Authors: Andrea Davis Pinkney
Seems the only person happy to have me back at Bethune is Goober. “Dawnie’s here,” he said to everyone who would listen. I’m now in the middle school “division” at Bethune, and, boy, is it bad. It had rained all night, so the streets and sidewalks were red from the leaky bricks. A silt smell rose from the wet pavement. Double ugh!
There’s something I hadn’t noticed about Bethune before. It droops. Even when it’s not raining, the building’s shoulders slouch.
Kids who had been my friends in sixth grade were calling me uppity for wanting to attend Prettyman. Yolanda didn’t even stick up for me.
When I asked to share her umbrella on the walk home, she said, “There’s not enough room under here.”
“Be that way,” I said. “Rain suits me fine.”
But not walking with my friend made something in me droop, too.
When I got home, my thumbs were red from pressing so hard under my desk.
Dear Mr. Jackie Robinson,
This whole thing feels like being stuck in the wrong dugout, waiting to bat. Wanting to run. Can we please just get this game started? I want to show Prettyman how Dawnie Rae can play.
Mama does laundry for a living. She cleans, dries, irons, folds, and mends for families in Ivoryton. She’s home most days, except on Saturday mornings when she delivers the clean linens and shirts to her customers.
Folks call Mama “Loretta the Laundress,” mostly because she can remove stains better than anybody else, and could press the wrinkles from a raisin if she had to. Mama’s iron works harder than a farm mule, and she’s got her own special starch she’s invented using potato water and lavender.
This afternoon when I helped Mama hang the wash, I asked, “Are we uppity?”
Mama had clothespins pressed between her lips, holding them while she secured a sheet onto the clothesline. She released the clothespins, one at a time, clipped each to a corner of the sheet, and stood back as the breeze billowed the sheet toward her. She said, “What kind of cockamamy question is that?”
I told her what the kids at Bethune were saying.
It’s not often that Mama sucks her teeth, but today she did. “Dawnie,” she said, “let me remind you of a simple truth my own mother taught me, and that I have repeated to you and Goober a thousand times — sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me.”
I’ve known that ditty ever since first grade, when Mama taught me the words to sing to that wisecracking Freddy Melvin, who once said I had beaver-tail feet.
“Sticks and stones” works most times, but today it didn’t answer my question. If going to Prettyman Coburn will make me uppity, I need to know.
I definitely want good books and the secret for
going to doctor school, but I sure don’t want to be uppity.
Daddy explained that the judges working in the federal courts have issued an order. Hadley has to give Negro students the option to attend the white school if we want to. Prettyman Coburn’s got no choice — they
to let me enroll, or else they’re gonna be in trouble with the law.
“They’re kicking and screaming about it,” Mama said. “But even crybabies can’t stop what’s right.”
So, school integration is going forward. Tomorrow I report to Prettyman.
Tonight Daddy came and sat on the edge of my bed. With the curlers in my hair, I’d taken to sitting up at my headboard, hoping to fall asleep that way. It was easier than waking with tooth marks on my forehead.
Daddy held me gently by both my shoulders. He was looking at me squarely, so I knew to pay attention to what he was about to say.
He explained that the people from the NAACP
had advised that he and Mama not come to school with me, that having them there might cause trouble.
“What kind of trouble?” I asked.
“Dawnie, you may see a lot of people gathered outside of the school tomorrow. Not everyone is in favor of you attending Prettyman Coburn, and there might be some who protest. The NAACP officials feel it may be harder to protect you if we’re there. Protesters may feel less threatened by one Negro child, versus all of us. If they see colored adults, they may get riled. This could cause them to want to retaliate.”
I listened carefully. The skin at the tops of my ears went warm.
Daddy had more to say. “Dawnie, you were born with the gift of gab. But sometimes that gift is not to be shared. This is one of those times. If someone offends, lock your lip, child. Do you understand?”
Mama came into my room after tucking in Goober. She explained that she would walk Goober to Bethune, like always, and that Daddy would walk me part of the way to Prettyman, but needed to say good-bye on the corner of Waverly
Street and Vine Road. He would not come close to the school building.
Daddy’s work shift had started earlier, and Mama would be picking up Goober from Bethune in the afternoons. So I would walk home from school by myself. “Just make sure you stay on the main streets,” Daddy said. “And keep alert.” I nodded again, twice this time, to show I understood.
After Daddy and Mama kissed me good night, I looked up two of Daddy’s words in my dictionary.
An expression of disagreement or complaint.
To return like for like, often in an evil manner. To avenge, be out for blood, defend. Now my whole ears were warm. My neck, too.
If I live to be a hundred, and I’m stuck to a porch rocker with bad legs, three teeth, and a mind as rusty as a rained-on pogo stick, I will never forget today.
I hope I don’t wear out my pencil in writing it all. But I can’t help but tell everything. Just as it happened.
I was up and dressed while the moon still hung
above our house. Daddy had come home from his shift at Sutter’s and was ready to take me to school when I came into our living room. Goober and Mama were up, too, eager for this day to start.
Mama had pressed my dress with a mighty will. The bow, too.
She’d packed my lunch in a molasses bucket, and wrapped the whole thing in the leftover fabric used to sew the panels into the sides of my dress. Even my lunch tin was ready to make a good impression.
It’s one thing to
a new dress and stiff shoes.
in them is a whole
Daddy took my hand. We started out quietly. No talking, each embraced by the in-between. The sky was dressed in blue velvet. Stars decorated its cape. Our streetlights spread yellow pools onto the sidewalks.
Everything was still. Even the dew was asleep.
Daddy seemed to be thinking on something. His hand clenched mine. His jaw was tight. I was thinking, too. About Yolanda. About the New York lady with the black dress. About Goober. And most of all about Prettyman Coburn.
A raccoon stopped me and Daddy from
thinking too deeply. She peeked out from the fence post at the edge of Mrs. Thompson’s tea-rose garden. That raccoon moved with a sure waddle, not the least bit bothered by us. She was so pretty. And special. Her black eye mask was decorated with two full rings of white fur, not just white brows like most raccoons.
“She’s one-of-a-kind,” Daddy said. “Like you, Dawnie.”
Raccoons are plenty in these parts of Virginia, but there was no
about this raccoon. I’ve seen none other like her.
I named her right away, on account of how she moved. “Nice to meet you, Waddle.”
Daddy and I slowed our walk. Then Daddy stopped. It was full-light then. Morning.
Night crickets had quit singing, but the bullfinches had joined up with the whip-poor-wills, and there was a contest between them for who could out-flute the other.
Daddy said, “This is where I say good-bye, Dawnie.”
We were still four blocks from the school building. I wasn’t scared to walk the rest by myself, just sorry to lose the warmth of Daddy’s hand as he let go.
“Head on now, Dawnie,” he said. “Show everybody how smart you are.”
I pulled my lunch tin close. There was pride in Daddy’s eyes, but he looked uncertain, too. He waited for me to reach Elber Street, one block closer to Prettyman, then he waved good-bye.
It was when I got to the corner that I saw parked police cars, with their siren lights flashing. There were people everywhere, gathered in a snarl, waiting. I saw boys and girls, and grown-ups — and the sheriff. They stood behind barricades.
When I read a sign that said
MOTHERS AGAINST INTEGRATION
, I knew they were waiting for me. Not once did I want to turn back. I had waited too long for this day. The clock on Prettyman’s front said it was half past seven. School started at a quarter to eight. I was hard-pressed on how to get into school, but determined, too. I figured if I went around to the back entrance where Prettyman’s field meets up with the gymnasium door, I could get inside that way. But my figuring wasn’t fast enough. “There she is!” somebody shouted.
That’s when the trouble started. The girl from Millerton’s Department Store — the one with the peach-colored hair — came onto Prettyman’s front steps with the school bell in her hand. She clanged
the bell to signal the day’s start. Something about the power of that bell called me forward. I was not going to be late on my first day.
I moved slowly along the street, then turned onto Prettyman’s front walk, where the crowd pushed at the barricades. Even then I wasn’t too scared because I was so eager to get inside.
The sheriff nodded toward one of the policemen, and four of them came up on all sides. They were carrying long guns! I wasn’t sure if they were there to protect me or stop me. The police kept the people behind the barricades, pressing them back when they shoved to get at me. But even with all their force, the police could not keep those people quiet.
The Panic Monster came quick,
shook me hard.
The protesters’ mouths were twisted and angry. Their faces looked liked tightly crumpled balls of paper. And, oh, were their tongues ever sharp!
“There goes the monkey!” someone hollered.
“Kill that chiggeroo!” somebody else yelled.
The Panic Monster was holding so tightly.
I tried to put my ears on the sound of the school bell, but it was hard not to hear the hatred in the people’s voices. Bobby Hatch and his brothers
had shoved to the front of the barricades. The very worst part of it — the part that frightened me most — was that they shouted mean things about Goober in front of all the other people.
“And she’s got a brother, too. But he’s more stupid than any monkey.”
In the crowd I saw a small girl, a child much littler than me. Her face looked kind. She was holding out a flower and a note. Her mama encouraged her to give me both of them. I smiled. So did she. But as she set the note in my hand, she spit on my new shoes. And the note wasn’t a note at all. The little girl had drawn a picture. It was scribbly, but there was no mistaking its meaning. It was a picture of me on my pogo stick falling into a patch of pricker bushes. Underneath she’d written, “Scratch off the black.”
Quietly, I just kept repeating what Mama had taught me. “Sticks and stones … Sticks and stones …”
I know the end of the rhyme says “names can never hurt you,” but that’s not true. Names
hurt. Hearing other kids yelling mean things was worse than a punch in the stomach. And it made
me want to holler back, but I’d promised Mama and Daddy I wouldn’t.
More than anything, I wished I’d brought my baseball bat with me. Not to use it, but just to have it nearby. Just to grip it as tight as I could. To give my clenched fists something to hold on to.
I was afraid my dress might rip. Not from not fitting me, but from holding in so much riled-up stuff at my insides.
When I finally got to Prettyman’s front door, it looked so big. I knew that if I could just get inside, I’d be all right.
The policemen pressed in closer on each side of me as we made our way up the steps and into the building.
Prettyman sure lives up to its name. The wide hallways and tiled walls gleam under the morning sun that blesses them with her light. I was starting to see why the white part of town is called Ivoryton.
The policemen took me to the second floor, to the principal’s office, where I sat and waited. And waited and sat. And had to use the bathroom, but didn’t dare ask.
At least the Panic Monster had let up for now.
I could see by the placard on his office door
that the principal’s name was Mr. Lloyd.
The phones rang all morning. Each time she answered, the school secretary spoke graciously. “Prettyman Coburn, may I help you?” And each time, she looked over the tops of her glasses at me.
I stayed very still. Watching the clock. Wondering when I’d be meeting my teacher. Nobody talked to me. My lunch tin rested on my lap. At two o’clock, the school bell started to ring from outside. Its clang was muted by the thick windows. When I looked out, the police cars and barricades were still there. But this time a grown-up was ringing the bell, not the girl from the morning.
Mr. Lloyd wouldn’t speak to me, or look at me even. He explained to his secretary and the policemen that most parents had taken their children home soon after I’d come into the building, and that there weren’t enough students at school for the teachers to teach. The bell was a signal to the teachers that the school day had ended. The principal pushed his chin in my direction. “This child’s done for today,” he told the policemen.
My insides started to churn. Back came the Panic Monster.
I didn’t want to face those angry people with their signs and spitting. Thankfully, Mr. Lloyd
told the policemen, “Take her out the back.”