I am sitting in a classroom. The class is English, I am sixteen years old, and I am in my element. All semester, I’ve been firing away with the right answers, I’ve been getting great marks, and I’m clearly the teacher’s favourite. My friend, H, who is also really good at English, has taken to sitting at the back of the class and answering questions shortly. This is because, just as obvious as the teacher likes me best, we can all see that the teacher has taken a great and inexplicable disliking to my friend. (From memory,) we’re the only two non-white students in the class.
All semester, while I’ve been working hard in class, the teacher has found occasions for little chats. Little chats about my name, about my background, about other people with my background, about my family history. I’m getting increasingly uncomfortable, but she’s not saying anything bad, right? Nothing explicitly wrong? It’s just kind of weird.
This day, I’m sitting in this classroom, and everything is just as usual until I dispute a point about Othello. And then it all comes crashing down. I won’t repeat what she said. I can still remember the blank and hostile look with which she said it, the cool assurance that it was entirely academic, entirely professional, to say it.
My fellow students are quiet. I sit there for several minutes but there is hot rage and I can’t concentrate on the task she’s set us to write. I stand up. ‘I’m going, is that okay?’ Why did I ask? I should have just left, I think. I’m too polite. She nods stiffly. It’s the last class of the day so I walk out of there and all around me there are sunlight and a haze of pure rage and I can’t see through them. I touch things and it’s hard to grip them because in the infinitesimal gap between atoms, between objects and my fingers, is profound hurt. I am producing horror and it is coating me. I have to concentrate to keep walking straight down that corridor.
When next I see the head of department, she calls me to sit down with her. The head tells me that my English teacher had to file that I’d left class without authority. That the teacher isn’t racist, that she loves people of my background. (I am a bit surprised. I haven’t even thought of what she’d done as explicitly racist until now, just hurt hurt hurt hurt.) That she, the head, is recommending I apologise. I am more surprised than ever; apologise for what? ‘No.’ ‘So I’m going to write down that you’re not taking my recommendation?’ ‘I will not apologise.’ The head has a look on her face I have never seen, and we’ve been in close contact all through high school. She says she doesn’t want to have to deal with this a few days before her retirement. I see her a few more times after that, and I can never see her the same way again. She was kind and helpful and now she is a person who can defend this.
I am devastated, but I am have matters to attend to yet, so I go to see my English teacher at lunchtime. ‘Have you got something to say to me?’ She asks me this in that particular voice of condescension some adults save for very small children who they think owe them an apology. I explain to her how incredibly inappropriate her actions were. She explains to me that she’s a professional, that what she said was perfectly in keeping with what we were talking about. She asks me again, ‘Are you going to apologise?’
‘No. Are you?’
Three guesses what she said.
Will I apologise for your racism? For having dignity? For not suffering existing as your fascinating pet?
I’m crying writing about this years later. For the record, I ended up ranking first of all the candidates taking that English course that year. Because I’m just that good.