My brain is rolling around loose in my skull this week. It feels like a rumble jumble up there. It’s that time of year.
It’s coming off the Christmas holiday and going on a soup diet so I can get control of my sweet tooth and my fat cravings.
It’s having a nightmare about zombie heads that roll around and kill people. And the heads were people I knew. Somehow I was able to turn a few of the heads back into whole people not infected by the zombie germ. Can’t remember how I did it though.
It’s being back at work after a week and a half off and remembering how much I have to do and feeling frightened but up for it at the same time.
It’s about getting a bug to write another essay and letting the idea cogitate while reading up on my topic of interest. The research gives me a frame of reference and helps build structure to my “pursuit of mental rabbits” (that’s Scott Russell Sanders’ phrase) as I start to pour out all my thoughts and emotions onto virtual paper.
It’s about getting a rejection for my memoir manuscript and licking my wounds and thinking about what I want to do next, even as I work at producing more writing. I did not submit to multiple small publishers, just one, even knowing that multiple submissions would have been more efficient. But I’m not sure what I think about the publishing world and if I want to be a part of it. I’m not looking to publish the next great bestseller. I’m not trying to be a full time writer. I’m not trying to gain credentials to get a great teaching gig.
It feels hard enough sometimes to be part of the corporate world in my day job and my career is on it’s downward ride to retirement, though I’m not sure when that will be. I’m a humanist in a capitalist society. I never did fit in, and I’m not sure I want to fit in, but I believe I have something to say and a unique way of saying it. I’ll be cogitating a lot on this in the next few weeks.
It’s about racism that creeps into my life when I’m not even thinking about it. Like when I was reading about the hateful people in Alabama who talk of terrorizing people by profiling the Hispanic population. Children are frightened to go to school and adults are afraid to go to work. How is this helping? It’s helping to “take back the country.” Except the people that want it back are the descendants of those who took it in the first place. Why can’t we all just get along?
Then Ronald and I went to Best Buy. I had my purse on my shoulder and Ronald had his man bag on his. He carries his Nook and a notepad and his phone in it. It’s about the same size as a small shoulder bag for women. As we entered the store, I turned my head to smile at the greeter, an older white male, but his expression stopped me short of smiling. He looked frightened and ready to flee or press the button on his walkie talkie to notify security.
“Do you have a return?” he asked, looking directly at Ronald.
“No,” Ronald responded. He never stopped walking.
After we left the store we looked at each other. “Really?”
It’s not like we haven’t talked about it before. One incident, and we shrug it off as someone’s mistake or bad day. But add up a whole day’s, week’s or month’s worth, and I can see how a person of color can jump down the throat of someone who asks a seemingly innocent question. Celebrities lose their freedom to shop and spend leisure time because they are constantly recognized and swarmed by their fans. If you are a person of color in America, you never had that freedom in the first place. You are always being watched. What would it take to earn the freedom to experience stress free shopping, dining out, movie going? And why would one have to earn it? Isn’t it an inalienable right of being American and being human?
Maybe I’ve had too much soup. I’ve got that rumble jumble in my brain.
(Excerpt from Chapter 7, The Ubiquitous They, Shades of Tolerance: A Biracial Love Story)
I graduated with a dual degree in English Education and Speech Communication. I took the first job offered to me after graduation –bill collector – so I could continue to stay in Syracuse. I hated it and hoped a teaching position would come along soon.
That fall I was offered a teaching position in a rural school district outside of Syracuse right during the interview. I was too inexperienced to realize that should have concerned me. My first day, a chilled November day in 1979, was disastrous. I had strep throat, and I drove the forty-minute commute with a three-day old driver’s license in my purse. A bit shaky on the highway still, I talked to myself the whole way. I arrived at the school thinking how great it was that I had survived the drive only to discover that the other teachers had walked out due to an expired contract. When they finally came back in the building an hour later, the teacher, whose place I was filling, gave me a tour. She was quitting to have a baby.
As she guided me through the crowded halls, her hand instinctively held in front of her belly, she rattled on about the students.
“A lot of the students are going to be your age,” she said.
“Oh?” I said, feeling feverish and overwhelmed.
“They come from farms, and lots drop out during planting and harvest seasons,” she responded. “And I should tell you, we don’t have a drug problem like they do in the city schools. We have an alcohol problem. Not much else for teens to get into around here.”
Oh, no, anything but alcohol, I thought to myself, trying to keep up with the perky teacher, her belly seeming to propel her forward rather than slow her down.
She pointed to a student going in the opposite direction down the corridor. “She’s from the only black family in town,” she said, as if it were special news. “We don’t associate with them.”
My head swirled and all movement around me seemed to slow and stop. I lagged behind the teacher now, and she stopped to wait for me.
“Are you okay?” she asked, looking concerned.
“Fine, I’m fine,” I said. “I’ve got a sore throat.”
“It’s the cold weather. There’s a blizzard due this afternoon. Do you plan to move here? It’ll be a lot easier for you.”
“I haven’t decided yet.”
I drove home in the blizzard, the wind howling and pushing my car sideways on the highway, my visibility near zero. But there was a blinding darkness in my mind, too, and I wasn’t sure which was worse.
Two hours later I pulled up to Peggy’s house, where I had been living again since graduation. I was exhausted, discouraged, and crying.
“What’s wrong?” Peggy asked when I came in the back door covered in snow. She was pregnant with her second daughter, and she seemed all belly like Ma had been when she was pregnant with Andy.
“I can’t go back there,” I said.
“Why? What happened?”
“They’ll be burning crosses on my car,” I said. “They don’t like black people. They’ve got no teacher’s contract. I almost died driving home. My throat is killing me.”
“Slow down. What are you going to do?”
“The only thing I can do,” I said, sucking in air and wiping my hand across my eyes, smearing mascara across my face. “Quit.”
I dialed the number to the superintendent’s office and told her I was submitting my resignation.
“You can’t quit,” she said. “You signed the health insurance form.”
“There’s no contract,” I said. “You misled me.”
“Did you get offered another teaching job?”
“No,” I said.
“Did you know it is New York State law that you have to give thirty days notice?”
“Fine,” I said. “I’ll come teach for the thirty days, but that’s it.”
“Don’t bother,” She said, disgust oozing through the phone lines. “I better not find out you are taking another teaching job. I’ll have you blacklisted.”
“Do whatever you have to do,” I said, and hung up. Then I sat on the floor and cried.
“Dianne,” Peggy said, “What are you going to do now?”
“I’ll figure something out,” I said. I stood up to grab the phone and called Ronald.
“You should have stuck it out,” he said. He would, for twenty-five years, after he got on the Fire Department.
The next day I applied for Christmas work at J.C. Penney. I swallowed Orajel just before the interview so I could speak through an enflamed throat. Disappointment must have shown in my expression despite my best efforts.
“Don’t look so sad,” the chubby personnel manager said, rubbing his hand over his balding head. “I just offered you a job on the spot, and I don’t usually do that. The least you could do is smile.”
“I’m grateful, really,” I said, but I doubt I convinced him.
Out on the floor in the women’s accessories department, I was told to keep a special eye on black shoppers. The black undercover security guard would trail them if we called his number and let him know they were in our department. One day I told him off.
“You know,” I said, “if you stopped wasting your time chasing after all the black shoppers and followed some of the little old white ladies carrying tote bags, you might actually catch someone shoplifting.”
I continued to apply for teaching jobs and was offered a substitute teaching position that started in February 1980 at a wealthy suburban middle school. My hope was that the teacher, who was pregnant, would end up quitting and I would get the position full time. In 1980 there were too many teachers and not enough positions. The baby boom generation had all graduated from high school, and the next generation was what would come to be called the baby bust generation. Schools closed and getting tenure as a new teacher was difficult. Oftentimes substituting was a way to become known to the administrators in the case that a rare opening occurred.
I taught three English classes and one Special Skills class. Of my ninety students, only one was black. He was a small, quiet boy, maybe trying to blend in and not be noticed.
I quickly discovered how difficult it was to take over classrooms mid-year. Every comment from the students seemed to be, “Mrs. Smith didn’t do it that way.” But I was determined to succeed, and though I kept my job at J.C. Penney just to be sure, and then stayed up until 2:00 a.m. each morning reading and correcting papers, I stayed with it. That spring I moved into my own apartment.
Ronald borrowed my car one day to go on job interviews; he was still waiting to hear if he passed the firefighters’ exam. He picked me up after school had been let out. One of my students stayed late for an after-school activity and saw me getting into the car. She must have spent the evening telling friends the juicy news. The next day she confronted me.
“I saw you yesterday,” she said, her red hair, the same color as her freckles, gathered into a half ponytail, her glasses shielding her eyes with glare.
“Oh?” I said.
“Is that your fiancé?” she asked, twirling a strand of hair. Two of her friends stood next to her, giggling self-consciously.
“Yes,” I said.
“My mother said she would kill me if I ever dated a black man,” she said.
“I’m sorry,” I said, but I already knew this was a career-ender. I imagined she had told her parents, and I had no doubt her parents, in the name of protecting their child, had called the administration. I felt my heart drop.
“Well, what do you think of that?” she coaxed.
“I think your parents have a right to their opinion,” I said. “I don’t feel the same way. I believe you love the person, not the skin color.”
“That’s interesting,” she said, and she and her friends giggled and left the classroom.