As part of our art curriculum, I have students make self-portraits of themselves at the beginning of the year.  Then, once they’ve had an introduction to fractions (in first grade!?), we go into how to draw a face “properly.”  I try to do this early on so children don’t continue to draw triangles for noses (jack-o-lantern style), or make their hair look like spaghetti.

I usually do this assignment with crayons or colored pencils.  Something that is easy to work with when drawing all those little details like eyelashes and eyebrows. This year, I decided to paint instead and it was an eye-opener — for me.

I live in a small community, a camp.  We have over 70 nationalities represented in our school, and I love this.  I love the differences in cultures, languages, and skin colors.  So, I was a little shocked on the day we painted our skin.

I’ve always stayed away from skin-colored markers and crayons.  I always thought it was because I like purple and pink faces, but deep down, I think this problem was always there, I just didn’t want to address it.

Day one of the lesson unfolded as usual. I called my first graders to the table and showed them how to paint the face working with a small paint brush.  Previously, they had painted their backgrounds with a large sponge, so I thought the lesson would be more about how to use proper tools than anything else.  After I showed the kids how to paint the face, I told them I had a few colors to choose from: peach, sand, olive, chocolate, mahogany. These are the names on the bottles and what I had on hand.

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I called out the darkest color first.  “Come to the chocolate table.”  No one came.  Um…..

Then I grabbed the peach, or the sand, I can’t remember, it was light in color.  Everyone came to the peach table.  Again, um….

Let’s just say only one kid in my class is peach color.

I started calling on kids to come to the chocolate color. One girl said, “What? I’m not that dark!”  She is.  Again, eye-opening.  And this is when I started to get really, really uncomfortable.  Was I offending her?  Would she tell her parents I said something or implied something.  You know how it is. You make one comment, one decision, one hand gesture, and it replays in your mind over and over (did I do something wrong?).  What was going on here? My view of my world was all of the sudden turned upside down sideways by this one interaction.

I kept telling students the paint was going to come out lighter than what was in the tray. Still, no one budged.  The kids wanted to be peach.

I dreamt about it that night.  Like I said, teachers constantly go over things in their minds. People don’t realize how often we put ourselves under the microscope. We do this because we are in a constant state of judging a situation and making quick calls.  It can be exhausting!

In my dream my good friend and co-worker advised me what to do.  She is African American.  She is a very honest and open person, and I love her.  I can talk with her about things I don’t talk to most people about. But, as dreams go, I forgot what she told me, so I went to her the next day to get her take on the situation.  She teaches Kindergarten and was surprised this interaction in my class happened.  It usually doesn’t happen until later in life.  I agreed. Then she pointed out that she’s the only African American on staff here, and all the other teachers are pretty caucasian.  Our children don’t have a lot of role models who are not white.

Then we discussed overall societal norms.  We discussed traveling to countries in which my husband (who has fair skin and turns pink in the sun – sorry, babe), gets touched often, as if somehow the white paint will rub off.   Our commissary houses numerous creams advertising “fair” skin.  It’s bleach. Plain and simple. Who would apply this junk to their skin?  Turns out a lot of people.

I immediately came back to my room and got out these prints, so children could see examples of portraits.

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Then the next groups of first graders came in.  For the next classes I painted my face chocolate color.  Yum.

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Some of my students said, “Hey, you’re not that color,” but I ignored the comment and kept painting, happy as a lark.  Then I saw a few of my students swell up.  “Yep, that’s my skin color,” they seemed to say. This is what I want. This is what I need.  I want students to feel proud of who they are, and painting themselves with their own skin color is a good way to start.

This experience changed me.  It made me acknowledge something that lies just under the surface.  I know it’s there, but I don’t want to address it.  Why?  I can’t get past something or change something unless I talk about it and take steps to change.  We talk about culture, we celebrate differences, but how often, and in what context.  Having a yearly international day is great, but on the other days, when kids open up books or see movies in which they are not represented and only a fraction of the population is, what message are they getting?

I’m ready to put this issue in the forefront of my teaching.  I just have to figure out how.

On to the next adventure:  Princess and the Pea art project.  Notice anything about my book?

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