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I Speak Girl

There are few things in life I do better than speaking the secret language of teenagers when I'm at work. In fact, I'd say that I am fluent in speaking Girl. Whether it's a 6th grader or a junior in high school: I can get them to talk to me. It's a storyteller characteristic. In order to get people to open up to me and speak then it behooves me to place myself in a vulnerable enough position to gain their trust. 


So, when Kari Bedford, a local photographer who happened to take the wedding photos for my daughter last year, asked if I could wrangle up a few girls for a project she's working on I knew it was a no-brainer. Can I get young girls to follow me into the creative realm and do stuff for picture taking and meet off-site from school at a new studio for a photographer they've never met?

Ummm, yeah. Easy peasy. Have you seen the amount of selfies they take? I HAVE AND OH MY GOD I HAVE SEEN SO MANY SELFIES. 


In middle school, we live in the Land of the Adolescent where their brains are not yet fully formed. Where kids speak in coded language and constantly make up new words at breakneck pace. Where sometimes the only complete sentences uttered by them are song lyrics. Where what is in their heads is out of their mouths so fast that they don't have the speed bump necessary to slow it down should it be inappropriate or rude. 

I love it here. It's absolutely nuts but I never wonder about my fashion choices or my hair or my words because they will tell me when they don't like something. This land is where my skin toughened up and where my back became waterproof. 

Very little bothers me when it comes from people that don't mean anything in my personal home life.

Oddly enough, there are times when I meet people who shouldn't mean anything to me that end up profoundly affecting me.

I have been called every name you can imagine. Ever. (Sometimes I am slightly impressed by the imagination and creativity and compound words they create.) (All of them are NSFW.)

I have been threatened physically by students and parents. 

Once, while supervising lunch a rather difficult student yelled, "You are a such a fat bitch!" at me. 

In my most sing-song, high-pitched Princess voice I responded:

"Excuuuuuuuuse me. But did you call me FAT?"

This land is rough terrain. 


Learning to speak Girl means being as good a listener as you are a speaker. The girls who showed up last night at Kari's photography studio ended up in the street, playing outside when they were waiting to be picked up by parents. The street was closed off as are many streets downtown right now for construction purposes so I wasn't too worried about them since I could see them from where I sat inside the studio.

I heard a commotion and noticed a group of boys on bikes had ridden by them and one fell off while doing some trick so I went outside to see. The sun was just setting and I caught them with my camera as they took off around the corner.


The girls were interested in my camera and we talked about my very amateur status and lighting and shadows. They let me practice on them while the sun set in the background.



Once the girls were picked up by their parents I took off and headed for home. My car was parked a bit away due to the street closing and as I turned the corner I saw the group of boys on bikes again. By the time I reached them I made eye contact with a few and then stopped to tell them I had taken their picture earlier. 

"Yeah, that's when I fell off my bike. They all laughed."

The other boys laughed again when he said that. 

I told them I was practicing with my camera and they asked to see the shot so I obliged them and then asked if I could take another of them, right here, in front of me. They obliged that, too. They smiled for my camera and laughed at me when I would say, "Oh, just one more picture! You're all so handsome." 

 We chatted about where they went to school and if I knew so-and-so and we spent a few minutes making connections. They told me who their cousins were who go to my school and I told them who my teacher friends were who work at their schools. Only one of them said he was out of school already.

Walking away, I promised them to post their picture on Instagram so they could see it and, looking past them I noticed a White police officer on a segway. As they rode away from me I heard their low voices say that they needed to split up and "There's the police" which an emphasis on "po". My body froze in that spot to watch them.

Everything changed. Their body language changed instantly and their comfort in posing for the camera just seconds before were now gone. No longer boys, they were men in an instant, morphing to fit the audience in a flash. With just the addition of the police officer who, by the way, had not approached them. The air shifted and became still. I don't know if the sun was still settting or not, but it hung in the sky not moving.

Everything changed. 

His presence was enough.

His Whiteness was enough.

Their youth was enough.

Their Blackness was enough. 


What was just there, this brief sense of stranger trust, was gone. I had laughed when one of the boys said he was going to lift his bike over his head for the picture. Just like a middle school boy, I thought. Bravado. Strength.

Nothing happened.

The police officer didn't know which group to follow and I turned away so that I didn't watch him too closely, either. Whatever the ending was, I didn't watch. I didn't want to place all the blame on him for boys who've lost their innocence too quickly because they don't get to be boys. Kari purposefully blurred this photo for me because I feel like it represents what I could almost see if I squinted hard enough: Black boys who get to be innocent kids having fun playing outside on a beautiful Autumn day.

I speak more than just Girl or Middle School. My fluency in the language of children was tested last night and I know that I code switch.

But I wanted to speak Boy with them. Maybe with a special dialect of Innocent Black Boy. 

Or maybe I was just speaking Human.

I wonder about the proficiency of our world to speak it, too.

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Reader Comments (14)

With easy flow you take me up with you into the world I get a close glimpse of with my 13 year old daughter and into the murky world of being a young, Black boy.

I remember in my bones what that was like and am glad to say that while it unfortunately happens still to this day there are those transcendent moments when at least some of those boys get to interact with you.

September 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterChuck "New Haiku" Cuyjet

This captures so much--the photos, the nuances, the beauty and the very hard truths. Your lens is amazing, and I'm not speaking specifically about cameras.

September 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnn

Love this! If you need translation to nerd, let me know.

September 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGrandeMocha

This just breaks my heart. Really. I don't anything else to say. Well, except thank you for engaging and capturing their youth and innocence. They are boys and should be allowed the freedom to be just that.

September 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTam317

I talk to my girls about believers, whether it's magic or Santa, but that there are believers in the world.

I thank the universe for you, because children can sense believers and fakers, children need to have people like you who they know on a soul-deep level is a believer.

I loved this so much.

September 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda

I just wanted to say that your words touch my heart. They matter. As a white lady living in a predominately black and hispanic neighborhood, your words have opened my eyes. I now notice the exact phenomena that you have described in this post, even though I wish that things like this were untrue. So thank you, for your words, for sharing your heart. Brightest blessings to you and yours.

September 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMegan

As per usual, you captured the moment. Not with just words this time. Uhg, making me feel feels...

September 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDeShanee

My boy is so close to being one of those boys it makes me sad. he's four, so maybe I have a little time to effect mroe change so maybe he doesn't have to abandon his boyhood for the sake of safety. I speak boy the way you speak girl....its heart breaking

ps. Kari is wonderful, I met her and we bonded over knowing you. Figures :)

September 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRaquita

"Or maybe I was just speaking Human."
I am SO thankful for your voice, your viewpoint and for YOU. Our students & our schools are blessed and lucky to have you here looking out for them and looking after them.

September 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKendra

This post takes my breath away. You are quite fluent in innocent Black boy. I wish more were. Thank you for sharing this moment.

September 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDenene at MyBrownBaby

Beautiful! Thank you so much for capturing this moment. You are speaking boy very well.

September 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVal

Trying to type but my tears are making my vision as blurred as that last picture. I am married to a black man and we have been together 26 years. 13 of them together 13 of them married.

I understand this language that you speak of.

I regularly speak "child" in fact it's because I have never grown up, despite my 41 planetary years. I had all of my in-law nieces and nephew this Summer for 11 days, and none of the other adults could understand that I could tolerate them for that long. Not have fun with them for that long, but tolerate them for that long........... I did it, because I know lives are made of memories and I know in 40 years they will still remember our Summer. I love that I speak child, and I am still crying as I type this.

Your post has floored me.

P.S. I speak black and human too ;-)

September 19, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterliska

Just started working at a middle school. This post hit home good and hard. Saw it at Schmutzie's.

September 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHomemakerman

This matter today Kelly. It matters so very much.

I want nothing more than a world in which those young Black boys keep their innocence and can just be boys. I'm so afraid it will never happen.

November 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterErin

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