On and Off the Wall
Growing up in Detroit, I was the only African-American student in my class at my elementary school. Reflecting back on this cherished era of my life, I remember being a girl in my class had a bigger impact on my psyche until I reached the second grade. I had a crush on the black-haired, freckle-faced boy sitting next to me, whom I will call “Joe.” Our second grade teacher was talking to us about relationships, and the excitement of surrendering ourselves to the possibilities of experiencing a forbidden lifestyle only populated by adults excited our little bodies. The class began to pair off into “couples.”
Up into then, “Joe” and I had cute little pet names for one another; we exchanged sandwiches in the cafeteria: my bologna and cheese for his peanut butter and jelly, and hugs on the playground. Even though I had brown skin, I did not think really anything of it. My parents had taught me to see my friends as individual little persons, not wanting me to experience the harsh realities of a fire-plagued 1984 Detroit. There was so much going on around me that I had little or no awareness of: my father laid off from work, and increasingly spending frustrated opportunities of networking instead reminiscing with other displaced workers, and my mother working two jobs to make ends meet.
However, I had a privileged childhood; an only child until the age of seven, I grew up with a skewed sense of right and wrong. I believed that the world was at my disposable. I never knew what it was like to go without presents at Christmastime; all I needed to do was throw a temper tantrum to get what I wanted. The sense of injustice that was yet to plague me from both worlds was the unfamiliar taste of cynicism I had seen others display as they received huge doses of life’s irony. My mother experienced many calamities as a young child not even found in the Nancy Drew, Clifford, and Amelia Bedelia books I was reading.
On the playground, “Joe” and I were King and Queen of the playground. The spit-brown travel dirt was our castle; the shining silver monkey bars provided a fortress of protection. “Joe” brought old quilt-thick rags to use as our capes, and compliment the paper crown hats made in art class. I realized later that for “Joe,” this game of togetherness was in fact, just a diversion from the monotony of classroom learning, but for me, it was something more. Out on the playground, imagination enjoyed freedom that the rest of the world only partially received.
Pretend playing welcomed a world of new expectations; Joe and I might one day grow up to be a real King and Queen. Looking back on this period of my life, I realize that I was doing a lot of growing up. During one particular class recitation, I went to the front of the room to name from my list what I wanted Santa Claus to bring me for Christmas. The little boy that sat next to me, Ethan, laughingly explained that there was no such thing as a Santa Claus, that our parents were the real secret. Our second-grade teacher, Mrs. L. scolded him for saying this but I knew in my heart that he was telling the truth. Later, I found out that the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy were not real either.
Those series of events awakened me from the safe little cocoon my parents surrounded with me. However, for me it was much too late. Activities that once were a source of pride and joy now I saw as childish and boring. One morning I woke up extra early to just close the bathroom door and study my face in the mirror. My smile had decreased by one-eighth on an inch, and I looked older.
School, though, on the playground still filled my day with lollipops and endless opportunities. The highlight of my day became recess. Mrs. L’s responsibility as our primary teacher was to teach us all subjects. In our Social Studies books, our lesson one day was about culture. We were learning that people came from different parts of the world, with many hues of skin colors, and layers of domesticity. Some students in our class had two-parent homes like me, and others with only one parent.
At the end of our Social Studies lesson, one activity caught our attention as well as Mrs. L. The activity was for us to pair off into groups: boy-girl, and to come up with a list of the items we needed to govern our household. She gave us five minutes to select partners. Despite the fact that we were friends out on the playground, “Joe,” who sat next to me, did not look in my direction. He looked over at other classmates, who already picked their partners. I called out his name, and waved my sweaty palm in his face. “Joe” looked down at his desk.
I asked “Joe” what was wrong. He said that we could not be partners. I did not understand. Everyone else had picked someone, except us. I asked “Joe” what was wrong. He said that we could not be partners because I was black, and he was white. That was my “aha” moment. I looked down at my hands, and I realized for the first time that I was black.
My whole world up until that moment filled with cartoons and people not based on reality. My friend had a poster on her bedroom wall that I loved. It was a picture of children from all over the world, every color of the rainbow. They were smiling and holding hands with a Peace Makes the World Go Round slogan. I closed my eyes for an instant, and clicked my heels like Dorothy; a girl whom I admired in a movie I had recently seen called The Wizard of Oz. There was no place like home I would see that day until four o’clock.
“What do you mean; you can’t be married to me?”
“Because you are black, and I’m white.”
“So, who am I going to pair with?”
“I don’t know.”
I ran to the bathroom, and hid until the assignment was over. My teacher could not force “Joe” to be my partner, so while I hid in the bathroom, he completed the assignment as a single parent. I came back to my desk from the bathroom, and I knew that as if I were a Queen banished from her kingdom, things would not be the same.
I became a detective at that point, Nancy Drew in The Clue of the Broken Locket, only I was black. I looked down at my fat, pudgy fingers, the same fingers I licked my mother’s mixing bowls with, and the same fingers I used to play Itsy-Bitsy Spider with the rest of the class during morning warm-up exercises. They took on a completely new meaning. I looked around the classroom: I was the only brown face in a sea of white, yellow, and red faces. Susie may have been Hispanic or something else but the cream-yellow of her red face blended in easily with others.
My hair was coarse; my lips puckered out, and even though I was one of my teacher’s favorites, I began to wonder if she had preferential treatment for me, if she felt sorry for me. Around my school, there were small groups of brown faces like mine. My teacher and the other teachers began to notice the upside-down smile on my face, and asked me what was wrong. I just shook my head no, revealing nothing about my true feelings.
Out on the playground, “Joe” suddenly realized that he did not need a Queen to help him protect his kingdom. Almost as soon as I was ostracized by him, other boys began to realize how much fun he really was. Sticks became swords, and Mrs. L’s second-grade class became enemy territory. The other girls just as soon began to play with me as well. This only served to further relieve my mother of her long-suffering efforts to shed my increasingly tomboy ways, but I could not help feeling rejected over the loss of my friend.
Another fifteen years would pass before in college, one night over a cup of coffee, I locked fingers with a boy of another race, a boy who bore a striking resemblance to “Joe” as a child, but who had outgrown those freckles and silly travel-dirt games. I learned from him that maybe there was hope after all, and I began to think more and more about “Joe” that night. He eventually left my life for reasons unknown—I guess you could say that we grew apart. I could have tracked down those people to find out what happened to them if I wanted to, but I do not. I cannot help, though, to think about whatever happened to my friend “Joe,” and that year as a child when I discovered my newfound identity. A year I changed from a child that I did not know anymore, to the person I was just learning to discover.