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An Episcopal, co-educational 100% boarding school in Middletown, Delaware for grades 9 – 12

AK White
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AK White

Magazine Editor & Advancement Writer AK White gave this talk on Wednesday, April 3. 

This is a story about a box.
 
This box is not metaphorical. It existed in the attic of my childhood home, settled on the floor above my bedroom ceiling. Each night before I’d fall asleep, I’d trace the outline of the glow-in-the-dark stars and crescent moons I’d stuck on that very ceiling, not realizing I was charting an astronomer’s path to a hidden planet orbiting above, a planet that held a secret that would shift the ground beneath me, create a zero-gravity tailspin, and cast me, untethered, into deep, deep, space.
 
But before we get to the box and the hushed history that it contained, here’s what I did know, what I always knew, which is that I am adopted. 

I spent almost the first year of my life in foster homes. I’ve seen photos of myself from then: a kid with a smudged, dirty face; a woeful haircut; wearing red corduroy pants with knee patches and a brown crewneck sweatshirt; standing in an unfamiliar kitchen. The blur of a hand hovered just above my shoulder, as if the person to whom this hand was connected was hesitant in deciding to touch me or not. I remember holding this photo and asking my mother—and by “mother” I mean the woman who adopted me, who is unequivocally my mom—“Why did you dress me like that? Why do I look dirty?” She said, “That was them, that was before.” I wondered who “they” were, these people in the before times with the bad taste in haircuts, these people who didn’t wash my face, these people with hands that didn’t quite know how to reach me.
 
Weeks before my first birthday, I was adopted. I remember nothing of this besides the always knowing that I came from somewhere else.
 
When I was 16, my parents told me if I wanted to search for my birth mother, they’d help. I said no, even though I wanted it more than I’d ever wanted anything.
 
Around this time, I found the box. 

Sent into the attic to bring down Christmas décor, I was poking around my mother’s vintage clothes as a diversion tactic when I found it, hidden by a fur coat that once belonged to one great aunt or another. As I lifted the lid, I saw a paper with the embossed seal of the Delaware Children’s Bureau. I think I stopped breathing, knowing what I had discovered. My heart pounding so loud I feared it would splinter the roof, I grabbed the box, snuck down the attic stairs, and locked myself in the bathroom.
 
I’d imagined my birth mother a thousand times. If a woman who bore even the slightest resemblance to me crossed my path, I’d think, ‘What if?’ I’d wonder of my birth mother, ‘Does she hate onions? Does she love baseball? Does she read good books? Is she, too, appallingly bad at math?’ My biological father, however, loomed out of focus. I didn’t think about him. Now he’s all I think about.
 
The first document I pulled from the box, issued from the State of Delaware, had less than 10 words. “Child’s Race,” it read; underneath the state recorded, “Half Caucasian, Half Hispanic.”
 
I read this sentence again and again, trying to make sense of it. The walls closed in and my chest constricted. My knees felt jointless as I slid down the wall. I didn’t have the words for ‘panic attack’ then, but that’s what was happening.
 
I thought, ‘This is impossible. This is wrong.’ How could such foundational, life-changing information have been here, all along, and no one told me? How could this be real?
 
The next document was a human inventory: heights, weights, occupations, education levels and, most curious, skin-tone ranges for my biological father and his family. They all had medium brown to dark brown skin, brown eyes, brown hair. They were average height and weight. They were, for generations, farmers in a village on the central western coast of Puerto Rico. 

Another document described my biological father’s temperament: he was smart, seemed concerned about the child’s welfare, had great command of English, met the child’s mother on a trip. The more I read, the more I spiraled.
 
I hid everything under my mattress in an envelope. Every time I’ve moved—to college, to grad school, into my first, second, and current home—I have done the same thing. Talk about an unhealthy coping mechanism. I dug the envelope out in preparation for this talk, and was astounded at how quickly I was back in that bathroom, struggling to breathe. 
 
After the box, I sat with this knowledge for days, until I confronted a rage I’d never tasted before. I wasn’t angry for the obvious reasons you might think—because this was hidden from me. I was enraged because finally—finally—I had discovered one of my core factory settings, and yet … I was unmarked, untouched. It was not written on me. I could not see it in any mirror. I could not feel it in my blood. I could not claim it. I remained unmoored. 
 
I ignored the box for years until, as it happens, a former St. Andrean inspired me to reckon with all of this.
 
I met Giselle Furlonge, a previous dean of diversity, through a local mom’s group in 2018, years before I’d work here. We chatted about babies, books, and somehow, we got to the topic of an ancestry.com DNA test she recently took. I told her, in bits and pieces, why I’d always wanted to take a test but hadn’t found the courage. This woman showed up at my house weeks later with a DNA test. She said she felt compelled to give me this gift. I will never forget her radical kindness.
 
The test results sent me on an ongoing journey. Through Ancestry.com’s “family tree” function, in which the site matches your genetic results with other users’ results to help you find blood relatives, I’ve connected with various cousins in Puerto Rico. I check in regularly with one, Valentina. She’s my age, and she is obsessed with my paternal mystery. In between her island sleuthing, she shares interesting details about our shared bloodline.

I still don’t feel that I can claim this identity, or that I understand what it means, but I continue to work through it by nurturing these relationships I’ve established, asking questions, and listening. Valentina tells me no one in the family has figured out who my father is, and that’s okay, as I’ve finally realized this was never about finding him, but about finding me. 
 
Eight years ago, my husband, Marty, and I welcomed a daughter named Zora, who requires no secret documents to find out who she is. Zora is more self-assured and rooted in herself at 8 than I will ever be. 

But there are moments for her, as the child of a white and Hispanic mother and a Black father, that increasingly require me to never again hide that envelope, and instead, to process it out loud so I can help her navigate her own biracial identity.
 
Zora loves her brown skin but struggles with her kinky hair. Little does she know her curls anchor me to this planet, to this life, to all that is wondrous and good and magical. In those moments when she wishes for hair that moves like mine, or that is straight like mine, we tell the story of her hair.
 
It’s a story of her father, of me.
 
It’s the story of a mother and father I’ll never know.
 
It's the story of the grandparents she knows.
 
It’s the story of the grandparents she will never meet. 
 
It’s the story of the unfinished history of all of us. 
 
But most importantly, it’s a story that will never be confined to a box in the dark. Zora’s story will live perpetually in the golden light, and she will make me brave enough to do the same.
 

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