It was early in the school year, and I still hoped to fit in, or at least be invisible.
But there was no fitting in now. Sandy made sure of that. So, Sandy earned my “special attention.” Few people get it. It comes from the part of my heart where the blood is without oxygen, where it’s dark and full of noxious gases — a cold place where I’m more shark than human.
I would get Sandy if it was the last thing I did.
I only had to wait a week.
New to carrying a purse, she left it hanging on her desk chair. Her wallet was filled with Olan Mills family portraits, so I went home that day and sat at the kitchen table and created a work of art. I drew a house with a yard and put her family photos in the windows, only I did a bit of primitive Photoshopping first, defiling her pictures, drawing black rings around eyes, black gaps between teeth.
The next day I handed the paper to Sandy and said, “Someone wanted me to give this to you.” I sat down in my seat behind her and watched her neck turn pink, then fuchsia, and then she was up and running out of the classroom, but not before I heard her crying.
I felt vindicated. I had no regrets. Not one. Not ever. Even as I was called into the office — I didn’t care about the cost.
But I wasn’t stupid. I concealed my satisfaction because I had an important performance ahead.
I was blessed to have a wonderful supporting cast, the Pershing Junior High officials. They had let us get off that bus while the words “Niggers Go Home” were still dripping their black blood down the school walls. There had been no attempt to cover them up with a hasty coat of paint or butcher paper. They allowed teachers like Ms. Lundquist to turn deaf ears to the words of vicious girls like Sandy. At no time had we, the student body, been assembled in the auditorium and told that these racist, hate-based behaviors weren’t condoned, and that school and district officials were taking some corrective or other appropriate action.
These foreseeable attacks were swept under the carpet. And the targets were supposed to be okay with that.
When my counselor, Ms. Kroll, asked me to explain, I told my story of wanting only to fit in, and the laughter, and how the teacher did nothing. Ms. Kroll knew, just as I knew, what had gone wrong. She fought for me; she became my advocate. Sandy’s parents demanded that I be expelled. They called it vandalism. They called it theft. Apparently, they didn’t know the law of the jungle — “finders keepers, losers weepers” — it wasn’t theft.
Someone must have agreed with me, because I didn’t get expelled. I did get suspended.
My parents had to come to the school to pick me up. They had to meet with my counselor and the principal. I had to explain my actions. My parents’ faces were grim. While understandable, my justifications didn’t keep me from getting in trouble. The rule at our house was “If you’re in trouble at school, you’re in trouble at home.”
The incident with Sandy was only the beginning of my adventures of being integrated into predominantly white junior high and high schools: Pershing and Patrick Henry.
My other adventures included emotional attacks, like when my eighth-grade teacher, Ms. Hooten, asked me in front of the whole class if I lived in their neighborhood; she knew I was bused in. Or when she invited me to leave the classroom if the slavery part of the history film we were watching got to be too much for me. Some were physical attacks, like when the school bus was late to pick us up after school and white boys would drive by and throw eggs at us. But most were spirit- or esteem-crushing events, like having to change in the locker room and being dismissed by all the Barbies with their Farrah Fawcett hair and matching panty-and-bra sets, girls who bragged about what their doctor daddies had bought for them or where they had gone and what they had done on the weekend or what their dreamboat boyfriends wanted to do with them.
My sweet-16th birthday came and went without a party. My dad said I could have one, but I realized that there was no one I wanted to invite who would show up. By the time I was 17, I told myself that I really didn’t care. Kids were stupid, and high school was just something to be gotten through as a prerequisite to college.
No one ever asked me out.
I was raised in a military household by a father who was born in 1929, the first year of the Great Depression. Not only that, he had been in the Navy on submarines for many years. He could take a bath during the TV commercial breaks — in one inch of lukewarm water. He was used to doing without. Sacrifice, hard work, struggle, savings, and deferred gratification were his strong points. Having a lot of clothes or shoes was considered a frivolity, an extravagance. Perfume stank, and cosmetics were the tools of females of questionable values and common sense. Only my sister Kim braved that disapproval and wore make-up, heels, and clip-on earrings. My sister Chris and I toed the line.
I grew up in a house of silence. My parents didn’t argue or fight, at least not that we ever heard. They just didn’t talk. They raised silence to an art form, managing to not occupy the house at the same time. My mother worked nights, and my father worked days. In the in-between times, the rare occasions when both were home, my mom stayed in her office, the converted garage, and my dad stayed in the family room, with the Curtis Mathes TV — just about as far as they could get from each other.