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."
Incredulous, I gave her eye contact. She nodded optimistically.
"That's impossible," I said.
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.
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.
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.