In first grade I had a best friend named Monica. We were inseparable, as only two six-year old little girls can be. We played house, we played jacks, we played at recess, we played at each other’s houses. And we giggled all day long. She was nice, she was funny, she understood about shiny, crystal, see-through pink plastic beads.
My mom liked her parents, and hers was the first ever, big-girl, all-night, stay-over, birthday slumber party I ever attended. Her mother, like mine was beautiful, and kind. She also had a father.
He was a bit of a mystery to me. He was tall and handsome and also kind, but I didn’t really get the father thing and was a little wary. Monica took him totally for granted. I was a little in awe of the way she just called him ‘Dad’ –like it was nothing—and told him what to do. I remember that he had a wonderful laugh, deep and unexpected.
One day Monica and I were playing on the playground, and jumped up, almost beside ourselves. We had made an incredible discovery, and we couldn’t wait to TELL. We ran off to find a teacher.
Unfortunately, that day the teacher on playground duty was not Mrs. Chin, our beloved first grade teacher. Not Mrs. See, the kind, white-haired old lady. (For years I thought she was the one who made all that chocolate…) Not even Mrs. Woodward, the principal.
The teacher on duty that day was Miss Kneeneighborly. (That was really her name—you can’t make this stuff up.) She wore dark blue suits with narrow skirts and ruffle-collared blouses. She wore her dark hair in a poufed-up pile on top of her head and thick bangs that just touched the witchy points on the ends of her blue cat-eye glasses. She had long legs and wore too much perfume and high platform pumps with sharp little heels that tattooed deep puncture marks all over the playground, like the tracks of some dangerous bird.
We were more than a little afraid of her. She was old and strict and mean.
(She was probably about twenty-eight, and terrified at the thought of imminent spinsterhood.)
She already looked the part.
Monica and I slid to a dusty halt in front of her, a little uncertain of our audience, but too full of discovery and delight to stop. We were ready to burst.
“Miss Kneeneighborly!” “Guess what we found!” “Guess what we found!” We stuck out our hands, side by side.
Miss Kneeneighborly made some noises about running, about shouting, about pushing (who was pushing?), and about my KNEES.
My knees were always a little banged-up or dirty. Dirty from kneeling in the dirt, dirty from climbing trees, dirty from playing on the monkey bars, dirty from inching the wrong way up the slide.
(Monica, on the other hand, was always spotless. No wonder my mother loved her.)
I reached down for the wipe-wipe, dust-dust, stamp, stamp the dirt off of my knees.
With my right hand, because my left was still held out, next to Monica’s, palm down.
Miss Kneeneighborly looked at Monica and smiled.
We took heart.
“Monica,” she said, “why don’t you tell me what’s wrong?”
Monica looked at me with a huge grin. She was missing a tooth. She touched the back of her hand,and rubbed it a little with her finger. “Look!” she said, “My skin on the outside is BLACK—” She touched the back of my hand, and rubbed it a little to show that it wouldn’t come off, either “And HER skin on the outside is PINK—“ She looked at me.
That was my cue.
I flipped my hand over and pointed “And on the inside I’m PINK…” Monica turned her hand over and I touched it “ And SO IS MONICA!!”
Miss Kneeneighborly’s mouth opened.
In unison we shouted “We’re the SAME! INSIDE! Like SISTERS!” We both squealed and grabbed each other in a hug, jumping up and down for the sheer bursting-out-happy JOY of discovery.
Miss Kneeneighborly closed her mouth.
Then she opened her mouth again and BLASTED me.
Literally, blasted me, backpedaling frantically under the onslaught, halfway across the playground, up the ramp, and into the classroom where I was forced by the weight of her words into a chair, at a table, and left with my head pressed down on my crossed arms for the rest of recess.
A ten-ton torrent of words. Words like racist.
I remember her saying “Monica can’t help it that she’s black.”
My friend Monica stayed as close as she could.
I know, because when I finally stopped crying I could see her there, from under my right armpit, hanging on the railing, leaning farther up the ramp than we were allowed to go, trying to see if I was all right.
She stayed until Miss Kneeneighborly took her by the arm and dragged her away.
I had to stay there for the rest of recess. I had to stay there while the bell rang, and the other kids lined up outside, quieting down a lot faster than usual when they saw me sitting there. I had to stay there while Mrs. Chin led them back inside, and everyone sat down.
So everyone could see my shame.
Mrs. Chin came over, handed me a tissue, and let me go to the sink.
I blew my nose, washed my hands, and sat back down, while she went on with the lesson. Arithmetic, or phonics, or spelling, I don’t remember.
I remember that I kept my eyes down. I remember that I couldn’t lift my head, or raise my hand, or look at anyone. Not even my friend.
I don’t think either of us ever told our parents. I didn’t, anyway. You didn’t, in those days. Children were children, and adults were adults. We didn’t talk back (much) and we did what we were told to do. By our parents and by our teachers. We had much tighter, more clearly defined boundaries. And, consequently, had much greater freedom (and were better behaved) than children do now.
Later that day, when we went to sit on the rug for storytime, Monica came and sat down beside me, like always.
And held my hand.