I still lived in Brooklyn. The year was 1969 and racial tensions were high. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. had been killed only a year previous. One day, outside the windows of my school, students from the high school walked out of school and marched in the streets, almost creating a riot, demanding equality and commemorating the death of King. I had always empathized with the black race, but I got some powerful wake-up calls in junior high school; they didn’t necessarily feel the same way about me.
I went to Meyer Levin Junior High School. This was a whole new ball game. Kids were sassier, and meaner than they ever were in elementary school. We had to dress out for P.E. (gym) in these ugly, green and white striped, one piece short jumpsuits and sneakers.
One day, while walking through the locker room, I happened to pass a large, mean white girl who was the leader of a pack of black girls. (I don’t know how she got that status.) As I walked by she said to me, “what the f— are you f— ing looking at?”
Being naïve and cocky, I replied, “there is nothing to look at.” That was fairly stupid of me; did I have a death wish?
And she retorted, “You better watch your ass from now on.” I was in trouble. She had her goons taunt me and kick at me and trip me for the next week or so. Luckily, they were just toying with me, but I figured more was coming. I realized that perhaps I could use my superior brain to amend this situation (since I had no brawn and no back-up). I made friends with her best friend, another white girl. After a week or so, I asked the friend if she could ask the white leader to back off and leave me alone. It worked, and I was never bothered again.
Another time, my teacher was absent and they had to take all of us to different classes. I sat in the back of the room and several black kids proceeded to poke my legs with pencils. I tried to get the teacher’s attention and get his help, but he actively ignored me; I’m pretty sure he was as scared as I was. When I got home, I was pretty frantic because I thought pencils were made of lead, but when I found out that they had switched to graphite years ago, I felt a lot better, after tending to my wounds.
Instead of becoming bitter and filled with hate or fear, I became friends with black kids through the years and learned about their plight. I discovered that the NAACP was actually created by blacks and Jews, and that we had similar histories of being slaves and so forth. I learned as much as I could, not just about black history, but about injustice everywhere. I would spend much of my life fighting the good fight for many causes, but we can save those details for another time. I find it interesting that after all those years, here we are again. I think progress was made, yet we find ourselves fighting the race wars again. I guess progress takes time.
In 7th grade, I had this math teacher who was clearly afraid of his students. All he wanted to do was teach math. Nobody liked the class, so they paid little or no attention to him. He just turned to the board and kept talking as if we weren’t even there. I wasn’t particularly interested in the math, but I’ve never had it in me to be mean. But these kids were mean. They threw things at him when his back was turned. And one day, they put tacks on his chair so he would jump up in pain when he sat down. I don’t remember if I said anything to them to get them to stop their antics, but I would not participate in their pranks. This was definitely Not elementary school. Eye opening, yes. I couldn’t get out of Junior High school fast enough.
I never really became part of a group in Junior High (nowadays, they call it Middle School). I made a few friends, and luckily I skipped 8th grade, so I got out of there in 2 years. Somehow, I managed to avoid any more conflict, although my friends were trouble enough. We got into all sorts of shenanigans. I skipped school for the first time in my life (yes, we wrote notes from our parents) to go to the beach, and we did things I never would have done if it weren’t for my friends.
Like, my first kiss. I was at the beach with my friend, Pearl. We were only 13, but in those days we could take a city bus to anywhere; we didn’t need parents to cart us around anywhere. These older guys, who were about 16, sat down near our blanket and asked us to rub sun lotion on their backs. Of course, we complied, all giddy that they gave us any attention. Depending on your age, you might remember the giant Coppertone billboards, where a little dog was pulling the bottoms down of a little girl that showed part of her white tushy. These days, the company would be sued for such a display. To this day, every time I go to the beach, I can still smell the distinctive coconutty fragrance of Coppertone in my mind.
Pearl and I were sunning ourselves, of course, with those tri-fold aluminum sun collectors, and had drawn hearts on our arms with baby oil and iodine so we would get sun tattoos. Naturally, we wore bikinis because that was all the rage for girls our age.
Then, the boys came along. We didn’t know what to say or how to conduct ourselves, but they were obviously veterans of wooing teenage girls, so we didn’t really have to say much. After I put the lotion on this guy’s back, he turned around and just kissed me. There was no prelude, no romance, no warning. I’d never done that before, so I didn’t know what to expect, but he stuck his tongue in my mouth and I thought I would choke to death. Suffice it to say, he caught me by surprise. We didn’t know how to get rid of them, so Pearl and I said we had to get home, and headed for the nearest bus.
When we got to Pearl’s house, I could smell formaldehyde because her dad was a coroner and his ‘office’ was in the basement. We could not stop giggling. “Ewwwwww! Gross! That was the most disgusting thing I’ve ever experienced. I didn’t know kissing was going to be like that!” I was cured for the next few years.
Although I was naive about the ways of romance at 13, I was becoming familiar with the ways of the world. The VietNam War was still going on and I went to my first peace rally in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village. (There would be other protests through the years, against the war in Iraq, against Monsanto, against nuclear energy, against the big banks and mortgage companies that raped the economy and caused it to crash in 2008, in favor of universal health care, the women’s march, the science march, and numerous others.)
It was a powerful feeling, being with hundreds, if not thousands of people, mostly young, gathering together to make a statement about their own lives. It was peaceful, as was every other protest I’ve ever gone to. It’s our Constitutional right, not to start riots, but to show the world that you’ve got something to say. When things turn violent, as they have in 2020, I believe that hurts the movement, because then people only see the destruction instead of the message. And also, I detest violence.
Then, when I was 14, my mother decided to buy a house in Long Island with her husband and my new brother. I will never forget this day; she sat me down in the living room with my Gramma and they told me together. I didn’t really think much about it until she said that I had to move in with her. I was mortified. “I’m not going,” I said. I actually thought I had a choice. Then, she started to cry. Whenever she broke down in tears, it made me pull deeper into my turtle shell and I just hardened.
“You’re my daughter,” she cried. “You belong with your mother.” I turned to my grandmother. Surely, she would not let me go, not make me move away from Brooklyn, the place I called home all my life. But my grandmother betrayed me and said, “You belong with your mother, she’s right. And besides, I’m getting old and I can’t take care of a teenager.”
In retrospect, of course, it all made perfect sense, but as a teenager I was devastated. I would never forgive either of them, or so I thought at the time, because teenagers are, for the most part, self-absorbed and can’t really imagine the future, or that anyone else could be right. Somehow, I got past all that. So, for my next installment,
High School and Beyond…