Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
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My skin is pale, my hair is straight, and my family is black — African American, if you prefer. When we moved from the South Side of Chicago to Kalamazoo, Michigan, in the early sixties, a neighbor girl told me that I couldn’t play with her dog; it wasn’t “used to colored people.”
I was one of only two “colored” kids in my entire school. I looked just like the white kids, but I wasn’t like them. They all had friends to play with at recess, to sit with at lunch, to stick up for them if a fight broke out.
At my Episcopal church, during my confirmation class, another girl told the minister that I was not allowed to come to her house. Though her mother really liked Louis Armstrong, she said, she did not allow Negroes in their home.
In the late sixties and early seventies my black peers told me that I was “not black enough.” I tried rolling my hair in hard metal curlers, but it just came out in tight ringlets. I never achieved the truly nappy hair of a “real” black woman. The black kids would taunt me and threaten to kick my ass because I not only looked white; I acted white, walked white, and talked white. (Am I typing white?)
The hippie counterculture offered a place where I could be accepted. For some, I was just a mascot for their rebellion; they wanted to say that they’d gotten high with a “black chick.” But for others I was (and still am) simply a friend. We broke rules and defied norms. We smoked weed and dropped acid. We fucked and had fun. And I fit in, for a while.
After college and a year in Spain, I went to work in corporate America. Coworkers, customers, and people I didn’t even know would boldly ask me, “What are you? Are your parents mixed?” What kind of question is that? I wanted to say. Why do you need to know? What does that have to do with anything?
It has not changed much since then. The shade of my skin, the texture of my hair, and the way I talk are still an issue for black folks. White people sense that I am different, but they can’t figure out exactly how. Several times I’ve had clients assume that I am Italian or Latina and go on to tell me their feelings about “those goddamn niggers.” These same people are shocked and offended when I tell them I am black and that they need to apologize very quickly or they will never do business with me again. Yes, they are offended.
Shaker Heights, Ohio
When I first got out of prison, I wondered if people could tell that I was an ex-con. I constantly checked myself to make sure I wasn’t reverting to my old prison habits.
I joined a writers’ group, and when I told the members where I’d been for the past sixteen years, the room went silent. Then the leader said, “Well, I’m sure you will bring some new insights to the group.” In time I became their token ex-felon, and, later, just another member.
I got a few crummy jobs, then a better one. My life stabilized. Though still uncomfortable with my past, I felt like I was doing better in the “real world.”
The other morning I was driving to work in my white minivan, steering with one hand and shaving with the other. I was listening to Morning Edition and thinking of stopping at a McDonald’s along the way to pick up an Egg McMuffin for breakfast. It occurred to me that I was beginning to fit in.
St. Petersburg, Florida
Whenever I’m in a group of strangers, I automatically count how many Jews are in the room. If there are too many Jews mixed with non-Jews, I feel uncomfortable: It’s shameful the way we interrupt and eat up space, calling attention to ourselves — as if we haven’t been sniffed out and marched off to the slaughter often enough. Why don’t we keep quiet? If there are too few Jews, however, I feel afraid.
I feel completely safe only when surrounded entirely by Jews. This does not make sense to me. My husband, the person I feel safest with in the world, is not Jewish. Many of my friends are not Jewish. But inside me live my ancestors, and they worry: a late-night phone call might be bad news; a headache might be a tumor; a pain that lingers might be cancer.
And so my ancestors hide under prayer shawls and beseech God, the benign Father: never mind his wrath; never mind that they have been slaughtered for centuries because he chose them; never mind that they have now become victimizers as well as victims. They will protect each other. They will kvetch together and make jokes. They will sing the same prayers, in the same ancient tongue. I know how they feel, in my body, in my heart.
I’ve lived in New England for thirty years, and during that time I’ve become, my sister claims, “less Jewish” — as if that were possible. So I don’t yell, “I’m home!” anymore because my Gentile husband believes you only yell if something terrible has happened. So I am a little quieter. So? Inside I’m the same as I ever was — gutsy, playful, ambitious, sensitive (“too sensitive,” my mother always said), and always on guard. An aunt from the Ukraine is perched on my left ear, a cousin from Poland at my elbow, a great-grandfather from Austria on my back. I forget that they are there until I am in a room with strangers, and the inevitable counting begins.
My widowed mother was shacking up with a black Catholic priest in Haiti. Meanwhile I lived with my grandparents in a secluded riverfront retirement community in Florida. I was a five-year-old only child, and my friends were all at least sixty.
A year later, my mother returned and, finding me weak and puny, declared that I would have to go to camp for two months that summer. I needed toughening up. She added, gravely, that she was sending me to camp so I wouldn’t grow up to be a homosexual. When I asked what the word meant, she said that I would understand when I was older.
Never having had much contact with boys my own age, I panicked at the thought of camp. In desperation, I came up with a survival strategy: I would create a self that was beyond criticism. To that end, I added to the list of things that the camp catalog said I should bring: a couple of ascots, some Dunhill aftershave, a stack of New Yorker magazines, and three bottles of garlic salt.
The first night there, all the campers assembled in the dining hall. We were to stand one by one and say a few words about ourselves. Most campers named a favorite sport or rough-and-tumble game. When my turn came, I stood and said, “My name is Tony, and I’m here so I won’t grow up to be a homosexual.”
The next thing I knew, a counselor was carrying me by the elbow out of the hall and down to my cabin, where he took off my pants and whipped my bottom with his belt. When he had finished, he tucked in his shirt (it had come out during his exertions) and said softly, “Good night, son.”
I lay there in the dark, wondering where I had gone wrong.
Bay St. Louis, Mississippi
When I graduated from college, a foundation awarded me a one-year academic fellowship in Africa. I was to research ethnic divisions among rebel groups battling the Soviet-backed regime in Ethiopia. The rebels had been fighting for decades for the independence of Eritrea, a trumpet-shaped former Italian colony, which Ethiopia claimed as a province. For several months I, a lanky, upper-middle-class white kid from the suburbs of Chicago’s North Shore, lived among short, stocky, dark-skinned guerrillas with Kalashnikov rifles and unkempt Afros.
The rebels accepted me awkwardly into their world. Some of them didn’t believe my story of a foundation fellowship and assumed I was with the CIA. Others had grown to distrust all whites, and with good reason. But many became my friends. I worked hard to speak, read, and write Tigrinya, one of Eritrea’s main languages. I conversed with the guerrillas about politics, history, and religion. I learned their jokes and slang. They taught me to shoot a Kalashnikov. I drank suwa, their homemade alcohol. (To this day, I have never had a worse hangover.) I danced their swaying circle dances at celebrations. On New Year’s Eve, like the others, I drunkenly fired tracer bullets into the sky.
Living in a war zone, I grew used to seeing distant firefights illuminating the night sky, and awakening in the early-morning hours to the sound of anti-aircraft guns. (After a while, I slept through them.) I learned to tell the engine sound of the Soviet-made MiGs from the slow hum of commercial passenger flights. If you heard a MiG, your best bet was not to move. They would fire at any movement. Goat herds often became their targets.
In every village or camp I entered, children ran from me, screaming, “Taliano!” The first whites the locals had ever seen were their Italian colonizers. Mothers in the mountains still warned their children to behave or the “Taliano” would get them. For these children, I was the boogeyman come to life. But after I talked to them and played their games, they would climb on top of me, proudly declaring to adult villagers that I was their Taliano.
I had no mail or telephone service, only a shortwave radio. Some nights I would crawl up on the roof of a bunker and listen to American evangelists broadcasting from Liberia, just to hear their voices.
I became aware of how much I had acclimated to my new environment when I met other whites, usually European journalists or relief workers. My initial thought was always: White people are ugly.
My second thought was: They sure complain a lot.
One particularly pale Brit was so terrified of fleas that he lugged about a thermal sleeping bag, a silk sleeping-bag liner, and a pair of pressed pajamas sealed in a plastic bag. When morning came, he still complained about his terrible night’s sleep. Fleas had bitten him incessantly.
Must like white meat, I thought, and then I caught myself. It was the only time in my life I’d ever had to remind myself I was white.
When I returned to the United States, the transition was difficult. For the first month or so, I was perpetually astonished to see all the white people walking the streets. And there were so many gadgets, so many televisions with so many channels. Everyone and everything seemed to exist to make noise.
A few days after my return, my mother took me to a mall to buy me some clothes. She held up a pair of gloves like the ones I was looking for and said, “They’re over here.”
The contraction they’re threw me. I tried to disentangle the words. Finally I reordered the sentence into a Tigrinya structure of subject-object-verb: They over here are.
Outside, in the parking lot, I looked up to see a contrail plume against the blue sky of an Illinois summer.
Commercial, I thought.
My friend Myrtle has lived in the same home for twenty-seven years now, the last house on a dead-end street that dies into the shrubs and weeds along the bank of a river. For most of that time Myrtle was the local grandma, confidante, and herbal nurse.
Then the neighborhood changed. The gravel was paved, the houses were upgraded, and Myrtle was viewed as the strange old woman in the ratty house at the end. New neighbors pressured her to tame her “ugly” yard and keep her cats inside. Still, Myrtle treasured her little paradise on the riverbank. She had located forty-one edible or medicinal plants within ten minutes of her door.
Last spring a bird flew into her kitchen. Myrtle caught it in a shawl and released it unharmed. Her nearest neighbor saw her and shot her a look. Myrtle realized that the sight of a white-haired lady standing in her overgrown yard shaking birds out of shawls had unnerved the man.
The next day, Myrtle found her three beloved cats lined up dead on her front porch.
More than twenty years ago I went to work as a nurse for the Indian Health Service. It was my first job after nursing school, and I wanted to be accepted, not only as a dedicated healthcare worker, but as a culturally sensitive individual.
My academic training had imparted much theory and few clinical skills. I couldn’t start an IV, drop a gastric tube, or set up a pediatric mist tent — and here I was supervising the Native American aides who had been running the hospital for years. The irony was not lost on any of us. I worked longer hours than anyone else, but the aides never volunteered information that would help me, and they never made eye contact.
Another white nurse, sensing my frustration, told me, “It’s us and them. They’ll never be your friends. You’ll never get invited to a Navajo house.”
Early one morning, I was doing intake on an elderly man when I felt nauseated and the room began to whirl. I lost consciousness. Later, an MD who suspected I’d had a seizure advised a neurological work-up. I was granted two weeks’ leave. The tests were inconclusive, but I was distraught at the thought of returning to work. Now that I’d had a “fit,” I’d be even more ostracized.
I was thinking about packing up and heading back to Texas when a knock came on my door. Two Navajo nursing aides walked in, still avoiding eye contact, and joined me at my kitchen table. They asked if I would let them do a sand-painting ceremony for me. Their cousin, a medicine woman, had been known to cure people who were touched by the spirits.
When I got to the house where the ceremony would be held, I found I was the only non-Native American there. I’ve never experienced another seizure, and I am still in touch with one of the Navajo aides who visited me that lonely day and invited me into her home.
My husband is paralyzed below the shoulders. When he was appointed to the board of directors at the local disabilities center, I volunteered to help. I thought it was something we could do together.
I was assigned to the fundraising committee. At my first meeting we discussed plans for the center’s twenty-fifth-anniversary party. We talked about inviting disabled celebrities. Someone mentioned Christopher Reeve, and everyone laughed except me.
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
“Well,” said a man who used a cane, “Christopher Reeve thinks he’ll walk again. We need to write him a letter and set him straight.”
Everyone murmured in agreement.
“Set him straight about what?” I asked.
“That he isn’t going to walk again. That he’s disabled just like the rest of us. That all his money and fame doesn’t make him any better.”
Those who could move their heads nodded in agreement.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “Isn’t that just hope? A year ago my husband thought he would walk again, too.”
As I said these words, I suddenly realized that my husband and I had lost hope. Or maybe we had just accepted reality. I was getting confused. I admired Christopher Reeve and his wife for their optimism and their decision to tell their story. But I was also jealous that they got so much attention and that money seemed to be no object for them. Christopher Reeve probably had a special bathtub in which he could actually take a bath. I realized that if Christopher Reeve ever did walk again, I’d suspect it was because his money and fame had gotten him better care.
“Well,” I said, “when you write that letter, let me know, because I want to include a letter to Mrs. Reeve. I’ve read that she says she can still have sex with her husband. I want to find out how she does it.”
Everybody laughed. I had made fun of a man who was more helpless than my husband. Christopher Reeve couldn’t even breathe on his own.
I was starting to fit in with the disabled community, and I didn’t think I liked it.
When I joined the military in 1962 I was thrown in with a group of good ol’ boys from the deep South. One day, Jake, Frank, Jimmy, and I were in the Chicago USO, sitting next to a large plate-glass window. Outside on the sidewalk, a black man in a pinstriped business suit was looking up and down the street and occasionally glancing in through the window. With a smirk, Jake wrote something on a napkin and stood it up against the salt and pepper shakers, where it could be easily seen from the street. “Wait until he sees this,” Jake said. Frank and Jimmy laughed.
I picked up the napkin to see what he’d written. There was only one word, printed in large block letters: nigger.
My first instinct was to throw it away. But I was a long way from home and needed to fit in. So I placed the napkin back on the table, where I knew the man standing outside would see it.
It didn’t take long. The man’s expression turned to anger. “Snot-nosed kids,” we heard him say through the window.
When the man headed for the entrance to the USO, Jake, Frank, and Jimmy scattered. I ran for the men’s room and hid there for ten minutes before I ventured out.
The black man in the pinstriped suit was speaking quietly with the USO manager. They spotted me, and the man stepped in front of me and pushed the napkin into my face. “Is this your doing?”
“No, sir,” I said. “Not me.”
“Liar,” he said. “I saw you. I’ve worked much too hard to put up with this crap. What do you have to say for yourself?”
“It wasn’t me,” I said, and I pushed past him and sat down at a table close to the door. He stood there for a moment, then started for the exit. On his way out, he crumpled the napkin and threw it on my table.
Later that day, my friends questioned me about what had happened. When I told them, they all laughed.
What I remember most is the look on that man’s face as he caught my eye one last time before walking out of the USO, and the slow, sad shaking of his head.
Robert H. Cook
Blackwood, New Jersey
I sat in the principal’s office with a wry smile on my face. I wasn’t there to be reprimanded; I was twenty-six years old and interviewing for a job. A plastic crucifix hung over the desk. I imagined Jesus looking down at me, a lapsed Catholic hoping to teach eighth grade in a Catholic school. He’d have spun in his grave, if he’d had one.
Sister Michele bustled back in, a bundle of energy in sensible shoes. “I’m sorry for the interruption, but that’s the way it is here. Parents and students need you when they need you.”
I smiled. I had left a lucrative career to enter teaching because I wanted to make a difference. I wanted this job, in this unsafe neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, among people with much darker skin than my own, who spoke English with accents from Mexico and Nigeria and the Philippines and Haiti and the inner city.
So far the interview had gone great. “There’s only one question left,” Sister Michele said.
I sat up a little taller, expecting her to ask when I could start.
“Why don’t you tell me about your relationship with God.”
“My relationship with God?” I shouldn’t have been so surprised. This was a Roman Catholic school, after all.
“Yes. We stress that everyone in the school community work on their personal relationship with God. Eighth-graders, in particular, are looking for role models. As their teacher, you’ll be a primary example for them.”
I had been so sure I was going to get this job. There were bullet holes in the windows, for heaven’s sake! Where else was she going to get someone with my credentials to teach in this neighborhood?
“I try to see the face of God in the people around me,” I began. “I’m not always successful, but that’s where I look for God.”
“And Jesus?” she prompted.
“Well, he’s the best role model, right? In the face of great cruelty, he chose love. But as for him being the only Son of God, I don’t believe that. I think we’re all children of God; Jesus just did the best job of showing it.” Taking a deep breath, I said, “And you should probably know that I don’t think the Resurrection is the point of the story.”
“What, then,” she asked, “is the point?”
“Love. Forgiveness. Kindness.”
Her expression betrayed nothing. “And your relationship with the Church?”
“My relationship with the Church is ambivalent,” I said. “I haven’t attended mass in years. I don’t like the Church’s attitude toward women in the clergy. And I don’t agree with its stand on birth control. It’s just a way to limit women’s options. It’s not what Jesus would do.”
“You said you were ambivalent,” she replied. “What about the other side of your feelings?”
I choked up. I felt the job slipping away from me. Sister Michele waited expectantly as I tried to pull myself together.
“Well,” I said, “I do respect the work the Church does with the poor. And I like the music.”
Sister Michele nodded soberly, gathering my résumé and transcripts into a neat pile on her desk. She stood up and held out her hand. I, too, stood, searching frantically for something to say that would keep me in the running for this job. Sister Michele spoke first:
“I think you’ll fit in here just fine.”
Palo Alto, California
By Friday morning, as I made the long trek to school, the dress I’d worn all week was looking like a thrift-store relic. Stale-smelling and stained, wrinkled from hours of sitting in class, it hung limply from my pudgy, thirteen-year-old frame.
I carried a man’s briefcase, a gift for which my mother had scrimped and saved, furtively skimming a dollar here and a dollar there from the household money my father gave her each week. The briefcase meant a great deal to her. “All the girls in Berlin had such satchels when I was a student,” she would say to me. “You are not like those other girls at your school. Clotheshorses they are, all of them! You are a serious student.”
I certainly didn’t want to be a clotheshorse — not that there was any chance of that. I owned three dresses, all styled to disguise my paunchy stomach. At school I tried to ignore the other girls as they flounced down the halls in poodle skirts, buoyed like great ships by layers of petticoats in lovely pastel colors. These girls chatted about what size bras they wore, which boys they liked, and, most shockingly, which male teachers were cute. I didn’t need to work very hard to convince my mother that I was nothing like them.
The briefcase was large and quite heavy once all my textbooks were in it. By the end of the day, my arms and back ached. I carried it home each afternoon, limping from the effort, until I approached our street, where my mother waited anxiously in the doorway of our tract home. Then I straightened up and walked with purpose, a daughter who desired to make her mother proud.
One day, as I huffed tiredly up the stairs between classes, some popular girls bounced by me, petticoats rustling. “I wish I had a briefcase like that!” one said to me.
Shocked and flushed with pleasure at being spoken to, much less complimented, I turned with a smile — only to see them smirking.
That afternoon, I stacked my textbooks in my assigned school locker and walked home with an empty briefcase. After dinner, I placed the briefcase in the back of my closet.
My mother was quick to notice its absence as I prepared for school the next morning. I told her I didn’t have much homework and could finish it in study hall.
“We never had such a thing when I was a girl!” she said sourly. “I spent a lot of money on that briefcase for you.”
“I know you did,” I replied, “and I’ll use it. Really I will. I just don’t need it today.”
Little changed at school, of course. I still wore the same beleaguered dress all week and lied to those girls who deigned to speak to me, telling them that my mother washed and ironed it every night. I lied at home, too, when I repeated each day that I had no homework, and thus no need for the briefcase that remained in the back of my closet. I tried not to look at it, and my mother tried not to look at me.
Elsie M. Hughes
On my first day of kindergarten, two third-graders began a ritual that continued for the next few years: every morning they would taunt me and repeatedly slap my face.
They weren’t the only kids who teased me. One favorite mocking refrain was: “Fat Matt! Fat Matt!”
When I look back at photos, I don’t appear any heavier than anyone else. I guess they just liked the rhyme.
I grew to hate myself, and tirelessly monitored everything I did or said or thought, to make sure it was aligned with the “normal” point of view.
When I reached high school and began to think of dating, my quest for normalcy kicked into high gear. I stopped acting in plays and joined the football and track teams (two sports I hated). I hung out with people I didn’t like, drinking beer I didn’t enjoy. My first kiss was with a girl I found obnoxious.
In my quest to eliminate the imaginary fat that had caused me to become an outcast, I developed a full-blown eating disorder. I woke up at 4:30 every morning and worked out for three hours before school, subsisting on salads, diet soda, and the occasional dessert (immediately thrown up). I grew so weak that I passed out in gym class and wound up in the emergency room. In between classes, I compulsively checked my abs in the boys’-room mirror, terrified an ounce of fat would appear.
One day in study period, I sat with a group of popular, pretty girls. They were discussing the relative merits of boys’ bodies:
“Oh, Frank has a great butt!”
“But Joe’s chest is huge!”
“What about me?” I asked. “What do you think of my body?”
“You?” one girl said, gazing vacuously in my direction. “You’re just — normal.”
It was a hollow victory.
New York, New York
In my formative years, my mother hoped to make me perfect by reminding me of how imperfect I was. This, of course, made me nervous, anxious, and insecure. Having failed miserably at perfecting me, my mother unceremoniously tossed me out.
At the age of fifteen I was sent to San Francisco to find my big brother, who lived on a houseboat in an “alternate-lifestyle community.” Maybe I would fit in there.
But my brother was mostly indifferent to my presence, and I found myself a misfit among misfits, just as insecure as ever. Looking to others in this hedonistic community for an example, I wound up having sex with a lot of men to whom I wasn’t the least bit attracted. I eventually turned to alcohol and drugs. I still didn’t fit in, but I didn’t mind so much.
It all came to a tragic end when, during a disagreement over a heroin deal, my boyfriend shot another man. Caught in the middle, I went to prison. At twenty-nine, I began serving a sentence of twenty-five years to life.
I was nothing like the tattooed, illiterate, uneducated inmates around me, and for once, I wasn’t interested in trying to fit in. I was sent to solitary for a year. With no one to compare myself to, I had to confront who I really was. And I realized that I was the person I had been running from. I decided to stop running.
Now I am about to be released into the society I left more than two decades ago. The old anxiety has returned: will I fit in?
San Rafael, California
When I was seven, Dr. Scholl’s sandals were all the rage. My three sisters and I watched with envy as the neighborhood girls pranced around awkwardly on their clunky, wooden-soled sandals with the colorful top straps. The red ones were the coolest, then white, then blue.
My sisters and I played on the periphery, careful not to draw attention to the plastic flip-flops that gave us blisters between our toes. Every night we would come home and beg our parents for Dr. Scholl’s, offering up all of our worldly possessions, promising to do any chore. But my parents couldn’t afford trendy sandals for the four of us, and my sisters and I accepted the fact that we were going to endure a summer without Dr. Scholl’s.
Then one night, my dad called us all into the garage. We secretly hoped that we would find four shoe boxes containing four pairs of Dr. Scholl’s.
Instead our dad had laid out a large piece of plywood and a remnant of blue shag carpeting. For the next few hours, we took turns standing patiently on the plywood as my dad traced our feet and cut carefully around the outlines. Then he measured the tops of our feet and fastened a piece of blue shag carpet to each plywood sole. At the end of the night we stood looking down at our new “Dr. Scholl’s.” We walked back and forth across the garage, testing them out, listening to the clap of the plywood on the cement floor. We felt cool.
The next day, the four of us hesitantly went out to play in our blue-shag sandals. Despite the enjoyment our new shoes gave us, we were unsure whether they were going to help or hurt our reputations.
Our feet brought skeptical glances at first. Nobody really knew what to make of the sandals: were they in or out?
Maybe it was the way we glided around on them, as if we were walking on air, or maybe they really were as great as we thought. I don’t know why, but later that night, all the kids in the neighborhood were lined up in our garage waiting for my dad to make them sandals. Even the cool girls kicked off their Dr. Scholl’s and stood on the plywood for him to trace their feet.
New York, New York
I do not surf the Web. I don’t watch TV. I have no microwave or dishwasher. I live in a 1925 bungalow, surrounded by antiques and family heirlooms. I don’t keep up with sports. I don’t go to bars. I don’t know what it means anymore to be close to someone. I don’t read the newspaper. I spend most of my time in utter silence, because the noise in my head is loud enough.
I am a vegetarian. I sculpt figures out of clay. I read and write. I ride my bicycle. I take walks in the woods and in cemeteries. I grow flowers and a mean tomato.
I have always dreamed of having friends with whom to get together, eat dinner, and have meaningful conversations. But that has never happened for me. I’ve always been different, odd, out of touch, a loner. I have been told I am unique. That I have an innocence about me. That I am compassionate and kind to a fault. But none of this makes me fit in.
Mary E. Plummer
I’m standing near the doorway of the elementary-school cafeteria, watching the holiday program. All three of my children are in it, and I am here to show them that I care.
I dread talking to another parent, as the conversation will quickly become awkward and strained. Once an actively involved full-time mother, I gave up custody of my children when their father and I divorced. (“How could she do that?” people ask.) I suffer from a mental illness. I see my children every other weekend, if I’m doing well and am able to handle the stress. (“What happened to her?” “Wasn’t she in the nuthouse?”) I live in a makeshift shack of pallets, screens, tarps, plywood, duct tape, and staples. (“She lives in a cave.”) I have no job. My primary responsibility at this point is getting well. Any other demands create anxiety, which sets me back. (“What does she do all day?” “I hear she’s a hermit.”)
Even without my fearful expression and shaking hands, I would stand out. My clothes are baggy, worn, and stained. My feet are bare and have dried mud and grass on them. My long brown curls are slightly matted. My arms, hands, and fingers have scabs where I’ve picked and scratched. I am just skin and bones, able to wear children’s clothing. I am the only one who hitchhiked here and afterward will need to find a safe spot to sleep until daylight; the only one who hears voices screaming at her about how terrible she is, calling her names, cajoling her to do inappropriate things.
Being in a roomful of people, with children darting around and terrible bright lights, is beginning to get to me. Run away, my voices tell me. Go home, now! You are not safe here. You are going to lose it.
The program is over, and everyone is moving about, eating cookies. My kids are in front of me, talking breathlessly and all at once. I tell them how great they were, but my mind feels thick, muddy. By the time I remember to hug them, they are off. Here come my ex-husband and his fiancée, all decked out. I turn and lose them in the crowd. I am frightened, overstimulated, overwhelmed.
I look up and recognize a group of parents from the play group I started years ago. I smile, and they quickly look away. To them I am a mother who abandoned her kids, who fought thoughts of killing them. A homeless person. A reminder that people are fragile, that they can break.
I spot my daughter and go to her. I’m here for my children, I remind myself. They asked me to come. It is important to them. They do not know how hard this is for me, how sick I will be afterward, how the voices will use this to try to destroy me. I do it for my kids. I do everything for them.
My father says he sent me to predominantly white private schools in Houston, Texas, so that I would learn to deal with white people. (My family is African American.) In other words, he wanted me to get to know the enemy as best I could, so that I’d be equipped to outwit them when I needed to. To his surprise, most of my friends growing up were white.
Every summer, my family went to visit relatives in New Orleans. My parents called it “going home.” At 5 A.M. they’d pack my sister and me into the back of our station wagon and drive five hours east into the sunrise.
The relatives treated us as if we were returning royalty. They fed us delicious foods and told us improbable stories about my father when he was a boy. My sister and I would play with our cousins in the magnolia-lined streets, learning jump-rope games with which to impress and confound our white friends when we returned to the dusty playgrounds of Texas. The neighborhood kids cocked their heads and squinted at us when we spoke. We did not talk the same way they did. According to them, what we spoke was “proper,” and that was cause for ridicule.
After a long summer vacation in New Orleans, I’d return to school in the fall speaking my relatives’ exotic, decidedly not-proper tongue. My private-school friends never ridiculed me but only marveled at the sudden change. To them, I became a rare bird: the kid from New Orleans.
I have long since grown apart from most of my white childhood friends. Some proved to be the enemy. Others moved to different states or lost touch when they married. Some of them got drunk or high so much that I got tired of watching them destroy themselves. Some of them are dead. I don’t know them anymore, but when I did, I knew them well. I knew their secrets and their weaknesses and what made them laugh. And, when I returned from those visits home speaking in that slow, sad New Orleans style, those who were paying attention knew something about me, too.
Jewell M. Handy
Brooklyn, New York
I was used to being the only woman in a roomful of scientists and engineers, but this was my first visit to the male-dominated world of a corporate “command center.” The attorney who’d arranged the meeting escorted me in. A technical-communications consultant, I’d been hired to turn reams of environmental-impact data into a report for the government.
The five executives all wore dark, traditional suits. I could see a green courtyard outside the window. The art on the walls was impeccable and unevocative.
We were here to review my draft report, which was strictly factual, with no speculation, judgments, predictions, or interpretations. Any perceived breach of scientific objectivity had been quickly brought to my attention by a horde of earlier reviewers. Still, the data revealed that the product at issue was having unforeseen, unintended consequences for the environment.
“Is there a legal obligation to report all the data?” someone asked. After deciding the answer was no, they meticulously weeded out any information the company was not specifically required by law to disclose. “The public will just have to trust us on the rest,” the man at the head of the table pronounced.
“Why should the public trust the company?” I asked.
His head jerked back as if I had thrown a glass of ice water in his face, but his voice remained sonorous and steady. “Excuse me? What did you say?”
I repeated the question slowly, without any trace of emotion: “I said, ‘Why should the public trust the company?’ ”
His lips drew into a thin line, and he studied me intently, really seeing me for the first time.
After a few minutes of silence, someone inquired about the revised draft. It was decided that I would make the changes discussed and have another draft in two weeks. As I got up to leave, all the men stood and thanked me politely for my hard work. The attorney hastily escorted me out.
My firstborn son began crawling at five months. He took his first step at seven months. He spoke in full sentences at ten months. He was fully potty-trained at eighteen months. I was the envy of the mothers in my play group. I gave them off-the-cuff advice, suggested books for them to read.
When I gave birth to my second son, he had a beautiful round head, an engaging smile, and a calm temperament. Then, when he was nearly two, he gradually stopped speaking and withdrew from the world — and from me.
I, too, started to withdraw. I no longer got together with the playgroup mothers. I moved my family to a new town, an hour away. I read books about “late-talking children.” I searched the Web for information about mercury poisoning. I knew my son was smart, very smart. I could see his brilliance when he worked on the computer. He came from a family of engineers and chemists and late talkers. But still, he was not talking.
I would not let the doctors touch him. I would not let him be evaluated by the school system. I would not have him labeled “autistic.” It was not a word that I could accept. Our family became a tight group unto itself, impenetrable. My younger son thrived in our shelter. He began to heal.
I sent my older son to public school. I sent my younger son to a carefully selected Waldorf school, then to a Montessori school, then to a regular preschool. I spoke to his teacher ahead of time to prepare her. I told her about a professional evaluation that had described my son as “extremely intelligent” with a case of “mixed expressive/receptive language delay.” (At least it wasn’t autism.) But I knew that public school would be difficult for him, and for me. It was already difficult for my older son.
I began to question public education, state mandates, national standards, and conventional notions of what children should learn. I read John Holt, Grace Llewellyn, John Taylor Gatto, and Alfie Cohn. I talked to my husband. He listened. We took our sons out of school. It was both the hardest and the easiest decision we’ve ever made.
Now we homeschool. We unschool. We no-school. Our sons teach themselves. My husband and I watch with awe as their natural genius unfolds. We are on the educational fringe. We don’t fit in. We will never fit in.
Warwick, New York
My parents had me committed at the age of fifteen. Timberlawn Psychiatric Center was the end of the line. I’d been expelled from public high school, from a fancy boarding school for boys in need of discipline, and from a rehab center from which I’d continually escaped. In rehab I’d heard rumors about “long-term” facilities like Timberlawn: double-locked doors, five-point restraints, needles.
In my third week there, Timberlawn held a dance for the boys’ and girls’ adolescent units. I broke out some of my “preppy” clothes left over from my unsuccessful stay at boarding school (where, incidentally, no one but me dressed in oxford shirts and docksiders). I tied a cotton tie loosely at my neck. A number of fellow inmates confronted me about my appearance, but I went to the dance in the tie.
After hearing what I’d done, my psychiatrist had an epiphany about my diagnosis: he thought I believed I was “special,” so my treatment was to be reconstructed into a typical teenage boy. I was to wear rock-and-roll T-shirts, play foosball, and follow sports. When I refused, I was ordered to sit on a chair in my room all day, every day, and think about my decision. Instead I dreamt of LSD-fueled road trips to nowhere, of starry fields and streams.
Later, the shrink with the “regular-guy” obsession quit. My fellow inmates started wearing all manner of strange dress clothes, including ties.
On the eve of my departure, I snuck out and returned at two in the morning, drunk and stoned. They were going to re-admit me right there on Sunday morning, but I was eighteen years old and in possession of a car. I walked past the admittance room and just kept going.
I ended up in the mountains of New Mexico, where many other misfits like me live together in relative harmony. I’ve had four dozen jobs and ten times that many addresses since I came here fifteen years ago. I never became a “regular guy,” but I did have that acid trip by the stream under the starry skies.
Taos, New Mexico
Mami was Puerto Rican and proud of it, small and dark. Pop was Estonian and a drunk, a retired army man with a disability from the big war. We lived in a housing project, and my sister and I were bused to the nearest Catholic school, in a fancy neighborhood.
I understood we were not like the other kids at school, but Tina, my little sister, always tried hard to be like everybody else. She hated being poor and was embarrassed that Mami had an accent and no nice dresses, hated that our place was painted in bright colors and we had a pet monkey, that Pop staggered around drunk so she could never have friends over.
One day a girl from school invited Tina to supper. Tina was thrilled, but also terrified that she wouldn’t know how to eat with a rich family. At home, we ate on the floor, plates on our laps, after Pop had passed out. She begged Mami to teach her how to eat at a table.
Mami tried to explain to Tina how to put a napkin on her lap, how to pass food, how to cut meat, how to excuse yourself when the meal is done. And then Mami told Tina about all the forks: one for salad, one for supper, and one for dessert.
“How will I know which is which?” Tina cried. Mami tried to explain the order to her, the differences in size, but Tina was inconsolable. “What if I can’t remember? What if I can’t do it?”
I can still hear her screaming, and Mami, in a very calm voice, saying, “Tina, it’s only forks. It’s not important.” But for Tina it was her whole world; it was everything.