She sauntered over slowly and I could tell she wasn’t acting like herself. Then, like a well brimming to the top, tears scattered across her cheeks. Through the shoulder shrugging type of sobs she said, “They’re mean, Teacha, so mean to me!”
She looked me in the eyes and got loud, “I hate playground! They’re mean in the playground!”
And then came the soft spoken confession: for weeks, a group of boys taunted her on the playground at free time calling her “ugly,” making fun of her Oshiwambo speech, even teasing her about being a “double orphan” (having lost both parents).
Then, something opened inside me and if I didn’t know better, I’d say my heart exploded. I had my own tears now, on my
white “Muzungu” face and all I could do was hold her tight. Because it’s hard to find words strong enough to counter such meanness as that in kid to kid combat.
I caught my breath and her breathing slowed too, I told her that she is beautiful, smart and strong. It’s the mantra my mom gave me growing up for situations just like this. I said it again and she started to whisper it with me, but even Mom’s mantra couldn’t erase this hurt, it seemed.
This story is being told for a 7 year old Namibian orphan.
She’s the most fearless girl I know. Brave, strong and compassionate for a life without a mama.
I hadn’t known her long, only a month at that point, but I did know that she was a hard worker, her teachers loved her constant smile and she had energy for days. But when no one was looking, boys belittled her on the playground.
I learned this had been happening for weeks.
Our girl here had tried to handle this herself for weeks.
Another student, her older brother, said he noticed her coming in from free time crying, wiping away her tears so that no one would see, so that no one would ask. (Any of you relating to this sort of pull it together-ness?)
See friends, that’s our girl, with a high threshold for tolerating meanness and a work ethic that kept her trying to make her bullies her friends. She mustered up all the resilience she could find in her little self, until she could find no more and launched herself into my arms.
The seeds of injustice are planted this early, this young. How those boys saw her in her radiant blackness, her being a girl, her speaking her tribe’s dialect. They thought they could mistreat someone based on what exactly? How could they so quickly label her and act like she deserves meanness?
While this happened day after day, witnesses stayed silent and us grown-ups didn’t see any of it. So, like some many of her fellow sisters, her plight became an invisible one, and she was becoming less seen with each instance. This is how injustice starts to happen—slow, quiet and almost unnoticed.
Until she had enough.
Until she had exhausted all the “oomph” in her own heart.
Until she decided to tell someone.
So I did what any of you would do. listened, comforted, and advocated, but I knew it wasn’t enough. Because planted in the soil of her heart was that seed of meanness – the one that says you’re not pretty, you’re different from us, you’re not good enough to play with us. If that seed was left untouched, it could grow roots making her feel less than the strong, robust, vibrant girl she is. I wanted to act quickly before those words were buried too deep.
But I knew I couldn’t uproot that seed alone.
I needed more voices to speak that truth into her life,to start cultivating something new and healthy in her soul. So I called on the women of that school who I new loved her. I asked them for stickers or drawings that told her how they each saw her. I wanted this girl to be known and seen. I wanted her to hold tangible reminders of how beautiful she is in her own hands—so she could remember when someone else might try to belittle her.
“Come forth, be seen,” Isaiah knew that freedom involves coming forward from the margins and being seen and known. Walter Brueggemann, on Isaiah 49, says it this way, “The power of the gospel is to authorize all persons, all the marginalized, to be fully present and visible in the public process of life.” I think this part of the gospel about being seen is meant even for kids as they get their first taste of life on the margins of the playground. They need to be seen.
Other teachers and older classmates delivered. Oh, did they! It was such a joy to watch her accept those smiley face stickers and the one with the big shiny word on it, “Teacha?! What says this?”. It said, “SMILE!” and she did. She beamed. She pulled out her special box of her things and put in all the drawings and pencils and a couple pieces of candy and she laughed and twirled the way little girls do when they are treated the way little girls are meant to be treated.
The other day was International Women’s Day and all I could think about was a 7 year old girl in Namibia and I thought about the women who rallied around her.
It took a community of women to make a difference for this little girl.
Together we are fighting against injustice in its infancy. We refuse to let mean words rule even the “small” places of life like the playground … or anywhere else that daughters roam.
Will you be a part of a community of change? Will you take a step into the fight for “playground justice”?