Paper Mushy

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Sixteen

If school yesterday was about perception, then the following day it was about interruption. Everything was a distraction, a mindless exercise that was delaying what she had come there to do.

At recess, she sat on the curb and watched the other kids play. At lunch, she stared at her food as if it were rocks meant to sit in her stomach forever. The lectures were a blur, one moment strung together without a beginning or end. Her eyes were fixed on the clock that hung above the door like an all-knowing god. The second hand moved in a circle, repeating itself, again and again—it was as if she was the one pushing it around inside the glass dome. Why was time slower when it needed to be faster?

The bell rang.

Finally.

The kids cheered and made their way to their lockers and outside. Special waited for everyone to clear out before she walked up to Mrs. Woodfork’s desk. It seemed taller than usual.

“I liked your lessons today,” she said.

Mrs. Woodfork smiled. “Thank you. I hope you were able to understand the math equations I went over.”

Special had been slipping in math. She understood math, but it was the issue of caring about it, rather than knowing how to solve the problems. Caring about multiplication and division was hard when you were making paper mushies come alive.

“I did! I’m going to spend more time studying so I can improve my grade.”

“That’s good. If you ever need any extra help, let me know. You’re one of my best students; I’d hate to see you fall behind in one subject when I know you’re smart enough to do it.”

“Thank you. I will ask for help if I need it!”

There was a knock on the door frame. Beverly Sprits, one of Special’s classmates, was holding her left wrist like it was broken. She was sniffing—no cold or sinus issues, just the onset of a loud cry.

“Mrs. Woodfork,” Beverly said. “I can’t find my art piece in the hallway. I think someone took it! I think someone stole it!”

“Are you sure?” Mrs. Woodfork said. “Did you put it in your locker or take it home the other day?”

“No! It was there this morning, and now it’s gone. Please! Can you come look for yourself? I wanted to show my mommy what I made but now I can’t!”

Then came the tears.

“Ok. I’ll help you look for it.” She turned to Special. “Nice talking with you. Hurry up! You don’t want to miss the bus.”

Mrs. Woodfork stood up from behind her desk and followed Beverly down the hall. Beverly was one of Special’s classmates who was prone to crying. It didn’t matter what it was—spider, the weather, bad hair day—tears were prevalent with her. Special knew that when Beverly cried about her art being stolen (it wasn’t), Mrs. Woodfork would want to do everything she could to get her to stop. This gave Special just enough time to get the supplies. She had promised Beverly a pack of fruit snacks for helping her out. She didn’t tell Beverly why she needed her to distract Mrs. Woodfork, but fruit snacks were the food of the gods, so Beverly had little choice but to say yes.

Special got the key out of the top drawer in the desk and opened up the supplies closet. There were still plenty of paper mushy materials. She unzipped her book bag and began putting in the paints first. The bags of tongue depressors went next. Her book bag was already half full at this point.

She started to get nervous, peeking over her shoulder. What would Mrs. Woodfork do if she caught her redhanded? What would her mama say when she found out?

There was no time to think about that. She grabbed a set of brushes and a small box of eyes that were going to be a large improvement from the Sharpie dots. She found a small box of paper fasteners to help give their limbs more mobility. There wasn’t room in her bag for the newspapers, so she stacked them up and held them. She locked the closet door, put the key back in the drawer, and slipped the over-full book bag over her back. It was so heavy she almost fell forward.

Mrs. Woodfork was still with Beverly in the hall, their voices echoing around the corner. Special got into a full sprint and rushed outside. The bus was still there, waiting. A few of the kids gave her a look when she boarded.

“What’s in your bag?” a boy asked.

“Clothes,” Special said, always quick with an answer.

I met Special behind Ace of Fades after she got dropped off. She handed me her book bag and the newspapers.

“Wow, this is a lot,” I said.

“No,” she said. “I think it’s just right.” She paused. “I feel awful. I stole from Mrs. Woodfork. I know it’s wrong.”

“I don’t know what to say. We can stop all of this and return everything if you want.”

“No. I just … I can’t wait for all of this to be over, for Shawn to be gone.”

“I can’t either.”

We went our separate ways. It took me twice as long as I had anticipated getting back to the field by Special’s house. I was relieved to see that Shawn’s car wasn’t parked in the driveway. Special’s plan for using the paper mushies would have been all for naught had he arrived before they were made.

I want to give you a brief history lesson about something in The D before we continue. Near Van Antwerp Park there’s a cement wall that stretches for about a mile up to 8 Mile Road. It runs right through people’s yards and is covered in graffiti, most of it beautiful. Back in the 1940s, the city was beginning to become more racially divided. The housing loan corporation use to hand out grades to different neighborhoods depending on who lived there. Predominantly white neighborhoods were considered ‘green’ neighborhoods and given an A rating. Neighborhoods made up of black people were considered ‘red’ and given a D rating, which was the worst rating one could get. Home values would go down if a black person moved into a white neighborhood. Segregation was booming in The D. After WWII, a lot of people were coming home and needing a place to live. People were also moving out of the city to the suburbs; the White Flight they called it. Contractors wanted to purchase land near 8 Mile Road because it was cheap, however, nobody wanted to issue them a loan due to the area being full of blacks. So they worked out a kind of deal: they built a six-foot-high wall stretching across the land dividing the undeveloped property from the black neighborhoods. They got their loan approved, built their homes, and the white people came and lived separately from the blacks. The wall divided them—literally.

Now and then I make it over to the wall. You can’t walk alongside the whole thing anymore; you’d be skirting through people’s backyards and that could draw the wrong kind of attention. But I like to go up to it and touch it if I can. Hearing about something is one thing, but to actually touch it—feel it—and know that it’s real is something else altogether. I like to think that we’ve come a long way since the wall was built, but you and I know we still got a lot of work to do. Why was I thinking about the wall when I walked over to Special’s play spot? It had nothing to do with the racial tension in America. It had to do with something very simple: remembrance. The wall still exists because those that were oppressed by it want it to. It could be torn down any day, but it isn’t. It’s a reminder, a symbol. We have overcome. We cannot be silenced. We have transformed your act of division into a mural of unification.

Special had a plan for getting rid of Shawn, but the memory of him—what he did to her and her mama—was going to stay. There was nothing I could do or the paper mushies could do to erase that. That’s a tough pill to swallow for some people. They don’t just want the past changed; they want it erased and forgotten entirely. I get that. I really do. Lord knows there are things in my past I want to be wiped from my record. But something told me that the hardships Special was facing were molding that little girl into iron, that even though she would do anything to erase Shawn, the memories of him were the catalyst for who she was becoming. Not defining who she was, but a defining moment nonetheless.

People are suffering all over the world. People, like Special, who are confused and hurt by the circumstances they’ve been brought into. I felt hope, though, that the magic she had found with the paper mushies would bring her closure. All she had to do was believe.

Tell me, my friends, do you believe yet?

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