Mary S. McCloskey-Ahmed
It was 1969 in a small north Texas town about midday. It was summer and I would be starting second grade.
I was going to a new school and a new town. As we pulled into town I saw it was the biggest town I had ever been in! Daddy was a roughneck on the oil rigs and we moved like gypsies from one small farm town to town. THIS TOWN HAD A REAL ZOO! It was hot and the windows were rolled down on the van. My mother was full of baby and my little sister and I looked with big eyes on a kind of town we had never seen. The two year old twins were sitting behind us. As we passed a large park I was excited….A SWIMMING POOL! We never lived anywhere with a real swimming pool! Not only that there were TWO swimming pools! This must be a rich town to have two of them! One of them was white and one was blue. One looked older and empty and one was full with people in it. “Why are there two pools daddy?” I asked the back of his, then, still black haired head as he was driving, “Shut up.”, he said quietly. Mom gave him a strange look and they said no more. My sister and I looked at each other and we shut up. When daddy said “shut up” that way we knew he meant it. We pulled up a street and came to our new house. It was the most beautiful house I had ever seen!
We had always lived on dirt roads with cows and wheat fields and vetch purple and far as a child’s eye can see and old farmers who let us eat raw honey and chew the combs. This was a cement road! No red dirt anywhere like back in Oklahoma! The back yard had trees in it with pink faerie flowers that were so fragrant and looked like pink powder puffs. The grass was so very green. We were surrounded by loveliness and daddy was proud he was making more money now for us to live like this! Old ladies came from their houses clucking over mom’s ‘condition’ and the young wives brought cookies and things they made. Good things. It was a clean, well ordered German town. Mom said Protestant. One of the ladies asked her to come to the church in town. Mom looked around like she was looking for a door but then turned and said to the woman, “No thank you we are Catholic.”, Most of the women found reasons to leave quickly but two women stayed. They were Catholic too! They were Italian and we were Irish but it was no difference. All of them began to laugh. All of them were pregnant. All of them had more children already than was fashionable for the late sixties. We were enrolled in school. Word was out that we were Catholics. The most miserable years of my entire life were spent there. Kelvin Underhill beat me up after school every day. (Years later I found out he was put in prison for murder and I was not surprised. )
That year forced bussing was made law in that town. I did not know what forced bussing was but the whole neighborhood and the whole town was up in arms. Our neighbors whispered to each other and to my mother and after that we had to stand together when the ‘Black Panthers’ came to town! The men were getting out their guns and oiling them and daddy made new bullets in the garage. We had to be ready to fight them. I asked my daddy why cats from a jungle were coming to town. I had seen the zoo. I knew panthers were dangerous cats but how did they know which town to come to? He said they were dangerous men and they were ‘sub-ver-sives’. My Mother looked at him oddly. Later that night I was afraid and she said that all the people were all silly. She said I should always remember that this town was full of silly people. She said there were no panthers coming here and that stupid men were making up reasons to do bad in this world. Then she sang me to sleep.
We went to class the next day. In those days you stayed in one classroom with one teacher all day. Our teacher was Miz Baxter. We were all seated when a new girl came in and stood in front of the class and she looked scared to death. The teacher did not look at her. I did look at her. She was slender and wore a pastel plaid dress with ruffles and a full skirt. It was starched! It was not the kind of dress you can buy in a store! Somebody made that dress! It was pink and pale blue and pale yellow and threads of white shot through it. I could not help but stare at her like everyone else…
…I had never seen a black person before.
Her large, golden eyes were full of tears but her face had no emotion. Miz Baxter did not look at her. The girl stood there helplessly not knowing where to go, where to sit, and all of us stared. I had never seen hair like hers before! It was perfect! It was amazing!
Each line tracing her head was like a thread of black lace in a perfect row. Each black line met in the back and each time she looked at the teacher, speechlessly, for help of any kind I could see the little tiny bows that matched the colours in her dress. Each line of ‘lace’ ended at her shoulders in perfect little bows. One of my classmates snickered in his hand, probably Kelvin, and said “Cornrow Braids!”, like it was something bad. Some of the other kids laughed with him. The girl was frozen in front of us. I was mesmerized by those braids. They were exotic and unusual and I thought very pretty but what did I know? I was an ignorant Irish Catholic farm kid. Her skin fascinated me. It was like the taffy on the apples at Halloween. I wanted to touch it and see if it was real. I raised my hand, “Miz Baxter?” I almost whispered, “There is a new girl…”, Miz Baxter glared at me and roughly motioned the girl to the only empty seat in the middle of the room. It was catty-corner to my own seat, to the left, in front of me.
There were rules in the class. Anything you wanted to say or do you had to raise your hand. Miz Baxter did not like me at ALL! But she would call on me when I raised my hand but this new girl, each time she raised her hand Miz Baxter ignored her. Miz Baxter called role and when she got to the new girls’ name she skipped it. I never knew the girl’s name. The other kids seemed to know what going on to some childish degree. They knew about the bussing and what it meant. They knew about the fact that there were black people who lived on one side of the town. I did not know anything. I was ignorant and they laughed at me too when I said, “Miz Baxter, the new girl has her hand up.”, Miz Baxter ignored me. All I could see was the back of the girl’s head and shoulders and they shook ever so slightly and with horror I saw a thin stream of yellow fall from the chair she sat in and roll down the white tiled isle of the floor. The girl had too much respect for authority to get up and leave without permission and too much fear to say a word! I was filled with an unspeakable rage. I think I never hated anyone as much as I hated that teacher. I am not sure what happened the rest of the day. I know the girl left and never came back to our class.
The next day the school was abuzz with stories of how the principal locked himself in his office while members of someone’s family threatened, with hatchets, to break down the door and how the policecame and arrested them. I heard how the fire trucks came and the police as young students fought each other at the high school…but all of this was distant to me as I recalled then and recall today…
… the child with the golden eyes and the cornrow braids.