It is easy for me to capture the memories of my childhood. Mostly, I am laughing and playing. I am innocent and naughty. I am sleepy and wide awake at the world that loves the little-ness that is me. I am skipping then quickening my steps and running to the edge of the horizon only to stop abruptly. The sunlight whose trail I have followed has disappeared and all that is before me is darkness. I am scared, but fearless. How bad can it possible be to plunge head first into adolescence?
Adolescence began for me the day I learned what conceited meant. A playmate walked up to me in the schoolyard and told me some "she said, she said" business about how I walked around like I loved myself too much. I looked like I was too proud. It did not occur to me that walking with an erect spine, shoulders soft, did not bode well for an eleven year old girl. My body belied my age and at the same time my mind was hastening at such a pace that my body could not keep up. All girls mature like this, and no one talks about it in sex education classes in a way that she can open her mouth and say, "Yes, that is me." She hears that all of this development is normal and age appropriate, yet no one bothers to inform the media, bullies, teachers and parents. Girls are persona non-grata in their own skin.
The truth was that I did not love myself, nor did I necessarily hate myself. I was a quiet and disciplined student who could calculate the exact moment to raise my hand in class so I did not look too intelligent or too sassy. I admit that my carriage and deameanor were a result of ballet and a maternal,West Indian upbringing unspoilt by the urban environment in which I lived. I was not conscious of the way that class and immigrant status separated the "just Blacks" from the hyphenated nationalities Blacks, which culminated in me being shoved, fingered, and whispered about on the playground. There were plenty of second generation kids like me in my town. I just happened to be the one who was last to get picked in line for the teams.
Conceited followed me into middle school and changed the way she looked. Her modus operandi transitioned from a vocabulary word dangling at the end of a sentence to a striking presence attached to my backpack. The shoving and the back-stabbing continued, as this is developmentally normal and age appropriate. Between the tears tucked away before I got home and the the careful glances beyond the edge of my locker I noticed something. I was not alone. I felt lonely because I was silent in a sea of teen outrage and rebellion. Looking down at my feet taking hurried steps from one class to the next, I did not see the growing trend of kids in the hallway who could not find their place in this social morass. Kids like Pooh-Bee who was the Big Man on Campus--a light-skinned homeboy from the projects. He was the kid who made Beat-boxes on his desk instead of doing social studies. He moved through school with quixotic charm and handled the administration in Machiavellian terms. Pooh-Bee hung out in the back of classes with his b-boys making unwelcomed gestures and comments that are not worth repeating. Imagine a tall, good-looking kid swaying down the hallway with all the cool kids in the latest hip-hop fashion flanked at his side. Now, imagine this in slow motion. That is who Pooh-Bee was.
Our school required all students to pass water safety class by eighth grade promotion, which meant that a student needed to be able to swim the length of the pool. I loved to swim and within my class I was one of the few who advanced quickly to diving from the deep end. Strong swimmers could opt out of the water and play board games until the period ended. Except for those who did not know how to swim. They were shuttled and roped off in the shallowest end of the pool. Pooh-Bee did not know how to swim. From poolside, I watched in discomfort the horror on his face. His slender body stood frozen and shivering in the water. Beginners kicked and splashed around him, but the instructor could not get Pooh-Bee to move. In literature, this is called irony.
I thought Pooh-Bee was king and the rest of us were pawns guarding his position on the chessboard. Too busy holding up our end of the bargain to act like the blacks you see on TV and in the news, we missed the cue card that told us, "Now, be yourself..." We were thrown into the game not knowing that we were getting played. Games are predictable because there is an objective, and it is clear who wins at the end. Life at age fourteen did not move at a leisurely and stimulating pace of a card game. We were rushing to get out of Algebra and writing essays in incomplete sentences. We flipped the bird to teachers who mistook our back-talk for insolence instead of intellectual inquiry. And as for the girls who wore tight blouses and short skirts--our bodies belied our age, and trust me, we felt just as uncomfortable looking that way as you did looking at us.
The misery of being a teenager in a rundown city felt like it would never end. Well meaning teachers, Sunday school lessons, and politicians moonlighting as motivational speakers told us everything was going to be okay. Eventually. Pep talks sounded like a co-eds pledging a sorority. They just have to memorize a few lines of history, get through being publicly humiliated, and agree to have their liberties suspended so they can earn their pins and the admiration of fellow sorors. Eventually is adulthood with a smattering of therapy on the side. I am glad not to be in my Adidas shoes from back then, but I secretly desire a do-over. My personal time machine would make me the Queen piece on the chessboard.
For writers, penning adolescence is cathartic, but can also be an act of civil disobedience; It is uncouth and illegitimate to write personal narrative, especially one that is confessional. The writer must distance herself from the subject and adopt an objective view. What happens when the writer is the subject? The personal becomes political. As part of my redress, I have created a running list of the names of other kids with whom I attended middle school. Next to their names are nick-names, if any and their infamy. For example, Nicole, aka, Little Dolly Parton because her breast were too huge for her petite frame. Or, Sherrod, pulled a knife on the science teacher and held it to his neck because he did not take too kindly to white, upper class people acting like they knew better than him. Robin, pregnant twice by age fifteen, DYFS took her children. I remember them like they were my friends with whom I have lost touch and long to reconnect. Our only acquaintance was on the board where we stood on the black or white squares waiting for the hand of fate to advance us. Waiting was our act of solidarity.
To write about adolescence is to tell the story of political and social unrest. The oppressors are big and bad, care little for those living at the margins, and are uninterested in leveling the the playing field. There can only be one winner and multiple losers. I wonder whatever happened to Pooh-Bee. I am sure he learned how to swim, but am not certain if he learned the rules to be able to master the game.
For me to admit defeat is synonymous to martyrdom for a generation of baby-boomer grandchildren whose lives played out like an archetype in The Breakfast Club. I refuse to wave a white flag and to chalk up circumstances to a coming of age ceremoniously passed down from one generation to the next. Rather, I am the Grandmaster. Confidence in my abilities has grown as the awkwardness of adolescence has disappeared. However, the memory of her attaches itself to my pawn. The dark corners and edges of the board remind me of the horizon. I stare past the fullness of the sun contemplating my next move.