, over in Annandale, Virginia. It wasn’t a difficult integration. We didn’t have protest outside of our doors. And even the teachers that didn’t like me, well they soon were got rid of. One of my teachers didn’t want me to be in the spelling bee because I was black but she didn’t last longer than the year. And my parents also covered so much for me. Actually, the classmates that I had and I got along very well. We were really good friends. And we all liked each other…except Lea.
Now, Lea, well Lea, was not liked by any of us as classmates because she was different. And we didn’t really like different. Lea… Lea didn’t have the, the right clothes because they would be a little bit too small on her and sometimes she would wear things that that didn’t fit or she didn’t, didn’t always look the best. And sometimes, I just have to be honest, she didn’t even have a real lunch box like the rest of us had. So, she was different and that was just Lea. You know, it wasn’t really kind of us at all. And we treated her different and we joked on her and teased her. But all of us did it, including me.
By the time we got to my fourth grade year, we had become such good friends, that we made nicknames for each other. I loved the nicknames. One day, we all gathered outside at recess and Jimmy, one of my friends, said he had a new nickname for me. I was thrilled. So we gathered everybody together and then he told me my new nickname. He said, Shelia, your new nickname is…” the “n” word. You know, the one that rappers say sometimes. I was delighted. It was a great name because I didn’t know what it meant. And so I was excited about it. I couldn’t wait to go home and tell my mom about this new nickname. I got on with it, “Mom, I have a new nickname. It is…” the “n” word. (You know, the one that rapper say.) And my mom went, “Oh, baby.” And then she told me what it meant. She told me it meant that you were lower than the dirt underneath someone’s feet. I, I couldn’t understand. I couldn’t understand why Jimmy, my friend, why would he call me that name!
The next day I went back to school. Recess came and Jimmy gathered everybody around again to call me my nickname. This time I knew what it meant. And I also realized Jimmy knew what it meant as well. So when he called me that nickname, I ran away from the group, ran into the side door of the building and into the bathroom and closed myself in the stall. And I just cried, “No one will ever be my friend. No one will ever be my friend. No one ever will like me.”
And then I heard something. Someone said, “I’ll be your friend, Sheila.” It was Lea, the very Lea I had teased and joked. She said, “I’ll be your friend.” And I came out of that bathroom stall.
Well, it was four years later that I was at Poe Middle School and I was with some of the same classmates I had before. I’d been gone for a while with my father to Germany and Rhode Island (my father was in the military) and I was finally back home. I was really excited to be back with some of my classmates, back in the middle school. And, though, I did really learn, truthfully, I learned really quickly that, although I was back in school with the same people, some of them were not the same way and we weren’t necessarily friends anymore. I learned in middle school that most of us were just trying to impress each other. And others us, and others of us, we were just trying to survive.
I didn’t really know where I fit, having been gone for a little while, so I decided to become everybody’s friend. That’s kind of how I was referred to. I wasn’t real popular but at least I knew everybody. Jimmy… Jimmy on the other hand, he was one of those just trying to survive life.
Jimmy had made some unwise decisions and those unwise decisions came because of what his life at home was like. You see, Jimmy’s family was going through a divorce. And in a, in the community I lived in, the suburbs I lived in… with two parent families and always together. The kid going through a divorce, they weren’t really appreciated. And they were looked at as, “Don’t get close to that one there.” Plus Jimmy was starting to smoke and “No one like them,” quote, unquote. And then he was even seen drinking beer. Those wise, unwise decisions made him one of those kids that people stopped hanging around. He went into that “other group” of kids. The ones, kind of, going down, “Going down,” as they would say. But Jim was trying to, trying to make some decisions.
In the beginning of our eighth grade year, we decided, well, we ran for student council. And some of you may have done that. So, we ran for student council and I decided I would run for treasurer. Jimmy decided he would run for president. It didn’t take me long to figure out that this was a popularity contest. And I was not a popular one but I hung in there. On that day that we gave our speeches… the presidents went first. Jimmy was the last to stand up to go. You should have seen him. He was dressed with his slacks on, his nice button-down shirt, his hair slicked back. He looked nice. He started to walk up, head up, going to give his speech. But the moment he started walking, all the kids booed him. His head, immediately went down. I knew, I knew what that felt like and I knew the look that went on his face. I remembered it from elementary school. And I stood up and I said, “Leave him alone! Give him a chance to talk!” Everybody was quiet for a minute but it was only a minute and then all that laughter and all their teasing turned right back to me.
I stood there and I said, “Everyone has a cha… everyone should have a chance to be heard. Everyone! Let him talk!” Well, the students gave him a look and they quieted a bit. But Jimmy gave me a look. I remembered that look. It was the same look I gave Lea so long ago. Well, Jimmy and I did not win in the student council. But we did win our friendship through forgiveness.