The Shape of Our Dignity: Running Away… But Not Far Enough

Posted inCreative Voices

Childhood is filled with so many memories that seem so painful more than not for me. I recall, though, having a wonderful principal in kindergarten. I couldn’t recall her name so I went searching for her. Forty plus years of stuffing away the moments will take away the precious details. Nonetheless, she was one of the many angels in my life who really saw me for me.

I remember she loved the color yellow. She was sweet and caring. She made each kid feel special. She was like a Nana, more than she had authority figure vibes. She, a beautiful Black woman, smelled of roses and strawberries; the kind of wonderful smells that create core memories. She was an angel, this I can be sure. She was the first principal I had, and it made life just a little less lonely having her in my life.

Mrs. Joyce, that’s right. The bright Joy in our lives. Dr. Joyce Moore Gray broke barriers in education. She was the first Black principal in the State of Utah, having accepted the position in 1984, at my elementary school only one year before I landed in Arcadia Elementary’s doors. I will always be thankful for her stewardship and passion for education.

I was having a terrible time with the fact my biological father didn’t want anything to do with me. He took my brother places. Gave him things. Promised and didn’t break them with him. He always forgot me. That’s how it felt; how I recall it.

My fifth birthday came and went. More Barbies, girl stuff, most definitely something pink from mom. Nothing but empty promises from my father. No one could tell me why either. Everything my divorced parents went through was taboo to speak about.

To this day, I still don’t really understand all of the pain he caused my mother. All the times he told us he’d be right there to come take us for his weekends. So many times hearing my mother yelling at him over the phone. So many times he’d just not show up at all.

My angel, Mrs. Joyce, saw how sad I was and handed me a special pin for my birthday. I felt loved and seen. For the first time in my life, I felt like I meant something to someone else. I often felt like I didn’t belong; especially at home. So after school, I hid from my mother, running away… but not far enough.

In fact, I remained in the house. I listened to my mother cry, trying to find me. My principal stopped by to see if they’d heard anything about me. I cried, knowing I wanted more than anything to not be where I was, or live as who I was seen as.

I was a skinny kid. I had all sorts of places I could run to. That day, I chose to hide and I was most certainly not going to come out from behind the washer and dryer in the hall closet. I figured I could live there until I was old enough to leave. I was only five.

It wasn’t because I didn’t love my family. I just didn’t feel like I belonged there. I wasn’t heard. I wasn’t seen. Most of all, I felt like I wasn’t important or wanted, because the small, real person I was inside was screaming to escape.

My principal never gave up on me. She made sure I was safe in the spaces I occupied at school. She’d check in on me. She showed love for others, and cared for her school kids. She had a motherly love, the kind I craved for, that helped me get through some tough days in kindergarten.

From my search, I found that Mrs. Gray went on to many barrier-breaking opportunities. I’m certain that there are many more kids that were blessed by her care and compassion. I am honored to have had even the smallest moments with her. From her historic moments that enriched Utah’s education system, she is one that has always left the largest core memory in my heart.

I have many collections of memories from my school days. There are others who I will include in my work here; later. They all mean so much to me; the mentors who are saving graces. Many of whom helped me learned about what made me, me.

That day in kindergarten, when I hid from the world who didn’t see me, I made up stories in my head about how it would be to be someone else. Though I apparently was behind the appliances for only a few hours, they seemed like an eternity. It would take me another fourteen years to finally free a small fraction of myself from behind the walls of which I hid most of my life.

Sean Childers-Gray is a designer, writer, trans advocate, and educator. This essay was originally published on his Substack, The Shape of Our Dignity.