I didn’t know who this poor girl was to be so hated by Jimmy, but I felt sorry for her. I was the lucky girl who got to share a desk with him.
I always made sure that my crayons were lined up just so. My older sisters dressed me in their prettiest passed-down dresses and twisted my long hair into ponytails that only little black girls with “good hair” could sport. My coloring was within the lines — I had faultless technique. And I always gave Jimmy my most rapt attention.
No, no, no, no, no. Not me. I could count, I could put together big puzzles, and countless adults had told me I was cute. He had to mean some other girl. All I had ever done was adore him. He couldn’t mean me.
He turned back to his coloring, and I sat there.
I didn’t cry. I was the youngest of five. I knew better.
I went home and asked for my favorite lunch, a grilled-cheese sandwich. I never told my mother what Jimmy had said. I never told my sisters, either. But I stopped asking them to dress me up and do my hair. I asked my father to cut off my long hair so that I could sport an afro. My mother cried and kept my puffy braid.
During the second half of my kindergarten year at Webster Elementary, we were assigned to a new teacher and a new classroom. There were different tables — long tables shared by six students, instead of the small tables for two. I didn’t sit next to Jimmy, which was fine; he had been replaced by Twinkies. My dad would sneak and buy them for me. I measured everything by them. “Dad, do you love me more than a thousand hundred twenty million Twinkies?” He would say yes, and I knew I was well loved.
The summer following kindergarten is when the Twinkies, now joined by little gel-glazed Vienna sausages and vanilla ice cream, began to show how much I was loved. I was a slightly pudgy first-grader who turned into an even pudgier second-grader. The kids began to tease me. I was always the last to be picked for the kickball team during afternoon recess. No one wanted to play tetherball with me, unless it was to set me up for getting hit. (I was afraid of the ball and closed my eyes when it was coming my way.) I couldn’t twirl on the monkey bars like the other girls.
My parents watched me plump up. They tried to stem the tide. “Only one egg or one donut or one piece of chicken for Joan.” They encouraged me to eat salads and fresh fruits and vegetables. We started exercising as a family every Tuesday and Thursday nights. My father and I joined Weight Watchers. I swore that when I grew up I would never eat salads and that I would have fried chicken every night (no limit).
My mother refused to buy me girly clothes because they didn’t fit well. I was willing to wear clothes that were too tight, but my mom just shook her head. She shopped for me in the boys’ department at Sears, and my school outfits consisted of corduroy pants and Hang Ten crew-neck T-shirts. She promised me that if I lost the weight, she would take me back to May Company and buy me girly clothes.
Most of my youth was spent tomboyishly dressed while awaiting that elusive girly wardrobe.
The first week of school was always bad because all the girls sported newly pressed hair and pressed, new girly clothes. But Easter was worse, eclipsing even the first day of school. That’s when all the little girls got to dress up lacy and frilly in pastel colors, with white stockings and white patent-leather shoes with buckles. I could wear the shoes. I tried them on, not caring about having to grunt and twist awkwardly to buckle the straps, but they didn’t work with my Tough-skins jeans and flannel shirts.
In fourth grade, my mom called me into her bedroom. I didn’t know what I’d done, but I thought if I started crying in advance, she’d go easy on me. She sat me on her bed and held my hands. “Joan, you already have two strikes against you. You’re black, and you’re female. You don’t need to be fat, too.”
It was like I had parasites, things crawling inside of me, and I couldn’t do anything about it.
Black and female: two things about me that were bad, two things that I couldn’t change or fix. Being fat — or not being fat — didn’t change that I was black, didn’t change that I was female.
All I wanted to do was eat.
I went from chubby to fat inside of a year.
I withdrew from other kids and began taking refuge in TV shows, especially my favorite, The Brady Bunch, where I could be any one of three very lovely girls. TV was later replaced with romance books, where I could be the beautiful, skinny, white, semi-helpless heroine, with men vying for my affections — cherishing me, rescuing me — all while eating Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. This made up for my real life.
I took refuge in being smart.
“NIGGERS GO HOME.”
San Diego, California, 1977. Pershing Junior High School. Not 1957. Not Little Rock, Arkansas.
That’s the spray-painted greeting that met the first group of black kids bused to Pershing. I was on that bus, a participant in a voluntary ethnic-integration program that had been implemented in time for my introduction to middle school.
I wanted to fit in. I wanted to prove that I was smart. I wanted to be good.
But every day I wanted to fight somebody because “Niggers go home” was always in the air.
“You look like Frankenstein’s wife.”
The girl who sat in front of me in Spanish, Sandy, was pretty and popular and one of the local girls. She had turned around in her orange plastic desk chair and said those words to me, unprovoked. The whole class laughed. The teacher, Ms. Lundquist, did nothing. I was alone and without protection in the land of Lord of the Flies.