Some people taking Spanish classes at SFCC organized a program to teach Spanish for an hour once a week for students at Holmes Elementary. It is in one of the most disadvantaged neighborhoods of Spokane, the East Central area. There is an almost 50% turnover rate at the school, because most of the students’ families move from place to place. I was sitting at one of the small, round tables in the library, teaching colors and numbers to the kindergarteners, first and second grade students in the program. The little girl next to me doesn’t participate much, preferring to elaborately color the connect the dots flowers we passed out. She can already count to ten. She enjoys one activity though. We gave out a worksheet with elephants in the shape of numbers. They are supposed to color each number/elephant a specific color.
“Alright everyone,” Cameron, my partner for the table, begins, “Dos- do you remember dos?”
“TWO!” The five students with us cry at different intervals. They are good at dos. And ocho.
“Okay color the dos elephant negro- do you remember negro?”
“BLACK!” They all repeat the word incorrectly. Nee-gro instead of nay-gro, and I wince inwardly. Despite the efforts of Cameron and I, it seems the former comes more naturally to them.
The little girl next to me tugs on my sleeve. “I don’t want to color him black.”
“Why not?” I hand her a black crayon. She takes it reluctantly.
“When I’m on the playground, they say to me ‘you are negro, you are negro, you are negro.'” She continues the sing-song chant and my mouth dries as my mind scrambles. I want to make her stop. I can’t bear to hear it in the sweet, innocent voice of a six year old.
“Oh my,” I manage pathetically.
“They make me cry. Negro is a bad word. I don’t want to color him negro. I don’t want him to cry.” She says matter-of-factly.
“Well,” I take a deep breath. “They’re stupid. Colors aren’t a bad word. All colors are good.”
She gives me a look, as if I am naive, picks up the crayon and colors the elephant black.