Her name was “Jessica,” and she was my 2nd grade best friend. We were the two smart nerdy-yet-well-liked girls who shared a love for reading and the ability to ace tests without studying.
I hadn’t started 2nd grade at that school. My Dad was in the Army, and we’d already moved twice. We had lived on base and attended the schools, yet this time my Mother wanted to do something different. This time, we lived in a neighborhood and went to the neighborhood school. It was definitely a different atmosphere and racial dynamic.
The base schools were integrated.
My new neighborhood school was not.
I was the only Black girl in my class; my older brother and I were the only two Black kids in the entire school.
Jessica didn’t seem to mind; in me she found a kindred spirit: Someone who loved reading even more than she did. We become instant friends my first day in class when the teacher asked her to go with me to the office to return my paperwork.
We eventually made a pact, Jessica and I; a friendly competition: We were going to see who would be first to read every book in our library. We met at morning recess with a piece of fruit and talked about class and our current books.
Lunch was somewhat different. We brought our lunch because it was faster than going through the cafeteria line (and our food was better!). We used the majority of our time to read while we ate, and sat together in silence as we poured over the stories. Our books were so compelling to us that they drowned out the voices of our classmates and the only thing we responded to was the ringing bell signaling lunch was over.
Mid-afternoon recess was a repeat of the morning, except for the fact that we always got a cup of soda from the machine and a bag of chips – her, Ruffles and me, Cheetos.
All was well in our little bookworm world until the day Jessica didn’t show up at our morning recess meeting place. She was in class that morning so I knew she was at school. She also didn’t show up for lunch at our regular spot, and I didn’t see her even after I scanned the cafeteria. Afternoon recess was the same story; no Jessica.
I finally saw her at morning recess the next day, sitting with some girls from our class. Jessica seemed to make a point of deliberately ignoring me; when I made eye contact she turned away and would not look again in my direction.
So something was definitely wrong.
Now that I’m an adult, I realize that since childhood I’ve never cared for “not knowing” what’s going on when something changes in a relationship, and I didn’t like being ignored when I want clarity. (Really, who does?)
Avoidance is for cowards.
Determined to find out what was wrong, I walked over to her just before the bell rang. Accustomed to our previously normal routine, the other girls got up and left.
Jessica stared at me, red-faced.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
She stared at the ground for a moment, then looked up.
“I can’t sit with you anymore,” she said in a low voice.
I was shocked and uncomprehending. Was Jessica mad because I read more books than she did and was ahead of her in our challenge?
“You can’t? Why not?” I asked.
“Because you’re Black,” she said. “My Mom didn’t know you were Black. When she found out, she punished me and told me I’d better not sit with you anymore.”
Then she ran off.
I was stunned. I remember feeling my face getting very hot; it seemed like the breath left my body.
Jessica couldn’t sit with me anymore because I was Black?
Why not? What difference did that make?
I didn’t fully understand it at the time, but of course I do now.
Never mind that I was the smartest girl in my class. One who did her math problems in her head and finished her tests well in advance of everyone else. Never mind that I won all the spelling bees, was a speed reader and aced every reading comprehension I was given.
Never mind that I came from a good family, we lived in a nice house, my father was an officer in the Army and my Mother didn’t have to work.
I had been profiled by a woman who had never met me.
She thought something about me because I was Black, and whatever she thought, it wasn’t good – so much so that she punished Jessica because of it and forbade her to sit with me any more.
Because I was Black.
Somehow, even in that moment in the second grade, I knew I had to pull myself together.
There was no way I could cry. No way I could show on the outside how devastated I felt on the inside.
No way I could show Jessica or anybody else how hurt I felt.
NO WAY I could let a single tear fall from my eyes.
I took a deep breath, stilled myself and walked into class with my head held high.
I refused to even glance in Jessica’s direction.
I couldn’t wait to get home.
Home, where I was loved and accepted. Home, where I could shut out the White kids in my school and the White people in my neighborhood.
Home, where it didn’t matter what color I was.
A week went by; then two.
I kept reading. And thinking.
When my Mother asked me how my little friend Jessica was doing, I simply told her Jessica was fine.
My brother didn’t seem to have a problem; he ran and played with the other boys and they didn’t miss a beat.
Meanwhile, I turned Jessica’s words over and over in my head and mulled over them.
Her Mother didn’t want her to sit with me because I was Black.
By the third week my heart didn’t seem to hurt as much. Still, I could feel something inside me; something that needed to get out.
Thinking things through in my head was all right, but I needed something else. I needed a way to say what I was thinking and feeling; a way to express the thoughts I had in my heart.
Taking some loose-leaf sheets from my notebook, I wrote down what happened. I wrote what Jessica said, and then I wrote what I thought about her Mother.
I wrote what I thought about being Black. I wrote that it was wrong for Jessica’s Mother to not like me or not want Jessica to be around me just because I was a different color. I wrote about how I knew that I was smart – smarter than Jessica; smarter than all the other kids in my class. My being Black didn’t change my brain; it was just the color that I was.
I wrote that Jessica’s Mother’s brain must be very small, because even though she was a grown up she should have known that things like color didn’t matter. What mattered was who I was on the inside.
What mattered was me.
I was me; the person. Not me, the color.
I tucked my sheets under my pillow, and when I woke up the next morning I felt good. I felt like a weight had been lifted off me. I stopped running Jessica’s words in my head. I had written my words down. I had written how I felt and how I thought, and as far as I was concerned it was over.
Jessica didn’t have to sit with me. Her not sitting with me didn’t change who I was – as a matter of fact, I felt stronger and better.
I kept reading, knowing that I was going be through with reading all the books in the library well before the school year ended – way before Jessica ever would.
I was me – and being me was good.
I went straight to my room after school. I couldn’t wait to pull out my pages. I had decided I wanted to add to my them and write what happened at school that day. I wanted to write about how good and how strong and how me I felt.
There on the bed was a thick composition book; the kind the big kids used. A really pretty pen was sitting on top of it – not a pencil, a pen! With ink!
My Mother came in behind me, and when I saw her face I knew she had read my pages and knew the truth about Jessica. I didn’t know what to think, but at the moment I didn’t care. All I could think about was my big new composition book full of lines and clean pages, and my brand new pen. All I could think about was how I was going to write and write and write – write all the things that I kept in my head.
My Mother stared at me, hard, and I felt myself come back down to Earth. She stared at me, and in her eyes I could see the sadness she was trying to hide behind the smile she displayed at my obvious joy.
“I think you’re going to be a writer,” she said.
My heart surged with pride at her words, but the moment was short-lived.
She came straight to the point.
“I changed the sheets on the beds today, and I saw those pages under your pillow. We need to talk about Jessica.”
That “talk” lasted over an hour, and when my Daddy came home we had another “talk.” My brother was included on that one, and then my Daddy talked to him by himself; just the two of them.
I learned that my Dad had wanted to have this “talk” long before now, but my Mother held him back.
I learned a lot that night. I saw tears in both their eyes; something I’d never seen before. I saw them stiffen their backs, set their jaw and keep talking, much like I had done when Jessica had first delivered her news about her Mother.
I saw the pride and defiance in them – the same pride I had felt when I decided that I was going to be me no matter what Jessica’s Mother or anybody else said - and that being me was more than good enough. They confirmed it with their words, and they told my brother and I how much they loved us and how proud they were of us.
They told us that we were somebody and we’d better not ever, ever forget it.
That night, I heard words from my Daddy that I would hear from him and replay in my head for the rest of my life – words that would become a mantra for me. Words that carried me through additional instances of profiling and cruel, blatant racism. Words that carried me through run-ins with bullies at my new schools. Words that carried me through college, into my young adult life, into the work place, into marriage, and even today:
“Little Girl, don’t ever let anybody intimidate you. Whenever somebody tries to intimidate you, always know that you’re just as smart as they are – and you’re probably smarter. Be who you are, and don’t cave in.”
We took individual and class pictures right before the Thanksgiving holiday. The photos came in at the end of the first week in December.
It was too cold to sit outside and read, so morning recesses were spent in the gym. The noise of cooped up children was loud and clamorous, yet I tuned them out as usual, fully concentrating on my current book.
I was so focused on my book that Jessica had to tap me to make me aware that she was standing in front of me.
I looked up; startled.
Jessica’s face was flushed and her eyes were bright with excitement.
“My Mother said I can sit with you!” she exclaimed. “We can be friends again!”
I didn’t know what to say. What had changed?
“Mama saw you in our class picture!” she continued. “She saw what you look like – and she said it was ok for me to sit with you!”
To be continued.
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Join in the Fray: Who or what intimidates you?
Copyright © 2013 Michelle Matthews Calloway, ASwirlGirl™, The Swirl World™, All rights reserved.