“What I Am: An Account from a Former Fourth-Grader”

Life at lunch in the fourth grade is simple: you’re asked to share your name, if you’re quiet or
unpopular, your birthday, and what ethnicity you are by the other kids. The latter two answers serve as requirements, the former is recommended.

The other students sit angelically with demented grins on their smooth-skinned faces, wondering
what could possibly come out of your mouth to surprise them today. You know what they will ask you, it’s been done before. “What are you? Like, what’s your nation-ality?” It’s emphasized in a way that suggests this word is new to their expanding vocabulary, that it’s not yet used to the feeling of being on their tongues.

Just thinking about the question makes you panic, and you move past the subtly staring kids, almost to the edge of the faded red tables. The whole time, you can’t help but think to yourself “what am I?” You never thought it was important until now. You couldn’t understand why it was necessary for everyone to know what everyone is, or what that even means.

You listen as the other kids talk about themselves no problem. You overhear snippets of words
and worlds that exist only on globes or charts or maps: “Albania” and “one-fourth Scottish” and “Japan” and “one half Native American, Cherokee to be exact.” These words hold value, you realize, and it matters exactly what you say, in exactly what fraction you say it in, even though nobody knows what exactly it all means. It was as if the whole ritual served as some secret unspoken test: if you can answer this question, you too can be an official member of the fourth grade.

And so, you think about it. You realize that you know what your mom is, and you know what
your dad is, but does that make you the same? At age 10, genetics don’t make sense to you, and the things in the world just because the world says so. This is how it had always been. Now, this new world of fourth-grade bloodlines was uncharted territory to your naïve mind. Up until now, you thought that people were just people, and their differences were justified by being unique, because wasn’t that what they had taught you last year in the third grade?

It’s your turn to share now, and 30 pairs of eyes turn to you. You feel your cheeks get warm and your back begins to sweat, and the gooey peanut butter and jelly sandwich your mom made this morning suddenly doesn’t seem as appetizing.

But then, you know the answer; it’s all very simple in your head now. Someone coughs, others tap the table, and most munch on their lunches. The only constant is that all of them wait for you to impress their ten-year-old minds.
“I’m me,” you announce, “My mother is Mexican, and my father is Armenian, but I’m just me.” They sit and they stare and their smooth fourth-grade faces go blank because they don’t understand what it means to be “just you.” The lack of a proper label is confusing. If everyone else is something special, something specific, how can you be just yourself?

But as they begin to forget your act of swimming upstream, you grin because you know what you mean. You also know that though you may not look or feel like either of your cultures, it’s not your blood that defines you. You smile wider as your peers turn their attention to the next one, she announces that she’s Thai, and then they move onto the next. You just can’t stop yourself from smiling, because now, in your fourth-grade mind, you know what you are. You know that you belong in your own skin, wherever it may come from.

By Sophia M., 15, Losa Angeles, CA