From my short story, “Transfer”, which appeared in Lo-Ball 2012
At Lincoln Middle School, Shawna Jones hadn’t been one of the bullies. She was exactly the opposite, a quiet girl who said nearly nothing except a few phrases of necessary words. She was short and raw-boned with not much hair; sixth months into eighth grade, her hair appeared not to have grown even one millimeter. She walked to and from school with Dante Woods, an equally short, hungry-looking boy. Her brother, some said. A cousin, others insisted. The two had different last names, but there were kids like that at Lincoln, kids who had the same mother and who lived in the same house. My best friend Cecily and I agreed that Dante and Shawna were weird and not too smart to begin with; a student worker in Principal Perry’s office gossiped to us that the two of them were sixteen, though they didn’t look it.
Did Shawna ever lift her hand in the one class that we shared? I confess that after all these years, I really don’t remember. Considering everything that occurred, I should have Shawna’s name branded somewhere on my body. My left flank, maybe.
She didn’t occupy my mind one way or the other, and I’m almost certain that I wouldn’t have been that important to Shawna, either, until that day in February of 1987, when she and I sat in Mrs. Yokely’s second period social studies class. Our teacher was an old-fashioned type who wouldn’t accept that you didn’t know the answer to her questions. Mrs. Yokely would try to jog your memory, ordering you to the book.
“Don’t you see it, right there, on the page? Don’t you?”
I don’t remember what question she asked Shawna that day, and that’s odd, because I have a good memory. That’s something I’ve always been proud of. I’ll admit it now: I’m ashamed and probably, I’ve blotted out the details on purpose. I do know that when Mrs. Yokely called on Shawna, she verbally prodded her, and Shawna stumbled around the book and then finally said, she didn’t know. She whispered in her embarrassment and Mrs. Yokely kept telling her to speak up, but I didn’t feel sorry for Shawna. I was impatient with people who weren’t as quick-tongued or smart as I was and I wanted to let everyone know that I knew the answer, so I raised my hand and waved it rather frenetically while everyone else was quiet, even Brenden Shackleford and Jeannie Dungy, the two other kids in eighth grade besides me who were acknowledged as the smartest. Mrs. Yokely sighed in exasperation at Shawna’s ignorance, called on me, I answered her question, and after that, she moved on to call on someone else.
That moment carried no import, not even later, in the bathroom during the ten-minute break between classes, when I encountered Shawna coming out of a stall as I was waiting my turn. When I flushed the toilet and exited, Shawna still was standing in the space between the sinks and the stalls. I said excuse me, moved past her, retrieved a comb from my purse, and pulled my long, curly ponytail free of the rubber band. I know I probably stroked it lovingly as I combed; I’ve always been attached to my hair, since I consider it to be the only pretty thing about me. I glanced in the mirror and saw Shawna watching me fondle my hair. She looked stricken.
Two weeks later, Shawna rolled on me at my locker after school, as I was retrieving my books. It was that classic scene out of a horror movie: at first, she wasn’t standing there, and then, when I closed my locker, there she was, suddenly, scaring me into a scream. But I got myself together. She was harmless and little, and several inches shorter than I was. Menacing is the last word one would use about Shawna Jones.
When I greeted her, she didn’t say anything and we stood there for a few, awkward moments, regarding each other, until she spoke.
“You getting on my last nerve, bitch,” Shawna said. “The way you think you so cute.”
I had heard her clearly, but I was startled. She didn’t even appear to be angry, but weary, like my mother, right before she would stop speaking to me for hours or even days at a time, because Mama didn’t believe in corporeal punishment, but rather, in psychological warfare. Sometimes, I’d beg her to hit me, but she wouldn’t. That would be inhumane, she said.
Shawna repeated herself. Her voice wasn’t loud, but she put her index finger close to my face. She had to reach up, but she didn’t seem intimidated by the inches I had on her.
I should explain something: inhabiting the persona of punk was the worst thing you could do at Lincoln Middle School in 1987. I couldn’t back down from Shawna. If somebody stuck a finger in your face, you could not let that go unanswered. That person might as well be saying to you, “Let’s get down and rumble, right this minute.” But as Mr. Perry had counseled in the beginning of the year assembly, peaceful rhetoric might resolve the conflict. I tried that.
“Unh-unh, Shawna. I don’t think I’m cute, neither,” I said.
That was the truth. My sisters were the pretty ones, especially Julia, the oldest. I was the runt in my family in the beauty category; my mother said otherwise to be charitable, but that’s what parents had to do. They had to lie; if they didn’t, they were awful human beings.
“Yes, you do, bitch,” Shawna said.
Damn. If this was how peaceful rhetoric worked, Mr. Perry could kiss my black ass. Though I hadn’t drunk any water since before lunch, my bladder suddenly filled: I’d moved past fear into panic.
“Look, I don’t think I’m cute! And—and—don’t you keep calling me no bitch, neither! And—and—you better get your finger out my face!”
My voice trembled but I made sure not to use proper English in case Shawna thought I was patronizing her. By this time, a group of girls had gathered around us. None of them were folks I was friendly with, and I saw some of the girls’ smug, derisive expressions, but they didn’t seem surprised. I wondered if Shawna had alerted them of her attentions ahead of time.
She moved her finger closer and lightly tweaked my nose, as if she were a much bigger animal playing with her future supper.
“I’ma call you whatever I feel like, bitch,” Shawna said. “You is a bitch and siddity, too. And you think you better than somebody ‘cause you light-skinned with that long, good hair.”
It was too late for me to reason with Shawna, to compromise that yes, I did have long hair, but that my mother said if you called it good, that was ignorant. And it was too late for me to explain that I wasn’t light-skinned but rather a deep caramel brown, which wasn’t the same thing at all—because Shawna slapped me, right across my face.
From the way she dipped and dodged my wild punches, she was used to fighting. In addition to beating me down, Shawna tore out hanks of my hair and left me with bare patches of scalp.
Growing in my hair wasn’t so bad, or even the school-wide mocking, which would ebb and flow, depending on people’s moods. Mr. Perry suspended Shawna for a week and gave her a warning about any more fighting, even before Mama visited the school to lecture him about student safety, and he conceded to Mama that since I had been defending myself with Shawna, he only would give me lunchtime cleanup duty for two days.
When Shawna came back to school after her suspension, she didn’t pay me any attention, and I was simultaneously relieved and insulted. She’d jumped me and then forgot about me. I mean, I wasn’t even worth some sustained hostility?
I thought everything would return to its previous place before the fight, but I was mistaken. My best friend Cecily didn’t love me anymore. We’d both planned to be cheerleaders in the fall at Cardozo High, but she killed off our friendship in increments, as if it suffered from a terminal disease. We didn’t share any classes that semester, and her lunch period was different from mine, too. The times I caught her in the hallway, she walked with another girl, and she didn’t return my desperate waves. When I called her house to talk, as I’d done nearly every night since fifth grade, her mother said she was busy, and that Cecily would get back to me. She never did.
Two months after my fight at Lincoln, Mama and Nana Claire approached me about interviewing at Paterson Friends School in Georgetown, telling me it was a rehearsal for college applications. Nana had been bugging me about college since I was small. She wanted me to be a physician like my father, my grandfather, and several other male ancestors from the Garfield family tree. My female status was beside the point.
In my opinion, eighth grade was a bit premature to think about college interviews, but Mama promised me a real hairstyle if I went along with Nana’s interview charade. Before that, she’d never allowed even a regular trim; she believed the notion of split ends was a scam created by beauticians to make extra money, and in the process, chop her baby’s hair off, willy-nilly. She eliminated the need for trips to the beauty parlor by trimming a half-inch from my hair twice a year. It had been the same with Coco before she went off to Yale and let somebody give her a bob. When Julia left for Routledge, she’d had nearly waist-length hair, and the last time I’d seen her, it was the same.
I should’ve suspected something about the Paterson interview. Both of my sisters had attended the school after their own years at Lincoln, and when I stupidly told Nana about my fight with Shawna, she started broaching her concern about my welfare at every junction. Once at Sunday dinner, she warned Mama to train a more suspicious eye on me, since Julia already had set a bad example. Nana talked past me at the dinner table, as if there were an unoccupied seat beside her, when I was right there.
Mama waited until after my father dropped Nana back at her own home and then let him have it.
“Miss Claire’s got sons. What does she know about what I’m going through with Julia?”
“I know, Belle,” Daddy said.
They thought I was downstairs watching TV after dinner, but I was hiding in the hallway outside their room. I couldn’t see anything, but assumed Mama was rolling up her hair, the same as every night, and that Daddy was sitting on the side of the bed taking off his wingtips. No slip-ons for him, because one never knew when a crack addict would hit him over the head at that clinic in Southeast where he volunteered and try to steal a brother’s shoes. If those criminals had to figure out the double-knot, though, they’d eventually surrender. He said this at least once a month.
“Belle, ignore her. You see she doesn’t upset me. You know why? Because I don’t even listen to what Mother says. You should learn how to touch the ‘I can’t hear Claire talking’ switch.”
“That’s easy for you, Geoff. She doesn’t blame you. No, this whole Julia mess is my fault. It’s bad enough she’s been turning Ailey against me since she was a toddler. Thank the Lord I still have Coco.”
“Oh, ok. Now, I’m crazy.” Mama’s voice turned loud. “So when Miss Claire tells Ailey to wear a hat outside to protect her complexion, she doesn’t mean, ‘you don’t want to get as dark as your own mother.’ Tell me I’m lying, Geoff. Go on. Say it.”
“Belle, did I call you a liar?” I knew my father would be holding his hand out, palm down, his signature gesture when he wanted to calm someone. “We both know my mother is the crazy one, and that’s why I never told you about her before we went down to that courthouse. If I had said, ‘Maybelle Lee Driskell, we need to talk about my mama before we jump this here broom,’ would you have married me? That’s why I had to trick you.”
Daddy chuckled, then cursed; he was still fighting with the knot on his shoes.
“Don’t you jolly me along, Geoff. I’m tired of your mother. Tired.” Mama said this at least once a month, too. “And what am I supposed to do? How does she think it feels, wondering about my child? Praying Julia isn’t dead somewhere?”
I’d sneaked out of the hallway and had gone downstairs; from past eavesdropping, I knew that my mother was about to cry, and if that happened I’d feel sorry for her. I didn’t want to care, because I had to get tough. It was either Mama or me, and I wasn’t about to lose.
Paterson’s upper school counselor said I placed in the ninety-eighth percentile with my reading and writing scores on the school admission test, quite surprising since I lagged over a year behind in science and math, but he didn’t want to discourage me by giving me the actual percentiles for those subjects. That would only damage my self-esteem.
His name was Mr. Carson, but the three of us were supposed to call him Bob because at Paterson Friends everyone was on first-name basis, from the students to Headmaster. Nana and Mama sat on each side of me and I stayed quiet, because children shouldn’t address adults by their first names. That’s what I’d been taught, but I couldn’t correct adults even when they were wrong, either. This was a no-win situation.
“Bob, I would be thrilled to hire a math and science tutor for Ailey,” Nana said. I turned to her. Wasn’t she going a bit far with this scenario? This was mean, sitting Mr. Carson in the fool’s chair when I was headed to Cardozo in the fall.
He picked up a small stack of folders and straightened them by knocking them on top of the desk. “Alright, but if no improvement is seen by the end of first term, we’ll have to reevaluate her for the next academic year.” He smiled at me. “But I have high hopes for you, Ailey. Your two sisters were superlative students here and fully integrated into the school culture.”
After he said “integrated,” Mr. Carson paused and blushed, but Nana and Mama smiled at him.
A week before the spring semester was supposed to end, Mama told me that she needed to talk to me and then, without preamble, she informed me that I’d be attending Paterson Friends in the fall.
That’s when I knew that I’d been set up; I was the only one who’d escaped Paterson but I’d assumed my parents had changed their minds with me because of the expense. One year at Paterson was the same as tuition at a small private college in New England. Yet here it was: Mama had duped me. That pissed me off even more, so I told her, No I wasn’t going to Paterson, either. I wasn’t going to that school with all those white folks and she couldn’t make me.
Mama sat up stiffly and I heard her back crack.
“Ailey Jane Garfield, have you lost your natural mind?” Her words were belied by her calm tone. That Shawna Jones-dangerously-calm tone. “I am your mother. You will go where I tell you to go, even if it’s over the edge of a cliff. And further, you should be ashamed of yourself. Aunt Diane is a white lady and a very sweet one at that. What would she think if she heard this conversation?”
“She doesn’t like white folks, either,” I said. “Otherwise, she would’ve married a white guy instead of Uncle Lawrence.”
Mama gave me a look. And her back was still up.
“Please don’t make me transfer, Mama. Please, Mama. Please.” I marshaled my whining resources and let the tears take over. I sounded like a James Brown song, but I didn’t care. Whatever I needed to do to get over, I would.
“Baby, it’s not a transfer. You weren’t enrolled at Cardozo yet. You were enrolled at Lincoln and you can’t stay in middle school for the rest of your life.”
Her voice had softened. This was my chance, but then, she lifted a small, chocolate-colored index finger.
“Alright, Ailey,” Mama said. Her voice was crisp, as if she were biting into something cold. “That’s enough. We’ll get some new school clothes at Woodward & Lothrop to make you happy. Now get it together, regroup, and reflect on your many blessings.”
She was fond of using blunt imperatives at the end of her arguments with me, as if my pain would stop because she’d ordered it to.
Twenty years have passed since I left Lincoln and enrolled at Paterson Friends and I continue to marvel at my mother’s nerve, but I knew that she had friends in high places: God had set children up with that “Honor thy Father and Mother” crap in the Ten Commandments.
I’m sure the tightness between God and parents accounted for Nana’s betrayal as well. She’d known what Cardozo meant to me; after Cecily, Nana was supposed to be my other best friend. I thought she’d take my side for sure, but she flipped the script on me. Nana was a mother-in-law—emphasis on mother—and though she and Mama didn’t even like each other, that hadn’t stopped them from joining forces to trick me. Yet, after all this time, I know they both were doing what they thought was best. They viewed their decision as a realistic plan of action. I see that now, and also, I know they both really loved me.
The problem was that Mama lost the moral high ground when she reneged on my goddamned hairstyle.
At the salon, Mama instructed Barbara, her beautician, to trim bangs across my forehead and curl them under with the irons. That was it. The rest of my hair was to remain untouched. I sat there feeling stupid while Barbara stroked the wild curls that fell to my shoulder blades.
“Girl, why you keep bugging your mama about a haircut?” Barbara asked. “If I had all this long, good hair, I wouldn’t even know what to do!”
I waited for Mama to correct Barbara and tell her that “good hair” was an ignorant phrase.
“It is beautiful, ain’t it, Girl? She gets it from her father. I keep telling her, she gone be grateful for that hair one day.”
Mama’s voice had moved into a down-home, southern cadence, her Chicasetta, Georgia drawl. She stood watching a few feet away from Barbara and me, and Barbara turned toward her. They laughed together as if they knew a secret, one that I’d never be a part of.
[Read the rest of this story in Lo-Ball 2012!]