The Black Ugly Duckling & Love Letter to My First Car


The Black Ugly Duckling

So, in first grade in a school 
where I was one in three of Black 
kids in the whole goddamn school,
my teacher (let’s call her Mrs. Snow)
decided her class was going to put
on the play The Ugly Duckling.

Our Mrs. Snow seemed okay enough,
stern, but fair, she never made me 
feel uncomfortable, but that day 
she brought in the music teacher
and they announced, together,
who their star was going to be.

Now, I loved music class. I even
liked my teacher, who was a kind
man who taught us the usual songs
kids knew in those days—even threw
in some John Lennon for good measure
besides classics like “She’ll Be Coming
Round the Mountain” and “Kumbaya”—
and I liked singing. Maybe I even sang
the loudest, not understanding at that
tender age what it meant to be Black
in a room full of white people who didn’t
sing as loud, as if singing was one of 
our genetic traits left over from Africa.

When they said my name, that I was 
to represent the tragedy of the pariah
duckling turned swan, I was shocked
and would be lying if I didn’t say I was
overjoyed—I had never been chosen 
for anything where I was to be the 
center of the classroom’s attention.
My music teacher gave me a tape 
with a song I was supposed to learn
for the moment my life would change
forever in my debut as a beautiful swan.

So I learned my lines, I sang every day
with the tape and learned the simple
song my music teacher wrote for the
occasion. On the playground, a boy 
chased me singing his song, asking 
me why I was so ugly, performing his
role as one of the ducklings who was
as white and sanctioned as I was not,
my Black down feathers dividing 
me from the packs of waddling children.

The day arrived when we would get
it over with, as Mrs. Snow invited our
parents to her classroom for the show.
A little white girl, more or less a friend,
brought an extra white tutu from home
for my inauguration, so that when I converted
into the gorgeous swan I was all along, 
I’d have something magnificent to wear.
I sang the song, I remembered my lines,
parents, teachers all congratulated me,
and I still have that tape I practiced with,
crammed in a trunk, and you couldn’t pay
me enough cash in this life to sing it again.


Nikki Wallschlaeger’s work has been featured in The Nation, Brick, American Poetry Review, Witness, Kenyon Review, Poetry, and others. She is the author of the full-length collections Houses (Horseless Press, 2015) and Crawlspace (Bloof Books, 2017) as well as the graphic book I Hate Telling You How I Really Feel (Bloof Books, 2019). She is also the author of an artist book called “Operation USA” through the Baltimore-based book arts group Container, a project acquired by Woodland Pattern Book Center in Milwaukee. Her third collection, Waterbaby, is forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press in 2021.