When I was in the eighth grade, a friend and I started a petition for red sweaters. At a k-8 Catholic school, where there was not much to distinguish uniform-wearing students, we had longed for the plain red Champion sweaters that the eighth graders got to wear. We had waited for eight long years, from the time we were in kindergarten and had class monitors who were eighth graders, for these sweaters.
When we got to the eighth grade, we were informed that we would not be getting the sweaters. Not because of anything we did, but because of the actions of the class before us. Apparently they had drawn on their sweaters and we were being punished for their creativity.
We began a petition, my friend and I. We circulated the petition to every eighth grader and we got over 60 signatures. We even got a teacher to sign!
* * *
I was a brown girl with immigrant parents who weren’t especially vocal at the school. I was technically a participant in school activities, but I suspect I was recruited in order to bring deeper melanin to the volleyball team. The one time I did not want to return to the team, because I felt like such an outsider, one of the moms successfully persisted in convincing my mom to bring me back. Not that it was all entirely terrible. When I was in the seventh grade, my know-it-all self knew that I was smart. This made me somewhat bold in a way that I am sure annoyed other 12 year olds. Popularity be damned.
My friend was a white girl from the most prominent family at our school. They were the type of family that seemed to effortlessly inspire brown-nosing from quite a few teachers. She and I were very naive about what the world would be like. We were precocious readers of historical fiction by authors such as Phillipa Gregory and bonded over things like that. She would write and illustrate short stories during class. Now that I think about it, I cannot remember one time a teacher ever scolded her for that. I really liked her, though. I still have fond memories of her and I do not blame her at all for anything that followed.
* * *
Instead of red sweaters, we began the next day wrapped up in tension and nerves. The teacher who had come up with the red sweater ban directed us to go to one of the homerooms, which would not have been our usual first stop on a normal day. The cool fall air and golden sunlight shining in through the windows did not provide any comfort as we all stiffly took a seat.
Though silent, her face, and especially her eyes, told us how she felt about the petition. She took the petition as a personal attack. Our dissent had left her seething. She had demanded to know who was responsible. My friend and I were given up pretty quickly, and the focus shifted only to me. Not one person spoke up. I don’t remember being able to speak. Regrettably, what little I did manage to say was an attempt to point the finger at other people, namely another friend of mine who was brown. He was a good friend. He did not have anything to do with it, but he never held it against me. Ultimately, it did not matter, truth or not, who else was involved. I was the scapegoat.
I remember the rest of the day. I was too unfocused to truly remember the events of the rest of the day, but I do remember how I felt. I felt totally exposed, as though no article of clothing could ever protect me. I could sense that no one really wanted to be seen with me at recess. My skin felt like it had multiple layers, one layer that was numb and another below it that stung. I felt ashamed and terrified that my parents would find out. But no one ever contacted them for my transgression.
We got the red sweaters a few weeks later.
* * *
During the year, the teachers most offended by my defiance found small ways to sabotage my grades and pick at my fragile self-confidence. While I still did well in my classes, one teacher in particular found ways to lower my grades enough so that I would not be valedictorian.
In our science class, we had to write “opinion papers” about a science article we had read. I was the kid who would ask my orthodontist for his old waiting room issues of National Geographic. For one of my papers, I remember ripping out 16 pages from one of the old magazines to read an article about Ebola. I would write two to three pages summarizing my thoughts on the papers. Based on how we had to attach the articles to our papers, no one else seemed to reading articles more than two or three pages long, if even that. If they got a perfect 100, I would get a 90 or an 85. I would read their papers and could not discern how my paper was worse. If anything, I felt like I went into more depth.
One day, I mustered the courage to wait after class and ask the science teacher why I was getting lower grades and how I could improve. As I was expressing this to her, she sharply huffed about my opinion being wrong. No, you did not misread that last sentence. She told me that my opinion was wrong. I asked her how an opinion could be wrong and she continued wearing meanness on her face as she told me my opinion was wrong. I was dumbfounded and scuttled out of the room.
In preparation for the school science fair, we had to give presentations to our class first. I practiced what I would say at home and on my walks to and from school. I had my presentation memorized. I understood my topic well and could answer any reasonable question you could ask a thirteen year old about groundwater. I gave a perfect presentation without having to look at my board once. As other people gave presentations, I would size up my performance against theirs. I was confident I would be one of the first picks to represent my class. When it came time for the science teacher to pick five competitors. When she called out the first four names, she sang praises without a single hint of criticism. Then she paused as though she was at a total loss for who should be the fifth pick. “I guess Varsha too.” She said my presentation was good but she nitpicked at one particular thing she would have done differently, saying that it was a flaw in my experiment. It was odd to say the least. After multiple events like this that were crafted to make me doubt myself, I had had enough.
There was not much I could do in return, so I did one of the few things I could do. I said I would show up to the science fair even though I had no intention of showing up. It was my statement without having to say anything. My voice was silenced any time I tried using it before then, so I finally used the silence as a way to get under her skin. It worked. She was livid when I did not show up and I was scolded the next day. I don’t remember saying much, but I did say something to the effect of it ultimately being my choice whether or not I wanted to participate. Besides, I definitely had an orthodontist appointment that I just absolutely could not miss.
Any time there were tests not administered by our school or teachers, I would get higher scores than anyone else in the class. The discrepancy between what the teachers wanted to portray versus what I had actually achieved said all that needed to be said.
The little strength I had that year to fight back came from the few teachers who couldn’t do much. But they supported me. They encouraged me to be bold in their classes. My art teacher was my refuge; I was sometimes allowed to escape from my other classes by saying I had to finish a project with her. Which was true, but sometimes I would just go to the art room to read.
I graduated as salutatorian, missing valedictorian by about half a point.
I waited until August, after graduation, to tell my mom about the red sweater incident and the punishment that followed. She was shocked by the whole thing and asked why I had never told her so that she could do something. I told her that I couldn’t because they had convinced me that I made a shameful mistake.
* * *
Even if you’re skeptical and think that these are all simple coincidences: what does it say when a child feels they’re being treated unfairly by their school? Is the fact that a child is perceiving unfair treatment — in one of the main places they do their socializing and learning about the world — not a problem in itself?
What does it say when a child is told that they just need to work hard? Why train children to work hard within a system when those in power have no intention of keeping their promises? Why teach a child how to read, write, and speak if their expressions are not valued?
The kids will grow up to learn that the American myth of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is an American lie. Only in mythical lands will their voices matter just as much as anyone else’s. The kids learn that the myths do not apply to them. Only the aftermath of the lies do.
* * *
As someone who is a vocal advocate in law school for better diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, I have found my voice again. I openly criticize school leadership, even raising my voice against them in meetings when they demonstrate how out of touch they are. I am better now, but I am still very much a work in progress.
Last year, when I felt as though I had been methodically drained of my energy only to be silenced, I had to reckon with my past traumas and how I dealt with them. Between the red sweaters and non-consensual experiences and assaults later in life, I realized that my coping mechanism has been to feel shame and believe that it was somehow my fault. There have been numerous times when I have used my voice to say “no” only for my undesired expression to be suppressed. And then it would take hours, months, sometimes years, to be able to identify the experience for what it was.
Now in law school, I think a lot about the First Amendment. I think about freedom of speech and how there is no such thing. There is freedom for some speech from some people. But there is no freedom of speech when speech from those who have been oppressed is censored or ignored. The Harper’s Letter, Julius the Intern, the protests, arguments of academic freedom — here is the proof that there is freedom for some speech. Research I did over the summer on the mugshot industry shows that freedom of speech is the protection used by “news” outlets that profit from the shame of those who are already powerless; but there are limits to this freedom to profit when the subject is someone popular in mainstream society, such as a police officer. Suddenly, the police officer has privacy rights that must be protected.
We must analyze power dynamics and oppressive structures. We must commit to understanding that all people do not exist equally. Only then can we attempt to have free speech for all.