They used to frighten me, those big, yellow buses that parked in a ring around my school.
I rode them every morning and afternoon, my tiny hands clutching the straps of my bookbag. They frightened me from when I first became old enough to be aware of my surrounding to the very last day of middle school.
They frightened me because I knew what was in them. My stomach always clenched before I stepped onto those rubber steps and into the crowded bus, knowing that as soon as I did, my tan skin and stick-straight black hair would be a flashing red alarm for the kids that rode in the back of the bus, the "cool kids".
I stayed away from them.
"Whatcha lookin' at?" The two older, white boys sitting in the aisle across from the seat I had just sidled quietly into glared at me with their sharp, accusatory eyes.
I turned my head away from the aisle wordlessly, purposely looking towards the window on my side. I didn't really know how to respond, and I was always taught to ignore things like that. But it was a stuffy day, a rainy day, and the bus was packed tightly. I felt like I was going to suffocate, so I turned my head back to the aisle.
"Whatcha lookin' at?" The boy with the curly blond-haired boy said loudly again, glaring at me while his friend laughed beside him.
I turned my head away from the aisle again. I was too young then to feel anger or hatred, too young to understand or try to understand what was happening. I only saw a large, infinite world and those two boys across from me on that filthy school bus.
They stuck their heads out of the windows of those big, yellow buses as I got off and on everyday. Light-skinned kids with shiny blond and brown hair, dark-skinned kids too. "Hey, chinky!" they yelled out the windows. "Ching chong!" I didn't know what those words meant.
But I got used to those jeers soon enough. I got used to kids throwing things out the bus windows at me or trying to trip me or shove me out of the way.
I was in middle school when my social studies teacher asked, "Who in here has been subjected to prejudice?"
A girl beside me raised her hand and said, "Well, I've been prejudiced against because I'm a blonde, and people always think blondes are dumb." Everyone in the class laughed, even the teacher.
I couldn't laugh; it wasn't funny to me. They didn't know. They had no idea.
I grew out of that fear as I got older, just like we all grow out of being scared of the monsters under the bed. Those buses weren't frightening to me anymore like they used to be.
I was bolder, meaner. A question such as "Whatcha lookin' at?" was answered with "your ugly face."
It was how I had to adapt to survive as best I knew how.
Things changed in high school. Stabbing jeers turned into "Hey, girl, what's your number?" I'm not sure why. Maybe times changed, maybe people changed. I know I changed.
I know that anyone who looked at me today would have a hard time believing that once upon a time, this same tanned skin made me the leper of the town. I know they wouldn't be able to see that underneath a hardened and confident shell lies a little girl who used to avoid people in fear of being mocked.
But I've still got faint scars on my arm after all these years in the shape of the deep, oblique gashes from the time that black boy tore through my skin with his fingernails. I can still remember going home with my arm bleeding while my mother called the school.
But I learned how to fight, how to appreciate. I learned about being tough; I learned a little about how to push through a cruel world at a young age.
Those big, yellow buses will follow me around for the rest of my life.