Friday, November 14, 2008

Know Thy Enemy


Grandma died. I was seven. Suddenly, I had to leave the comfort of living with her Sunday nights through Friday evenings and return home. There, my parents used me as a ping pong ball to carry our their marital warfare. I watched.

"I'm not paying for tuition when there's a public school five blocks away," my father said.

His eyes would not make contact with my mother's; they never did when he was angry. I didn't realize it then, but it probably made her more aggressive.

Her green eyes flashed in anger. "You have to. You must. That school is the pits. She should go to the Catholic school right across the street from there."

"Nope," he said stubbornly. "You can pay for it, but I won't. Waste of money."

He had money to burn. So did she. We were living phat. However, my mother had the notion that my father should foot the bill for things like this. Since he wouldn't, she wouldn't. For her, not conceding to his cheapness was a pride thing.

Thus, I was sent to the wolves as their marital sacrificial lamb on the first day of school. I had ribbons in my long hair and a pretty dress, and probably a brand new lunch box, or at least a nice sandwich in a paper bag.



I was hated from day one by classmates who had worn out clothes and shoes, and were probably hungry. I was shocked some of the girls had on dirty underwear, which I could see when they jumped rope. They never me let join them. I was lonely.

Halfway through the year, one girl, I'll call her Kandi, decided I needed to be beat up. I had never been in a fight. We were on the playground just before lineup that morning, and she started trash-talking, i.e., "You think you so cute."

I didn't know how to respond or what to say, so I said nothing. In seconds a swarm of girls surrounded me, all encouraging Kandi to fight me. Some started shoving me, including her.

I heard one of them yell to Kandi, "Punch her in the nose!"

In a split second, I made my decision. I punched my enemy as hard as I could in her nose.

Blood splattered across her face and dress. The mob was suddenly silent. The girls stared at me with both shock and maybe disgust and disappointment in their eyes. How dare I defeat their leader?

The teacher came out and everyone quietly lined up. Kandi never snitched.

The thing about that 2nd grade incident is that no one still wanted to play with me, except one little boy maybe in the 3rd grade whose idea of playing was trying to shove his hand up my dress during playground time.

I interrupted my teacher who was talking to another.

"That boy keeps trying to touch my privacy," I said.

She looked in his direction.

"Oh, he's just playing."

And this simple minded bitch went back to talking to her friend - another teacher.

The boy laughed. I was totally desolate. She saw him do this several times during the year to me and other girls and looked the other way. In her mind, it just wasn't a big deal. My teacher could not be trusted, and at the same time, I didn't know if she was right or wrong. Maybe it wasn't a big deal, like she said, even though it didn't feel right. Thus, she wasn't a friend, or an enemy. She was a frenemy.

I wanted to learn how to read better than I could. The school had twenty year old Dick and Jane books from the 1940s. Tattered, worn books that offered no challenge and bored me to tears.

I showed one to my dad. He made no criticism but I could see a mild negativity in his face. He loved to read Aesop's Fables to me and show me different countries on a globe he had in college. Sometimes he'd read poetry to me that he had written. I didn't understand it and wish I had his collection; I don't know what became of it.

"Why don't you have a book of these, Daddy?"

"I sold a poem once to white man. He published it under his name. I couldn't find anyone to publish it under mine."

That little fact made me sad when I got older.

He ordered me Dr. Seuss books and Highlights magazine from the dentist's office. I loved the rhymes in the former and the puzzles and stories in the other.

In the following school year, my mother gave up her feud over tuition and coughed up the cash for me to attend Catholic school, not the one closest to us, but a little further away where I didn't know anyone. The thing is, I was so emotionally damaged from an entire school year of being ostracized that I refused to play or talk with anyone. At lunch time, I sat in a corner with a stick, and drew circles in the dirt.

My teacher, a nun, grew concerned. She called my mother for a conference. I could only hear whispers of their conversation.

"She daydreams too much," my teacher said. "On the playground she keeps to herself. It's not good. She's in her own world."

I had come to love that world. It was quiet and devoid of enemies or frenemies. No one there to call me names or try to hurt me.

My mother came from her job to my school to watch me at lunchtime with my stick. Beyond a "hi", I don't remember saying much of anything to her the first time.

She finally realized that I had been slipping away from her in a world of fantasy, so slowly that she didn't notice it until I was poof! Gone. A bad marriage and her mother dying had made me fairly invisible and under her radar.

On her second playground visit, she said, "You need friends."

"I have friends at home," I replied, not looking up.

"You only play with them on weekends," she offered.

I made more circles, and like my father, gave her no eye contact.

"What happened in 2nd grade to make you like this?", she asked.

Oh now she wants to know, I thought angrily.

I said nothing, nothing at all about all the times some girl pulled my hair, how none of them would play with me, the great bloody nose fight that only led to more ostracism, or the non-stop sexual harassment in plain view of the teachers. Or the fact that I knew damn well that both she and my father could have paid for me to go to the school right across the street where my other little neighborhood friends went.

I made more circles. She gave up and returned to work.

On her next school visit, she did something different.

"Guess what?", she said excitedly.

"What?" I said listlessly.

Here she was, interrupting my daydream time to myself, again.

"I'm going to find you some friends, today," she announced, "right here on this playground."

"What?"

Incredulous, I gave her eye contact. She nodded optimistically.

"That's impossible," I said.

"Watch me."

My mama stood up, with me sitting there in the dirt with my mouth hanging open, and she walked into enemy territory.

At least, that's how my mind saw it.

It couldn't have been more than five or so minutes later when she returned with three little girls.

"They said they want to play with you," she said.

I looked at these girls as though seeing them for the first time. They weren't the mean girls in my 2nd grade year. They looked at me with friendly faces, waiting to see what I would say.

"For real?", I asked.

"Yeah," said one of the girls. "We want to play with you."

The other two smiled and nodded.

In a split second, I knew who the enemy was.

Loneliness.

I punched that bitch in the nose and clear out of the 3rd grade.

I smiled at my mother with renewed love, joined my new friends, and never looked back at my stick.


******************************


It took me nearly 20 years to learn that the girls in 2nd grade weren't my enemies. Their poverty was.

As a young social worker, I met lots of kids who had numerous complaints about their aggressive behavior. Not all, but many came from poor families that simply had too much stress in the home.

It took me 25 years to learn that those 2nd grade teachers weren't my frenemies. Their ignorance about sexual harassment was.

I don't think the phrase sexual harassment had even been invented until the late 70s. The America I grew up was different; this sort of thing, for the most part, was ignored.

It took me years of raising my first child to identify one of the many enemies of any parent: wishful thinking.

This is when you believe that shit will work out all by itself while you're doing your best juggling other responsibilities and relationships.

I found what I thought was a good school and neighborhood. It sure was beautiful. Like many blacks of that time, I had been mis-educated about what 'good' is, and once I was financially successful, wanted that piece of the American pie and shrugged off concerns that hardly any blacks lived in that area.

In the 1990s, moving into a nearly all-white neighborhood was as big a mistake as if I had moved into any impoverished black inner city area. In either community, the black male has enormous pressure on him to live up to the stereotypes.

My son, like white children all across similar American neighborhoods, got the idea that blackness is what he saw in sports, crime news, and rap videos. That's a pathetically narrow view of what Black America is all about and for a long time, affected his racial identity.

He can't count the number of times in middle school or summer camp where white kids asked him to get drugs for them and how cool it would be if he was their weed connection. Like any kid, he just wanted friends.

I knew he wasn't lying because I became so suspicious of the sudden barrage of phone calls that I started listening to them when he was in 7th grade. I even called the police on an 18 year old who was trying to get my 13 year old son to sell his Ritalin after hearing the plan. Told them if they came right away, they could catch the guy.

Did the cops arrest this young man trying to corrupt my kid? No. They busted my son for leaving it in our mailbox for the guy to pick up. That's a felony. The judge, however, was nice enough to dismiss the charges.

It was too late for Xavier by age 14. Like me in 2nd grade, he slip-slided away, but into serious drug abuse and acting like a damn heathen. You all know that drugs are everywhere, but they're really in those well-to-do suburbs where kids have more money.

When he was 15, I said eff this bubble, and moved where he could live in a cultural melting pot and learn other things that a brotha could be.

It took four years of pain, struggle, and finally, rehab, and then another two years of just growing up, for him to learn who his real enemy is.

Loneliness.

*****************************


I'm not really sure why I wrote this post. Maybe it's for parents who are so caught up in dealing with their enemies of wishful thinking, job stress, financial worries, or their relationship problems that they don't see their kids sliding away slowly.

Or maybe it's for anybody who is hungry for something, or mad about something, and don't quite know who or what the real enemy is.

It might be loneliness.



31 comments:

  1. Like you, I don't know why you chose to write this, but it really touched me today. Almost brought me to tears with memories and other stuff I am going through right now. There are so many times when I remember times similar to what you wrote in my childhood; times when I see and try to help the lonely child now as a teacher so they, hopefully, don't have to feel that way.

    Thanks for writing. And I am glad you, and hopefully, your child, have found loneliness to be the enemy. The difficult part is finding the right people to be the friends.

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  2. best defense is a good offence or str8 right to the nose and it is sad, we are not a monolithic people

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  3. this was touching, what can i say-- you live and learn while knowing tomorrow will be better than yesterday...our community has a lot of learning to do about self

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  4. I had 3 of my daughters in private shcool until the oldest entered highschool. At that time she went to our public diverse highschool. They absolutely loved the public school system. They often remind me now as adults that I should have done this a long time ago.

    I still support the Obamas providing the best education for their children. They're able to do it without struggling. I didn't have the excess funds or mine would have stayed in private school.

    But I don't recall many caring with past First Families where their children went to school and we should stay out of it now.

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  5. I've been thinking about the sacrifices involved with raising a child lately.

    A post you wrote early on, the one where you mentioned refusing to quit your job and take car of your son because you liked your lifestyle, has always stuck with me. I wonder how many times i neglect my young son because I would rather live my lifestyle.

    That might mean watching television or playing a video game instead of struggling with him through another book, or lesson. Telling myself he's only eighteen months when it comes to education is a bad habit.

    I'm slowly learning how difficult and time consuming this parenting gig really is. It's truly God's greatest gift and his toughest challenge.

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  6. "In the 1990s, moving into a nearly all-white neighborhood was as big a mistake as if I had moved into any impoverished black inner city area. In either community, the black male has enormous pressure on him to live up to the stereotypes."

    This is SO true. As a young black woman who was educated in the subbies and lived in the hood, it was difficult seeing my black male classmates stuggle with finding their identities. There were stark differences between the ones who lived in the area vs. the ones who were bussed in from the hood. Unfortunately, many of them didnt make it to graduation or were screwed when they did.

    I think about this sort of thing when I try to decide how and where I will raise my own kids in the future. Its a difficult decision to make but luckily I feel like I have an advantage in having witnessed the progression first hand.

    Also, my brother is a year younger and went to a pred. middle class black catholic schools for elementry, all black Boston public for middle, and affluent white suburban for High school. Its interesting to see him defend the public schools so ferverently for the educational and the social growth he gained there.

    Thanks for this, I guess you can tell it really got me thinking!

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  7. "In a split second, I knew who the enemy was.

    Loneliness.

    I punched that bitch in the nose and clear out of the 3rd grade."

    BRAVO!

    Kit, it's not often I get into touchy-feely posts, but I loved this from beginning to end.

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  8. I am feeling the pain of this post, when I was growing up I experienced must of the hardship that was in your story.

    I love the part when the mama says 'I'm going to find you some friends, today', and then the look of amazment, then the response when his mama brought back three girls and said 'They want to play with you!'

    And he says 'With me!'

    And all the girls nod there head YES!

    What a relief that must have been to finally have some girlfriends to play with.

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  9. Stuck, Thank you for sharing that your own childhood had similar memories. Cool that you began working in a helping profession too. How well we know that's although it's tough being a parent, it's also hard being a child.

    Torrance, I had to look that word up, bro! Forgot what monolithic meant. We are and we aren't, and when we ain't, you're so right.

    Bellini, Thank you, and yes, self-knowledge can set us free.

    Cinco, I'm a big supporter on public schools too, but many in urban areas are very underfunded. I worry it will be worse if that trend continues.

    Big Man, you sound like a good daddy, and indeed, it is a tough job for some kids but others are a breeze, depending on temperament and compatibility. God willing, your lil' guy will be fine.

    Dom, you're so welcome, and thank you for sharing your story. It is amazingly awful how much black boys have on their shoulders and have to become conscious of resisting stereotypes lest they become one.

    Shelton, High five back to ya!

    Somebodies Friend, You nailed it. It was a relief to have friends at school. It's was like being starved for something and not even knowing it until you get it... in this case, friendship.

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  10. Wow...really touching post. My son attended very diverse elementary schools but now attends a predominantly white upper-income middle school. I worry repeatedly about what this type of change may do to him or more importantly, what the perceptions/expectations others have of him may do to his self-image. I'm so torn that I argue with myself but then push the worries down again for some other day.

    Parenting really is the hardest gig in the world.

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  11. I'm kinda teary-eyed up right now...I'll be back.

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  12. the last three sentences got to me. im not even going to comment.

    all i can say is this: at the end of the day we all want to be important to someone.

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  13. KIT, thanks so much for sharing this story. I think we all have felt like you did in 2nd grade at one time or another.

    Although I don't have kids yet, having been one in the past, I can still say thanks for the insight.

    I also want to commend you for caring enough about the people who seemed like one-time enemies/frenemies to understand that their behavior was not about you, but rather about them.

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  14. Wow, Kit! Talk about a revelation. This statement "It took me nearly 20 years to learn that the girls in 2nd grade weren't my enemies. Their poverty was." really set off a lightbulb. I went to an elem school that had a diverse student population from an economic perspective. My fam wasn't wealthy but I never went without, was healthy, the food was plentiful, had both parents in the home, etc. When I think about the kids who weren't as fortunate there was a definitive line. They often looked and behaved as if no one at home cared...maybe that was the case. This post will be on my mind for a while, I can relate to so much of what you said.

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  15. This was so on point. I wish everybody would revisit childhood and look at the moments they still carry around like truth.

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  16. lovely. thanks.

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  17. This post made me wanna call my dad and cuss him out.

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  18. Your mother sounds like she was a wonderful person. You're very lucky.
    My parents never intervened in my manic-depressive childhood. Teachers just tried to get rid of me.
    But all that makes me who I am today and I'm glad for it. I hope Xavier is able to look back someday and say the same thing.

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  19. Kit, this isn't a post, it's a gift. It's profoundly deep on what so many of us went through as kids and then adults and parents. I cosign with what Curvy Girl said. I mean, wow, you took it to the next level linking it to poverty, loneliness, etc. I will be thinking about this for a long time.

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  20. deep post. I'm not sure what to say but I hope it touched others as it did me.

    Makes me want to reflect on my past and those people around me.

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  21. I've done alot of reflecting this past weekend about this post and others. I realize that my life growing up was pretty good and I haven't always been grateful. I have my own family- 3 daughters grown and 2 more 10 and 15 and their lives haven't been that bad either.

    I'm convinced that I need to give back more in some small way. I'll make sure that my children do as well.

    There are too many people especially young children that aren't loved. And worse, no one cares about them.

    I can start by making a difference one person/family at a time.

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  22. D*mn. This post seriously needs to be shared wherever you can find a captive audience.

    Loneliness is a major life killer. Gangs. Cults. Greedy churches. These and other establishments feed on the loneliness (a form of fear) of others to secure victims and feed off of them.

    Men and women use the same fear of loneliness to feed off of one another - at least those who have the stomach to misuse another.

    I just thank you so much for this.

    Hawa, author of
    Fackin Truth Blog (Personal Blog)
    and
    Cleanse Master Remix (Health Blog)

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  23. That was so powerul its funnyhow we don't even understand some of the things we go through or why others put us through it until we have some time under our belts.

    Great post. Thanks for sharing.

    -OG

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  24. Remarkable writing and insights. Thank you very much for sharing this with us...

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  25. Villager,, Thanks, and I appreciate what you said on your blog.

    OG, Yeah, too bad we aren't born with insight and wisdom.

    Hawa, thanks for saying that.

    Cinco, Giving back feels good, doesn't it? Heh-heh.

    Miriam, I'm glad it touched your life and that of others. On a spiritual level, it makes what I went through in the 2nd grade worthwhile.

    Kitchen Angel, "A gift." Wow. Thank you. That's how I feel too when I get this kind of feedback.

    Sagacious, This is one of my absolute favorite memories I have of my mother. I swear, I am still in awe of some of the things she did, and my blessing to have her for as long as I did.

    Rippa, Yeah, I remember one of your past post about him. I'm feelin' ya.

    Sequined Luv Nun, Thanks.

    Kellybelle, Truth is so funny. Our child's truth is often so different than from the truth we see as adults, which if we're lucky, is deeper as we grow.

    CurvyGirl, I like the related post you did in response to this, and again, thanks for that shout out.

    Cheri, Figuring out poverty of others was my true enemy is one of the greatest eye openers I ever had. I extend that to the nations of the world. We need to punch that bitch off the planet. Perhaps then we will have peace.

    Emeritus, Yes, it might be loneliness...

    Monk, *hug*

    LuvTheShoes, Woo, yes, parenting is a job... heck, a career.

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  26. I love reading your blog, and find it very inspirational or atleast thought provoking....anyway I was moved to comment on this particular post because I don't agree that lonliness is the enemy...maybe the fear of being lonely. That fear has caused me to do many things I regret now and I'm still young. Lonliness is inevitable, it has its purpose

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  27. Anonymous, Thanks for those important points, and I'm glad you said "Loneliness is inevitable and has a purpose."

    True, and I agree wholeheartedly that fear of it, and fear of being alone, can compromise judgment. It's not restricted to the young, either.

    It reminds me of an elderly couple I knew. Both were in their late 70s, and for casual dating and companionship, they were fine. However, everyone warned her that he would make a terrible husband because they could see quiet signs of emotional abusiveness and selfishness, and she could too, but she didn't listen. She was a healthy woman for her age, but feared loneliness as she got older. Well, she was very unhappy with him because he most definitely was a trip to live with, but they had a successful divorce.

    Oddly, he jumped into a relationship with a woman who was harder to live with than himself, out of fear of getting older alone for the same reason. She worried him to death - literally.

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  28. This is magnificent! As an educator it held special significance to me. I won't soon forget this cautious tale. Thank you for sharing.

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  29. Hey there K.I.T.!!

    Thank you for sharing this poignant piece!

    Peace, blessings and DUNAMIS!
    Lisa

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  30. Kit: You are wise. I will share this post with both my male and female friends, although I kind of wonder if any of the guys will read it closely. I don't know why, but my male friends tend not to read a lot of stuff I find important. But I'm sending it anyway.

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  31. You wrote it because you needed to. And because we needed to read it.

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Hi, this is Kit.

I haven't posted since summer 2010, and comment moderation has been on for a very long time.

My old blogger friends (you know who you are) are welcome to email me.

I can be reached at:
kitsmailbag@gmail.com.