Mrs. Werner stood firmly before our third grade class, with arms folded across her chest, and announced, “From now on, during reading time, no one is allowed to sit underneath any tables or desks for the rest of the school year. Now all of you may go to recess, except for you Brenda and I think you know why.” I felt my heart plummet into my stomach as the other kids jumped to their feet and stomped out of the classroom. I knew exactly what I had done.
My head dropped to the carpet as I stood to my feet, and slouched over to Mrs. Werner’s desk. I could only manage to glance at her occasionally because the shame was overwhelming. Her brown eyes narrowed tightly against her skin and it reminded me a little bit of my mother. Leaning forward, she reached for the telephone that lay stagnant at the edge of her desk and began to dial. “Are you going to tell my mom?” I mustered enough courage to ask. She turned to me sternly, “No” she answered, “You’re going to tell your mom.”
Mrs. Werner held the phone out towards me and I reached for the white plastic. The dial strummed against my ear almost as loud as my own heartbeat. “Hello?” I could hear the familiar sound of my mom’s voice on the other line. It comforted me. “Um mom?” I began. My eyes climbed up towards Mrs. Werner’s face and then stumbled back down to the carpet again. “Yes?” she asked, slowly drawing out the word in her mounting suspicion. I began to stammer in my shaking voice, “I…I have to tell you something.” I looked up at Mrs. Werner’s face one last time. She gave me a nod of stern encouragement and I took a deep breath.
“Well I…. I wrote a lot of bad words underneath Mrs. Werner’s table with a black marker.” It sounded even stupider coming out of my mouth than it had in my mind. Mrs. Werner pushed it further, “Tell her what words you wrote.” She said. I sucked in one last pocket of air, “I wrote the D-word, and the S-word, and the F-word.” My mom paused on the other line, “You mean damn? Fuck?” I let out an exhale, “Yes” I answered, “But mom that was from earlier this year, remember? I felt trapped and then you and I talked about it and now I know how to do things differently next time I feel that way.” She was quiet. “Anything else you want to tell me?” My mother’s voice had a way of reminding me that she knew me better than anyone else in the world, that she wouldn’t leave me for anything.
I paused before her question, realizing that there was not a single word to be found in the soft insides of my mouth. I wondered how on earth I could even begin to explain myself.
It was within moments like these when I thought of the leaders from church and the way I could feel the weight of their eyes clawing down my back every time I passed by. I knew they didn’t like me. Those leaders only thought I contaminated something wholesome and perfect, like all those spotless “good girls” from Sunday school. To them, I was something dirty juxtaposed to something clean. I always wanted to tell those leaders that just because I knew things about the world, didn’t make me dirty. I wanted to tell them that me knowing about violence also meant that I knew about the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King. I wanted to tell them that knowing about sex also meant that I knew about pregnancy and life. But there were too many of those church people for me to ever have the chance to convince.
I used to want to do things in spite of them, just to piss them off. Like maybe some time in the future I would have sex before marriage with some rebel boyfriend who I shouldn’t have gotten involved with in the first place. He’d be a BAD influence on me and I’d be a BAD influence on him and then we’d just be setting off one big BAD example into the entire universe. Maybe then they’d really have something to talk about. Maybe I could go get pregnant, or do drugs, or drink myself into oblivion. But then I knew that infuriating them like that was only going to hurt me more. Besides, I didn’t want to waste a second of my life doing anything in reaction to their shallow gossip. I pushed their judgmental glares out of my mind and reminded myself that God knows who I really am and that’s all that matters.
To me, God was a big black man. He would come into my room and take up more than half of my bed on those nights when I was crying. He was the only one who saw me hold hands with the mentally challenged student when she found herself confused and scared on the first day of school. He was the only one who saw me sit with Jessica at lunch when all the other girls from our class abandoned her. He was the only one who saw me crying alone in my room the first time I read the biography of Martin Luther King. In my heart I knew that I was good, I just wasn’t good in the way that adults wanted me to be. I knew that I was never going to not run on the black top, or not chew gum in class.
For as long as I could remember, everything that was ugly was also the most beautiful, like sex, or brokenness, or me. I wanted to submerge myself in the pain of the world because to me that was what was real. I was absorbed by the Civil Rights Movement and words like, “fuck” because to me, that was raw honesty. It was within these pockets of honest pain where you could truly find God.
But here in Boise, Idaho, I couldn’t seem to escape the impending feeling that the color white was a box color and I was living a half-life.
I felt caught in a box suburbia neighborhood, where we went to box church, and lived in box houses, and drove in box cars, to a box school, where we learned box ideas about American presidents and slavery. I wanted there to be more black children in my school. I wanted every kid to speak more than one language. I wanted to stand on my desk and scream at the top of my lungs that white American history is fucked up, that our lives are fucked up, and that there is an entire world out there that I desperately wanted to be connected to. But how could an eight year old even begin to explain something like this? My soul was underlined with the unwavering certainty that the bubble we lived in was all a façade. There was no such thing as picture perfect happiness and I couldn’t understand why everybody around me kept pretending like there was.
All I ever wanted was to tear that picture apart, to show white suburbia that they are just as broken as the pregnant teenager, or the drug dealer on the street, or the third grader who writes cuss words underneath her desk. We are not so different from each other. But I knew I was only eight years old, that none of these dreams would come to me until I was older and that I would have to find life in the small pockets of exposure that Boise had to offer. In the meantime I stood back and allowed my passion to manifest itself underneath the wood tables of Mrs. Werner’s third grade classroom.
My mom listened patiently as I gave my explanation for why I had written the cuss words. In that moment I hoped she remembered her high school years, the way she stuffed the ballot box so that the only black couple nominated would win prom king and queen for the first time.
She paused on the other line, perhaps seeing the mirror image of herself in me, before finally responding, “Okay Brenda. I love you. Let me talk to Mrs. Werner now.” I passed the phone to my teacher, feeling purged but mostly broken.
When I came home that night my mom didn’t breathe a word of the incident until I finally found the words to ask her, “Are you mad at me or are you proud of me?” I didn’t know if I was speaking specifically about that incident or about who I was as a person, but I wanted an answer either way. I wanted to know if God was really everything the church leaders had told me he was. Was he really going to glare at me for sitting in a car with a boy, or saying the F word, or wearing a skirt that is a little too short? Or could God really love me in this way? Could he understand me and take me in as his daughter? Would he go on watching me fight for civil rights, or slamming poetry, or visiting the girls in youth correctional facility and then smile down on me and say, “This is my daughter. Isn’t she beautiful?” I wanted to know if it was true, what they say about God, that he loves for who you are. “Are you mad at me or are you proud of me?” I felt my lips shaping these words as a cry of something much bigger than a question; I wanted to know if I was valuable, if I was worth loving. My mother paused, stirring a pot of boiling noodles in our small kitchen. “I’m proud of you,” she said.