We didn't exactly pick Spring Valley as the place where we wanted to buy our first home together. We had an apartment on 600 Front Street downtown and decided it was time to buy. After all, we had been married about a year and were planning for baby who most likely would not consider the ground floor laundry room to be an adquate playground. So in the summer of 1998 we drove on 94 East and took and exit whenever we spied the tall, telltale colored pennants indicating model homes to view. The farther east we drove on 94, the more affordable the houses became. And that's how we ended up living in a development off the Sweetwater Springs Boulevard exit.

Our new address in turn decided my employment. I had just completed my teaching credential and thought I should teach in the community where I lived. I was fortunate when the local high school — within walking distance even — hired me. My husband and I took on the label of East County residents without fanfare and continued to welcome our relatives from all over the country to visit us in "San Diego." No one was cruel enough to point out that "San Diego" was no longer part of our mailing address. (Kind of reminds me of the Seinfeld episode where Elaine fought so hard to keep the exclusive 212 area code when she got a new phone.) We showed them all over the Gaslamp, Point Loma, the beaches, and then returned apologetically to our Spring Valley home, "only 12 miles from the airport." On one such visit I had taken a day off work to be with visiting family. After hours of sightseeing in Coronado with Uncle John and his wife from Georgia, we returned to Spring Valley, "an Unincorporated Community of San Diego County." Aunt Judy was taking in the scenery quietly from the back of the car, and we passed the corner of Sweetwater Springs Blvd and Jamacha Blvd right after high school had been let out for the day. A number of my students, waiting at the fountain by the bus stop, recognized me in my Camry as I slowed through the intersection, and we all exchanged wild waves of greeting. (I knew I would be accosted with indictments of "ditching" the next day.) Aunt Judy's voice arose suddenly from the back of the car, "Are those all your students?"

"Well, yes, either now or at some point they were."

She smiled. "They're so lucky. They all seem to get along so well with each other."

"You're right," I conceded. "Goths, jocks, hipsters, wanna-be-gangsters...they get along pretty well."

"No, that's not what I mean. The fact that they're all different ethnicities. I think you forget that I grew up in the South..."

"Judy, time to go to the doctor's office." Mother's voice wafted down the hallway, past the smells of the pecan pie cooling on the kitchen coutner, past the glares of stern aunts encased in little oval frames hanging in the foyer. "Yes, Mother," I sang back to her, pushing my feet into my black patent leather Mary Janes. The rain continued to spatter against the window, as it had been since I got home from school, so I grabbed the rain slicker by the front door.

I slid across the front seat of the Ford Fairlane next to Mother. As we headed to Doctor Stafford's office, I leaned against the windows and spied on the world behind the raindrops on the glass. Downtown Gadsden, a world where everyone thought the storefronts were so fine; shopkeepers would treat a person with respect, a person with money, that is. But when I looked, from my front seat vantage point, all I saw was dirt. Dirty streets, exasperation behind strained smiles of the salesmen, discarded cigarettes--some still with a vivid crimson stain--a dropped tissue, crumpled and ashamed against the roots of an oak tree. Sometimes I tried to focus on a face on the street through the lens of a water droplet, smiling inwardly at how the tiny drop distorted people's faces like a carnival fun house mirror. Pretty soon the entire window was streaked--no more droplets. The rain was coming down hard now, and at this rate, Northeastern Alabama would finally be clean by suppertime.

Mother didn't park ouf front by the neat whitewashed sign. Doctor Stafford, Family Practice. Serving Gadsden since 1949. "Judy, I don't want you to get soaked. Run through the back waiting room instead." As Mother went to park the Fairline, I rushed through the door under the sign that read "Colored Waiting Area." Curious, dark faces rose to meet my flushed face. My my, this is going to be an adventure, I'd never been here before. I looked about for a friendly countenance in the room that smelled like warm, baked bread. Glistening black eyes met mine. They reminded me of the olives I ate off my fingers before Thanksgiving dinner until Mother caught me. The black olives danced below a straw brim wtih a paisley band.

I forgot that I was supposed to find the reception area we normally used. I saw those inviting black eyes, and I felt instantly comfortable even though I had never before set foot in this part of Dr. Stafford's office. I was just about set on making myself cozy on the open seat net to the olive-eyes man when I spied It. There, on the far side of the waiting area, stood a silver water fountain with an unobtrusive sign posted next to it. The chrome on the side of the fountain seemed shinier than the bumper on our Ford. Shooting the man a toothy grin to let him know I'd be back, I skipped to the fountain.

I leaned over the arc of cool water and greedily stuck out my tongue. Nothing, just cold. I slurped noisily, keeping my thumb depressed on the round silver button until it felt like I had bent my finger all the way back. I swirled the cold water around my mouth. Again---disappointment. The water was merely cold and refreshing.

But my reflections didn't last long. I heard the gasp behind me and whirled around to see my mother standing in the doorway. "This second!" she practically hissed at me. Her normally pale face was a red alarm siren.

"Come here this second, Judy!"

"But, Mother, I just wanted to see what 'colored water' tasted like."

The elderly Black man with the olive eyes and the paisley-banded straw hat winked at me.

Aunt Judy would have liked growing up here. I am grateful to her for my being able to see Spring Valley with new eyes. The neighborhood and the local high school enjoy the diversity my husband and I wanted all along to raise our son. But we had taken if for granted. We don't anymore. And we don't always drive downtown for things to do when company visits now.


Lisa O May 31, 2011 @ 12:47 p.m.

This is a good story, makes me want to send my kids to Monte Vista just so they'd be your students!


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