Booker T. High School
Martha gave her a pep talk the night before her first day of high school, “Eunice I’ve been called every name in the book. I remember being your age in Montreal. They called me a chiqué for being stuck-up just because I knew how to dress nice. My mother had been a professional seamstress so I came by it honestly. In New York there were cat calls or curses due to your father and I being sinners but it’s lucky your father is a large man so it was not a big deal. Small town Georgia was bad. Let’s just say by the time we got to Montgomery, I’d heard it all. I felt disturbed up until we were accepted at First Baptist and then I didn’t notice anymore. As long as people know your story Montgomery folks tend to mind their beeswax or keep their comments to themselves,” Martha said, fiddling with Eunice’s hair.
“I think you were maybe three when I heard the funniest one. You were sweet in your stroller with your head a bobbin,’ plumb tuckered. I’d refused to bargain with a farmer selling ears of corn but I knew my prices. I swore he doubled his price because I had on my Sunday best clothes but it was a Tuesday. He said, well la dee da this girl sees herself as high cotton. It was my cue to go to Ernie’s stall for corn so I wished this character good riddance,” Martha said.
“Ha ha! Mummy, they say way worse nowadays,” Eunice laughed as her mother’s eyebrows complimented her words meaning she was in good mental condition today.
“But mother high cotton is hardly name calling,” Eunice said, rolling her eyes.
“That’s what I said when I got to church that evening for choir with the ladies! They laughed their heads off saying I was madder than a wet hen. Their words. Celia cackled, ‘If only he knew you lived on Columbia street!’ The ladies laughed even more. It’s not because it was such an insult. The funny part was he was calling me the Southern version of stuck up all these years later,” Martha laughed reliving the moment.
“Cute mother. When the girls are mouthy with me I just stare them down and they back off,” Eunice said.
“Good to hear. Don’t you ever let them ruffle your feathers,” Martha said.
Her first day of school was one where she could have just as easily gone to the pond and lolled around listening to headphones.
Booker T. Washington High School was on Union in Centennial Hill. It was true the student population was black with a sprinkling of others and an even lesser number of impoverished or special need white students. Perhaps they didn’t make the grade at all-white schools.
Booker T was named after a black educator who subscribed that black people postpone any attempt to gain political power until they achieved economic equality with whites. Eunice wondered when it would come true because that speech was from long ago.
She walked up the entrance path of school to the tune of Gangsta’s Paradise playing in her head. …why are we…so blind to see… She imagined musical notes and a bouncing ball hovering over lyrics like karaoke. As her eyes passed over vignettes of students she thought of the opening sequence of a teenage movie. She wasn’t sure what angst riddled drama would play out but was sure she would learn a few lessons.
At her last school she’d strategically gravitated toward popular kids but this place was unknown. The groupings of students all looked out of her league. Since she skipped a grade some of them looked like adults. She’d need to change tactics to fit in with this crowd, maybe she’d get a tattoo to show look street smart.
The student cliques were wrapped in important conversations she didn’t dare interrupt. Most students were black and the ones who weren’t didn’t give off a come sit with us vibe.
It didn’t help she was self-conscious of her light skin so she concocted a story in her head about being sent undercover to investigate the school for a 20/20 expose! The last thing she needed was to be labeled borderland on her first day.
She noticed there were other minorities in high school who weren’t interrogated. They weren’t black and some of them had lighter skin than Eunice, yet they seemed accepted; ‘I’m Arisbel Latina from Puerto Rico,’ ‘Hey, Nelson here Chinese,’ or ‘My name is Ravi, my parents are from India.’
People got nervous when they couldn’t define things. How could Nelson born in Guangzhou, China blend in better than her?
Eunice guessed she wasn’t dark enough for black cliques or not weird enough for the freaky whites. Perhaps the Latino girls didn’t want her either.
She took a deep breath and introduced herself, “Hi I’m Eunice. It’s my first day,” she exhaled.
“Wait a minute, I know you,” the familiar voice said and magically a door was opened. Arisbel had been her pal in Sunday school when they were about 8 years old. Without missing a beat Eunice went along with Arisbel’s vibe as if they’d been best friends ever since.
“How did you end up in my grade? I remember in Sunday school you were younger,” Eunice said.
“I don’t brag but I’ve skipped two grades and English is my second language!” Arisbel said.
“Wow. I got bumped a grade too but I swear the principal wanted me out of that school for causing trouble,” Eunice said. “I never asked you where you were from.”
“I’m Puerto Rican. Born in a town called Ponce,” she said. Eunice sensed she was wanting to tell her more.
“Have you been back there since?” Eunice asked.
“No. I wish. My father is still there somewhere. My mother doesn’t make enough money at Comfort Lodge to send me,” Arisbel said.
They were interrupted by two skater boys.
“Hey you a mutt?” a pimply black boy asked, as he made a circle around them on his skateboard.
“You boys behave. This is my good friend Eunice,” Arisbel said. “and Henry you don’t even know what you’re talking about!” Arisbel screamed in Eunice’s defense. “He’s from my math class. Pay no mind,” she told Eunice.
“Nope, I’m a fine blend of not one but two purebreds!” Eunice called after him thinking twice about her parents own racial purity. Who knew about anyone’s true lineage unless you studying ancestry.
“Good one Eunice!” she praised. Then turned to the boys, “Her nose is the only way to even tell she’s black. Otherwise she has such fine features,” Arisbel said. Her description implied her white features made her prettier.
“Do you know you’re dissing me right now?” Eunice poked her gently on her arm. She gave Arisbel a pass with an English as a second language card.
“Come on Eunice, if you blew your hair out you’d be my Mexican sister!” Arisbel said.
“Good idea but she’ll never be ghetto fabulous like me!” Arisbel’s friend Gabrielle said. She was classic urban chic.
“Or she can be like Mariah who cranked up her ghetto cred after her first album dropped and failed to sell to white radio!” Arisbel said.
“Whatever! The record companies made her do it!” Eunice said.
“That’s because her producer was her husband!” Lindsay said.
The good thing about high school was the kids weren’t exactly shy about getting personal. However shocking it first seemed, Eunice got the feeling she’d be desensitized pretty quick. Some were bold like another skater boy, “What is your background? You white?” cool dude asks, smacking his gum.
“I’m black and white,” Eunice answered to curious beady eyes or confused smirks.
“What do you mean? You can’t be black and white,” he said.
“It’s exactly as it sounds man. I have a black father and a white mother!” she said.
“Which race do you relate to more?” he asked.
Nothing was more jarring than having people stand there, blinking and clearing their throat with ahems as if expecting an explanation. Later she learned to toy with them, especially if they were cute.
She wanted nothing more than to be black only because calling herself white felt deceptive and saying black got her reactions like Uncle Leo’s angry eyebrows on Seinfeld.
“If you must know I identify as black,” Eunice said, feeling liberated.
What a relief. She could decide for herself. Otherwise how else would she have functioned without a meltdown! Well fuck me! I’m tired of this shit! Why the fuck do I need to explain myself to every asshole who asks!
That night alone in her room her mind ran the gamut of emotion; anger at the constant intrusion of questions and relief at the new freedom to use her voice if she was pigeon holed. When her heartbeat calmed she let herself be excited about fitting in. She remembered all those times she ran to her room when her house was chaotic. With headphones she could leave present worries behind and thrash around to grunge music like Nirvana or Pearl Jam.
Eunice looked at her reflection in the vanity mirror happy for having survived the day. She was ready to take it on academics with a questioning attitude.
She would analyze various scenarios and their outcomes to devise strategies on how to play high school. She surmised the best PR tactic would be to become the ultimate high school bad girl and keep her cards close to her chest. Not even telling Arisbel.
She didn’t think it bothered her until conversations amongst schoolmates turned to race and oppression. It was good that students were more aware of police brutality, racial profiling and the idea of privilege but she hadn’t signed up to be a spokesperson or mascot for anything.
Her experience at home had been mother’s church visitors or Daddy’s pals passing through from up north. Most were black, some were white and many shades in between but her racial identity had never been questioned because they knew her parents story.
High school culture was obsessed with designer labels race, sexual orientation and cliques she didn’t identify with. Oh well! She was doomed to be an outsider.
It was here she was first accused of having white privilege due to being half white. She was confused when she heard the term. How could she have white privilege if she weren’t white? After that she was uncomfortable in racial discussions because the spotlight inevitably pointed to her, “Given your background what do you think half-breed?” she imagined the teachers question.
She’d cop a sarcastic attitude and push back on interrogators but it proved tiring. She didn’t remember the exact day but eventually it stopped bothering her. Everyone knew high school was the most cruel phase of life but wasn’t it the most dramatic?
One time Eunice and Arisbel were at the back of the grounds near a thatch of sycamore trees smoking when she saw Terrence for the first time.
“Arisbel check out the guy with the chains!” Eunice said, nudging her now-best-friend. She was delighted to see a gorgeous black boy with stunning eyes and aquiline nose.
“His name is Terrence. Now he could be mixed but I’m not sure. A black boy mixed with Japanese or maybe Mexican which makes him so cute,” Arisbel joked.
Eunice clued in they were sizing him up just like she was tired of being victim of. Hopefully he was used to it like she now was.
Terrence clearly embraced his gangsta side dressed in a white quilted track suit and large gold dollar sign chain on his neck. He was new but already well connected smoking with some senior guys.
“My cousin was in a gang that worshipped Pablo Escobar,” Arisbel said, without taking her eyes off of Terrence.
Eunice figured she was watching Arisbel experience love at first sight.
“Did you know mixed race teens experience trouble in school, repeating grades, getting kicked out, smoking, drinking, feeling depressed, having access to guns and having sex, woo hoo! So good luck with that Eunice!” she teased.
Was she saying Eunice would turn out to be a troublemaker because she grew up mixed and confused. Arisbel enjoyed being a walking public service announcement. Perhaps her double grade skip was the result of teachers bumping her ahead traumatized by her overwhelming knowledge.
“Honestly I never had too much trouble. At Nixon I got suspended for sticking up for a girl against some snobby white girls though,” Eunice said.
“I know. Being mixed is not a stressful experience,” she said. “It’s the idiot reactions that can stress me out. Society creates the stress then people go and shoot up a place! Scary,” Arisbel said.
Her parents had never discussed dual identities or feelings. She’d only known the value of open mindedness.
Eunice daydreamed about Terrence while Arisbel shared her PHD level knowledge on several topics. She was the girl you wanted on your Trivial Pursuit team but could exhaust you with a constant inundation of facts. Eunice tolerated it; she was grateful Arisbel had been there on her first day.
“People think racism has been dismantled but it’s still very much alive in our education system!” Arisbel said, looking as if awaiting confirmation.
Eunice sometimes thought Arisbel was hiding how damaged she was by her experiences as a Latino. Eunice drew on one of her father’s stories which often worked in a pinch.
“My father told me about the Little Rock Nine over in Arkansas. They called segregation a thing of the past but the kids there went through hell in high school. It makes this place a walk in the park! He said Little Rock had to demonstrate and protest; 2-4-6-8 we are going to integrate! Even the teachers would say, I’m just sick to my stomach we are going to let those people in here,(5)” Eunice said, in a prudish librarian’s voice.
“Eunice you are such a good storyteller,” Arisbel said.
“It reminds me of LA. It was worse for Mexicans there. Latinos are considered servants in the eyes of whites,” Arisbel said.
“Really? Those Little Rock students didn’t even want to integrate but it was the 50s so they had to do what their parents told them. It was all over the news and the president at the time sent in Stormtroopers. Can you imagine how exciting it would be having Emperor Palpatine’s men protect us from white people. Ha ha!” Eunice exaggerated.
“Whoa, that’s quite the imagination,” Arisbel said, somewhat less animated.
Eunice was pleased.
“Actually that would be really hot!” Arisbel added, throwing her hair back with a laugh. Eunice was amused by her being an agent provocateur in a cute girl’s body.
“My Aunt Sybil was the first student to finish the year in that integrated school,” Eunice said, imagining Sybil’s voice, Oh no dear; it was never intended to be integrated. It was never the intention we’d be treated equal.
“Eunice people used to think the earth was flat, isn’t that ridiculous? And that Jesus was a real man and not a fable,” Arisbel said.
“Arisbel! People still believe in Jesus!” Eunice said, surprised she was not Christian being Mexican.
Arisbel could easily make conversation with her trivia knowledge. Bantering facts back and forth with her gave Eunice the idea to ante up her black history. It wouldn’t be difficult considering the tall tales she got at home and she could listen to more rap and hip hop. Being the bad girl would counteract her perfectionist pride but also be a surefire way to blend in. Who didn’t want to be a badass anyway?
That first year of high school was her education in more ways than one. Eunice decided to stay away from being too popular. Who wanted to burn out too fast or too soon! She found her niche by staying just under the radar.
She figured excelling in study’s, even working ahead of the teacher’s curriculum by handing in assignments early would keep her in good standing. A Super-good girl archetype balanced with crafty-bad girl became her modus operandi. She suspected the purebreds never had to fathom such duality. They simply were one or the other. Inside she knew she was still Eunice though. What did all this have to do with anything?
Being hyper aware of her evolving persona left her spent. Most evenings she could do little else but hide out in her bedroom with headphones.
In Literature class her second year girls she didn’t recognize gave her death locked stares so the boys, jocks and nerds in class avoided eye contact with her. Most just following the nasty girls’ lead not wanting trouble.
For African American literature like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Mrs. Sanford played snippets from movies, probably so the boys like Terrence and his lot had a snowballs chance of passing because they never completed the readings.
“They hate me Terrence,” she whispered. He’d arrived late so took the seat next to hers.
“Ach. They are only envious of your looks and brains ya goofball,” he said, poking her arm with his pencil and smiling sunshine. “Hang in there.”
She didn’t believe him but it made her feel special.
“Folks next we are doing Alex Haley’s Roots so I need you to start reading,” Mrs. Sanford said.
The guys in back groaned.
“Have you seen how many pages are in that book?” Terrence said to her.
“Hopefully she’ll play the entire miniseries!” Eunice said.
Mrs. Sanford played excerpts from Roots.
The girls started teasing her daily, “That looks like you Eunice, child of rape!” Francine said.
Eunice couldn’t identify with any character and tried to ignore they were equating her with mixed race characters sired by the master.
“She’s so pretty I love her,” Eunice said, then froze the bitches out. Eunice didn’t take any more offence. What did she care, Terrence Battle was friends with her.
“Hey Eunice, aren’t you glad you know where you come from? Mulatto-land!” Francine said.
Ironically, learning racially offensive words was the start of her being called out as mixed, multiethnic, double-raced and even that slave word mulatto was making a comeback.
Eunice thought Kunta Kinte / Toby /Levar Burton was cute. She knew him from the Star Trek TV show. He reminded her of her neighbor Sam Hood. If she didn’t identify with characters in the movie she wondered if Sam would identify with Toby. He had always been easy on her eyes.