Around and About Leslie
“Something they talk about sometimes is that you might grow up and marry a…” The teacher searched for the word. “…black person. That’s called a ‘mixed marriage’ and it’s important to know what can happen if you do that. Because it can cause all kinds of…problems. Maybe not now, because our world has changed so it allows this sort of thing, but in the future it can make for some…uncomfortable situations. Can anyone tell me what you think might happen?”
There was one black girl in the room. Everyone looked at her now as if she must have the answer, and though they waited, she didn’t say anything.
“Don’t single Leslie out. Let’s think about this, children. Does anyone have any ideas?”
They stopped staring then, but still no one answered the question. Finally one boy smirked.
“They’ll have nigger kids,” he said.
The teacher had had trouble with this boy all year. When she was sick of him, she had only to say, “Ray, now,” for him to understand that he had earned a week’s detention and was to report to the principal’s office for the remainder of the afternoon. Sometimes, and this was one of them, he slid his books off his desk and began walking toward the door before she even opened her mouth.
She held herself completely still until he was gone. She loved teaching. She loved children, the intense way they bit their lips and knotted their brows as they discovered new things. She even loved Ray, though she disapproved of his language and his disrespect for authority. The negative attention he received from his classmates, who were laughing again—at him or with him, she could never quite tell—led her to pity the man he would eventually become.
“All right, everybody, calm down.”
When the room was silent, she went on.
“What can happen is…and Leslie…”
The girl pulled her eyes from her desktop. The teacher could see that she was afraid and wished there was a way to put her at ease. When a topic led to discomfort, the best thing to do was to acknowledge the situation, to attempt to make sure everyone felt included. The teacher had learned this over the years. She liked to think that her students weren’t children, they were just short people, capable of acting maturely or not, depending on how they were treated.
“I want to be completely sure that you know, this is not a reflection on you.”
The girl slowly nodded her head, once.
“This is just scientific fact. And if you’re old enough to learn about all the stuff you learned about yesterday,” the class snickered at this, “you’re old enough to know this too.”
The day before, the fourth-grade class had been segregated into boys and girls. The girls were taken to the cafeteria where the gym teacher spoke to them about the menstrual cycle and where babies come from. This information was presented with hygienic sterility; sex itself was somehow skimmed past entirely. They were handed pamphlets and then shown a documentary movie in which they watched a woman give birth. After the film, there was a brief question-and-answer period during which the girls squirmed, too embarrassed by the experience to give themselves over to it. Each girl was given a complementary three-pack of tampons on her way out of the room. The boys, meanwhile, played dodgeball in the gym for an hour and a half. For the rest of the day, the boys grilled the girls for information. They stole the girls’ tampons and covered them in ketchup or dunked them in the toilet so they could watch them expand in the water. When they discovered that the wet tampons would stick if they were whipped at walls, the boys began fishing them out so they could plaster them up and down the hallway.
The teacher had chosen to wait a day—to let the children sleep on what they’d learned—before leading the class through this, their follow-up discussion. She didn’t want them so bogged down in information that it ran right through them.
“What happens is, if a black person and a white person get married, then you never know when one of the future generations—you all know what a generation is, right? A generation is like if you have a baby, that’s the next generation and when you’re old and your children are grown up and they have babies, that will be a third generation. You’re all the next generation from your parents. So, in terms of generations, if you marry a black person, one of the future generations could turn out to be black, too. This is because the black gene is a recessive gene—remember when we learned about recessive genes? What could happen is, after maybe a long, long time, there might be a little black baby born and everyone will wonder where it came from. Now, I want you all to understand—Leslie, are you listening?—there’s nothing wrong having a black baby, but…it’s just…that little baby’s life will be really hard.”
There was a second troublemaker in the class, Dustin, and he watched Leslie closely throughout the lesson. Her body had tensed up, and except when the teacher called her name, she didn’t once looked up from her desktop. When the teacher stopped talking, the boy raised his hand.
“What happens if you marry a Jewish person?”
This was a joke, and the class laughed. Everyone knew that he was a Jew and that, like Leslie, he was the only one of his kind in the school.
He too was given a week-long detention.
That night, the white couple who had adopted Leslie noticed that she was more sullen than usual. She often had bad days. They had known when she arrived at their house shortly after her birth that her burden would become their burden; they bore it stoically, through tight lips, with dignity and pride. The circumstances of their daughter’s birth and the color of her skin had not been discussed in their house since she was a very young child—maybe too young to remember. The husband had sat her on his knee and explained how she had another different mommy who, for reasons beyond her control, had been unable to take care of her. He explained, “That’s why you came to live with us.” Then they had taken her to the city to show her where she came from, and though it was awkward, and she spent most of the trip pointing at things like motorcycles and stop lights and fire hydrants and asking what’s that? and what’s that? and what’s that?, not really paying attention at all, this trip was enough for them to feel they had done their duty to the child’s history. When they adopted her, they’d known they would have to love her as if there were no difference between her and the children they had been trying and failing to conceive since their first night in the matrimonial bed. Ten years of loving the girl had humbled the couple. They no longer even imagined that they would ever understand and be able to teach her anything about her own culture. She was simply their daughter now.
This evening, hoping it would make her smile, they walked hand in hand with Leslie down to the gas station where, in the mini-mart, ice cream was sold. She ordered her favorite, strawberry, and she said thank you to the woman behind the counter, but she didn’t smile or look up at her parents when they handed her the cone.
In the Jewish boy’s home, there was more commotion. Dustin had no choice but to mention his detention. He had schemed all afternoon as to how best to present it.
“I got a detention, but it’s not fair though. Even if it is a recessive gene, it was mean to make everybody look at Leslie like that, like stuff was wrong with her or something.”
His father: “You got a detention? What for?”
“It’s not fair though because it’s not fair. I didn’t do nothing wrong.”
His mother: “Anything wrong.”
“You must have done something or you wouldn’t have been given a detention.”
“I didn’t though, I just said what if you’re Jewish.”
His parents threw concerned glances over his head.
“You said what?”
“And then I got a detention just cause I was trying to help to make it better cause it was so mean to make every—”
“Do you understand what he’s saying?”
“Dustin, slow down. Who’s Leslie?”
“The black girl.”
More glances thrown over his head.
“And who, Ms. Knapp said something about her?”
“That’s what I been trying to say!”
“What did she say?”
His father leaned forward, propping his elbow on his knee and extending his hand as if coaxing the words from the boy’s throat. Dustin was overexcited. His legs went spazzy. His father’s attention was focused and restrained and this made it harder for Dustin to wriggle sense out of his thoughts.
“What did Ms. Knapp say about Leslie?”
“She, um, she like looked at her funny, and….”
“But did she say something? Did she say or do anything that—why did she look at Leslie funny?”
The boy’s legs began shaking faster. He wrapped them around each other in quick darting movements, hopping from foot to foot. He felt like he was going to pee his pants.
“Because, um, cause she’s a whatsitcalled gene. And cause, um, you don’t know, maybe one day way long from now there’ll be a black baby and then everybody will be mad at her from generations before.”
“And you asked what if you’re Jewish.”
The boy’s father wouldn’t release him. His mother fretted with her fingers along her lower lip.
“And what did Ms. Knapp say when you asked her this?”
“She looked mean at me and she gave me detention!”
“You must have done something more than that.”
“Mommy, that’s all, swear to God.”
The father stared at the boy. His eyes were narrow and dangerous.
Dustin braced himself for further punishment. “I didn’t do anything wrong though!” he shouted. Then he wailed and shuddered and he couldn’t hold it any longer. The heat felt good on his leg for a moment but was replaced immediately by an itchy, clammy chill. He ran to the bathroom.
The boy’s father stared at where his son had been, then stood and stomped out of the house.
The next day at school, Leslie was not there.
The principal rapped on the door as the class was preparing for the Friday spell-off. He crooked his finger and jerked his head, signaling to Ms. Knapp. She told the children to continue lining up from tallest to shortest and stepped out of the room. The principal asked her to escort him to his office. She had to come with him, now. She pointed to herself—Me?—and he nodded gravely and stroked her arm. Sticking her head in the door, she assigned a student to be in charge and strode with him down the hallway.
As they walked, he gave her a pep talk so she’d be prepared. The Jewish boy’s father was waiting to speak with her. “He is a lawyer, be careful.” The principal expressed his sympathy and made sure she knew that he’d be behind her every step of the way. He wouldn’t interfere, he’d let her handle this, but if she needed him—worse comes to worst—he’d be behind the glass door, a figure of authority, ready to lay down the law.
The man sat on a plastic waiting room chair. He looked ready to pounce, elbows on knees, fists on cheeks, wearing a grey lawyerly suit. His face was already red. He jumped to his feet as they stepped through the doorway, but he did not condescend to shake hands with his son’s teacher.
“Okay. So. Mr. Bower, you know Ms. Knapp. So. I’ve got some paperwork needs to be addressed. I’ll be right here if anybody needs me. So. Okay.”
The principal’s eyes bored meaningfully into the teacher. He smiled a helpless, ingratiating smile and nodded his head around the room before backing through the door between his inner and outer chambers.
The click of the clasp reverberated and the glass rattled in its wooden frame. The principal made a show of shuffling his papers as the teacher and parent silently faced off, both standing, both rigid, both trying not to be seen as defiant.
“I’ve been told there’s a problem, Mr. Bower. What—”
“You gave my son detention.”
“Well, yes, yes I did, Mr. Bower. I’ll tell you why. In this school, we teach our children respect for their elders and Dustin, your son, felt the need to give lip. He disrupted class and showed disrespect for his teacher.”
“And I’ll have you know, this is not about me. If I heard about him giving lip to anyone else, even to one of the recess instructors, I wouldn’t hesitate to give him detention for that, too. It’s school policy, Mr. Bower. It’s in the rule booklet. Do you want me to show you?”
“That’s not necessary.”
“Well, there we go, then. Your son’s a nice boy, Mr. Bower, but I have to say, sometimes he’s slightly too big for his britches and…well, you know, Mr. Bower, excuse me for saying it, but if you don’t want him getting detention, you’re going to have to start teaching him how to behave like a good little boy at home.”
The father bristled at this advice. “Look, I’m not passing any judgments on you Ms.…what’s your first name, Ms. Knapp?”
“You can call me Ms. Knapp.”
“My Christian name is Eveline.”
“Eveline. Eve. I’m not passing any judgments on you, Eve. I’m assuming you’re a qualified teacher. I’d appreciate the same respect from you. My son told me some very troubling things yesterday. From what he told me, it doesn’t seem like he’s done anything wrong.”
The teacher cast a nervous glance through the principal’s door.
“Well, he disrupted the class.”
“You’ve already…look, he was pretty upset last night. I could have misunderstood him. Could you tell me exactly what he said?”
“I don’t remember exactly.”
“Just, if you could give me your sense of it.”
After a moment in which the teacher recognized too late the trap that had been set for her, she said, “He made a racist remark to the little black girl.”
“Really! I did not hear about that. That doesn’t sound like Dustin. I’ll have to have a talk with him about that.”
“That would probably be a good thing to do, Mr. Bower.”
“I’m just curious, what was the lesson that you were teaching at the time?”
“Oh, I don’t know, Mr. Bower. We were having a class discussion. It meandered into a lot of different topics.”
She glanced at her watch.
“I should get back to the children, Mr. Bower. They’re unattended.”
“I’ll let you go, then. But, um, if I wanted to explore this a bit further, would, could I call you at home this evening?”
She glanced again through the glass. The principal was shuffling papers. He was not watching.
She wrote her home number on a pink message slip and tore it from the pad.
“But you should know, I can’t take away your son’s detention. That would set the wrong example for the rest of the children.”
“Of course. I just want to understand what happened.”
She rapped on the glass and waved.
“Thank you for taking such a strong interest in your son’s education, Mr. Bower.”
He smiled almost deferentially. “I’ll have that talk with Dustin about racism,” he said.
She clipped down the hallway back to her room. As she opened the door, she saw bodies darting between the last flying rubber bands and paper airplanes, falling over each other to return to their assigned seats and blank stares and innocence. The afternoon was wasted in a futile attempt to reengage the students in their English lesson. Eventually, she told them to use the class time to begin Monday’s homework, and she collapsed into her swivel chair. She couldn’t concentrate. The Jewish boy’s father kept intruding on her thoughts. She felt bad for the boy, to have a rash, pushy man like that setting the example. No wonder he was such a handful.
Dustin’s father sat on the edge of the bed and waited for his son to reach a stopping point in the collage he was making. The man was nervous; it showed in his hands. The child turned from the desk and faced his father. Because he was seated higher and because he was quickly told that he wasn’t in trouble, he imagined he and his father were equals. He held himself with a beneficence beyond his years.
The two of them spoke softly, conspiratorially. The father went over the details again and again with his son to make sure that the boy understood the facts correctly. He told the boy about his talk with the teacher. When he was reasonably sure that his son was comprehending, he explained that the teacher had lied to the class. In hopes of setting a good example, he relayed a story about his young rambunctious years. He’d been in law school in the city and when his workload got too tense, he’d had a habit of escaping to the local bars. The school was on the edge of an African American neighborhood, and often he was the only white man in the bar. He’d dated a few of the girls he’d met in these bars, and they were, of course, African American. He explained to his son that he could have fallen in love with any one of those women and if he had, then the boy, you, my son, would be an African American—that’s how it works. But when he met the boy’s mother the rest was history. He smirked a bit too proudly as he told this story. He didn’t linger on the details. It was merely an illustration, to show his son how seriously he took the things the teacher had said.
“This is a talk about racism. If Ms. Knapp asks, tell her, yes we did have a talk about racism. But don’t tell her you think she’s a racist.”
Later, speaking with his wife as they prepared for bed, he said, “I could kill this woman, do you understand? I could kill her.”
“Fine, then, fine, go ahead, call her. Act like a crazy man. Scream at her over the phone on a Friday night. That’ll do Dustin a lot of good.”
“I won’t scream.”
“I’m not going to scream!”
“Yes you will. You’re screaming now.”
“Look, I will not raise my voice, all right? All I’ll do is tell her what I think.”
His wife didn’t need to do more than glance at him in that wry dismissive way of hers.
“I’m a lawyer for God’s sake!”
The boy listened through the wall as his parents argued. He giggled. He was so well loved. His teacher was so in trouble.
“I wouldn’t believe it if it weren’t happening,” his father said. “Can you imagine, when we were living back East, can you imagine someone telling you that we’d come up against this sort of thing? You’d laugh. You’d say they were exaggerating. You’d say people haven’t been that stupid since the Sixties.” Then, seeing that his wife still had that look on her face, he said, “You want me to ignore this, don’t you. You want me to let it slide.”
“Fine. I won’t call her.”
All this righteousness and anger invigorated the boy. Right and wrong, black and white, everything was suddenly vibrant and stark. He hoped that when he grew up, he’d be as passionate and as clear-sighted as his parents. He had a good chance; he was already getting all this great attention for doing the right wrong thing. He’d transgressed and stumbled onto the moral high ground without even knowing it was there. His cheeks flushed. He was in awe of himself.
Leslie would not be cheered up. Her parents tried everything.
“Let’s do something fun, anything, whatever you want, let’s go to the mall, let’s play miniature golf, there’s a new movie playing in town. You know what, we were thinking that maybe, if you want, we could go to the zoo. You always like that. Let’s go to the zoo. The panda bear has had her baby now. Let’s go see it, huh? That would be fun.”
But she didn’t want to do anything fun. She wanted to sit in her room and not even watch TV. Her parents wondered if this was the onset of puberty. Maybe that’s why she threw up Friday morning. Maybe it was just hormonal. Ten years old seemed young, but maybe black girls followed a different trajectory.
Except for answering a few questions in class—correctly, with a slight edge of arrogance, that smug tone of his pointing out that he barely even had to study—the Jewish boy didn’t say one word to his teacher all day. He avoided eye contact with her and made sure, during free time, to stay busy on the other side of the room. When school was over, assuming that his father’s harsh words had gotten him off detention, he boarded the bus and went home.
The teacher avoided him as well. She knew it was petty to hold a grudge, and had tried in a myriad of subtle ways to teach the class the value of confronting problems when they arose so as not to let them fester. But this boy was cagey, and besides that, a tattletale. Better to let it pass. She didn’t hear that he skipped his detention until the next day.
The gym teacher doubled as detention monitor, and it was she who discovered the Jewish boy’s absence. She reported the problem immediately, leaving the five other boys in her charge alone long enough for them to engineer the desks in the room into a new, chaotic configuration. She let this go. Boys will be boys, and why give them the negative attention they were asking for when what they’d done was really harmless anyway. She clapped her hands and told them to all take out their homework and sharpen their pencils. They asked the usual questions and she responded by rote.
“If you have no homework, be quiet. Do nothing. No sleeping, though. No putting your heads on your desks. No, you won’t be able to get up and sharpen your pencil again, do it now. If it breaks, tough luck. Then you sit quietly and do nothing.”
They usually didn’t push her. They knew that she took no guff. But today one boy, Ray, gave a little nudge.
“Hey, where’s Dustin? Why doesn’t Dustin got to be here?”
“That’s not your concern. Dustin’s in trouble for not being here.”
The gym teacher’s tone left no holes.
They both knew what he was implying. News of the Jewish boy’s father visiting the school had traveled fast. No one was happy about it. She threw the boy a look that said don’t test me and the boy grinned like he’d won some obscure victory.
“Take out your homework,” the teacher told him.
“I forgot it.”
“Where? In Ms. Knapp’s room?”
She glanced at the door, but she didn’t let him go. Pulling a piece of lined paper from the teacher’s desk drawer, she strode across the room and slapped it onto the boy’s desk.
“Do you have a pencil?”
“Does someone have a pencil for Ray?”
Averting his eyes, a boy sitting nearby passed forward a pencil.
“Is it sharpened?”
“Good. Now, I want you to write five hundred times: I will not forget to bring my homework with me when I have a detention. And number each sentence so I don’t have to count them. You have that? Here, I’ll write it out for you.”
There were no further disturbances. The boys were on the late bus before she figured out that the desks were not arranged as randomly as she had thought. Standing on the teacher’s desk, she could discern that they spelled out two letters, F and U—F.U. But she felt benevolent. It had been an easy night. She decided against doubling their detentions. Boys will be boys, whatcha gonna do.
The black girl was back in school this week. She kept to herself. Nobody bothered her. She didn’t have many friends.
The Jewish boy’s parents weren’t home when he got there. A common occurrence, they were both professionals, though today they weren’t at their offices either. They’d cut out early to visit an acquaintance of the boy’s mother, a biology teacher at the community college in the larger town thirty miles away.
This woman was another transplant from back East. She and the boy’s mother had bonded years ago when the family first arrived in the area. After a few months, the two of them had grown apart, no hard feelings; their children just weren’t compatible. They remained friendly though, speaking every now and again when one or the other of them felt pangs of homesickness or was momentarily thrown for a loop by the provincial mores that still occasionally shocked them.
The Jewish boy’s mother had remembered what this woman did for a living over the weekend and she and her husband had made an appointment. They were sure she could give them much needed perspective.
The woman proved to be good council. They drove home confident. We shall overcome.
The principal laid into the Jewish boy early on Tuesday:
“Shape up or ship out. You know the rules. This will all go into your file. It’ll come back to haunt you. Take my advice, have a long think about where you’re going, because you’re headed toward trouble and I’ll tell you what, if you don’t change your ways, you’ll be in jail before you’re out of high school. For now, I’m just going to double your detention and there’s not going to be any more trouble. Do we understand each other?”
The boy nodded and bit back the smirk he felt tugging at the sides of his mouth. The more trouble he got in, the more his distrust and his disrespect for authority grew; it was beginning to seethe. His father would have to come kick some more butt.
He sat through detention that evening staring glumly at his desk. He read and reread the names etched in its surface, studied the stars and ankhs and swastikas that had accumulated over the years.
The kid across the aisle, his fellow fourth-grade troublemaker, kept staring at him, mocking him. It had started as soon as he walked into the room. The kid scowled and mouthed, “faggot.” The Jewish boy tried to imitate the other boy’s expression with enough force to push it back inside his head, but the boy responded by smiling a bad-winner smile and over-pretending to do his homework. Hoping the conflict had passed, the Jewish boy returned to brooding. As soon as he did, the other boy stared again and the Jewish boy struggled to ignore him.
Eventually, when the gym teacher stepped out, not saying why, the Jewish boy spun on his antagonist. “It’s my face, don’t wear it out.”
“You got a staring problem?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” The kid turned to the other delinquents. “Do you know what he’s talking about?”
“No,” they said. “Ray doesn’t have a staring problem. You’re imagining things, Dustin. And hey, really, come on. Why would Ray want to waste his time staring at some stupid Jew boy?”
“Just, okay?” the Jewish boy said to Ray, attempting to keep the other students out of it.
“Okay stop it.”
“He can’t stop something he’s not doing,” someone said.
The gym teacher returned and now everyone was staring and making faces at the Jewish boy. They kept this up until the late bell rang.
There was only one late bus and Ray sat directly behind the Jewish boy. Every few minutes, he kicked the boy’s seat. The Jewish boy worked at ignoring this, but halfway home, he got up on his knees and peered back.
“You got a problem?”
“Then stop kicking my seat.”
The boy wiggled his fingers like voodoo. “Ooouuu, what are you going to do? Tell Daddy?”
They glared at each other. The Jewish boy realized that he was a wimp and the other boy wasn’t and dropped back out of view. He glowered at the fields going past. The stuff growing in them looked like weeds.
The kicking continued all the way home. He wondered if this was how the black girl felt each day and decided that there was something noble about taking all this abuse from his classmates. Maybe he and the black girl were united in this way. Maybe they shared a secret bond.
Dustin ran from the bus and into the house, hopped up, half-enamored with all his strife.
His father was waiting at the kitchen table, not even reading the paper. He took off his glasses when his son arrived.
“Sit down,” he said.
His eyes were fierce. His brow was furrowed.
“I had an interesting talk with Ms. Knapp today.”
The boy bugged his eyes. “They’re making me have detention!”
“I don’t want to hear about your reasons.”
“I said no buts. Did anyone tell you that you didn’t have to go to detention?”
“You assumed. You know what happens when you assume?”
“You make an ass out of you and me.”
The eyes, if he could avoid the eyes maybe he wouldn’t cry.
“Do you want to make things better or do you want to make things worse?”
“Then don’t assume.”
The man realized that his son felt betrayed by him. He tried not to let it affect him.
“You can go to your room now and think about this. Your mother will call you when it’s time for dinner.”
The boy loitered. His fingers flicked against everything they could find.
The boy began sniffling. He shuffled off to his room. He closed the door carefully, turning the knob so the latch wouldn’t make noise when it caught. Then, with a surge of rage, he jumped, and with both feet, he kicked it kung-fu style.
Leslie watched reruns until six o’clock, when her mother’s game shows came on.
She had her favorite programs. First there was One Day at a Time, then The Facts of Life, Diff’rent Strokes, and finally, The Jeffersons. Somewhere in the middle there, she started crying and she couldn’t stop. For a while, her parents didn’t notice. When they did, they over-reacted.
“What’s wrong, honey? Tell us what’s wrong, Leslie.”
This made her cry more. She couldn’t answer them. Instead, she raised her arms over her head and bellowed and shook them and her parent worried that this was some sort of attack. Her father impulsively grabbed at her shoulders, more forcefully than he had meant to, and pried her arms down to her sides. He stared into her eyes.
“Leslie, calm down. We’re here. Mommy and Daddy are here now. Just tell us what’s the matter and we’ll fix it.”
The girl held her breath, which helped stop the tears and her varnished eyes reached out for a moment but then she swallowed and her lips contorted and curled and she began to cry again, harder this time.
Her father clutched her to his chest and held her. “We love you, Leslie. Just tell us what happened.”
But she couldn’t tell them. Nothing had happened. She didn’t have anything to say.
Her father was holding her too tightly and her mother finally pried her away and smothered her in her girth. Usually the girl was comforted by her mother’s soft body, but today she felt like she was going to suffocate.
An envelope addressed to the principal arrived his in-box late in the week. Assuming that it was another solicitation for new textbooks, new desks, new kickballs, new everything he’d already bought new, the principal meandered toward the corner wastebasket as he tore at the seam. He was about to throw it out, dutifully opened but unread, when he double-checked to make sure it was trash.
This was unlike him, but the envelope was nubbly and an officious eggshell color. The enclosed letter had been typed, double-spaced and went on for several pages on watermarked letterhead. It had been sent from the local community college. He skimmed the first page, then went back and read and then went back and read again closely. His blood froze up as if he had just discovered that a close friend had died.
It is my understanding that the fourth-grade class at Ulysses S. Grant Elementary School has embarked on a science unit meant to teach them the rudiments of genetics. Due to my fourteen years experience teaching biology on the college level, and the graduate work I did on the evolution of various species of salamander, a coalition of concerned parents has requested I write you this letter in hopes clarifying these rudiments.
As I’m sure you know, genetics is a relatively young branch of biology. But it is not so young that an extensive, and maybe to you, surprising body of knowledge has not begun to be developed as fact in the field…
It went on to explain what chromosomes are and how these chromosomes interlock in the double helix of DNA. How genes are embedded in chromosomes, and how from these genes, the biological traits of humans and all other animals are determined. How these biological traits are embedded in the DNA—which can be found in every cell—and are transported through the cells by RNA. How the cells then produce the amino acids that develop into the proteins that make up the body. It described how the chromosomes of the male and female combine in the DNA of their offspring through a process called “crossing over.” How only one side of the DNA’s double helix is read, but because of the crossing over, traits of both parents are coded there. How during fertilization, each parent provides a haploid of chromosomes which combine to make a diploid, a full set, which interact through Mendel’s laws in such a way that paired genes interact differently depending on the type and number of chromosomes involved. The letter explained the differences between genotypes and phenotypes. It went right over the principal’s head, but when he got the whammy, he knew just what was being communicated.
…and so, contrary to what your school’s fourth-grade class has been taught, when persons of varying skin colors mate, neither skin color exhibits itself through a dominant gene. The section of DNA dedicated to determining skin color is so long that it crosses over many times, both the mother’s and the father’s DNA are recorded; the resulting skin color is a mixture of the two. Of course, on a sociological level, the child of this coupling would be considered African American.
I urge you to pass this information on to any teachers at your school who include genetics in their lesson plans. I’d hate to see your students and their parents get the wrong picture of what their school is trying to teach them.
If you would like further information about human genetics, or would simply like to speak with me about the issues involved, please don’t hesitate to contact me at the number listed above on this letterhead.
Rose Marie Robertson
Professor of Biology
Two Lakes Community College
The principal’s first thought was that he didn’t know to who may also have received this letter—the county school board, the Department of Education, who knows. He wondered who the “concerned parents” had been. He wondered what the fourth-grade teacher had said. He suspected that this professor was black. He knew what to do though: pass the buck.
He leaned over his desk and pressed speakerphone.
“Rita, could you ask Ms. Knapp to come see me on her free period?”
The fourth-grade teacher fidgeted like one of her students throughout her conversation with the principal. She said yes, she had taught the kids a few things about genetics, basic things really, nothing specific, and no, she had not known the facts as laid out in this letter. Yes, of course, she would fix her mistakes.
Her glum, defensive posture aroused the patrician in the principal. He liked to think he took care of his own. “You know, you’re not in trouble,” he said.
She scratched her cheek skeptically.
“There’s no right or wrong here, only shades of grey.”
“Can I go? I’ve got…the children.”
“Let’s make a Xerox for your reference first. Rita!”
They sat in silence, attuned to each other’s every shift in attention. The principal actually twiddled his thumbs. When the secretary returned with copies, he jumped.
“So, here. Okay. I’m trusting that will be that.”
“Yes,” said the teacher, slapping the ream of loose workbook pages in her hand onto the Xerox and cradling the pile between her arms.
The principal stood to walk her to the door. She was one of his favorite girls. As she was about to leave, he rested his butt on the edge of his desk and said, “Eve?”
She flashed her teeth and spun awkwardly away.
The teacher put the same smile on for her children as she reentered the classroom. She dropped the Xerox and workbook pages onto her desk.
They were clustered in groups by the windows and walls. Except for the few budding lady’s men—who batted their eyelashes and repeatedly poked the more easily rattled girls, giving them cooties and disrupting their intense game of soap opera—the boys kept to themselves, talking about semis and which tractor was better, John Deere or International; they played cards and thumb wrestled. The girls practiced their gossip voices while saying mean things about each other. Halloween was coming soon and they compared notes on what they were going to be, preemptively critiquing each other’s choices while passing around fruit-flavored Chapstick.
The black girl sat quietly in the front corner, close to the teacher’s desk. She was using the time to do her homework. Sometimes she looked around at the other students, but not often. The teacher noticed this. She liked the girl.
The teacher brought free time to an end with a few severe claps of her hands.
“Okay, everybody. Find your seats.”
She stood behind her desk, her knuckles whitening as they gripped the back of her chair. She knew silence worked better than yelling. The longer she waited and watched, the more she commanded their fear, until eventually it penetrated deeply enough for them to do her will. She didn’t like to waste energy; doing so only eroded her authority. When things went badly for her, she stiffened, she took it, she wallowed in pride. Teach by example. Repetitively. At some point, they’d have to submit. She scanned the faces in search of her troublemakers. When both had plopped into their assigned seats, she clapped again.
“All right, listen up children, get out your takeaways.”
By the end of the day, the Xerox was buried.
Even days later, when they weren’t so mad, the Jewish boy’s parents refused to explain why he had to serve detention. They confided in him that they agreed, he had done nothing wrong, but every how-come? was met with a because. When he said, “It’s not fair,” his mother said, “Life’s not fair.” His father told him, “Trust us, it’s for the best.”
The boy’s parents had mutually decided that they would treat him coolly until this was over. Then, when he’d been vindicated, after the truth had been made irrefutable, they would take him to a movie. They’d celebrate and they would explain to him the rudiments of war and the need to be politic if you intend to win.
In the meantime, he sequestered himself in his room and entertained himself by trying to decide what to be for Halloween. It had to be something extra good so he’d win the best costume award. Halloween fell on the day after his detention was over. He knew the basic criterion for his costume: it had to be provocative, something no one would expect, a work of art, conveying a great many meanings and making a Big Point—that was the most important part; he would make a Big Point and everyone would be inferior to him and bow down. He’d have to make the costume himself. He’d get his mom to buy all the materials and tell her he couldn’t tell her what he was going to be because it was a big secret. He had it all figured out. He just needed an idea.
The teacher didn’t know what to do with this fragile black girl. She couldn’t get her to meet her eyes. When she said, “This is important, look at me,” the girl’s head would snap up and there would be a moment when it appeared that maybe she’d pay attention but half a sentence later, the girl would close down again and sink back into her chair. She wanted to touch the girl’s hair, her hand, her chin, touch her in some way that would gain her trust. She wanted to tell the girl that she was sorry if her words had been misunderstood, that she hadn’t said what she’d said to make her feel inferior. She wanted to say that she stood corrected. But the girl wouldn’t let her. So she wanted to punish the child for insolence, teach her how to behave—there were right ways and wrong ways to interact with adults and this was a wrong way and she’d have to learn that eventually. If only it were possible any more to snap a ruler quickly across the knuckles and wake children up so they knew they were expected to take part in their own lives.
Somehow the teacher had to get her point across.
“I got the letter from your parents’ friend, and it, um, it, well, it concerned me. I want you to understand—look at me—you have to understand that I’ve been teaching now for eighteen years and I know my business and I love my children, each, all of them. Even you, you have to believe me—look, why can’t you be a good little girl and look at me when I’m speaking to you?
The girl sat rigid and scared.
“I want you, when you get home, to tell your mommy and daddy that I got their letter and that they can rest assured I will make things right. Can you—will you just look at me for a second, my God!” Realizing she’d let her frustration get the best of her, the teacher forced a smile. “Can you do that? I’m going to trust you to do that.”
“I don’t understand,” said the girl.
“The letter. The letter telling me that I was—the letter about genetics, about when we were talking about skin color and recessive genes.”
The girl dug her chin into her sweater and mumbled something.
“What, sweetie? I couldn’t hear you.”
“I never said nothing to them!”
The teacher had never heard the girl shout before. “Oh.” She gazed out the grated window, feeling her face grow hot. At least now she knew who the culprit was.
When the teacher called the Jewish boy’s father, he tried not to gloat. She told him exactly what he had expected to hear, but surprisingly, didn’t show bitterness. There was no trace of the barely controlled anger he’d hoped to find in her voice. She was almost too contrite, just a humble woman, standing corrected and thankful. He didn’t let this intimidate him though. He’d won. His wife had made the right call, just like she always did.
He hung up and savored the feeling. Sitting in his immaculate kitchen, surveying his two acres through the picture window, with the proof of his ethical and moral authority as tangible as he could ever expect it to be—he lived for this. He folded his arms across his belly and chortled.
He’d never grow out of being right.
“Mommy, where are all the black people?”
“What do you mean?”
“Why am I the only black person except for on TV?”
“Edward? No, honey, Leslie, tell Mommy what happened. Did someone say something to you?”
“Do you remember when we talked about this?”
“There are lots of black people. It’s just you’re the only one who lives here with us.”
“I never seen them.”
“Do you remember when we took you to the museum? And there were exhibits about all the black people in history and there were masks and things that came from Africa and the people who worked there were all black and they thought you were so cute? Remember?”
“No. I don’t believe you.”
“Edward! Are you…Edward?”
“How come I’m black, Mommy? I’m not supposed to be black.”
“Oh, honey. You’re black because you were made that way. The pigment in your skin is just a little darker than Mommy and Daddy’s.”
The girl’s mother peered down the dark hallway, wondering what was taking her husband so long. Tonight they were making a jack-o’-lantern. He’d gone out back to select a pumpkin from the garden but he should have been back by now.
“You’re lying. There was a black person a way long time ago and now everybody’s mad at me because I’m black too.”
“Everybody’s mad at me.”
“Nobody’s made at you. Leslie, you’re beautiful. You’re you.”
“Why’s there not any other black people then?”
“There are other black people. There are lots of black people.”
“They’re in the cities. We live in the country.”
“I want to live with the black people.”
“Honey… oh, honey, come sit on Mommy’s lap.”
The woman kneeled next to the child. When she tried to touch her, the girl batted her hand away.
“I don’t want to live with you. I want to live with the black people.”
“But we’re your mommy and daddy. We love you.”
She tried again to touch the girl.
“No! No no no no no no no!
Leslie was sobbing. Her tears calmed and comforted her in a way her mother could not. But when she looked at her mother again, she was more willing to be touched, desperate for it. They held each other, but both knew that it only helped fill the moment. The hollow around it would go on and on.
The black girl’s father cried when he heard what had happened.
His wife stared all night at the oak tree out the window, thinking.
The papers on the teacher’s desk accumulated. Eventually, the letter at the bottom was forgotten. It would be recycled when she got around to weeding through the pile.
The students had been frisky all day. Even those who normally sat focused and silent, fretting over their grades or cowering in fear of being called on, couldn’t stop squirming. They were all in costume. The Jewish boy wore a black turtleneck and black dress pants, he and carted a black trash bag around with him; the teacher assumed he was some kind of cat burglar. The other one, Ray, had on an oversized black hooded robe and a glow-in-the-dark rubber skull mask. He spent the morning hitting people with his rubber sickle until the teacher finally took it away. She knew she wouldn’t get any teaching done today. When the energies rose above a certain flood line, she held the chaos in check by assigning busy work, Write a paragraph describing what witches do for fun, Draw a picture of something scary. By two o’clock, when the costume parade began, the school had the feel of a holding pen at the county fair. The children acted like slightly trained animals, bucking at their assigned seats. It was all the teacher could do to push them back into place and avoid a stampede.
The only one who remained truly aloof was the black girl. She was adorable in her Raggedy Ann outfit: red mop-top hair and a quaint blue dress. She had bright red circles painted on her cheeks and she gazed around her with sparkling eyes, silent.
Numerous times throughout the day, the Jewish boy caught the black girl watching everyone else. Each time he noticed her, he felt the urge to speak to her, but before he did, he lost his nerve. She might think he was weird. They’d never chatted before.
Then he’d forget about her and obsess some more over his costume. He wanted it to be a surprise for the parade, but the garbage bag kept banging into things and he was afraid to stash it anywhere because someone might peek. People kept asking him if he was a cat burglar—as if he had no imagination at all.
At lunch hour, he couldn’t wait any longer. He locked himself into a bathroom stall and pulled out his costume: two pieces of cardboard connected by strings that hung over his shoulders. A signboard. He’d painted it so that it looked like a playing card—the ace of spades. He had black shoe polish, too, but he wasn’t sure if he’d get in trouble if he smeared it all over his face.
He slipped the shoe polish into his back pocket and waddled out into the hallway.
Throughout the afternoon, he received comments, but they were charged with neither the astonishment at his audacity nor the distaste for his nerve that he had been looking forward to. They were just garden-variety jealous compliments. Even the most competitive other students were sure he would win best costume. They recognized the hours of work and the inspiration that had gone into it. But they didn’t understand the meaning he’d meant to convey. They didn’t see the Big Point.
By the time the school began to assemble for the parade, he knew that he’d have to add the black face, the final component of his costume, or everybody would just think he was some stupid playing card.
To give them some height, the fourth-grade teacher, the gym teacher and the principal sat on chairs mounted on top of a fold-up lunch table that had been dragged to the gym. The teachers stared at the boy in black face, wondering if they should point him out to the principal.
“We should do something. This just…this isn’t acceptable,” said the gym teacher.
The principal barked through a bull horn, explaining to the sugar-addled children that the judging could not begin until they had formed a line and if they didn’t calm down and act their age, there’d be no judging at all.
“I’ll knock his block off myself,” said the gym teacher.
“No you won’t,” said the principal.
Down on the floor of the gym, ghosts and princesses and gorillas and punk rockers ran every which way, playing some ad-hoc form of tag or push—it was hard for the adults to discern exactly what the game was.
“What do they teach him in that house?” muttered the fourth grade teacher.
The principal stood on the edge of the table. He braced his legs and hoped that the two platforms didn’t buckle. Putting his hands on his hips, he let the dawning awareness of his presence sour the mood of the room. The children began disciplining themselves. He turned to the two teachers.
“Ignore him,” he said.
“I’m positive there’s something in the rule booklet about this,” said the gym teacher.
“We’re not going to give him what he wants.”
The gym teacher threw her hands into the air in a spasm of exasperation, but the other teacher, after what she had been through, considered for a moment. The principal was right. Don’t give him what he wants. She had always respected this man.
The boy dressed like Death butted in line behind the Ace of Spades.
“Fucking cool costume,” he said and he clapped the other boy on the shoulder.
The Jewish boy’s eyes narrowed. “Yeah, don’t break it.” He tried to fold his arms defensively across his chest but the cardboard got in the way. Death’s rubber mask hid his whole head.
“I thought you liked niggers.”
The Jewish boy searched for one of the words his parents had taught him so he’d have an alternative to swearing. “You’re such a cretin.”
He knew the other boy could beat him up but he couldn’t stop himself from shoving the boy into the Batman behind him. Then, realizing the danger he was in, he rushed off to the back of the line.
The Batman shoved back, and Death decked him.
The bullhorn screeched and rumbled.
“Hey, hey, that’s enough.”
The principal loosened his finger on the mic button.
“Which one is that?” he asked the fourth grade teacher.
“That’s Ray Braun.”
Squeezing the trigger, he said, “Ray don’t ruin it for everybody.”
Out in the hallway, the gym teacher clamped two fingers around the back of the Ray’s neck.
“I didn’t do nothing. Dustin pushed me.”
“Dustin wasn’t even near you.”
“He ran away.”
“Do you think we’re blind up there, Ray?”
“I’m not blind.”
She tightened her fingers and gave a little shove.
“Now, get back in there and behave.”
The Jewish boy strained his neck to see over people’s heads. There she was, Raggedy Ann, close to but not part of a group of girls in identical plastic Minnie Mouse masks. She looked happy and he felt bad for her again.
He wanted her to know he was on her side.
The mob finally started to look like a line.
“Ok, listen up,” said the principal, speaking into the bullhorn again. “What’s going to happen is, you’re going to walk across the gym in groups of four. You got that? Four. And when you get to in front of the judges’ stand, you’re going to turn and pose like whatever you are, ok? And then you walk to the other side and stand against the wall. So, when you walk across the gym, how many people will be in your group?”
“And when you get to the judges’ stand, what are you going to do?”
“Turn and pose.”
“And then what are you going to do?”
“Go stand against the wall.”
The Jewish boy butted in line behind the black girl. They walked to the center of the gym along with a bunny rabbit and a scarecrow. When they turned to face the judges, the black girl grinned and raised her hands in a feeble ta-da. The Jewish boy turned toward her, leaned in, and kissed her on the cheek. He froze in this position for a count of three during which the black girl’s smile sank and her hands shrunk in toward her chest.
He straightened and waited for the room’s response.
She felt her cheek. She wiped away the shoe polish.
And then Leslie slapped the boy across the face.
When he heard the winners, the boy in the black face was convinced he’d been robbed. But he wasn’t quite sure by whom.