Names have been changed to protect the identities of people living in a town smaller than my first high school.
A Pretty Good Education
In September 1994, I was a fourth-grader living in Birmingham, Alabama with my parents and my younger brother. We moved to Birmingham in 1985 when I was a baby and my brother was born there. Like many mid-to-large Southern cities, Birmingham was doing surprisingly well in its post-Jim Crow existence. The city had a strong black middle class even with the War on Drugs reaching its peak in the 1990s.
We lived in the West End, which was a part of the city that was crime-ridden. But that was okay because my brother and I were attending Princeton Alternative Elementary School, a magnet school that had a solid reputation. We were getting a pretty good education at a black-majority school, led by a black principal, in a city that was over 75% black, that was led by a black mayor. Not bad for a city that was nearly ravaged by segregationists just 30 years prior.
In fact, our education was so good, I was learning French and playing violin by the time my parents announced that we were moving. My father got a job offer in Georgia. After informing me that I would finally get my own room, my parents dropped the big bomb: we’re not going to Atlanta, we’re going to a small town in the North Georgia mountains. And the move was going to be a big change for us. But hey, I was nine. I’m getting my own room and that’s all I heard. So I said goodbye to all my school friends (who thought I was moving to Atlanta) and traveled with my family to Rabun County, Georgia.
Clayton, Georgia (current population: 2,047) is a scenic small town tucked into the Blue Ridge Mountains. Even though Birmingham sat at the base of the Appalachian Mountains, I had never seen mountains like these. It was indescribably beautiful. And it was autumn so the leaves were changing into a multitude of colors I hadn’t seen before.
It was also less than 1% African American. Nothing would have prepared me for the culture shock.
The Rabun County School System split its elementary grade levels. So my brother was sent to one of the two K-3 schools, while I went to Clayton Elementary School, the school for grades 4–6. At first, I attended the school with a biracial girl whose family befriended mine, but then they moved away.
Here’s how that school experience went.
First Things First… My Name
So my name is Sharonda. And my middle name is Laticia, pronounced with four syllables. I didn’t think my name was out of the ordinary before moving to Clayton. Back in Birmingham, I had classmates named Akeelah, Kahlil, and Tonisha.
Now I had classmates named Heather, Amanda, and Ethan.
It never occurred to me that my name wasn’t considered a “normal” name. So when children and adults asked the origin of my name, I didn’t have an answer. It’s not like I could have Googled it back then. If you would’ve asked me the origin of William, I wouldn’t have known that either.
Nowadays, I know that my first name was a popular post-Civil Rights name and that my middle name is Latin. And I am now very quick to tell people that my name isn’t weird or unique.
I Had to Represent My Race at Age 10
The difference between me and my new classmates is that nearly all of them had never seen a black person in real life before. In contrast, I may have lived in a black-majority city, but I was familiar with white people. Many of my teachers in Birmingham were white and I even had a white pen pal in the third grade.
In Birmingham, white people were just there. White people in black spaces were common. For example, In Living Color made Jim Carrey into a star. But now, I was a black child in a white space. And there were several times I was too young to realize how much of a big deal this was. Other times, it was crystal clear how much of a deal it was.
Like whenever my teacher asked my opinion on a famous African American.