FILLING IN THE BUBBLE
“Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.” –Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
My lead pencil hovered above the green-and-white shapes that became letters. Letters that would end up categorizing my five-year-old self into a label like an empty can in a factory, almost naked until the label gets slapped on it. Letters that forced me to mark my identity to the world for the very first time.
I was in my first grade classroom. Sun flooded through enormous windows with chipped paint framing the optimistic rays, as they settled on the colorful carpet and wooden desks with that space beneath the tops to put your books and pencils. I usually felt at home here, but today I felt off my game. I peered down at the standardized test with my brown eyes, my hand frozen. I was scared because I didn’t want to make a mistake. Sometimes, when I filled in the bubbles on the Scantron, the lead would escape out of the green circle, prompting me to erase it and start all over again.
I didn’t want that to happen this time.
The green letters came together in my consciousness.
White Caucasian (is Swedish the same thing as white?)
African American (no, not fully)
Pacific Islander (my head cocked to the side as I wondered what this meant)
Native American (all I knew about Native Americans was that they were to be revered)
Asian American (nope)
This last category seemed to enlarge itself and to taunt me, collapsing the social identity I was most associated with: the “blessed and highly favored” mulatto. My light skin a badge of honor, not something to confuse people. I was like a five-year-old King Lear at the beginning of Shakespeare’s tale. I was king of my land! It never had occurred to me that I wasn’t loved and admired wholeheartedly by everything around me. Before this moment, people looked at me like a rare jewel or something to behold. Multiracial children were scarce in the late 1970s.
And then the questions came. My brain recoiled in confusion. I remember staring at the paper, then looking around the room. At Cathy, a beautiful girl with dark ebony skin, kinky hair, and wide eyes. And the one kid in the class who announced how he was Armenian twice a day and flipped over his eyelids to scare me with their red underbelly. The thought of it made me cringe internally. Lupe spoke Spanish and had caramel skin. Saul, with his round face, tan skin like mine, and brown eyes? He was my first crush. The rest of the class was white. Kind of like my mom was. I noticed these differences before, but the borders that separated everyone’s cultures and ethnicities were blurred. Now the once-blurry borders solidified into a defined wall separating me from them all and leaving no one else to identify with. I was all alone.
* * *
In my senior year of high school, I had a teacher named Mr. Takagaki. He taught me some of the most important skills and ideas I would use in my life. For example, he made me sign a contract to forsake all cable news and only watch PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. He also told me that there is no straight line to college. That it was okay if I filled in the bubble with a messy flare.
One afternoon, as I stared out the enormous windows with chipped paint on them, feeling like a stranger in my world, pimples covering my cheeks and invading my forehead like tiny armies of misfortune, I let my pencil hit paper to doodle a rose because that was the only thing I knew how to draw.
Mr. Takagaki was a fierce man with a passion for carving unorthodox ideas into young, malleable brains. And his eyes. He could either pierce your soul or make you smile with those eyes. He used to pace up and down the class between rows of desks that faced each other to facilitate discussion. He was wearing his teacher uniform. Levi’s 501s and a button-up shirt. (The pink one was my favorite.) And he would spout bits of genius that blew away my exhausted teen brain, exhausted teen heart, exhausted teen body.
“The moment someone drew a line in the sand and said, ‘This space is mine’ is the moment mankind needed government.”
I must’ve stopped my doodling in the margins and looked up into his face, framed by that sunshine, because I remember this moment so clearly. It is one of my most cherished core memories.
This statement caused a chain reaction in my brain, moving me past the last three years that felt like a nightmare and living hell got married and had a child, past the puberty years of feeling awkward and depressed, past my bike accident that mangled my face when I was 13, past meeting my best friend Chris when I was 7, and straight into my first grade classroom, at five-year-old Jen staring at that page. The statement Mr. Takagaki made defined what I couldn’t quite grasp when I was in my formative years.
We are constantly tugged into one extreme or the other. Picking a side and standing in that side takes many forms. Everything has a binary—culture, gender, politics, class—but in no other place does it cause more damage to humans than in the form of race and identity . . . and society capitalizes on that.
I could have stopped thinking, blindly picked a side, and called it a day. The easiest thing to do at this crucial moment would be to pick one bubble. But that “other” category was still there, mocking me, threatening to dismantle the one thing I had that made me special. My race. My unique mix of Swedish, Norwegian, and African American. Even my five-year-old self knew deep in the cockles of my heart that this decision needed more thought, a second opinion. I raised my hand dutifully.
“Ms. Weiss? My father is black, and my mother is white. Can I fill in two bubbles?”