At a bang, the livingroom door swings shut at the fourth hour. Outside, the driver does his best mime impression of saying hello beneath the caterwauling of young people invading his vehicle. Seeing the futility of answering through a double pane of window glass, I halfheartedly wave in return as rumbling wheels propel the yellow bus further up the street.
"So, how was school?" I shout from the kitchen as my arms stack food-encrusted pans inside the dishwasher. No one answers my hail. The kids must have already scattered upstairs, my question the release switch that whisked away all school activities into the abstract void always found before dinnertime.
As I pull apart the sticky forks, I hear squeaking floorboards near the doorway. The soft clearing of a throat and nervous shuffle of legs alerts my parent senses to the person standing behind me. By the sound of it, they either are in trouble or want something they shouldn’t have.
I expect to see a solemn face when turning around, and my eight-year-old son confirms these suspicions with his downcast eyes and fidgeting body. Dirt and grass have stained Nat’s jeans in tie-dye colors of green and brown. His shirt has a busted seam across the collar where someone had grabbed him.
Touch football. It was his favorite game to play, and a pastime that I’ve scolded him about whenever he came home with ruined clothes. With the phrase of "listen or else" repeated so often that it now flashes in neon lights behind our exasperated eyes, we’ve both accepted the fact that the "else" part will never happen.
My inner maid groans over the extra time it will take to do laundry this evening. I tap stockinged toes impatiently on the checkered tile while waiting for his excuse.
"Tara is crying." Nat’s comment is quite calm despite his nervousness. When my son quietly heads off to his room, I notice his dinosaur stickers curling from his book bag’s slick plastic as my reprimand falls voiceless from my dangling tongue and flat at my feet.
Why hadn’t she come to me herself? I switch over to scared-mom mode. I’d better get the first-aid kit, just in case.
Already moving before finishing the thought, I’m unaware that a dish still clutched in my palm has an unknown substance pooling at its downward rim. My rushing legs head for the medicine cabinet before unexpectedly shifting toward the livingroom. Thighs bump into the side table jiggling the phone in its cradle.
Maybe I should call 911.
I stare at the lighted keypad trying to remember the number while hips push at the porch door. My eyes wince at the bright sunlight as my mind still attempts to play catch up with the rest of me.
There might be witnesses outside. I shouldn’t let them get away before the police can question them.
In the front yard with the phone in one hand, dish in the other, and a trail of sauce following close behind, I finally stop. My lungs draw in a deep breath as I calm down.
Check on your child first!
Back inside the house, I empty my hands before dashing up the staircase. I take the steps two at a time while wincing at Nat’s grumbling face when I pass him by. It will become an obvious argument the next time I tell him to take it easy along the stairs. Too soon I will hear his accusations over how parents are so unfair when they punish their kids for the same bad habits that adults do.
In my daughter’s room, I find Tara on her bed with feet pounding against the wooden frame. Tears leak from her red eyes and dribble along the dry brown hills of her cheeks. The flash flood drips off my daughter’s chin as her mouth opens to release a sobbing shout. "I hate school! They were making fun of my shoes!" She jabs both feet at me along with the blame.
Her shoes? I look down. Predictably, with my rose-colored parent glasses on, I see nothing out of the ordinary with the footwear that she had chosen for herself last Saturday.
My inner false alarm peters out as I sit beside Tara on her pink unicorn blanket. "Nothing is wrong with your shoes, honey."
"But why were they making fun of me?" my daughter asks with the same skepticism on her face as when I told her about a giant rabbit that lays chocolate eggs in bushes at Easter.
"Those children felt nervous over their first day of school. They deal with their emotions by making other people feel as bad as they do. It’s how they control a difficult situation."
My voice smothers Tara in my confidence as I take her in rocking arms. This was something I knew about firsthand when I was her age. The only dark-skinned child in my class, and one of four in the entire school, I had been singled out as a stress reliever for the other students. Like aspirin on a bad day, they had used their teasing to ease all their schoolhouse tensions.
My daughter wipes her sniffling nose on her sleeve. With my steel heart turned to clay by Tara’s tears, I simply don’t have it in me to chastise her about using her shirt as a tissue. "Did you ever hate school?" Tara sputters into my shoulder. She can’t see the frown I make at the question.
Of course I hated school. Even without the teasing, no sane child wants their playtime interrupted for nine months as complete strangers tell them to be on their best behavior all day.
"No," I claim with a straight face that I can’t hold longer than two seconds. The hypocrite in me retreats as I sheepishly fumble for a recovery that won’t test my conscience. "At least, when I grew older I didn’t. Things can get better." I cough uncomfortably after my lips stop speaking.
Why on earth did I say can? That’s no way to soothe her. Quickly, I fall back on the Parenting 101 classes I took long ago when my mother handed me my first baby doll. "Don’t worry. People will accept you as who you are and not for what you wear."
The tiny brooks down Tara’s face has stopped. Unfortunately, her outpouring had forced an old dam to burst inside my mind. A mudslide of memories rolls up and buries me.
* * * * *
It wasn’t so very long ago. The early ‘90s. Much was happening then: the NBA had named Magic Johnson Most Valuable Player for the third time. Johnny Carson retired from the Tonight Show. Everyone watched with dismay at the Waco-Texas standoff, then we felt amazed about the comet that struck planet Jupiter.
In this very place that is now my daughter’s room, I had jumped from bed, gotten dressed, and kissed my father goodbye. Then my feet made that obligated trek the mere fifty feet to the end of the driveway, not the fifty miles in a raging snowstorm that grandparents liked to tell. When the flashing lights of the highschool bus drove up, I reluctantly boarded, took a seat, and waited.
The name-calling by those first graders long ago could never compare to the teenagers’ vitriol during that ride. More than just bored students looking for fun, these kids had raised fists to proclaim their superiority over people considered beneath them. On clear days, rain exited from bus windows as they’d spit on unsuspecting pedestrians who were of dark color. Yet the worse action involved two sisters who had one day flicked on a lighter while holding out a cross pendant. The girls placed the jewelry and the flame side by side, and I immediately understood their meaning as did someone else.
"Stop it! She hasn’t done anything to you!" The denouncement slammed against the bus windows and caused even the see-nothing, hear-nothing, driver to notice.
The outraged student had no reason to confront them, since it meant that she’d now come under their line of fiery taunts. Yet this fact hadn’t deterred her from preaching the follies of the offender’s actions. Although their jeers did not stop after the outburst, she had shown that not everyone shared the same opinion.
* * * * *
With my thoughts back inside my daughter’s bedroom, I notice Nat passing by Tara’s doorway as I almost ask him to bring the phone to me. It’s been two months since I last called Lynn, the obstacles of parenthood have taken up most of my time, and it would be interesting to talk with her about the days of our shared youth.
I’ll give her a ring later. Leaning down, I surround my daughter in a big hug. "Things will get better as time goes on." My tongue goes numb. My body shivers.
Tara glances up at me. "What’s wrong, mommy?"
What’s wrong? The cynical side of me repeats silently, teasing. I push it aside. My daughter doesn’t need to hear such pessimism from my younger life, especially not over some shoes that she will outgrow before the end of the year. So I allow my hypocrite to speak again.
"Nothing, honey, I was just remembering old friends."
* * * * *
With the growing of age, so had the number of black students increased at school. Seventeen of them walked the halls and were always together in their own little clique. The first time I saw the group, I smiled and said hello. Yet their focus was on the person beside me. When I returned to my classroom, they called out angrily, "She made her choice."
Choice? I was only being friendly, yet for some reason I had distanced myself from the group. No sociable greetings ever came from the teens. Instead, their glaring stares and sneering lips spoke their feelings toward me. For the rest of the school year, they gave me these expressions anytime I strolled past them. But the sneers were worse whenever I walked beside a certain person.
Lynn had received the clique’s dislike because her skin was a lighter shade than mine. Since I wasn’t willing to give up her friendship, I had unknowingly segregated myself from the other black students. Then the problem escalated when they made a list.
On a single sheet of paper, thirty student names comprised this list. If the clique saw these students anywhere off school grounds, then something would happen to those selected people. The clique never openly detailed what that something would be, but they would not hand out flowers or give out hugs.
When told about the list, they stressed on why my name was on it. "It’s your own fault. You brought it on yourself. You made your bed. Now lie in it!"
After the clique strolled away, I shook my head in amazement. My life had literally become a Catch-22. For the beginning of the school day, I dealt with the intolerance of people who didn’t like the color of my dark skin. For the rest of the day, I dealt with the intolerance of people who believed the color of my skin wasn’t dark enough.
* * * * *
"Mommy, what’s in . . . tall . . . or . . . ants?" Tara asks while scratching at her sticky face. Her red eyes have finally toned down to show the milky whites around brown irises.
Where had my daughter heard such a word? My eyebrows crinkle down. At her age, I didn’t have any clue that it existed. Then I realized that, before this moment, my daughter hadn’t known the word. I had just taught it to her, as I sat on the bed repeating the thought under my breath but loud enough for her ears to catch it.
I rest my cheek against Tara’s pigtails and carefully give the correct pronunciation. While doing this, I start to wonder how often kids catch the words their parents shouldn’t use. I simply couldn’t count the times I’ve lost my temper over a problem and said something inappropriate. This would explain what I had gone through during my school years.
Children aren’t born to hate people. We adults teach them intolerance through our own actions.
Still, that was all in the past. My daughter is the present. Today, I’m saving my worries for the other problems that will appear in Tara’s life: her first broken bone, her first earring in a place I don’t like, and her first question about the birds and bees and why the one doesn’t eat the other. Yet I will also have a dry shoulder ready for my child to find comfort on, just in case history should repeat itself. Meanwhile, I will try to better my words, and myself, for my children’s sake.
"Just be yourself . . ." I never finish as Nat’s voice rises from the staircase.
"Tara, the show is on!"
Shoes flying everywhere, my daughter rushes from my arms and out the bedroom. Downstairs, they turn up the television volume as I hear their favorite cartoon program that features different fish characters in unpredictable situations.
I pick up Tara’s discarded shoes and place them on the floor by the door. There in a neat row rests all of her footwear: her lavender slippers looking pristine because they’re hardly worn, her blue dress flats with scuff marks on the tips, and her gray sneakers that flake dry mud on my vacuumed rug.
Before leaving the room, I again stare at my daughter’s school shoes. I still can’t understand why anyone would see something wrong with them?
(Attention, Readers: Although this story is under the heading, "Flights of Fancy," which represents fiction, many of these events did happen in the writer’s life.)