I awaken to the sound of the furnace, those god-awful sounds of metal against metal. But in the twilight moments between sleeping and wakening, what I heard was bells. Was it an unanswered call, or an alarm gone unheeded? My momentary confusion threaded me through several archways, and into pools of memories. Till finally I arrived at school bells, and the rising tide of memory seeped slowly into the crevices of my waking mind.
I was standing in a room filled with small desks arranged in rows. My forest green clip-on bowtie matched my jumper and beanie. And my pale olive skin receded against the yellow of my blouse. My bobbing head teetered above my impossibly small torso. But what stood out was my eyes. Deep pools of caramel colored wonder, filled with weariness, transfixed by the light. Shell shocked, at only five years old.
I was standing with the other children, all in a circle surrounding our desks. Despite the ubiquitous forest green, the room was filled with a dizzyingly array of shapes, sizes and textures. There was Yvette with her smooth beautiful skin and Stanley with his quick eyes. And Denise who stood tall and proud, next to the squat but curious Bernard. There was Cecelia, small and bright and Mary Francis whose soft curls fell lovingly down her back. It was fun to see everyone, standing around the room together.
But the exhilaration was short lived. As her voice broke through the din, even the overhead lights seemed to lose their strength. Her stark face swimming within the starched and brittle helmet. The darkness of her robes echoed within the contempt of her eyes. Small, frightened faces turned in unison toward the sound. Our collective breaths held in fear, and anticipation. What, now?
Just a few months before, several of us had laughed together with abandon at the antics of our teachers. Our days had been filled with puppet shows, coloring books and graham crackers. We sang songs, ran races, did the hokey pokey and let it all hang out. Running through the park and digging in the sand, we discovered life in all its wonder and richness. We had gladly taken our seats to discover new colors, new textures, new tastes and listen in awe to the stories of wonder, grandeur and adventure. And nap time, glorious nap time, where we could lay on the floor with our friends, our blankets and our giggles.
But that was in the heady days of pre-school and kindergarten. We were older now, wiser maybe and we were expected to have put away our childish ways. And Sister Omer was our collective wake up call. She was legendary in this small school of 400. Our Lady of Perpetual Help may have been the name on the building, but it was Our Little Prison Home to those who pulled the hard time.
And Sister Omer was the mistress of hard time. On the very first day, a day of freshness and excitement. A day filled with new sights, sounds and smells. A spanking brand new uniform, new shoes and most of all, a new school. A day of promise. That was the day, the very first day, she chose to teach us our very first lesson. Our first lesson in terror.
I can still see Denise’s eyes as she re-entered the room. Except for her tears, she looked pretty much like she had when she left the room in Sister Omer’s grasped. Curiosity lead to confusion, which was closely followed by disbelief. It wasn’t until she gagged and coughed up a soap bubble, that we collectively gasped. The room which only moments earlier had been filled with soft murmurings sparked with a few clear voices, now fell silent. It was the first time that the lights dimmed. The lights came back even as our hearts gave way. Toto, we aren’t in Kansas anymore.
On the first day, the very first day, Denise had entered chewing a piece of gum. And Sister Omer on the very first day, had calmly walked her out and washed her small mouth out with soap. Welcome to first grade.
And so now we stood in a circle, quiet and expectant. A room filled with five and six year olds, preternaturally subdued. Waiting. Waiting for the next shoe to fall.
She began by telling Mary Francis to sit in the first seat. Mary, although hesitant at first quickly recovered and sat down. More names were called, and soon the first row was filled. I don’t remember how we were assigned to our seats before, but now, suddenly, our seating arrangement was changing.
Seating changes? Seating changes. It was like getting a free day pass from the dungeon. No yard stick across the back, no tape being ripped from your mouth or nails dug in behind your ears. No standing as she humiliated you beyond tears. For a brief moment, the room collectively breathed a sigh of relief.
Seating changes! I am not sure how long it took for others to notice what has happening with the new seating arrangements. But I am pretty sure I was clueless till the third row. It was during the selection of occupants for the third row when my eyes were suddenly opened. It was in the third row, that I discovered that flesh had color. And that this color held the promise of both privilege and condemnation.
I flashed back to my own family, we had entered the world a veritable rainbow of skin, eye and hair colors. Mary Francis looked like my mother, while Derek with his warm dark skin rivaled my father’s. But here in the domain of a woman dressed solely in black and white, this rich kaleidoscope of beige, brown, pink and deep ebony was simply an unordered spectrum. An unbalanced color wheel. A disorder which she would now correct.
And it was at the third row, and the second seat, that is when I discovered where I ranked in the grand scheme. That is when I was deemed light enough, but I had the “wrong” hair. And that is when I noticed the shadings of the rows already seated. That is when I realized what was at the heart of the new seating arrangement. We were being seated by shades of black.
This cold woman, draped in the extremes of light and dark, was rating us by a measure she herself did not posses. For even Mary Francis, with her dark curls, hazel eyes and light amber skin was shades darker than Sister Omer. Sister Omer, like most of the priests, the doctors and the police, was colorless, humorless and white. And like most of the people who crossed the borders into our world, she touched our lives, our young impressionable souls, without love. For even at an all black school, built by black parents, in an all black neighborhood, in a majority black city, a small child can come face to face with the brutality of system born of 400 years of enslavement.
And in a first grade classroom in 1960, a room filled with close to fifty black children, a wounding was born. A wound that for many of us remains unhealed. A wound that is reopened almost daily with fresh tears and cuts. How can it heal? If you cannot find worth in yourself at five, how in the hell can you find it at twenty, at forty or even at sixty?
I am not known to carry grudges, but if there is an angry vengeful Christian God, I hope Sister Omer faced him. And, I sincerely hope she burns in hell.
2004©Katrina C. Hopkins