I spent another day following Monsieur Kofi around to each of his classes. He has sort of become my mentor. I’m like his little apprentice, watching him teach so to learn how to be a good teacher. We spend about eight hours a day together. I sit with him in the back of his classroom even when he’s not teaching. We speak together only in French, which is great practice for the both of us.
“None of my friends here speak French,” he told me one afternoon as we waited in the library for his next class. I had forgotten the French word for doll (la poupée), and when I asked him, he confessed that he had forgotten it too. He is originally from Togo, Ghana’s francophone, neighboring country, but his English is perfect (by African standards) after living in an English-speaking country for so many years. “I don’t have anyone in Ghana to practice with,” he explained, “so I’m very happy that you are here. I’m lucky to have you.”
I think we’re both lucky. Many of the French words and expressions I have forgotten after several months without consistent practice are returning to me. Having a language partner is mutually beneficial.
My French-speaking abilities aren’t the only thing that sets me apart. “You are my first white friend,” he told me. Of course, he didn’t use the word white. We were speaking in French, so he said blanche, his première amie blanche.
“C’est vrai?” I said, quite surprised.
“Yes. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to have a white friend. I don’t have the money to travel to America or Europe. When you first arrived last week, I was so happy to see you!” he said, squeezing my hand affectionately.
“But, really, we’re the same. The only difference is the color of our skin. On the inside, we’re both the same,” I reminded him.
“Yes. This is true,” he replied with a smile.
That’s what’s strange about being here. Normally, the color of my skin doesn’t matter at all. I never really think about it, unless I’m sunburnt or ghastly pale in the dead of winter. Everyone here, however, seems quite aware of it. I catch people staring at me all the time. Some of the kids at my school act as though they’ve never seen a white person before.
But I don’t think of myself as a white person! I just think of myself as a person. I’m a woman. I’m an American. I’m 22. I’m single. I’m a friend. I’m a daughter. I’m a sister. I’m an English major. I’m a student. I’m a teacher. I’m a writer. I’m an idealist. I’m an optimist. But I’m not white. Am I? What does that even mean?
I’ve never really been aware of skin color. Maybe this is because of the way I was raised, in ethnically diverse Southern California with friends and neighbors of all races and skin colors. I don’t notice the difference between myself and everyone here. Maybe it’s because I can’t really see myself, unless I hold out my arms or look down at my legs, but I think the reason is probably that I prefer what’s inside a person to what’s outside.
Most of the students here are quite fascinated by me. At first, I thought it was because I was a new teacher, but after sitting in another of Monsieur Kofi’s classes this morning, I think it’s more than that.
“Monsieur!” said a little first grader sitting in front of me, pointing at the giggling girl sitting next to him. “She said she wants to go to America and be fair!”
Monsieur Kofi couldn’t contain his laughter. “Do you know what she just said?” he asked me. “She said she wants to have fair skin like yours. She likes your color.”
I was a bit surprised. I really think that’s the first time anyone has expressed a wish to have skin the color of mine. In the US, my skin tone is generally considered to be too white. Growing up, I felt a lot of pressure to have darker complexion, because a healthy tan is what is considered beautiful in America, not pale skin like mine. I have since come to embrace my “porcelain doll” skin, deciding that although it doesn’t look like models’ skin in the magazines, it is lovely in its own way. I am quite comfortable in my body. I’ve stopped focusing on how I look on the outside so that I can work on improving my inner self.
Improving the self-esteem of others is something very important to me as a friend, as a sister, and now, as a teacher. I want every girl to love herself. I want every girl to recognize her own beauty. I want every girl to feel comfortable in her own skin, starting with this little girl.
“But her skin is so beautiful!” I said to Monsieur Kofi, loudly enough for the little girl to hear. “I really like her color. She is so beautiful.”
The little girl just giggled.
I hope that, eventually, the students will stop being so preoccupied with how I look on the outside and start to appreciate me for what’s on the inside.