Authors: Andrew Clements
Phil knew that all he had done was tell the truth. About the lunch money, about the jacket, about Daniel's grandmother. It was all true. But he couldn't shake the feeling that he'd done something bad.
He kept thinking about the early morning scene in the principal's office, replaying it again and again. He kept seeing the look on Daniel's face, the anger in his eyes as he threw the jacket to the floor. And instinctively Phil knew that his being white and Daniel's being black was part of this. Maybe a big part.
Phil had known a lot of African American kids at school, ever since his first day as a kindergartner. And he thought,
I don't care what color anybody is. I never pay attention to that. I'm friends with everybody.
But being friends with everyone and being someone's friend, those were two different things. And as he thought about it, Phil knew he had never had a black kid for a friend, not really. The kids on the school basketball team were good guys, but not really friends. Black kids went to his
school, but did they live in his neighborhood? Not in his part of the city. That's just how things were. Every morning Daniel and the other African American kids arrived at school by bus, or sometimes their parents dropped them off. A lot of Hispanic kids too. Phil didn't know exactly where they came from. It didn't really matter to him, and he'd never thought about it much. Until today.
Phil kept arguing with himself. He thought,
Yeah, but during school, everyone gets along fineâwhite kids, Hispanic kids, Asian kids, black kids. No problems.
Most of the African American kids sat together at lunch, and they tended to hang around together in the halls and at recess. But that didn't seem weird to Phil. When you eat lunch, or if you have a little free time, you want to be with your friends, that's all. Besides,
everyone played sports together during gym, and sometimes at recess, too. Everyone, together. No problems.
And all the black guys on my basketball team? I get along great with them.
Still, after school every day almost all the black kids got onto buses or climbed into cars and drove away. Those kids just disappeared as Phil went to basketball practice or walked home with his friends.
Sitting in math class, Phil thought about Daniel's grandmother.
I've known her longer than Daniel has!
And it was true. He was two years older than Daniel, and Phil had known Lucy all his life.
Lucy. That's what he'd always called her. Just Lucy. She came every other Saturday and helped his mom clean the house. Phil had never even wondered about her last name. It had
never mattered. She was just Lucy. Until today.
When he was little, Phil had loved helping on cleaning day. He would take hold of the bucket with all the supplies in it and heave it up the front stairs, one at a time. Lucy would smile and say, “Why, Philip, look at you! You sure are big and strong!”
And now that he was almost twelve, sometimes as he ran through the house to get a baseball glove or grab a quick bite of lunch before going out to shoot baskets with his friends, Lucy would look up from her work and narrow her eyes at him. She'd put her hands on her hips and say, “Isn't that just the wayânow you're big enough to really help your mama, and do you? No, 'cause you've got too much goin' on to be bothered with that!”
But that was just to tease him. Because it wasn't like Phil didn't do chores. He did plenty around the house. He took out the trash, raked the yard, mowed the grass, shoveled snow in the winterâstuff like that.
And he didn't mind doing housework, either. But Mom always said he and Jimmy didn't do it right. She said, “You guys pick up the big pieces, things like shoes and dirty clothes. Leave the little stuff for me and Lucy to worry about.” Which was fine with him.
Phil kept trying to reason away his feelings.
Can I help it if we have a cleaning lady, and she's black and we're white? And can I help it if she's Daniel's grandmother? I mean, it's not like we're rich or something. It's not like we force Lucy to work for us, is it?
Which was true, especially about not being rich. His mom and dad each
had a full-time job. And back when Phil was born, his mom had decided to give herself a treat once every two weeksâthat's what she called it, a treat. And that was having Lucy come to help her do the deep cleaning.
Phil thought about his own grandmothers. He had two, one here in the city and one in Florida. His mother's mom was the one who lived close. Grandma Morcone was sort of rich. She and Grandpa lived in a condominium on Herndon Street, not too far from the big museum. Her place was way up on the fourteenth floor. You could see the city parks from her windows, and the view looked like this beautiful painting. On the Fourth of July and sometimes on New Year's Eve, Phil and Jimmy and their big sister, Juliana, would sit with their grandparents on the balcony and watch the fireworks.
Grandma Morcone had long arms, thin and white. She wore silver bracelets on both wrists, and on one of her hands there was a ring with a big green stone in it. Phil could picture her fine clothes, her small diamond earrings, her silver blue hair, always neatly styled. His grandma didn't clean houses for other families. She probably never put a bandanna over her hair and pulled on yellow rubber gloves. Like Lucy did.
The lady at the end of the counter took his money, looked at his tray, and
then shook her head. “You need another quarter, honey. Or else put the ice cream back.”
Phil dug deep into his pockets, but he didn't have another quarter. And he knew why. This morning when he gave the principal Jimmy's lunch money, he had given away too much.
Phil had picked up the ice cream from his tray when a voice behind him said, “That's okay. Here's another quarter.” Phil smiled and turned to say “Thanks,” but he stopped before the word came out.
It was Daniel. He was three kids back in the lunch line, and he was holding up a quarter, and he was smiling. But it wasn't a real smile. Phil could see that. It was a smile that said “Gotcha.”
Phil shook his head and felt himself starting to blush. “No, that's okay. I don't want the ice cream anyway.”
“You sure?” asked Daniel, his smile getting bigger. “What's the matter? It's a giftâI'm just being
Phil put the ice-cream sandwich back in the freezer. He took his tray and walked stiffly to a table where some of his friends were sitting. He took a seat facing the wall and began to eat, tearing off big mouthfuls of soft grilled cheese, chewing without tasting. He didn't talk and he didn't look around. When he was done, he dumped his trash, dropped off the tray, and went straight out the side door to the playground.
The cold wind felt good on his burning cheeks. The thing was, Phil saw exactly what Daniel had been doing when he offered him that quarter. Daniel was trying to get back at him, to embarrass him with a gift. And it had worked.
Walking beside the fence, kicking a
stone ahead of him, Phil kept on thinking.
But Mom giving something to Lucy, that was different, right? Because it's not like Lucy was begging, and it isn't like Mom was trying to make herself feel all rich and grand or make Lucy feel small and poor. Because Mom was just trying to be nice, right? And there's nothing wrong with that. There can't be anything wrong with being kind, can there?
A burst of laughter came from the other side of the playground, and Phil turned to look. Six black kids, all fourth and fifth graders, all boys. No one was looking his way, but Phil still had the feeling they had been laughing at him. But was it true, or was it just his imagination?
A gust of wind made his eyes water, and he zipped his coat up under his chin. And still looking at the black kids, Phil recognized one of them, the
one with his hands jammed into his pockets and his shoulders hunched up against the cold.
He recognized the kid who wasn't wearing a jacket.
But walking home by himself this particular Thursday afternoon, Phil felt like he'd never seen this part of the city before. Everywhere he looked, he saw white people.
He saw moms driving cars full of kids home from school. White moms and white kids. He saw the neat row houses with tiny front yards where kids had dropped their sleds and little shovels after it snowed last week. Their snowmen and snow forts were half melted now. Phil thought back to spring and summer, when all the little kids had been outside playing. And he tried to remember seeing an African American kid. And he couldn't.
There were larger homes too. Homes with real driveways and garages and
small lawns, some of them surrounded with fancy iron fences. This time of year, in addition to the
BEWARE OF DOG
signs and the security system notices, the fences were decorated with red ribbons and Christmas wreaths.
Phil looked around as he walked, and he tried to think if any black families lived anywhere in his neighborhood. And he couldn't think of one. Not one family. Not ever.
Phil turned at the corner of Belden Street so he could walk through the shopping area. The small trees that lined the street were covered with blinking lights, and the storefronts and shop windows were decorated for Christmas. The sidewalks were busier than usualânot crowded, but still there were lots of people. Lots of white people.
Not everyone was white, of course. Phil saw a few Asian people, women
mostly, dressed nicely, carrying shopping bags. Plus some Asian kids, junior high school girls. And he saw a high school boy who might have been Hispanic. It was hard to tell.
There were some black people in the shopping area too, but not many. Phil counted as he walked along. He saw four black peopleâone man and three women. The man was driving a bus, but Phil counted him anyway.
None of the black women on the sidewalks looked like they had been shopping today, no bags or packages. They weren't browsing, weren't looking in the store windows. They all looked like they were going somewhere. Somewhere else. In fact, two of the black women were waiting at a bus stop, waiting to get on a busâto go somewhere else. Just like the black kids at school. And Phil thought,
I can tell those women don't live close by. They
just don't look like they belong here.
And Phil heard himself. He heard himself thinking that thought.
They just don't look like they belong here.
Phil stopped so suddenly that a man behind him on the sidewalk almost knocked him down.
“Whoa!” the man said. “Sorry there, young fella. You all right?”
Phil nodded absently and said, “Yeah, I'm fine.”
But it wasn't true. Phil wasn't all right. He stood on the sidewalk, staring as the two women got onto their bus. And he thought,
This morning, what if Daniel had been a white kid? Would I have grabbed him like that? If he had looked like he belonged in that jacket, would I have said he stole it?
The bus pulled away from the curb, and Phil started walking again. Turning a corner, he looked up and saw his own reflection in a shop
He saw a white kid. A white kid who looked like he belonged here.
Phil turned away from the window. He began to run, and he didn't stop until he got home.
“How come you never told me I was prejudiced?”
His mom set a grocery bag on the floor and looked at him. “What? What are you talking about?”
“I'm prejudiced. I am, and you never told me.”
“Who says you're prejudiced? Somebody call you that?”
“No, but it's true. I know what it means because we learned about it on Martin Luther King Day. It means you don't like black people.”
“All right,” his mom said, “just
hold it right there. Let me get my coat off, then come into the kitchen with me and tell me what this is all about.”
So as his mom started making dinner Phil sat on a stool at the tall counter and told her what had happened at school. When he got to the part in the principal's office when Daniel threw the jacket down, she clucked her tongue and said, “Poor dearâhe must have felt so embarrassed.”
Then Phil told about walking home. “No black people live around here, Mom. None. And when I saw these black ladies in front of the bakery, like, waiting for a bus, I said to myself, âThey don't belong here'âjust like that. Like
belong here because I'm white, and
don't because they're black. So that's prejudiced, right? I'm prejudiced, and I didn't even know it.”
Standing at the stove, his mom said,
“But you're not prejudiced, honey. Stop saying that.”
Phil shook his head. “But it's true. I think I am.”
“Well, take it from me, you're not. It's all in your imagination. You're not prejudiced. You're just a kid, and you're a good kid, too. You had this problem with another boy, and the boy happens to be black. That's all. And we live in a part of town where it's mostly white people. Tell me this, did you choose to live here?”
“See? You've got nothing to do with it. Did you even choose to be white? Is that your fault?”
“Exactly. Now, stop worrying about this and set the table. But first go wash your hands, and knock on Juliana's door and tell her to come help me get the supper on.”
Phil started to climb off the stool, and then stopped. “How come you gave Lucy that jacket?”
“Because it's a perfectly good jacket, and Jimmy didn't want it, and I knew Lucy had a grandson who might fit it.”
“You knew Lucy had a grandson?”
“Sure, I knew.”
“And you didn't give it to her because she's poor and black?”
“No, of course not. Your old blue blazer from fourth grade? I just gave that to Mickey Colter's mom, and you know they're not poor, and they're not black, either. When you have something nice to share, you share. Besides, Lucy's my friend.”
Phil nodded. “Only, not really your friend, right?”
His mom looked at him sternly. “What's that supposed to mean?”
“I mean, if she's really a friend,
then, like, you'd go to the movies with her sometimes, right? Or have her over for dinner with her family, or maybe go bowling, like with you and Mrs. Donato?”
His mom tilted her head, choosing her words carefully. “Well . . . right. Lucy's not that kind of a friend, not really a close friend. More like someone you know at work.”
“So . . . have you ever had a friend who's blackâI mean, a close friend?”
“No, not really.”
“It just never happened, that's all.”
“Maybe it's because you're prejudiced too, like . . . like me, and you didn't know it. Like me.”
“For the last time, Philip, you are
prejudiced. Now, just forget about it and go get your sister to come down here. Right now.”
Phil knew that tone of voice. It
meant “end of discussion.” He got off the stool and was going out the doorway when his mom said, “And Philip, let's not talk about this to your dad.”
He turned around and looked at her. “Why?”
“Because it'll just upset him, that's all.”
“Because I know your father, and it just will, that's all.”
Phil shrugged, then turned and headed for the stairway.
He didn't ask “How come?” again. He didn't have to.
He was pretty sure he knew why his dad would get upset. There was only one answer Phil could think of:
It has to be because Dad is . . . prejudicedâlike me.