Chap. 1 | Aaliyah
I don't belong here.
That was the first thought that crossed my mind as the car came to a stop. In front of me loomed one of the biggest buildings I'd seen in my life with an influx of kids either walking in or standing around in their various cliques or groups or whatever they wanted to call themselves. But the thing that stuck out to me the most -the thing that worried me the most- was the number of black kids. Or the lack thereof.
Almost every kid that was in my sight was white with only a few black kids standing off to the side having an animated conversation and a few other minorities thinly sprinkled in here and there. There were only about ten or so of them, and I had a sneaking suspicion that those were going to be the most black kids I'd see at this school.
"Come on, Aaliyah, we've been over this already," my mom gently said, though there was a nudge in her voice as if she were saying, I know you're nervous but I need to be at work in less than fifteen minutes and you're not about to make me late with your foolishness. I bit my bottom lip as I continued taking in my surroundings. I'd been here twice before, once for registration and another time to walk my classes and ask all the questions I could possibly ask, but now that I was seeing Douglass High in action with students...
It was overwhelming, to say the least.
"Baby, look at me," my mom said as she gently placed her hand on my shoulder, pulling me out of my thoughts and causing my attention to turn to her. In the early morning light, she looked young and full of life. The tired look in her eyes was the only thing that gave away the fact that she was in her early forties. I also took into account our various similar features, including our curly dark brown hair -hers flowing past her shoulders while mine was slicked up into a high bun, our medium brown eyes, and our caramel skin tone. A multitude of my other features, including my nose, height, and monstrous shoe size, came from my father. At the very thought of him, my heart dropped and my fingers gently touched the star necklace he'd gotten me on my fifteenth birthday two years ago. He always called me his little star. I tried to wear it every day, especially after everything that happened. It made me feel close to him.
Seeing my change in mood, my mom gently started rubbing my shoulder in a comforting manner. "Aaliyah, I know this is hard for you, especially with everything that's happened but... I need you to try, okay?" she pleaded. "I just want for you to have the best and for you to be safe, you know that, right?"
I instantly nodded and took her hand in mine before giving it a gentle squeeze. My mom had worked very hard to get us out the hood to here, and we had to go without a lot of things for a while. Some nights we wouldn't have heat, other times we'd only be able to have cereal for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But I was proud of her for putting in so much time and effort so now we could have. "I know, mama. Thank you."
She gave me a small smile. "Good, now get out of my car. I need to get to work and you need to walk your little behind up into that school."
I playfully rolled my eyes before I pulled down the sun viser to check myself. My edges were nicely laid down, my eyebrows were perfectly shaped, my mascara was poppin', highlight was on point, and my lips were covered in a pink gloss called Pink Passion (sketchy name but worked like no one's business). I was ready to go. I reached in the backseat and grabbed my simple black backpack before I dug around in the front pocket and pulled out my schedule so I knew exactly where I was going. I took a deep breath and silently prayed that today would be okay before I leaned over the middle console and kissed my mother on the cheek, said goodbye, and hopped out of the car.
I wasted no time pulling out my phone and popping in my earbuds so I could listen to music and give the universal sign of "don't talk to me". I shuffled my throwback playlist and instantly "Musicology" by Prince started blasting through my earbuds and I felt some of my nerves melt away. I came up singing Prince before I said my first word. I found myself walking with a new rhythm in my step as I approached the front steps of the school, cautious to keep my head down so people wouldn't notice me as I observed them. As my daddy used to say, "You need to observe before you act." So that's what I did, especially because I was transitioning from Greenwood- or GreenHood as it's better known- to the suburbs where the sound of gunshots weren't the first things I heard in the morning. But I hadn't really fit in there either. Yeah, I had my friends, but most of them poked fun at me saying that I was "too white" simply because I didn't talk like them nor did I act like them. I guess it was time for me to put that to the test.
As I continued walking, it didn't take much for me to understand what kind of school this was.
Observation Number One: everyone has the flyest kicks. Jordans, Huaraches, and only the freshest Nikes. That made me feel nice that I'd decided to wear my nicest shoes today, a pair of Fila Disruptor IIs.
Observation Number Two: phones. Everyone seemed to have the most up to date ones with the "oldest" ones having come out three years ago while I was stuck with a five-year-old iPhone that could barely hold a charge.
Observation Number Three: cars. The parking lot was full of nice, sleek cars with even the older, more basic models looking fly as I don't know what.
Final Verdict: I don't belong here.
Every cell in my body was screaming at me to chase my mom's car down and beg her to let me take online school to save me from the disaster that I knew today was going to be, but a larger more sensible part of me told me that I just needed to coast through and keep my head down. Plus, our internet was so slow that it would probably take me more than a day to get through one minute of a lesson. But you gotta take what you can get sometimes.
I found myself sighing as I climbed up the steps, the "ayes" of the group of black kids filling my ears as they danced to the music that was playing from the speaker that one of them had brought.
As soon as I opened the doors, the crowds outside looked like nothing compared to the mass that was inside. To call it the Red Sea of white people would've been an understatement. Don't get it twisted, I have nothing against white people, it's just...different being surrounded by so many all at once, especially coming from a school where people who looked like me weren't the outliers.
I felt my heartbeat speed up as I looked around before I frantically looked at my schedule in my hands, all recollection from my orientation day evacuating my brain and being replaced by static. The noise from the various conversations that were happening around me was enough to overpower the music that was flowing from my earbuds and seep into my ears, making me more overwhelmed and nervous. My palms were getting sweaty and my breathing was getting faster.
I needed to get away.
Without a second thought, I started making my way through the crowd, sliding through every space I could and throwing rushed apologies over my shoulder when I bumped into someone. Everything was a massive blur, but out of the corner of my eye, I saw a bathroom. I made a deadbolt for it, feeling an instant sense of relief when the door closed behind me and the deafening roar of conversations became muffled and distant.
I walked over to the sink as I messily pulled my earbuds out of my ears and looked at myself in the mirror. I looked visibly off, like a puppy who'd suddenly been thrown into a new environment without warning. Though that was lowkey what I was, I didn't want to look like it. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath as I gently massaged my temples. "Come on, Lia, you can do this. It's just eight hours and then you'll be home with Buster and your bed and you won't have to think about this place for another seventeen hours. You can do this," I softly reminded myself before I took a few more deep breaths and slowly peeled open my eyes, looking and feeling calmer. But that serenity didn't last when I saw someone looking at me through the mirror. More specifically, a boy.
I jumped and quickly turned around ready to implement all the elements of fighting I'd seen at my old school when the figure gently grabbed my forearms to prevent me from doing so accompanied by a soft bout of laughter. "Woah, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to scare you," the boy in front of me smoothly said with a chuckle as he looked down at me. As cliche and chick-flick-esque as it may sound, the boy in front of me was fine on a whole different level. His dark-brown-almost-black hair sat on his head, messy yet obviously taken care of. Thick dark eyebrows framed his blue-green eyes which were accentuated by long thick lashes. His skin was smooth and his jawline was sharp. He was a full head taller than me, making me feel small when he looked down at me - which was rare because I stood at 5'10"- yet he didn't make me feel less than. I was only acutely aware of the fact that his white skin contrasted with mine, and white boys typically weren't my type, nothing against them. But he seemed different.
"I could see that you were having a spiritual moment and I didn't know when the right time would be to tell you that you were in the boy's bathroom."
His words snapped me out of my trance and I instantly felt mortified as I quickly looked around. Sure enough, the walls were lined with urinals and him and I were the only ones in there. I felt my cheeks heat up to the point that I'd be blushing if I weren't so dark. "Oh my- I'm so sorry," I spewed out. "It's my first day and it was so crazy out there and I needed to get away and-"
"Don't worry about it," he said, cutting off my incessant rambling. The amused smile on his face and the slight glint in his eye caused me to break eye contact and a bout of shyness to come over me which was strange because usually, I was the opposite of shy. I was also keenly aware that he hadn't let go of me. This caused my face to warm up further.
"Well, I better go before someone else comes in and gets the wrong idea or something," I quickly said before I pulled myself from his grip and picked my backpack up off the floor and put it back on my shoulders.
"Wait, you said you're new right? I could help you find-"
"Nope, I'm fine thanks," I cut off before I quickly pushed open the door and hurried out back into the crowded hallway and started walking with the crowd not knowing or caring if I was walking in the right direction or not. After a few moments, the heat of embarrassment slowly faded away as I looked down at my schedule. Period 1: AP English Studies. I had to resist the urge to face palm. It was on the opposite side of the building. I had less than five minutes to get there, and I would rather avoid the whole movie-esque scenario of the new kid stumbling into class late and the teacher either a) getting mad and being overly strict or b) asking me to share something special about myself with the class or c) asking me why I transferred to a new school my junior year. I wanted to avoid all of those scenarios.
So, I swallowed my uncharacteristically large amount of shyness and pushed my way through the crowd so that I was now in the flow of traffic going in the direction I actually needed to go, making sure that I was firm yet polite as I did so.
Thankfully I managed to walk into the classroom before class began. Chatter filled the room as people talked loudly with their friends and peers. I quickly chose an isolated seat in the back of the classroom and made myself comfortable, careful not to give off the "I'm new here so please come talk to me" vibes because that was honestly the last thing that I wanted. I faintly heard the bell over the music I was listening to, causing me to quickly pull out my earbuds and shove my phone into my backpack. Back in GreenHood, if you had your phone out even a second after the bell rang, the teacher would tear into your behind before confiscating it for an unjustified amount of time and if you tried to defend yourself, you'd get detention. I was not trying to get that kind of attention on my first day.
A few moments after the bell rang, a stocky white man walked in with round glasses and a sorry comb over. He set down his briefcase next to his desk before he leaned on the already paper filled desk. "Good morning class," he said, his voice matching his appearance: rough and not easy on those around him.
"Good morning Mr. Brewer," the class recited like a cult.
"Well, I know you guys know the drill on the first day: greetings, introductions, getting to know yous, syllabuses, blah, blah, blah. All you kids care about is not having work for a few days, right?" There was a "you know it" from somewhere in the room causing the kids to laugh and Mr. Brewer to roll his eyes. "Exactly. So before we get into all that, let's take attendance, shall we?" He walked around his desk, took a seat in his leaned back chair, then pulled out the MacBook he'd had in his briefcase that had a sticker with his name and school district on it. "Alright, let's see. Kaia Anderton?"
I tuned out everything until I heard him call "Aaliyah Davis", earning a "here" from me and nothing more. As attendance continued until the end, I realized that not only was I the only black person in the class, I was the only minority period, and though it was expected, it still kind of shocked me. Though I wasn't one to constantly be picking out race, back in the hood, the classes would be mostly minorities with a few white kids here and there that could hang, but it was the exact opposite here.
I stuck out like a sore thumb.
I tried not to think about it so much and hoped that none of them tried to say anything slick.
Once Mr. Brewer was done, he typed a few things on his computer before closing it then pulling another MacBook and its charger out of his desk drawer and reading the name on it. "Um, Aaliyah Davis?" He called, scanning the room since he hadn't really looked up as he called attendance.
I silently raised my hand to get his attention. "Pass this back to her," he said as he got up and handed the computer and charger to the person in the front of my row. "They meant to give that to you on your orientation day, but it wasn't ready. You're username and password should be on a sticky note below the keyboard." he explained as the computer made its way back to me. I looked at it in shock. In my old school, we had a computer lab with slow, boxy desktops and monitors that only worked on good days, but here not only did they have what seemed like individual laptops for each student and teacher, but they were MacBooks too.
This is really some white suburban school stuff.
"Alright class, now log into your computers a while I connect mine to the smart board and I'll show you how to get to everything you'll need regarding this class."
Almost simultaneously, people started digging in their backpacks to their computers, some bare like mine and others with cases or covered in colorful logos and stickers as chatter quickly filled the room once more like water filling a cup.
I slowly opened mine up, careful not to handle it too rough so I wouldn't bust it my first day, before I logged on using the information that was on the pink sticky note Mr. Brewer had told me about just as his screen appeared on the smart board in the front of the class. The first thing in this school that was familiar to me.
"Alright class, now follow me and I'll get you enrolled in our online classroom. After that we can do the whole 'Hi my name is Mr. Brewer and I like blah, blah, blah', okay?"
This man could not be bothered, and I dug it.
There were a few murmurs before Mr. Brewer showed us on the smart board step by step how to set up our accounts on the website we'd be receiving most of our work on since they opted to do most things online at this school. By the time we'd finished, I was enrolled, had it bookmarked on my browser, and slightly less confused than I had been when I walked in.
"Is everyone enrolled?" Mr. Brewer asked as his eyes scanned the class. No one spoke up so he nodded and closed his laptop and turned off the smart board. "Okay. Everyone put away your laptops and stand along the perimeter of the room." Instantly the sound of backpack zippers, chatter, and chairs scraping across the tile floor filled the air before people started getting up and standing next to their friends talking in excited voices, no doubt about what they'd done over the summer.
I got up and stood with everyone else. Some said hi causing me to politely wave back, though not much conversation happened after that. "Alright, close the gaps, close the gaps," Mr. Brewer said as he stepped into the circle with a blue ball in his hand. "This is pretty simple. We're going to toss this ball around and you're going to say your name and something about you. It doesn't have to be interesting, but it also shouldn't make me want to fall asleep." This earned a few chuckles and I smiled. I liked this teacher so far and his "I can't be bothered" attitude. "Then you pass it to the next person and they do the same. At the end, if one of you can recite the name and fact of everyone in here, I'll give you five points extra credit. Sound fair?" We all nodded. "Great. I'll start. My name is Mr. Brewer and I've been teaching for thirty years." He looked around before his eyes locked on me. He gave me a slight nod, making sure that I was ready, before he tossed the ball in the air. I effortlessly caught it.
Now here comes the hard part. I felt eyes on me as I quickly began searching my brain for anything remotely interesting about myself but I came up dry. I didn't really dance and I definitely couldn't sing. I wasn't good at art and I didn't play a sport nor did I have a hidden talent. I was just plain ordinary. So I gave an ordinary answer.
"Uh, hi. My name is Aaliyah and my favorite color is yellow," I lamely said before I quickly passed the ball to a guy across from me. I mentally face palmed. Why was I so lame?
I sighed and half listened to what others had to say about themselves and half mentally criticized myself. By the time everyone finished I'd learned that a lot of the kids in my class were either good at sports, travelled a lot, or didn't like certain things. A guy- Isaac I think?- was able to recite everyone's name and their fact about themselves and when he was done some kids rolled their eyes and muttered "of course, it's Isaac" as if it were a bad thing.
Not long after, the bell rang and everyone quickly grabbed their things and rushed out as they talked to their friends or popped in their earbuds. I did the latter. Once again, I was thrust into the congested hallways filled with chatter. I shuffled my songs in an effort to calm my slowly rising anxiety. "LOVE." by Kendrick Lamar and Zacari started playing and I turned it up as I looked down at my schedule. Next was Pre-Calculus. I inwardly groaned. If I was struggling with math at my old school with less than mediocre teachers, how did I expect to survive in a "good" school that values their grades even more than their sports?
I sighed. This was going to be a long day.