The first thing I remember is sitting in my room with my three new roommates. They were 10- and 11-year-old boys, away from home for the first time, and two of them were crying.
The winter I was in fifth grade, my father brought home a National Geographic book that seemed to consist entirely of swamp photographs. He turned the thick, glossy pages for me, and I stared at the lakes and moss-draped trees, remembering a glass-bottomed boat in which we had once, on a family vacation, traveled through Okefenokee Swamp Park, peering down in the murky water for a green-yellow flash of alligator. He said he had been transferred from New Mexico, where we lived, to South Carolina, the place shown in the book. We were moving to the South.
My father had already picked out a house and met some of the neighbors, and he told us the boy across the street might come over and say, "Hi! I is your new neighba!" He was an otherwise generous, thoughtful man, but this was his way of telling me that the boy, Chris Bethel, was black, and that black people spoke with a kind of folksy ignorance. Clovis, New Mexico, as it appears in my school pictures, was full of white people.
When we arrived in Sumter, I saw the swamp that lay to the north of us along one side of McCray's Mill Road. I saw the houses on Manning Avenue, the poorest part of town, where black families still lived in wooden shacks no better than slave cabins. I saw the admittedly small but unfenced alligator that liked to sun itself on a spit of grass near the path at Swan Lake city park, and I met Chris Bethel, whose mother fed me cake and called me Dear.
On my first day at Millwood Elementary I wore the clothes my mother had sewn for me: red pants, red vest, and a red hooded jacket lined with plaid flannel, as if I were Little Red Riding Hood on her way to Grandmother's. I loved that jacket. I remember the heavy front door, the long dark tunnel of the hall, the classroom at the far end of the classroom wing, the radiators that ticked heat into the room. The air they warmed smelled of baking metal, a sweetish smell that reminded me of ironing my father's handkerchiefs.
All of my teachers in New Mexico had been women of advanced age with stiff, stylized hairdos; polyester pantsuits; and glasses attached to beaded chains. My new teacher was Mr. Leach. He looked like a detective in a TV cop show: rumpled white dress shirt, wavy silver hair, sideburns, a toothpick in the corner of his mouth. For years I had pretended when playing house that I was married to Starsky, Fonzie, or Carmine Ragusa, Shirley's boyfriend on Laverne and Shirley, and Mr. Leach had their stubbled good looks.
"This is our new student," Mr. Leach said in his laconic way. "Laura Rotten."
I blushed because my last name wasn't "rotten." "Readin', Writin', and Wrote-n," my father always explained to people, but this never helped on the first day of school.
I corrected him. I stared at the children in all the desks before me, 29 of them, half black, half white. I took my seat next to the radiator and class resumed. When there was a break in the lesson, after recess, a black boy named Anthony climbed up on the desk and chair beside me, balanced himself like a gymnast on the parallel bars, and asked if I was American. He thrust his pelvis at me ever so slightly.
"Of course," I said. He was at ease in a way I was not. He didn't speak with a folksy ignorance. In fact, he seemed years ahead of me.
"No, you're not," he said.
"Yes, I am."
"But Mr. Leach said you're from Mexico."
Instead of assuming that he'd misheard, I assumed he didn't know the states of the union. "New Mexico," I said, but I could tell he considered me a foreigner, and this made me strangely uneasy, as if he, in not knowing the place I came from, made it a less real place, one to which I could never return.
From that day on, I clung to Mr. Leach, with his undeservedly ugly name and his comforting, fatherly affection. He hugged me, an unthinkable act now, and told me I was pretty. I considered him my only ally, my only friend. In my mind I wrote letters to friends in New Mexico, describing my loneliness except for Mr. Leach, who at various points in the day would find me hovering near his desk, wanting to show him photos of the latest swamp my father had driven us out to see. I sat on the radiator and felt the heat scorch my legs and hands.
One day when I was hovering, he told me that he was a child getting on a bus when he saw a black person for the first time. He said he asked his mother, "Mama, when they bleed, do they bleed red or do they bleed black?"
It was a strange story, and I don't know if he was trying to teach me that we were all alike, or that we looked at one another and saw alien creatures, or both. Sometime that winter, before the dogwoods bloomed, I left the red hooded jacket on a hook in the classroom and it disappeared, and within three years, we, too, had disappeared, gone to another Air Force town, another school. I don't know what happened to Mr. Leach or to a single soul in that desegregated but starkly divided classroom, though I remember the names, still, and the smell of the radiators, and the story I heard not long ago about the alligator that used to sun himself at Swan Lake Gardens. He grew too large and ate the swans, apparently, and they had to get rid of him. I like to think that the huntsman cut him open and the swans fell out, alive and whole, to float away through the dark, wet woods.