Chapter 19. Lab Partners/Crystal
“I am going to walk out of this damned school, and I am never coming back,” Crystal said, slamming her books down on her desk.
Marianne looked up from her philosophy notebook. “Hey! What’s the matter?”
“Nothing much. First it was shitty Bio lab. You know how at mid semester you have to change lab partners? Like I’m the only black student in my section, and no one would be my partner.” Crystal paced back and forth, feeling that their room seemed very small. “Dr. Pirkley had assigned them the first time, but he just told us to find new partners today. Finally, he told me to work with Pervis Niu, the other guy with no partner.
He--that asshole, he point blank said, ‘No I won’t work with her, it might hurt my grade.’ I’m sure my grades are much better than that turd’s, but he’s so prejudiced. Against both women and black people. So Pirkley said I could work by myself.”Crystal plopped down on her bed.
“Wow, that sucks. Didn’t he say anything to Pervis?”
“No, but maybe he didn’t notice the put down the same way I did. I just don’t belong here. There aren’t enough black people. People think we’re freaks.” Crystal ran her hand over her hair to smooth it down. She wasn’t surprised to find her fingers were shaking. She got out a bottle of water, opened it and took a long drink.
Then she continued, “And not only that, but it was the solo at gospel choir. That a-hole Cherie got the part in the duet for our concert, instead of me, and she’s going to be practicing all the time with Bronnie. He almost has no spare time, has to work all the time. Like whatever time he has, she’ll make sure she gets it.”
“Hmm, is she interested in him, do you think?”
“Damn yes! She has been drooling over him all this time, but now’s her chance.”
“Well, you’ll just have to do something to make him sit up and take notice, then,” Marianne said, smiling. Crystal thought her eyes slanted even more when she had that sly smile. She looked like she was plotting.
“No makeup now,” Crystal said hastily.
“We’ll talk about it later. But I think you should do something about Pirkley too. He needs to pay more attention to what’s happening in his class, if it makes you want to leave the college.” Marianne opened a bottle of blue nail polish. The acetone smell began to spiral through the room.
“You sound like my Mom. Whenever something awful happened she told us not to sit around moping, but do something about it. Funny, doing something about it would make it better, somehow. I never really understood how that worked. So maybe you’re right. I’ll go talk with him about it.”
“And what if he just says there’s nothing he can do?” Marianne painted her last fingernail on the left and switched to the right hand.
“What do you mean?” Crystal felt Marianne was pushing her, but she didn’t know where. “What else can I can do?”
“Well, maybe talk with his department chair, or go see the dean, or take it up with your Umoja group, maybe they would picket his lab with you.” As Marianne said this, Crystal thought about the very social and non-confrontational Umoja group here at Carson College. Umoja basically brought black students together for parties. She doubted if they’d be interested in helping her deal with this mess.
Marianne was waiting for Crystal’s response, but she didn’t say anything. Marianne put the nail polish bottle down on her desk and waved her wet nails around in the air. “Look at my quote for the week, it fits!”
Crystal walked over to the mirror and read, “Racism is a much more clandestine, much more hidden kind of phenomenon, but at the same time it’s perhaps far more terrible than it’s ever been. ...Radical simply means ‘grasping things at the root.’ ...I think the importance of doing activist work is precisely because it allows you to give back and to consider yourself not as a single individual who may have achieved whatever but to be a part of an ongoing historical movement. Angela Davis.”
“Angela Davis, huh?” Crystal’s eyebrows raised and her eyes sparkled. She was pleased that Marianne had posted a quotation from someone black. But her heart beat fast. Was she going to be pushed farther than she wanted to go? She stretched her arms up tall and then out to the side to calm down. Then she said, “Wow, you’re more of an activist than I am. No waves unless necessary, that’s how I’ve always operated. I don’t know. Umoja here is pretty much just social. They have good music, good parties. But they don’t seem like a good bet to take up any causes. I feel fine about talking with Dr. Pirkley, but the rest of that sounds scary.”
“Okay,” said Marianne. She sorted through her make up bin and pulled a new box of press-on fingernail decals showing jewels. She opened the box and chose a ruby shaped decal for one of her fingernails. “Just take one step and then we can talk about it again. Crystal, activism isn’t just for black people. Chinese people can always find a way to make things work. If A is resistant, we’ll go all the way to Z before we’ll give up. You should see my Mom go after stuff.”
“Once, I was excluded from a test to decide if I could take pre-calculus. My Mom went hella berserk, pulled out all the stops. She won, I took the test and got into the damned class.” She positioned the decal on her index fingernail and pressed it on, holding tight for a minute. Then she looked up at Crystal again. “We inherited that persistence from those Chinese men who came here to build the railroads and stood up to the government when it passed laws to prevent them from having any rights. Activism has really helped the black people too. You know that. You should try it. You really get more of what you want.”
“Or get killed, thrown out of school, etc.” Crystal said. She still felt sick from the embarrassment of being accused of being stupid in front of the whole biology lab. She wondered why she wasn’t more ready to fight against it. Sometimes she felt really strong, but this unexpected and unjustified accusation had knocked her for a loop. She still felt too jumpy to make decisions, threatened, like she couldn’t count on her environment to accept her at her own worth. As she sat on her bed reliving the insult, she began to feel it might do her good to become the Angela Davis of this campus. But would it put all of her goals at risk? Fixing the racism at Carson College wasn’t what she really wanted to achieve. She felt pushed to suck it up like a good little premed, and at the same time she wanted to grab a firebrand and lead all the black students on campus out to burn down the biology laboratory. She told herself, take your time making up your mind. You’re a deliberative person, not an impulsive person.
She paced around the room for a few minutes. Then she said goodbye to Marianne, took her backpack and started off for the computer lab to finish her music paper. She thought it was best to leave their room, in case Marianne wanted her to paint her nails to make Bronnie sit up and take notice. Also, their room’s internet connection was down, and the information technology people weren’t going to get around to fixing it until Friday.
The computer center was the entire ground floor of the mathematics building. It was designed to be comfortable to students. Parts had desks and chairs, and other parts had bean bag chairs. There were many computers available, and also desks where people could plug in their own laptops. Crystal noticed that no one was at the help desk. She sat at a desk and got out her music notes. She was writing about music as a force for patriotism in Germany during World War II. She had half a notebook full of information she’d collected from books and articles. She had written five pages the day before at the library and she needed a total of ten.
Crystal was surprised that she finished her paper quickly. All she had to do was write transitions and put in her evidence from the notebook. She hoped the professor would like it; she really thought it was a good paper. It was hard to tell how the professor would grade a paper in music, or any of the humanities. There was a subjective element to the grading that she didn’t quite understand. She usually did well, though.
Crystal packed up the paper and notebook in her backpack and looked around. She thought about getting a snack in the computer center lounge, but she decided not to stay here. Noise rocketed around the room. In the bean bag chair area, three guys who looked like geeks played a space-based action game on their laptops and yelled at each other about the moves. She got up and started out towards the dorm.
It was sunny and windy outside. Crystal stopped on the steps to get her hoodie out of her backpack. Bronnie arrived at the computer lab as Crystal found the hoodie. He said, “Hey there, Crystal, I feel like I haven’t seen you in years. C’mon and talk to me. I have to sit on the Help Desk and set up the schedule for the students who work here the rest of the week.”
Crystal decided she would, having his upcoming duet with Cherie in the back of her mind. “Okay, I can stay for a few minutes,” she said, turning around and following him back inside. “Whatcha doing for Thanksgiving?” he asked her. He pulled out a file drawer next to where he sat and grabbed a set of forms. He rifled through the top drawer for a pen and a marker.
Crystal said, “Going home to Grandma’s where the turkey is tender!”
“I’m going home too, back to Baltimore,” he said. “I wish we could get together. I never have much free time and we don’t have any classes together.”
Crystal felt herself blush rosy over the brown of her cheeks, and warmth ran all the way down to her toes. She felt the corners of her lips turn up and hoped she wasn’t smiling too wide, looking like an idiot. Bronnie stared at her, smiling back, not as easy in conversation as usual. He said, “What’re you taking next semester? Maybe we could take a class together?”
He began to fill in the top of a form, and then used the marker to copy the columns onto a white board posted on the side of the room, with hours for each help-desk student worker.
“I have Bio 2 and Chem 2, but I’ll be through with Calculus. I want to take a Women’s Studies class and I don’t know what else I should take. I have to talk with Dr. Sims.” She took off her backpack and put it on the floor next to her feet.“She’s a good advisor. I had her last year. But now I’ve changed to Dr. Shoji, in Computer Science, because I might major in that. For next semester, I’m thinking about a black studies class you might like, Caribbean Diaspora Literature with Dr. Jackson. I have to do Spanish too, since I put it off from last year.” He finished with his white board and sat down next to the Help Desk phone.
Crystal thought he loved helping people, and since he was good at computing, it was a perfect job for him. She smiled at him again, remembering how he had helped her bring Marianne back to their room from her Drinking Bad. And then he had kissed her. She blushed again and said, “Hmm, I’ll take a look at that class. I like literature.”
“The other class I’m considering is Photography, but I think I’ll wait until next year for that.” Crystal noticed that the reflected red plush of his sweatshirt gave his skin a wine color that was very attractive.
She said, “I haven’t decided whether to take that here. I’ve had a few classes in it during high school, at the local camera store and Pasadena City College on the weekends. I worked in the photo lab in high school, doing stuff for the student newspaper. I’m working in the photo lab here too. I’d love to do professional nature photography.”
“Hey, I thought you were premed! Although I guess you could do both, somehow.”
“Yeah, like I want to do both somehow.” She smiled again.
Bronnie said, “So, maybe you could help me with photography! I always wanted to learn, especially the way to change things around when you’re printing. The whole thing may go out of existence pretty soon, with all the digital imaging, Photoshop and all, but I sort of crave the chemistry. And the dark room experience, you know.”
Crystal shivered thinking about dark rooms and Bronnie. She had an image of the two of them working in the subdued red light, almost dark, side by side, maybe brushing hands, and then something else might happen. Thinking about Bronnie and her in a darkroom was disturbing, but it made her feel hot too. She was definitely conflicted about him and their possible relationship.
Bronnie received a complicated Help Desk computer question from one of the other students, and the phone rang too. Their time to talk seemed to be over, so she grabbed her pack, waved goodbye and went back to her room.