On eve of the first day of school for Julia, I awoke twice in the night, rose from bed before dawn, made a double cappuccino, dressed, guided my daughter from her bed, helped her dress, gave her a breakfast of yogurt and fruit, marched her a few blocks west, and together we hopped the subway to enter her new phrase of life.
Julia took to the classroom like a fish to agua. That act did not worry me. However, as I watched her play with new friends, and interact with new toys, new teachers, new ways of learning and being in the world, I could not help to think one thought: My daughter had dragged me towards a new level of understanding, yet again. Everything in life is impermanent.
Children are Zen Buddhists in Pull-Ups. Just when parents become accustom to one phase, the wee-set is off to the next. And as I watched the wide faces of wonder woven into the flesh of other parents, men and women who studied their kids like a newly discovered geo-fossil, I remembered; shifting sands of change are the foundation for life. Julia’s job: to keep that insight front and center.
Just so I did not miss the point, the universe, on this very important day issued a few more reminders. It began, around 1pm, with a ringing phone.
In the rush to get Julia to school on time, I left, on the kitchen counter, my lunch. So, I called in my sushi order, my favorite “I forgot my lunch,” treat. At the other end of the line, the phone rang and rang and rang. Odd. So odd, I decided to walk to the eatery. Eight to ten minutes into the trek, twice my mind tried to nudge me to other take-out places, the first deemed too pricy, the second, its order line, so long, it trailed down the length of the small shop and out the door on to the street. So, I kept moving.
As I rounded the corner, on Seventh Avenue I saw the chairs, glassware and oval-shaped plates out on the tables lining the walkway in front of the black and red-painted wall of the restaurant. “Maybe they had a flood in the kitchen,” I thought working to reassure myself, for a few moments until I reached the entrance. The laser set note attached to the rectangular glass read:
“Dear Loyal Patrons of Ido Sushi. We regret to inform our dear customers and friends that we have decided to close this beautiful establishment due to rising costs and the impact of hurricane Sandy. Unfortunately, we are unable to raise prices as this would go against our beliefs in providing great food at great prices. We are happy for those great moments we have experienced and…
And I could not read any further.
“They closed last Saturday,” an older man supervising people through the selected wears said.
“When they didn’t answer the phone I feared the worse. But kept walking over here. I had to see,” I answered. “I could just cry.”
He shrugged. “Lots of people have come by saying the same thing. They announced online they were closing on the 8th. Fifty opera singers came to say good-bye.”
This news made me even sadder. From the photos on the walls, near the sushi station, and set above a tiny stage, I knew opera singers frequently, after a working gig, came to Ido to sing for their supper. But as my backup lunch joint, I rarely ventured downtown on weekends. Ido Sushi closed on a Saturday. September 8th.
The man’s white hair flipped and flopped in the heated gale; a pale-sail as he looked down at the loose collection of liquor bottles—gin, apple-flavored vodka— resting on an angled side table. “Today is their daughter’s birthday. They just wanted to enjoy it. So they just decided to put the rest of the stuff outside.”
Out of the Demetrius of a ten-year old business, I spotted a large, lacquered wood cutting board/ sashimi presentation server. I pulled it out from the shelf and tucked it under my arm.
When I discovered four, pearl-hued desert dishes—unchipped and smooth, tucked on in their sides inside of a brown paper box—I asked the handy guy standing watch to help me guide them into a plastic bag. I took a funny turquoise and crème colored shaped ceramic bowl just because.
I headed back to my office, the wood of the worn board heating up against my palms in the liquid humidity. In my mind, in the ninety-degree temperature, the large board grew heavier. Time alters the weight of all things.
Holding the curve of the wood, studying the lacquered grain, at each stop light, I thought of the hundreds, maybe thousands of people who had dined from it, toasted above it, maybe stolen a kiss over it.
I picked up a Cobb Salad, and managed to run into not one but two old friends, women I had lost touch with over the last six or seven years. Today mementos walked the streets of Manhattan.
Walking further south down Hudson Street, past the food trucks and lunch seekers, from the burger truck, Frites and Meats, the scent of fire-grilled beef, fried onions, and Detroit summers, hit my nose. The sound of “Hotel California” by The Eagles slammed against my ears. The famous guitar riff, known by Eagles fans and those who could not even pick out a member from a line up, delivered an old memory. I had watched a man, my serious last boyfriend, play this tune many times, with a righteous flair, to my delight, to my awe. But no more. Four years ago, like fine Japanese pottery, we broke.
But today I did not receive pain or loss or longing in the lyrics, in the guitar licks. I found something new and fresh to ride over the heated air of another September 11th in New York City. Entertainment and forgiveness. Here in Manhattan where no matter what we do on September 11th we do in memorial to the lost.
Two years ago, when an Ethiopian judge asked how I proposed to take care of a baby alone I repeated, after my panic subsided, an old African proverb:“It takes a village to raise a child; and back home in New York City I have a small village.”
My words came back to me, with the news that Julia will attend the same preschool as the son of another Single Baby Mama cohort. And amazingly, another S.B.M.’s son will join our 3’s group.
So as I clutched the acceptance letter in my hands in front of the wall of mailboxes and read the crisp, page-length text, two, three, four times, as the words washed into relief, washed deeper into me, as my jaw stopped its throb and ache from the lock of stress, a new thought bloomed and brightened in my brain; we Single Baby Mamas will now connect and share the realities of our lives and our children’s lives, daily.
The next day, as we three moms stood on the chilled Central Park playground watching our kids zigzag around the wild zone of free play, I announced, “I’m just so happy Julia got into a good school.”
“I hope you’ll all love the school as much we do,” Single Baby Mama #2 said.
“It’s great that they’ll all be together,” #3 added.
Single Baby Mama #2 smiled. “It maybe selfish,” she said, “but I’m glad there’ll be around single moms there. Usually I’m the only one.”
I’d experience the same unruly feelings for the first time a summer ago, after I bolted from the house with my then one-year-old, through the 100-degree July heat, rushed down and then up the steps of the subway and through the doors of a birthday party for a three-year-old only to discover I was the only mate-less parent in attendance.
As the birthday celebration worn on to its inevitable conclusion, as Julia stuffed chunks of chocolate cake into her mouth, I worked to remember that I nearly didn’t get a child to experience this awkward, odd feeling.
Sometimes the logic holds.
I want Julia to have the best of everything, and yes that includes a father. God required two adults to come together and make a baby for a reason, I believe. However, for now, the best will consist of a great school, a great home and good mom. And I have a great example to follow. One of Julia’s God Mothers (yes she has two God Mommys Eula and Kim between their survival spirit and unsinkable faith my daughter will be well armed in the world. The search for a God Father continues.)
Still, in this case I am the one learning by Kim’s example.
Over the years I’ve watched Kim, for the most part, raise a wonderful daughter, Jenny, my God Daughter, on her own. Kim never complained, never doubted, at least outwardly. She has supported Jenny as she has grown into a lovely, smart, accomplished young woman; a woman we are all very proud of. And just when you thought the universe had done enough for Kim, a loving, smart accomplished man arrived into her life, a funny, handsome doctor no less, creating a miraculous second act in her life. Kim’s wonderful husband came with a young son in tow from his first marriage. Kim’s bond with the boy, and he with her, is so strong, so seamless, it would seem to strangers their union was formed in blood.
During the dark years of waiting for Julia’s arrival I asked the adoption agency for the names of other single moms and dads to be. To me, this small community of women is vital. We don’t just survive, we thrive. And, so do our children.
Now looking at the wind worn wrinkled face of an older woman in the Loi providence from the curve of the newsprint, her red sweater clad grandson curled in her arms, I realized, over my morning cappuccino that I was face to face with an older, long-lost sister.
I thought after viewing the morning news at the dawn of last Wednesday my next post would focused around Steve Martin was becoming a first time Dad at the age of 67 and the second coming, so to speak, of Alex Baldwin’s fatherhood as he and his third wife await their new baby.
I though I would craft prose around the disparity between the treatment of over forty moms verses dads, how society gives older fathers nearly visible high fives, and few snickers behind their backs at their news of “a bun in the oven,” while many first time over 40 Moms, receive wide eye stares, and looks reserved for Hollywood alien spacecraft landing on suburban lawns. Two years ago, a Whole Foods cashier not once but twice, integrated me during the same transaction about my claim of motherhood to Julia.
“ You sure you’re not her grandma?” The girl with the Kool-Aid colored red hair and pink slacked lips, asked.
I thought I would write about the documentary I’d seen a few months back featuring an Indian woman who finally achieved motherhood, at the age of seventy year-old, through an egg donor program and a willing doctor.
I thought I’d write of her glowing pride, as she held her baby, while her wrinkled, brown-skinned husband nearly levitating off the floor. “Now we are no longer ashamed, now we have a child,” he said, the curse of childlessness had ended. I knew for sure I wanted to write about the broken pride I held for this Indian couple, half a world away.
Then I clicked on an email around, noon and I found out Julia did not get in my first choice school for her, St. Hilda’s.
Even before Julia came home, even before the miscarriage that led to the journey of adoption, riddled with stories of bribes and terrors, I braced myself for the private school process in New York City. Five years earlier a Wall Street executive, Jack Grubman was brought down, not by the Feds or a money mismanagement scandal, but from his attempt to bribe his way into an Upper East Side pre school. http://abcnews.go.com/2020/story?id=123782&page=1
Every nursery school ,that I know of, our home is private, requiring an application and “play date test.” So if I must pay, why not give Julia the best, what I considered the best, what I had seen as the best. For the past five years I’ve watched two extraordinary boys at my church grow into talented, smart young men before my eyes, through the efforts of their parents, and St. Hilda’s. I wanted St. Hilda’s before I wanted Julia.
But the email said “ We sincerely regret”
I had prayed. “that we were unable to offer your child”
I had affirmed. “a place in our school.”
I read the e-mail, and let out an audible gasp reserved for witnesses to a pedestrian mowed down by a drunk driver.
I haven’t felt this low since my adoption of Julia was almost annulled.
“You know, after everything you and Julia have been through the past three years, this is just a blip on the screen,” my brother Jeffery said. “ Sure, schools matter but the parents matters more.”
I stood staring at the sea of Manhattan traffic trying to figure out just when my baby brother had become so brilliant, so statesman like. Gandhi of Michigan.
I walked into my home Wednesday night, and before I removed my coat, I removed a bottle of wine from the sideboard.
“St. Hilda’s said no,” I told my nanny’s curious eyes, the answer to the why’s and what for’s of my actions, my opening and pouring a beaker of wine within minutes of entering the house was unseen in the year that she has worked for our family.
“But we had the second playdate!” she yelped.
“Yeah, that seemed a good sign.”
“I’m in shock, did they say why?” My mom asked.
“They never say why,” I explained. “It’s like a mob hit., two to the chest, one to the head. And adios.”
Julia’s not quite three years old; plenty of time for disappointments, more than enough time to learn life uses them as paving stones. This I know. But this was a new variety of a disappointment. Disappointments of mine, I can weather. Disappointments for my girl, my Julia, well, talk to me in a month.
“I’ll see what I can find out about other pre-schools,” Ronda offered, later that night.
“Sure,” I said, and took another gulp of wine. The Cabernet burned its way down my throat. This is not a wine consumption enjoyment moment. This was self-medication.
“A blip on the screen.” Really?
The next morning, remembered the date, February 14th. A shot to the heart and your to blame, your give love a bad name.
There’s little more that I love more than a party. The drinks. The chit-chat. The music. The connection. I once drove six hours to attend a shindig in Maryland. I had to make an event that my friends, Gary and Lauren, hosted with a whole roasted pig as their guest of honor.
On more than one occasion I guided my little mule of a Miata to New Hampshire to attend the art of openings of a friend, MJ, who is a great painter. During one trip, her surprise guests, “her two Italians” as she called them, required me to jump right into using my Italian skills after six hours behind the wheel. And I still found time to hit the spontaneous dance floor that rose up between MJ’s dinning and living areas.
Over my twenty plus years as a free woman of the world, I’ve attended soirees in Paris and bashes in London. I’ve attended house parties in Detroit, in my youth, where decades later, I can still hear the thrum of The Ohio Players and Earth Wind and Fire. I’ve done New Years Eve in New York City at my home, at the homes of folks whose names have been lost to memory, and at the loft of my friends Heather and Todd.
If I didn’t attend a party, well I had a damn good reason. And I made them, mostly, to myself. I hate missing a party. But on October 7th, on a Saturday, I reached a new point with parties.
I just plain forgot.
After a sharing a dinner of broiled Salmon, herb orzo, and garlic brocoli, with Julia, a totally entranced act because she actually ate the broccoli, savored the salmon, and nibbled the orzo, to my amazement just as her pediatrician said my 28 -month-old would.
As I the cleared the table, and contemplated our deser, Julia let me know she had other ideas.
“Show! Show!” She bellowed, her code word for the ” Baby Einstein” CDs she loves.
So I popped a disc in the player. Julia launched a smile. And after a stream of baby faces, and baby words, nose, le nazo, face, la cara, as the disc played out her Spanish and English vocabulary, and we headed into the last of the minutes of the performance. The kiddie number one hit “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes,” filled the air. Julia jumped to her feet. I followed.
It was during the second round of the hypnotic music track, during our living room romp, that a wild thought popped into my head.
“Heather and Todd’s party!” Oh God, it’s tonight!
I forget. I. Forget.
This isn’t to say I am infallible. It was more a road sign. A marker, that my life has changed in a profound way. This I knew. Many things have changed. However, it took a small thing, a small act of doing the toddler macarena in my living room, correction in our living room, with my daughter on the last of the warm Saturday nights, in the greatest city in the world, with a group of some of my closest friends gathered in downtown Manhattan, holding cool drinks and warm conversation for me to realize just how much it had.
Some how it escaped my notice that a part of being a mom is setting an image, a model, for my daughter to follow. The first tip-off came when Julia insisted on having a wipe-up cloth of her very own. Once free from her high chair she’d hover over the wooden floor dapping and mopping up imaginary spills, and at times, real puddles of milk, oatmeal, and mashed veggies.
The next example was even more enlightening.
After a long day at work, as I fed Julia dinner at the table, I sighed hard, like a tired bull moose. Julia looked up, her eyes locked on mine, then she mimicked the moan, exactly. “Heeeeeeeeeeeee,” she said as her small shoulders drooped in synch with her expired exhale.
Tiny “private eyes” as Hall and Oates claimed, “do see your every move.” And the events of the last week made that fact even more clear.
Admittedly, I didn’t hold great hope from the folks that have supplied the world with a steady stream of princesses for more than fifty years. The first Disney B.A.P., Tiana,came in 2009, with the release of “The Princess and the Frog.” While I thought a princess of color was long over due, I didn’t wanted her showing up at Casa Holmes. Sure, Grandma ships endless sippy cups ringed with images of Princess T dressed in a bouncing ball gown, and Angie, Julia’s nanny, frequently greets my daughter with the morning salute of, “Good Morning my Princess!” Still, I hope against logic to avoid the princess affair with Julia. But Peggy Orenstein’s book, Cinderella Ate My Daughterhttp://www.amazon.com/Cinderella-Ate-Daughter-Dispatches-Girlie-Girl/dp/0061711527 confirms I have an ice cube’s chance in the Sahara. But a mom can dream.
She must dream.
I wasn’t a girly girl. In fact I was a raging tomboy that conceded to trading in her baseball mitt for a pair of track cleats, electing to run 220 low hurdles in high school to keep my sports connection after I entered the world of clothes and boys and hair and such. And it all came back Thursday night, August 4th, when Gabby Douglas the extraordinary talented sixteen-year-old gymnast catapulted and flipped and vaulted her way into a gold medal for all around performance and into the hearts of Americans, along with the citizens of the world, at the 2012 London Olympics. Gabby, the first African-American woman to do so. Really, she’s just a teen.
But what has been burning up the blogspere? Not just Gabby’s achievement. Nor that Gabby’s mom is holding the household together with three jobs, alone. Not even the white host family in Iowa that supplied stability for Gabby while away from her Virginia based family as she trained with an esteemed coach, a host family that became a second support to the medalist. No. The first 48 hours came with a flood of Twitter comments regarding Gabby’s hair. That’s right, her hair.
Many black women—other than those who wear their hair in dread locks or afro styles or don’t buy into the hype—have been enslaved to our hair. Generations of African-American women don’t know how to swim simply because they honor their hair more than the enjoyment of the water. There are thousands of women of color who avoid the gym or any physical activity for fear it will wreck their Saturday set. In fact the comedian Bernie Mac had an entire monologue about the importance of not touching a black woman’s hair during love making. This logic has always boggled my mind, and the heart of a woman that still houses a tomboy’s spirt. Sure, almost every time Julia and I hit Central Park I’m one a few women of color jogging, and virtually the only one manning a jogging stroll. But still it’s 2012.
Most anyone would agree we are hardest on our own kind. It seems some psychological tick every race shares but this level of criticism, this measure of insensitivity against a young woman from her own race, just knocked me on my runner’s butt. Let’s face it: if this hair critique of a young black girl had been leveled by Savannah Guthrie or Matt Lauer of The Today Show, or any white person in the media, Al Sharpton would be pounding the pavement outside their office with a picket line in place faster than you could say O.J Simpson.
A woman’s hair is her crown but many of us have turned it into a shackle. It isn’t the first time, and sadly, it won’t be the last.
In the 21st century when everything is open for sport, when some morning chat shows start the 7:30 segment giving more time to keeping up with The Kardashians than the conflict in Syria, spending more minutes on the study of red carpet hemlines than the S&P 500 then it isn’t just African-Americans who spend too much time soaking up and sharing useless information.
But if asked today I would have written that I want a new run at an old problem for black women. Just as the poet Wallace Stevens wrote that there are “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” there should be a thousand times more ways for a black girl to show herself with pride to the world. I want Julia to know her beauty comes from within, not from the outer praise of others. I want her to know other girls are not the enemy, that there is more than enough talent and good looks to go around, and that she needs to work to her own standards to please herself.
That play is healthy, that hobbies are good, and passion is grand. And that there are girls who lead a life worthy of example. And some of them are flesh and blood, not made of drawings and flashes of light from flat screen TVs and computer monitors. And that some of them, because of their gold medal performances at the Olympics, make the history books. And right next to their shinning achievement, in bold print beside their name is their score, and perhaps their age. But not one mention of her hair style.
At the time I thought of bullying in terms of my two-year-old daughter, that is to say, not so much. As the mom of a toddler, the sharing of toys and playground swings and slides presented the biggest problems. Then the video of the sexagenarian being bullied by mid-schoolers went viral. Viewable at: http://ac360.blogs.cnn.com/2012/06/21/grandma-bullied-on-school-bus/
As I viewed the offensive film of a 68-year-old bus escort being taunted by kids, no wait, brats. No. Let me call them what their behavior mandates: rude, insensitive, little assholes, (just watch the video, and most of you will agree) in the background of my morning, on the Today Show, I heard Matt Lauer describe the matter as an example of “the culture of a cruelty in America.” View the interview here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=668AQoumzWo
Parents, at times, protect our kids too much. We find the ready excuse, the easy out for their screw-ups. Just check out the letters of apology written by the “boys” and their parents at: http://www.democratandchronicle.com/article/20120622/NEWS01/120622010. The parents’ letters of apology were longer, and had a greater use of the first person, “I.” I’m sorry, I feel horrible, they wrote again and again, personifying an act they were not the cause of; it was their progeny who should be genuflecting at her the wronged woman’s feet.
But when I think of it, bulling isn’t a new thing at all. We just have a wider target range, with better tools: Facebook, cell phone video cameras, the some evil Twitter. Back when I attended grade school, bulling was a face-to-face affair. As the focus of a bully named Rochelle, I know personally. The teachers of Thirkill Elementary school knew she was a bully. And Rochelle’s parents knew. They were summoned to the school often enough. And all the kids knew, especially those Rochelle bullied, like me.
Throughout the fifth grade, almost daily, threats of lunchtime punch ups leapt from her lips at me. Midway through the school year, with the spring, Rochelle moved on to threats of after school bloodings. (Even bullies made their way directly home in the harsh Motown winters.) My offense, as far as I could discern: I made the Honor Roll regularly. Teachers liked me. Most kids liked me. And, the most regrettable offense, my mom was an assistant teacher at the same school.
Once threating words no longer satiated Rochelle, she upped the ante. “Don’t come outside after school,” she spat out at me over my lunch on a sunny spring day with such a force, I knew beat down day had arrived.
When the three o’clock bell rang throughout the school, rather than making my way through the sun soaked hallways to the exit, I made a hard right into the first floor Girls Lavatory. Twenty or so minutes later, after the hallways went quiet, after most of the staff and students, and the waiting crowd outside had dispersed, I left the lavatory. Tip-toeing back down the hallway, I stationed myself at the side door of the school, my tiny face framed by the rectangular window, watching to see when my mother would psychically pick up my S.O.S. call and come to collect me.
By the time my mother exited her navy-blue Ford Thunderbird, her eyes wild with fright-filled-relief—a fright that as a mother I just truly begin to comprehend—I, an eleven-year-old girl who had just earned the privilege of walking home from school with friends rather than riding with her mom and brother had gone missing from the west side of Detroit, for nearly two hours.
After dinner, my mom sat me down on the living room sofa. She began to speak. But I didn’t understand any of it. “First, move that big plastic ring from your left hand to your right. And tomorrow, when Rochelle approaches you, while she’s still talking about what she’s going to do to you, hit her as hard as you can.”
I stared at my Mom in stunned silence. My mom had told my brother and me never to hit other kids for as long as I could remember.
“Aim for her mouth,” she said. “Or her eyes, and keep hitting her until the other kids pull you off of her.”
The next morning, at breakfast, as my mom styled my hair for the day, my mom told my dad nothing. Rather than two pony tails, as I frequently requested, she platted my hair down to my scalp. Two braids ran north and south, from my hairline to the nap of my neck, like flat cables, parted by the Mason-Dixon line made by a comb. “This way Rochelle can’t grab hold of your hair,” she whispered into my ear.
That morning as my mom headed to her classroom, and I headed toward mine, I traveled the length of the hallway like a gunslinger, like Shane, dress in battle clothes: a pullover shirt, rather than a blouse. In a fight, a blouse with buttons made for grabbing opportunities. Pants rather than a dress, because a wearing a dress to a fight could reveal more than your spunk. My mom had been well schooled in the art of female warfare.
Nearing the classroom door, I felt a thump against my back. I turned.
“I’m kicking your ass after school,” Rochelle barked.
I looked her in the eye, and did not blink.
By the afternoon, the note-paper-network-system of the school was in full mode, amped up like Vegas on the night of a title bout; a fight was going down after school, the news line hummed. The air held a wild current that rocketed off the rectory scale around 2:30PM, just before the last bell clanged.
Mrs. Sapp, our fifth grade homeroom teacher sat solemnly behind the throne of her desk. Quite unusual. Although a mountain of a woman, Mrs. Sapp danced around the room, engaging her students in national and world affairs, at every opportunity. However, this afternoon she had a local concern.
“I’ve been hearing about a fight all day,” she said sternly, looking over her students. “And I don’t like it.” Then her eyes stopped moving and locked on my nemesis. “Rochelle Perry, don’t you fight Jenine Holmes. She’s a nice girl.”
Midway back, about fifteen or so feet, in my molded wooden desk, my brain went into a heated-fury. Good God, don’t say I’m a nice girl. That’s what got me into this mess, I moaned in my eleven-year-old-head. Mrs. Sapp can’t stop the fight, she can’t. I need this to end.
But her words did stop Rochelle Perry.
The resident bully cut me a wide birth that day, in fact for a rest of the school year, and into the next. It would take another decade of living for me to understand a basic fact of life: when someone wants to do you harm, no one or nothing, barring an act of God, will stop the act: not the F.B.I., Interpol, the Mossad; and least of all, a fifth grade social studies teacher.
As I moved from my eleventh year to the twelfth, an odd thing happened. I became a chronic tomboy. I moved from climbing trees, to conjuring baseball, to the science of catching pop flies with the sun blasting my eyes, and the mechanics and power of sliding into bases. During the summer, mentally and physically, I grew stronger. My body moved through in the world with a different vibe. I played harder and longer and frequently coming home with ripped clothes and bloody badges on my knees. So, by the following spring, towards the end of the sixth grade, when a punch landed in the middle of my back, my reflex sensory response called for the punch to be returned. I led with my fist. And that fist led to, Rochelle.
“Meet me on the playground, lunch time,” Rochelle yelled, rubbing the shock from her shoulder.
“I’ll be there,” I said. And for a moment, just for a moment I saw a small lightening strike of fear in her brown eyes.
I never made it to the gray gravel playground of Thirkill Elementary. Rochelle tracked me down to the first floor hallway. “Still trying to run,” she yelled at my back, or something like. It isn’t that time faded her words. I don’t think I heard them back then. As a sixth grade Primary Hostess, (Re: mom-in-training for girls, cigarette breaks for teachers), I had duties and took them seriously. I, and my first graders had just left the lunchroom and were headed to their classroom, back to their teacher.
I pushed open the classroom door. No teacher. “Okay you guys, just stay here until your Mrs. Williams comes, okay?” I said, closed the door and started back down the hallway. About, roughly twenty kids, scattered back through door behind me, like little chicks. Even they knew the epic battle Thirkill Elementary had been promised for more than a year was about to go down.
Just as I made it past the school office, Rochelle came up from the rear and shoved me. My torso lurched ahead of my legs. I caught my balance and coiled my fists. I pivoted. And swung. As my knuckles smashed in her nose, I thought of one thing: the mod plastic ring back home on my dresser. I could do more damage with it, I thought.
To allay the absence of my ring, I clutched the collar of Rochelle’s blouse in my fists, pinned my chest against hers, and slammed our combined weight into the row of forest green lockers. With the bounce of our bodies, I introduced the back of her head to the metal surface, repeatedly, three, four, five times, until as my mom had advised a year early, some kids pull me off of her.
Never before or since have I felt such a rampaging rage against another human being. The yearlong Rochelle effect had built up to a storm and a reckoning; a reckoning that I couldn’t understand even decades later. Why did it have to come to pass?
Rochelle Perry was raised in a two-parent home, she worn nice clothes to school, and even had a cool Mod Squad lunch box, like me. She even played the clarinet in the school band, just like me. What did she have to be so angry about? And more importantly, why did she feel the need to take it on other kids? I still can’t say. And judging by the more than a million views of the midschool “boys” teasing a grandmother they should have respected as much as their own family members, neither does the rest of America.
One day I’ll have to help Julia navigate the same bully road. I won’t tell her how some kids come from homes where their parents fight, homes where the remote control or shoes or drinking glasses or stainless-steel pots, became projectile weapons. That living day-to-day in that kind of environment makes some kids think fighting and bulling is a part of their social currency.
I won’t tell Julia that childhood can be a cruelest season. One day you are in. And the next day you’re in the shitter, and you have no idea why. That some kids you can talk to. Reason with. And that there are kids that only stop when you’re rolling around in the dirt with fists clenched onto one other. That even when adults step in and arbitrate, I will tell Julia that a day will come in a school lavatory, a locker room, an empty classroom where there no adult will be present. And then she will have to fight. I will tell Julia that some kids, like Rochelle Perry are just mean. And that she has a right to self-protect.
In a funny sort of way, my nemesis provided me with a great lesson. A year and a half later, in middle school, when another bully targeted me in a Lord of the Flies scenario, I was ready. Rather than standing alone, I told my equally non-threatening friends, Dinah and Carolyn about the situation. At the final bell, just beyond the front doors of McMichael Junior High, my friends stood with me.
“You thought I was serious,” the bully said, a tall brown skinned girl with harsh- marked cheeks, souvenir scratches from previous bouts.
“So you don’t want to fight?” I asked as the entier population of the school encircled us creating a fleshy amphitheater. But I still demanded clarity. I’d seen plenty of kids, who thought all was forgiven, that everything was cool, only to have the bully beat down start midway down the long driveway which led to the Boulevard. Crowds of kids gathered to watch the battles, blocking possible help from adults who had arrived on foot and or in cars to pick up their offspring. That cement drive was like the DMZ between East and West Germany. Rather than bullets and bobbled wire, I saw many a kid taken out by the feet and fists on the cold, grey cement. At the age of thirteen, battle-tested, I knew enough to stand my ground and duke it out in front the school.
True to her word, the bully kept walking down the cement drive. Clusters of kids followed, looking around in disbelief, in disappointment. My girlfriends and I hung back, standing in the warmth of the sun, I, for one, waited for my adrenalin levels to normalize. Standing in the light, I studied the bully and her two henchmen-gal pals chit-chatting amongst themselves, growing smaller and smaller with each step, their bookbags bouncing against their arched backs, undoubtedly—I believed that day, as I do today— working to determine who would be their next target.
Sunday, the first day of the week, can be the most challenging, for me. Of all the tasks of being a single mom, I never once considered attending church would become the most taxing.
About a month ago, around the age of 18 months, my darling daughter, ceased to find zip lock bags filled with gold fish crackers or kid-size containers of sliced bananas, enough to hold her attention through a complete Sunday service. The smiles and goofy looks of other attendees, seated behind us at Unity of New York, no longer held the mystery they once did. You see dear reader, Julia had found her voice. And was set on using it.
As a championship talker myself, I respect anyone making their voice heard. However, two weeks ago, when, in the midst of Paul Tenaglia’s talk, Julia chortled out a loud and long, “HEYYYY!!!!! to the delight of everyone in attendance at the service, except her mortified mother.
“Yes, there’s one of God’s amazing gifts right there in front!” the minister said.
Laughter and applause rolled down from the rear of sanctuary, the balcony, from my right and my left. And Julia applauded too. As I watched her tiny palms crash together in delight, I knew my days in the main sanctuary were numbered.
I tried taking Julia on a walk about in the back area where the books and fliers and welcome table are set up. After thirty minutes of watching her roll like a log across the carpet during the meditation, by the end of the service, I knew there was no going back. Toddler-hood had hit.
“It wasn’t that bad,” Carla, my church pal said. “ Sure baby’s talk, everyone accepts that. At least you weren’t that woman with the crying baby. Did you see they asked her to step out?”
Carla always sees the Unity side of things. Problem was, although Julia typically keeps her whaling to a minimum, I feared she’d have a sudden change of personality. After all, every time the minister asked us to “go within” Julia went without, with a yodel, a yelp, or a “HELLO!” to our nearest neighbor.
“You know, I just didn’t go out when all of you were young,” my mom said all the way from Michigan once we return home. “And when you guys became old enough for Sunday school, I sat down there with you.”
Funny, I don’t remember Mom sitting in Sunday school, but clearly remember my brothers and I housed in the basement of New Bethel Baptist Church, me with the itchy crinoline biting into the backs of my thighs, wishing I could spend the money my mom had allotted for the collection plate on candy after the service.
Since the days of having an Easter speech to memorize and Spring dresses to wear and bear in the lukewarm spring days of Michigan, the act of attending church, for me, has become vitally important. Unity Church of New York is my spiritual and creative haven. Lead by the magnetic and frequently hilarious Paul Tenaglia, church is a weekly event I rarely miss. Aside from the sense of community, it’s the one place in New York City where if you tell a member you plan to the write the next great American novel that will break all records for down loads on The New York Times,Amazon and Barnes and Noble, combined, and they are happy to affirm that vision with you. We run a can do church.
My not attending service wasn’t an option. However, attending church wasn’t working out either— with the wee lass.
Maybe there’s hope. Last week, Julia did half the touring around she did two Sundays before. And a lot less yodeling. Maybe because I had already given up something: my preferred seat, of eight years, down in front, first row, left hand side. I made camp in the back of the church, near the restrooms, in the Baby Ghetto, where the other parents of small, new walkers, new talkers, tiny explores set out see new lands, were held up. I kept ear cocked to hear the word of God, picking up 50% at best.
So far Julia, Jesus and God are neck and neck.
Only fourteen more months to go until my kid can attend Sunday school. Until then, I’ll keep prayed-up, as the old folks say. After all if Jesus could turn water into wine, he can help me find a way to keep Julia entertained, at least between the hour of 11:00 and 12:30 on Sundays.