Be Beautiful: A Tribute to Mrs. Piper
by Leslie Herod
When I was growing up, I never looked in the mirror and saw a beautiful girl. I saw dark skin and kinky hair. I saw “different.” I would watch cartoons and Disney movies and believed “beauty” was reserved for those of a much lighter skin with straight hair. The media and the world around me reinforced what I saw in the mirror.
As I grew, I began to detest my brown skin tone and my kinky hair. Why couldn’t it be straight? Why did it poof up when I went to swim practice instead of flow behind me like The Little Mermaid? I wanted to feel beautiful.
One day in elementary school, I was sitting in my 4th grade class during free time coloring a picture of a beautiful princess. I had my first black teacher, and I adored her. Mrs. Piper was everything, and I tried my hardest to be the best student in her class. That day, Mrs. Piper asked me to show the class the picture I had colored. I was so proud to show them that I discovered a new trick. I wanted to teach the class that, even though I didn’t have the big 64 box of crayons with the “pale color” crayon usually reserved for coloring skin tone, I could still use a combination of a light shading of yellow and orange to get the princess’s skin just the right color. I proudly taught my class this trick and my classmates were pleased and impressed.
But Mrs. Piper was not. I knew I wasn’t a great artist and certainly had colored outside the lines in a few places, but could that be it? Why wasn’t she smiling?
Mrs. Piper asked me to stay after class. I knew I was in trouble. But why?
After my classmates had cleared the room, I stayed at my desk. I wrung my small hands with worry. Was I getting suspended? Would I be held back a grade because of my artistic shortcomings? Or ever worse, would she call my mom?
Mrs. Piper directed me to take out my crayons and the picture I colored. She calmly asked me to tell her about the princess, who she was, where she came from and if she was happy. She then asked me about my new coloring “trick.” She wondered why I had been working hard to perfect the color of pale skin in my drawings. She then took out my brown crayon. It was the only one in my box that hadn’t been whittled down from use. Mrs. Piper asked me why I never colored the beautiful, happy princess’s skin with my brown crayon. Honestly, I hadn’t even considered it.
I can’t remember exactly what I said to Mrs. Piper at the time, but I remember feeling confused. Black people can’t be princesses and certainly not black people with my dark brown skin.
She asked me if I thought I was beautiful. “No,” was my simple reply.
Mrs. Piper gave me a new coloring sheet, handed me my brown crayon and told me to color it in. As I began to color her arms and legs and eventually her face, I began to see that this princess was beautiful – and she looked like me. I saw that the chocolate skin of a black girl was something to be celebrated not looked down on. As we colored in the princess’s hair with spiral locks and talked about all of the beautiful black women in the world – I began to see myself differently. I was beautiful.
On that day, Mrs. Piper not only taught me to see myself as beautiful, she gave me the confidence to be me. I stopped dreaming of myself with fair skin or blonde hair and began to see my own beauty. I became obsessed with Whitney Houston and Lisa Turtle from Saved by the Bell. I saw the world differently. I started to believe that it was ok to love myself and that the color of my skin would not stop me from becoming whatever I wanted to be—a princess, doctor, astronaut or even a political leader.
Teachers not only teach us math and arithmetic, English and grammar. Extraordinary teachers spark kid’s imaginations and teach us how to dream. Mrs. Piper’s lesson has had as profound an impact on me then as it does today. My dreams are not limited.
My brown is beautiful!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Leslie Herod was raised by a single mother, who was an officer in the Army Nurse Corps, which, in turn, took her family all over the world. Leslie graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder where she served as the President of the Student Union’s Legislative Council.Upon graduating college, she continued her work in public service at the Colorado State Capitol. She then served as a Senior Policy Advisor to Governor Bill Ritter, Jr., specializing in social services, criminal justice, mental health, specific issues relating to senior citizens and anti-poverty issues.
After leaving government service, she became a Program Officer with the Gill Foundation where she led philanthropic initiatives focusing on LGBT equality and alliance building in communities of color. From this base, she formed her own small businesses, which focuses on strategic planning and community partnership consulting. Leslie is passionate about making a difference in her community through advocacy and civic engagement, and she aims to put her skills to work and ideas into action for the residents of District 8 in Denver, CO by running for Colorado House in 2016.
Images via Leslie Herod