When Antona Smith saw her 12-year-old daughter, Kiden, walk into Kaldi’s in Kirkwood one afternoon last month, she knew right away that something was wrong.
“She got to me, and I held her,” Smith said in a recent interview at the Kirkwood Public Library. “She was quivering, but she couldn’t tell me at first. So all I could do was hold on to her and ask her what’s wrong, did something happen to you?
“And she was shaking her head yes, something did happen, someone did something to her, but she wasn’t ready to say it yet.”
When Kiden – pronounced Kee-den – was ready to tell what had happened to her, she ended up writing a letter designed to let all of Kirkwood know.
Walking home on April 24 from Nipher Middle School along South Kirkwood Road, she wrote:
“I saw a silver car of teenage boys laughing. I didn’t think much of it until ten minutes later, the same car was driving by me and the boy in the passenger seat rolled down the window and yelled, ‘YOU’RE A MONKEY,’ and laughed as they drove away.”
In a community like Kirkwood, which has had its share of racially tinged incidents in recent years – from the subtle to the deadly, like the killings by Cookie Thornton in February 2008 – such blatant harassment can’t just be dismissed as a teenage prank, Kiden’s mother said.
“What happened to my daughter is reflective of Kirkwood when I moved here in 2008 as well as Kirkwood now,” Smith added.
“It is subtle. It is ostracizing in a way. And it is cowardly, in other ways. So like what the boys did was cowardly. But yeah, it’s still here. It’s still evident.”
Or as Kiden put it in the interview, speaking softly but with conviction:
“I was shocked. I wasn’t afraid. I was just really shocked that it happened. And I was disappointed.”
Authorities say a suspect who is not a student in the Kirkwood schools has been identified.
Just an ordinary day
As a sixth-grader at Nipher, on the student council and playing the violin, Kiden has had a life like that of most middle schoolers. She wasn’t all that crazy about walking the several blocks from school to the coffee shop at Kirkwood Station Plaza; she really wanted her mother to pick her up.
After the incident occurred, and Kiden had time to reflect on it, her mother urged her to write it down as a letter – a letter the family ended up sending to news outlets, school personnel and others to get across how disturbing it was.
“I said, ‘You’re a writer; use the power of your pen,’” Smith said. “And initially we were just writing the letters to go to our local paper, and after I read what she wrote, I said this is bigger. Your teachers and principals and administrators need to read this letter.”
Kiden’s letter portrayed the situation this way:
“It was just an ordinary day after school when my mom sent me a text to meet her at Kaldi's. I never get to walk and although I wanted my mom to just drive there, it was only a few blocks away so I just started to walk.
“When I got to the crossing guard, I saw a silver car of teenage boys laughing. I didn't think much of it until ten minutes later, the same car was driving by me and the boy in the passenger seat rolled down the window and yelled, "YOU'RE A MONKEY", and laughed as they drove away.
“I was shocked and disappointed because someone that sick in the mind can go and make fun of a 12 year old girl and say something racial. I'm pretty sure they knew I was a middle schooler counting that I had a bookbag, holding a poster, holding a violin and walking from Nipher.
“They are ignorant and I am disappointed in whoever taught them to think like that.
“This obviously needs to be dealt with and I've heard other people have had experiences like this but worse here in Kirkwood. The schools don't do anything about and they think this is bullying but it is way different and it is illegal. This is racial harassment.
“If they thought they had the right to do that and think that would lower my self-esteem and make them stronger, they are really, really wrong. I just proved to them that I am much more stronger... I am stronger because I was being the better person and not reacting. I walked straight to my mom and told her, called my dad and the next day, filed a police report with Officer Bonner. I also wrote this letter because fear is a weapon and I am not afraid. I do not want this to happen to other kids in Kirkwood.
“I am in student council and I think that we should discuss racial profiling because it does happen at our school. I want the adults to really listen and understand that bullying and racial profiling are different things.
“To the high school boys, what if that were your sister and my big brother did that to her?”
More work to do
Antona Smith, who said her family has lived in Kirkwood since moving from Lee’s Summit, Mo., in 2007, said she wanted Kiden to write the whole description down as an exercise in expression but also as a way for her to work through the details.
“I had her start writing down the account of what happened,” she said, “because I didn’t want her to lose any specifics – the description of the car, the description of the five Caucasian males, that they were high school students, the description of the boy who rolled the window down. I didn’t want her to lose any of that.”
The response that the family received, Smith added, was heartening. School personnel, from Superintendent Tom Williams on down to staff members at Nipher, expressed disappointment and outrage at what happened and admiration for Kiden for how she handled it and put it into words.
In an interview, Chris Raeker, the school district’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, said she was “absolutely sick at heart that one of our students would have to hear this in downtown Kirkwood. It’s not what we’re used to hearing, and it breaks my heart.”
Part of her job, Raeker said, is to make sure that Kirkwood school personnel treat children equitably and have age-appropriate discussions with them about race.
“Kiden’s school specifically has had intensive work for kids,” she said. “It dedicated an entire day to help kids be aware of how their actions can hurt others.”
The harassment that Kiden experienced, Raeker added, shows that the work in that area is far from over.
“We can’t stop the conversation,” she said. “We have to keep talking with our kids, talking with our families and talking with each other about race. We have to know that our teachers who come to work and are minorities, they face it. They face it in subtle ways that the rest of us don’t even understand or know about at times.
“We see it as a shared responsibility. We can’t do it alone. There is no way schools can singlehandedly help kids navigate this water. We depend on partnerships with families. I think Kirkwood is known as a district that has partnerships with families.”
And, Raeker added, any issues in Kirkwood have to be viewed in a larger context.
“Kirkwood is a part of St. Louis,” she said, “and St. Louis is a part of society. Race doesn’t go away. The conversation has to be about appreciating one another and recognizing that people hurt one another through their words and actions.”
Antona Smith said that such reaction has been helpful in the wake of the taunt against Kiden.
“I felt that in the responses that I received, they were authentic,” she said. “I was surprised that I even received emails and phone calls from people I really don’t have dialogue with.
“But this incident was so hurtful, especially to adults that have lived through racism, that they had an immediate, authentic and real reaction to it, I did appreciate that.”
An insular place
Still, Smith said, the incident confirmed to her the general atmosphere she has experienced since moving to Kirkwood. During an unsuccessful run for the Kirkwood School Board earlier this year, Smith said she was sometimes portrayed as “the angry black woman.”
“Often,” she added, “I am the only black person at the coffee shop. I’m the only black person in downtown Kirkwood. There are subtle little things. You may be given a look. People make assumptions. You can just tell by their looks, like what’s she doing here.
“Kirkwood is very much an insular place…. It’s very much a white experience in downtown Kirkwood.”
For her part, Kiden says she doesn’t feel unsafe walking near Nipher. She didn’t feel physically threatened the day she was taunted, she says, because there were too many people around. “If they wanted to do anything, that wouldn’t be the smartest move,” she said.
Smith hopes that Kirkwood schools and other groups use the incident as a lesson that leads to action.
“Talking about it is different from actually doing something and being held accountable for doing something and for acting,” she said. “People can be afraid. Sometimes you’re the only one standing up and saying this is wrong, don’t do that.”
Asked what she would say if she had a pipeline into every home in Kirkwood, Kiden responded:
“Inform your children not to be racist. Talk to them. Don’t be rude, period. Talk to your kids. Like my parents, they’ll talk to me several times at the most random moments, and I’ll say why are you talking to me about this? But it’s implanted in my brain now. Don’t do certain things, because certain things will happen. Teach that to your children.”
Would such a lesson stick? Smith would like to think so, but she’s skeptical.
“I’m probably afraid a little bit for her innocence,” she said of her daughter. “Some of her childhood was snatched when they did that. She’ll get over it. She’ll forget. It will go to the back of her mind, until she’s an adult and maybe has a child….
“But 1964 was the year I was born. We’re in 2014 and still fighting the same fight.”