In November Mom married my stepdad. In December we moved a hundred miles up the east coast from Miami. In January I transferred into Stuart Middle School in the middle of eighth grade.
I thought I might be due a little peace—not the fight that broke out my first day of school.
In January, 1972, racial tension ran high, but the fight involved flying fists, fingernails, and an afro wig between black girls who tackled each other in the dust between classrooms. This was my first clue I wasn’t in Kansas/St. Hugh’s Catholic anymore, Toto.
My dose of racial tension happened in P.E.
Since I was the new kid, the teacher assigned me to the kickball team with the fewest players—an all-black powerhouse headed for the championship. This would have been great if I had any kickball skills.
The girls plunked me in the way-outfield where I checked for stray golden hairs sparkling in the sun on my newly shaved and nicked legs.
I contemplated the horrors of my hideous one-piece gym getup and impending buck-naked communal showers.
Meanwhile our infielders pitched and fielded three-up, three-down against our opponents.
We came up to bat.
I made the first out.
The rest of the roster batted.
I made the second out. Ditto, the third.
The girls were pissed, and I pictured my blonde hair flying in the dust after school.
But just because they could kick the ball to kingdom come, didn’t mean they’d kick my…
Anyway, by the end of class they created a specialty position for me—similar to designated hitter, I like to think. My job was to kick three outs every inning to rotate our team into the field at regular intervals so the girls didn’t suffer extreme boredom from kicking all period.
I kicked… um yeah, in my new role.
By the end of the season eleven black girls said “hey” to me in the halls and a championship certificate hung on my bedroom wall commemorating my career of outs.
After a shower so speedy water barely splatted the white of my skin, I race-walked to math and slumped into an empty seat. Winded, I worried that the teacher would scratch numerical hieroglyphics across the board and I’d be lost the rest of the semester.
I scanned the students settling into their desks, and prayed for air to puff through the screen-less windows. My gaze caught on random stalactites of pencils suspended by their points from the acoustic tile ceiling.
Something whizzed past my ear and splatted on my neighbor’s desk. A spit wad.
Welcome to public school.
Maybe I could manage the math after all.
Later, I walked through the doorway of a new building where the rest of my classes would be held.
I smiled as the sweat cooled on my skin. Bring on my first taste of air conditioned education!
I breathed in new-car smell and gazed across a sea of carpet in the largest classroom I’d ever seen. Library shelves of books clustered in the center and tables drift-wooded around the perimeter. A minute later I realized what was missing. Chairs.
Midway through the semester, as I lay on the floor under a table in the open-concept classroom for the third period that day, I had an epiphany.
Air conditioned education may not have inputted any new information, but it did wonders for my shyness and note-writing skills. I’d mastered chatting from one bell to the next. My way, way longer than 140 character notes to my girlfriends—signed with a number rather than name in case of interception—earned berths in my first friend, Aida Gale’s, archival collection.
When I got into sewing class I thought I’d won the public school lottery. Mom didn’t sew and I’d never heard of 4-H, but now I was on my way to creating chic.
I made a skirt that, if you overlooked the funky zipper, could be worn in public. I was half way through a smock top when Mrs. MacArthur bent to help the student in front of me.
I listened for the juicy parts of the whispered conversation going on behind me while I waited in the sticky warmth for Mrs. MacArthur to help me figure out which notches went together.
She whipped around, her face six blocks past annoyed. She narrowed her eyes at me and the whisperers. “All three of you, to the office!”
I scuffed my feet on the cement walk behind the other two girls and stared a hole in my pass. Making faces at teacher behind her back.
The injustice! Didn’t she know I practically had a degree in sucking up? I’d never even gotten a demerit. Well, never mind about Sister Theresa rapping my knuckles with a ruler.
One smack on the posterior with the vice principal’s paddle short circuited my sewing promise.
When I got home, Mom believed me and not Mrs. MacArthur. She righted my soul that day. Like any kid, I’d been dealt my share of injustices, but Mom made up for ten of them with that one hug.
The peace I wanted came in the form of friends.
Aida Gale and Tara Gambee invited me to hang out after school with the junior high version of Mensa Society.
I slid into a seat at the Stuart Public Library as notebooks snapped open around the table. Textbooks were flipped to the exact pages scribbled on loose leaf or bookmarked with scraps of paper. Pens, Number Two Pencils, and highlighters were laid out.
Denise Domansky tucked her blonde hair behind her ears. “So, at the beach on Sunday, you remember seeing Debbie Thalasitis holding hands with—”
Aida cut her off, “They weren’t holding hands. Debbie quit boys. She passed me a note in Social Studies that said so.”
Mark Travis, sitting shoulder to shoulder with Denise, said, “You guys are both wrong. It was Mitzi Bronson and Ricky Evans.”
Denise shrieked. “Not in this lifetime.”
Giggles fire-crackered around the table.
The librarian shot us the stink eye.
Carolyn Rathkopf unhooked the rubber bands from her braces and leaned on the table. “Okay, which day should we go to the street fair? We need to decide now or we’ll get stuck with our siblings.” Eye roll.
Aida looked at her literature book. “Um… I can’t go with you guys.”
Denise jumped out of her seat. “You’re going with a boy!”
Jane Miller arched a thin brow. “We need to do our homework or we’ll get kicked out of the library like last time.”
Tara pushed up her glasses on her freckled nose. “What? Aida’s going where with a boy?”
Denise narrowed her eyes at me. “Ann knows who it is. Don’t you?”
I shrugged one shoulder. Maybe I did, but I was Mensa enough to keep my mouth shut.
Those kids—and some later additions—became my place of peace in turbulent adolescence. They served as voices of reason, purveyors of fun and mischief, moral compasses. My people. Nearly forty years later, spread across the country, we chat on the internet, waking up sleepy memories. And I know in my heart, they are my people, still.
[What the people mentioned in the article grew up to be—Aida Gale was a high school job coach and currently works with foreign students. Tara Gambee was a psychotherapist, desktop publisher, a bed and breakfast manager, and now owns a women’s consignment store. Denise Domansky works for a law firm. Deb Thalasitis served in City Manager roles around the country and currently works for a national human resources consulting firm. Mark Travis died soon after he graduated from college. Mitzi Bronson owns Bali Sterling Silver. Ricky Evans pastors a church in Jensen Beach. Carolyn Rathkopf worked in the ad agency business, then moved into interactive website development and interactive marketing. Jane Miller teaches university geology. I’m a writer.]