Helping Children Overcome Prejudice

by Scurvy the Clown
August 25, 2002

America's children face many difficult challenges in the classroom, on the playground and at home every day. More times than we'd like to admit, our nation's children are confronted with pressures to do drugs, join gangs, steal, lie, cheat, get diseases, have abortions, and do many other things most parents would like to pretend only happen on the Lifetime channel. Most often these pressures come from peers, but sometimes negative pressure can come from the people a child is supposed to trust and admire most -- his or her own parents. Our children may learn how to swipe a piece of candy from the local convenience store or turn a hollowed-out cigar into a phat blunt from Shaundel or Laquanda on the playground, but studies have shown that when children possess racist or prejudicial attitudes, often Mommy and Daddy themselves are to blame. 

Myself, I don't have any children that I know of, but I spent several years in the late 1980s as a volunteer playground attendant at the local elementary school where I heard and witnessed forms of prejudice so vile and shocking you'd think they were spewed straight from the mouth of Adolf Hitler himself. Today I'd like to share with you a story about a little negro girl I met through my work who was the victim of such extreme prejudice that it had completely altered her life script by the time she entered the second grade. I know my friendship with this little girl made a gigantic difference in my life, and I like to think I made at least a small one in hers.

I very clearly remember the first time I saw her. I was spending that particular cloudy October afternoon making the children some balloon animals out of discarded condoms I found on the floor of the playhouse. The River Creek school district was quite poor, so attendants like myself often had to improvise with what we hand on hand. I was fairly new on the job having just come to River Creek three weeks earlier, and I hadn't found an apartment yet so I was sleeping underneath the discarded awning in back of the Shop Rite. The children on the playground were starting to warm up to me by that point, but many still kept their distance even after a couple weeks. You would be surprised how many children demonstrate an irrational fear of a toothless former prostitute dressed as a soiled clown.

One of the children who still hadn't approached me yet also showed a tendency to hang back from the other children as well. A little negro girl -- whose name I later learned to be Shaunice -- was sitting by herself on the swingset, not swinging but instead just slightly rocking with her eyes focused down at her feet and a sad, withdrawn look on her face. Her clothes weren't the cleanest and her hair was unkempt, her baby teeth were uneven and her face was dirty. But I was able to see past all of that. Living outside the Shop Rite I had by that time become seriously addicted to stolen Vicodin, so to me she looked just like a pretty little angel. After I had given away the last of my sticky balloon animals, I told the other children to run along and I approached this sullen little girl. I sat on the swing next to her, reached out and took her hand in mine. She of course screamed bloody terror, but I held fast and she soon tired herself out and collapsed in a gasping heap in the dirt underneath the swingset.

"What's your name?" I asked her, taking the opportunity to dust off and insert my glass eye so as to appear less frightening. I didn't like to wear it very often because it was chipped and I wasn't even sure where I had found it, but I had noticed earlier that children were quicker to warm up to me when my left eye socket wasn't a dark semi-collapsed hole. She didn't answer me at first, so I asked her again, this time in the voice of a cartoon pirate. "Arrrr, what be yer name lassy?" I asked, doing my best impression of the slot machines at the Treasure Island Casino. This appeared to loosen her up somewhat. She giggled a little and said her name was Shaunice. I told her my name was Scurvy, Scurvy the Clown. The name just popped into my head right at that moment, but I have kept it ever since. Portraying a clown to entertain the children wasn't even something I had consciously planned on, but when I blacked out on the strip in Atlantic City and woke up three days and a thousand miles later in River Creek wearing nothing but my undergarments, an adult Halloween costume was the only complete outfit I could afford with the three dollars and fifty cents I was able to scrounge from the mall parking lot and beg from kind strangers. God has a funny way of revealing our path sometimes.

"Arrrr, why ye be sittn' by yerself lass?" I asked her. She giggled again, but then turned suddenly sad. I could tell she was very shy. Her clothes smelled kind of like pee, which probably put the other kids off her somewhat, but personally I wasn't bothered because I always found the smell strangely pleasant. I had a lot of fond memories of the stifling hot service station restroom where I lived as a little girl in rural New Mexico. Plus, I knew I probably smelled a lot worse than she did on that particular that day. A pregnant cat had given birth on top of my awning during the night, and when I woke that morning absolutely everything smelled like placenta. 

"Arrr, ye do have friends, don't ye? Ye aren't some kind of loser, are ya?" I joked with the girl. Shaunice looked down at her shoes again and told me in a sad voice that the other kids didn't like to play with her because she was black. Well, my heart sank. I can tolerate a lot of things, and lord knows I've endured quite a bit, but I have absolutely no tolerance for intolerance. It absolutely broke my heart. I would have cried, but I was so dehydrated my body couldn't even manufacture saliva, much less tears.

That night as I lay underneath my awning, I tried to think of what I could do to help this little girl. I realized that something beyond my comprehension had brought me to River Creek; it had a purpose for me, it had a plan, and that plan was for me to help this little girl whose name I tried everything to remember. I didn't know why but sleep was impossible; my normally quiet head was alive with activity, and even though it was the middle of the night I was more awake than I had ever been. I didn't realize until weeks later that the activity I mistook for thinking was actually a colony of daddy longlegs spiders that had taken nest in my wig.

And it's a good thing, too, because it gave me the motivation I needed to return to my job every afternoon and try to make a difference. I conducted several anti-racism workshops with the children that I called "friendship circles", where the children would talk openly about racist and prejudicial things the had heard or thought, and then together the rest of us would shame that person until he or she acknowledged its wrongness. We would all hold hands and sing songs, play duck duck goose and spray paint pictures of black stick figures and white stick figures holding hands on the side of the school. When I began at the school the white kids played in one group, the black kids played in another group, and the miscellaneous kids played in yet another. But after a few weeks all the groups were mixed up, kids of all colors laughed and played together. It was a truly beautiful sight. There was no more "us" and "them", there was only "us". All the Vicodin I passed out to the kids really helped lift everyone's spirits as well. Those were happy days.

The friendships I formed with all of those children changed my life, but that is especially true of my friendship with Shaunice. Regrettably, it was short-lived. She and I lost touch after her family moved away from River Creek later that year and I was told by a local judge to stop hanging around the playground or face jail time. 

I did however see Shaunice on an episode of the Ricki Lake show a few years back -- apparently her mother is too fat to dress so sexy -- but sadly by the time I made it down to the NYC studio, I learned that the show had been taped two months prior, and the producers wouldn't give me her current address citing the fact that I was a toothless former prostitute dressed as a soiled clown. I hope that someday I do manage to catch up with her again. Even though my life hasn't changed all that much since the late '80s -- I still live underneath the red and white striped awning behind the Shop Rite, and I still dress as a clown to entertain children -- I will always look back on her fondly as the girl who changed my life for the better.

I never had a daughter, but if I did I would want her to be exactly like Shaunice, with the exception that she'd be a boy and I'd really rather that boy be white. 

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