Can I Sit with You?


Cookie

by Pamela Merritt
Kindergarten and First Grade

When I was four years old my parents moved my family to a middle class suburb in St. Louis county. When I looked around our neighborhood I saw a sea of white faces. Our family was one of only two black families in the neighborhood. The ramifications of that didn’t hit me until the first day of kindergarten when I walked into the classroom wearing a brand new pink frilly dress and white patent leather shoes only to find myself greeted by looks of disgust and distress from my fellow students.

By the time that first day was over I had been pushed, spit at, called a monkey, and ignored by my teacher. I went home in tears and announced to my parents that there was no way in hell I was going back to that miserable place. My parents responded by telling me that there are ignorant racist people all over the world and, sadly, they teach their children to be ignorant and mean too. The basic message was that I was going to have to learn how to cope because my parents held the value of a good education over the pain of prejudice.

My parents came of age during the 1950s and 1960s, so they were well aware of the pain of in-your-face racial prejudice. But their generation had risked their lives to get a decent education and both of my parents felt that a few bruises or hurt feelings were par for the course for any person of color trying to get ahead. As far as they were concerned, I was learning a lesson young that I was going to have to learn eventually.

So I suffered and learned how to cope. I sat in the back of class and knew better than to try to make friends. After a particularly vicious beating in the girl’s restroom, I even taught myself to hold my pee until I got home. Yeah, I was coping but I was also miserable and terrified. And I wasn’t learning much other than school survival skills either.

All that changed the next year when Cookie transferred to my school.

Cookie was also black –- a pure dark chocolate brown some people are blessed to be born with. She was solid where I was skinny, fearless where I was cautious, and she became my first friend at school. With Cookie I could conquer the world or at least conquer my phobia about the girls restroom. She talked loud and didn’t take crap off of anyone and I quickly became her fan club of one. I began to laugh and play and ask questions and some of the other students began to hang out with me.

When I looked at Cookie I saw a strong black child and I began to realize that the weeks of racial taunts and physical attacks had taken something very precious from me. I realized that Cookie hadn’t inspired something new in me, but that she had revived a spark that had died such a quiet death that I didn’t even notice its passing.

I recall swinging on the playground next to Cookie one Friday afternoon, thinking that I was having fun and that I couldn’t wait to come back to school. I couldn’t wait to share my weekend news with Cookie over lunch and gossip about the other girls or our older sisters. I remember going to the bathroom without fear of assault, my head held high as I walked past girls who used to haunt my nightmares but who now held no power over me. And I remember hugging Cookie goodbye and getting on the bus, not knowing that everything would change that weekend.

That Sunday after dinner my mother sat me down and told me that Cookie’s mother had called.

Their family was moving because of a work transfer.

Cookie was moving away.

I cried as if someone had died, but my mother said that I should save my tears for a real tragedy. I was well grown before I learned the meaning of that and, at the time, I thought Cookie moving away was the world’s greatest tragedy.

Our parents took us out for burgers and fries but neither one of us ate. We promised to write and call and that we would be friends forever. But then Cookie turned to me, took my hands and leaned forward and whispered in my ear.

“But it’ll be okay if you don’t write or call.”

She pulled back and looked me directly in the eyes.

“You’re going to be okay … you know that, right? Because we made a memory and that’s what’s really forever.”

I nodded but my throat closed up and I couldn’t form the right words.

“Come on, girl.” Cookie said, and stood up with a smile. “Let’s go play!”

And off we went to play together for what was to be the last time.

We quickly lost touch after Cookie moved away, but I thought of her often over the years. I hope she’s happy and as confident as she was when we were young.

The cool thing is that Cookie was right.

She moved away but she left me with a memory and she also left me with an awareness that I am worthy of kindness, friendship, and laughter.

And that is still one of the most precious gifts of my childhood.

Advertisements


My Longing to Belong

by Elisabeth Ellendorff
Kindergarten through seventh grade

“Tell me, are you looking forward to going to kindergarten?” The friendly lady, our neighbor, bent down to ask me. I was standing next to my mother, clutching her hand for safety.

I had heard that question so often now. Everybody asked me. After all, I was four years old, and I was sure that beginning kindergarten next fall was going to be the biggest adventure in my life. And like always, I looked at her and said, “Yes.”

I thought about kindergarten. It was all so mind-boggling thrilling. They had built a brand new kindergarten in our part of Zurich, and the kids of my age group were going to be the “first” ones in it. Like with all kids, the fact of something’s being NEW added to my excitement.

As spring merged into early summer in 1961, my anticipation rose from day to day. But I hadn’t reckoned on the world of adults.

My father, a German physicist, was busy expanding his career. His big international Swiss company decided it would be a good idea for him to go to New York. So my parents packed up our household, gathered their five children together, and before I could realize what was happening, we were in a different country, different culture, and immersed in a different language. So much for my plans to attend that lovely new kindergarten.

We moved to a small town on the Hudson, about two hours’ drive north of New York City. I was placed in a preschool attached to the local elementary school. Here, in this new country, my brothers and I could prove that even if we had no say in what adults did with us, we were much better than those adults at learning languages. I don’t honestly know how it happened. I learned English like magic — at least, I thought so.

But then there was that morning at preschool. We had been doing finger-painting. When everybody was finished, we sat at our tables, looking expectantly at our teacher.

Only something was wrong. The teacher had her eyes fixed on me. And she looked very angry. Apparently, my table hadn’t met her standards of cleanliness, but I had no way to know that.

“Go,” she said fiercly, “Get a sponge, and clean that away.”

I just stared at her, not comprehending. Sponge? Never heard of it.

Now the teacher, who was usually very pretty and very composed — I liked her — glared at me and grew very loud. I think she would have liked to slap me.

“A SPONGE!” she yelled. She must have thought I was being stubborn, maybe even rebellious.

I was bewildered. What had I done to make her so angry? I think I put my head on the table and began to cry.

“Please, Miss,” said one of the other girls as she raised her hand, “Please. I don’t think she understands. She’s from Germany. She doesn’t know what a sponge is.”

The teacher stared. Then she whipped around, grabbed the sponge from the sink and practically threw it at me. “THAT is a SPONGE! And now you clean that up, Madam!”

With my heart beating and my face red from humiliation, I did as she said.

Time flew, and soon preschool was a thing of the past. I now went to elementary school and spoke English as well as anyone. But, somehow, I was always “the kid from Germany.” I never belonged. And I would have loved that. Oh, I how I would have loved to belong!

My brothers didn’t “belong” either. We had classmates with Italian names, friends with French and Spanish names, but we were somehow condemned to stay strangers.

Then one morning, waiting for the school bus, one of my classmates was bored. She began looking for trouble She pointed at me.

“My Dad says, if Lizzy is German, then she’ s a nutsie,” she said.

“A nutsie?” the other kids giggled.

“Yeah, a nutsie, nutsie, nutsie.”

They took me in their middle and began dancing around me, sticking out their tongues and singing, “Nutsie, nutsie, nutsie!”

The bus stopped to pick us up and they broke off their singing. I was more confused than sad. A nutsie. A nutsy? I said the word over and over in my mind. What could they mean?

Curious, I asked my mother after school, “Mummy, what is a nutsie? The other kids said I was a nutsie.”

My mother frowned. Then she knelt down and looked into my face.

“Listen. Nazis were bad people who did very nasty things in Germany. That was during the war. That was before you were born. You can’t be a Nazi. I was never a Nazi, nor was your father. Your grandparents were very pious Christians. They got into very dangerous situations for not belonging to the Nazis.”

For not belonging! For someone like me, who fiercely wanted to “belong,” this was a new aspect. My parents and my grandparents obviously were proud for “not having belonged” in those days.

Seven years passed, and my parents packed up again and moved back to Germany, where my father had been offered a professorship at a university. My parents were glad to go. My brothers were almost finished with school now. It was the time of the Vietnam War. Although we were officially “just residents,” they, like any American boys, could be drafted.

Once again, we children were not asked. The adults decided for us. With heavy hearts we said good bye to our teachers, friends, and neighbors. I never really had succeeded in belonging, I never was invited to the really cool parties and social events, but I did have one or two dear friends I knew I would miss.
But, no matter, we were going back home now. We were Germans, and for the first time in my life, I would be living in “my” country. That would make up for a lot of sadness. Now I would belong.

So I thought.

I adapted to the so very different German school system. I gained new friends. I got used to speaking German, rather than English.

Then one day, one of my new girlfriends said to me, “Do you know what everyone calls you? How the kids who don’t know your name refer to you?”

I shook my head. “No. Tell me.”

“They call you ‘The American Girl’.”



An Open Apology to Kirk

By: mom2spiritedboy
Age at the time: 6

Dear Kirk,

I am sorry that I did not stick up for you more in the first grade
I am sorry that I didn’t ask you to come to my house to play
I am sorry that you didn’t get to live with a forever family
I am sorry that the kids at school were so horrible to you
I am sorry that they called you “Kirk the Jerk”
I am sorry that I do not remember your last name

If I could have it all to do over
. . . I would have played with you at recess when no one would, EVERY day, not just sometimes
. . . I wouldn’t have let go of your hand when we were walking home and other kids were coming
. . . I would have shared my Jos Louis with you on the field trip and sat with you on the bus
. . . I would have been your best friend

I am glad that I kicked those boys HARD with my Cougar boots that day they were bullying you after school. I wish that there wouldn’t have been a need for anyone to have to protect you – I wish people could have been nice to you and that grown ups would have made the world a safer place for you.

I think of you often. I feel much shame and sadness for the things that never were and all that should not have been. When I watch my son as he struggles so much to fit in, I often think of you. I will do better by him than what was done for you.

I am sorry and I hope life got better. I hope you found someone to sit with on the bus and who would share their lunch with you.



Share a Cookie

by Cheryl Caruolo
Seven Years Old at the Time

Because my parents never made much of an effort to create opportunities for me to be with other children, when I entered school I had no idea how to share or play games. Mom was overprotective and never allowed me to participate in after school games or things like girl scouts. She was afraid of everything. And I followed suit.

In 1966, my uncle took us to visit the World’s Fair in New York City –- it was filled with electric cars of the future, street performers from Europe and Latin America, and a roller coaster that careened through the middle of a building. Mom wouldn’t allow me to go inside any of the attractions or on any of the rides. My uncle finally convinced her to go on the skyline so we could see the whole fair from above, but my Mom was so scared I’d fall out she held a tight grip on the collar of my coat. I wasn’t tall enough to see over the edge of the car and I never saw the view of endless possibilities from the sky.

Once my class went on a field trip and I was left behind because my mother didn’t give me permission to go. Anything unfamiliar terrified me and when my teacher told me to go to the classroom next door, I panicked and started to cry. My classmates laughed. I cried more. I told my teacher that I wanted to stay in our classroom.

“You can’t stay here alone.”

“I’m not alone. The angels are here with me.”

They laughed harder.

My teacher warned the class, lined up at the door, to stop and then they left. Thinking I could stay right in my familiar seat until the end of the day, I remember feeling relieved. But a few minutes later another teacher came into the room to get me.

“Come along now to my classroom.”

At seven years old my choices were limited and so with red eyes and runny nose I followed her into her room.

As soon as I arrived at the school yard the next day the snickers of my classmates surprised me like a splash of cold water.

“Cry baby.”

“No one has imaginary friends anymore.”

I dreaded recess. Usually no one would play with me, so I sat in the corner of the school yard rolling stones under the shadow of an oak tree. The tree’s umbrella felt safe. Sometimes I’d look through the little steel windows of the fence and wish I was in the Mustang Convertible or Corvette Stingray speeding down the main road. I’d watch the girls on the asphalt playing hopscotch, a game I was good at, but never had the nerve to join them.

Whenever the class was asked to choose team members, I always ended up assigned to a team as a leftover. If I was lucky enough to be one of the first ones out the door at recess, I’d run to the end swing and stay on it for the entire time. I loved gliding back and forth through the air, looking up at the sky. Pretending to fly. The higher, the freer.

I remember telling my mother that I hated school, but I never explained why. I didn’t want to admit that none of the children liked me. I understand a parent wanting to protect her young, but Mom’s fears stunted me from developing self-confidence -– I struggle with it still today.

In second grade I tried to start anew. I stopped talking about imaginary friends and pretended I liked all the things my classmates liked. But things fell apart fast.

Unable to participate in after school activities and forbidden to invite friends home my life grew more isolated. I pulled deeper into myself like a turtle retreating into its shell. The unresolved feelings that hung in the air resulted in bouts of anger, depression and confusion. Once I picked a fight with a girl simply because I knew I could beat her up. My young life was out of control and I desperately wanted control over something. I derived great satisfaction from that poor girl’s agony.

My life drudged on until I was finally able to convince my parents to let me get a dog — a six-month old Wiemaraner. Because she was German and I was nine, I named her Heidi. I adored that dog and suddenly I had a companion.

Heidi woke me every morning for school and was waiting every afternoon when I returned. Sitting on the porch together, I’d scratch her ears as she rested her head on my lap. Her gray hair felt like short slips of satin sliding through my fingers.

I felt unconditional love and acceptance from Heidi. We were connected in that unspoken spiritual way humans and animals seem to share. Whenever I was crying she’d place her paw on my hand and nuzzle her head along side me. If anyone was visiting our house and she was unsure of them, she would sit in between us until I’d assure her that it was okay.

Because of Heidi, I started to believe the tiniest bit in myself. And I gradually felt more comfortable talking to kids at school — finding things in common, sharing snacks, even joining hopscotch games sometimes.

Then one day a new girl came to class. My classmates pointed at her and called her weird. I said nothing.

But at recess one brilliant blue autumn day, I noticed her swaying on my safe haven swing and, for some unexplainable reason, I walked up to her and offered one of my beloved Oreo cookies.



Summer Before Second Grade

Gerard Sarnat MD
Age 6 at the time

Outside home, digging rich loam coated with city block soot,
I notice a carrot-topped frecklyface
against the inky flaming sunset.

Auburn, fair, and more than a bit stippled myself;
fingernails chock full of dirt;
uncertain why; I leave the boys to move my bones closer.

At first I circle in, pursuing nearer and nearer until I just
plop down beside the new girl.

Never before thusly stirred to thrust my body,
the world mocking me, a bushel of apples
crushing a soft tomato.

Still — eventually gathering steely courage,
not sure what I’m doing –before I know it, I lean over
and at the tender age of six, cannot resist the bliss,
plant my first non-family kiss in our neighborly wading pool.



Can You Imagine Middle Schoolers Tackling Mature Subject Matter?
February 20, 2008, 8:02 am
Filed under: cartoons, comics, elementary school, fifth grade, forbidden, innocent, naive, naughty, sexuality, songs

*UPDATE* Unrelated to the following italicized hissy fit, we have been reinvited to the literary festival to do a panel on blogging and self-publishing for middle schoolers, perhaps featuring some of our less incendiary CISWY stories.

—–

Apologies as always for the lack of posting. The reason is not lack of stories; we’ve several in the chute (and still we crave more…).

No. We’ve not posted anything because it took me a while to get over the shock and disappointment from a recent CISWY turn of events: we were asked to do a panel at a local middle school’s literary festival, and then — once said festival’s organizer actually read the book — disinvited due to CISWY’s “mature” subject matter.

Am I really that naive, in thinking that the organizer overreacted, made a huge mistake, or at least an unnecessary and pre-emptive concession? CISWY is about the things that actually happened to us in grade and middle school, and how we actually felt at the time. Parents might like to imagine that their grade- and middle school children ponder nothing but fluffy unicorn manes, enrolling at Hogwarts, and scoring winning soccer goals, but IT IS NOT TRUE. And these kids need to know that other people, other kids feel the same way, and that they are neither warped nor alone.

Here are a few of the things I did as a relatively sheltered, somewhat dutiful Catholic girl from a well-adjusted suburban family, two full years before I went into middle school. First read, and then consider: Do you think it would have been a good idea, possibly even therapeutic and healthy, for me to feel comfortable talking about mature themes with adults and other peers?

Years Before I Was Allowed to See R-Rated Movies
by S. D. Rosa
Age Ten at the Time

I spent fifth grade in a segregated geek/G.A.T.E. class on a regular elementary school campus. We were quite sheltered compared to our “regular” campus peers, which meant that our complete obsession with anything naughty had limited information feed lines. My friends Mike, Miho, and I had to bounce everything off each other.

Like everyone else in our class of clearly demarcated dorks, were given lots of self-directed free time with which to develop our supposedly impressive intellects. This means we were forever dicking around, telling proto-L33T Dolly Parton jokes that ended with the victim spelling “80087355” on their calculator, making cartoons and comic strips, and modifying the lyrics of every song we learned to see who could come up with the filthiest result. In the interests of propriety, I will not reproduce our efforts here, but please know that there is a reason I smirk every time I hear the lovely Quaker ditty Simple Gifts.

One song had, however, been pre-altered for us. Somehow, we came into possession of the following lyrics for that classic dance hall tune, Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay:

Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay
I met a boy one day
He gave me fifty cents
To go behind the fence

He pulled my panties down
Then pushed me to the ground
He counted 1-2-3
Then stuck it into me

My mother was surprised
To see my belly rise
My father jumped for joy
It was a baby boy!

Every ten-year-old we knew, and even those we only knew of, could sing this lovely celebration of rape and teen pregnancy. It quickly became one of our standards.

Mike, Miho, and I decided that, given our considerable free time, we should give the song a comic strip counterpart. We named the protagonist Selena, made her a teenage prostitute, and set about illustrating her adventures. She was insatiable, our Selena. Mostly she would meet a man and then discreetly walk out of a frame, but there were times when her hunger demanded something more substantial, such as the planet Saturn. I can only imagine what my parents would have thought had they had seen these still very childish drawings, which contained no penises (ew!) or indeed anything more graphic than a long shot of Saturn going up Selena’s skirt between two verrrrry widely spread legs.

This may sound horrifying, but I don’t really think it is. We were not actually interested in the sexual aspects of our songs or cartoons, only in the thrill of dabbling in such absolutely forbidden themes. (Oh, and cursing a LOT. That was a thrill, too.)

I myself was so completely clueless about sexuality and sex — I knew that a man could put his penis in a woman’s vagina, but not one jot else — that I didn’t realize the reason I liked climbing the two-story firefighter-style pole on the jungle gym was because every time I did it, I had an orgasm. (Who had ever heard of orgasms?) I even tried to talk to Miho about it: “When I climb that pole, my butt itches. Does that ever happen to you?” Miho said no, as she preferred to stay on the ground and play soccer, but she did ask her mom, who said that she sometimes got an itchy butt at high altitudes. Since her mother only spoke Japanese, I am guessing something got lost in translation, both coming and going. I couldn’t get up the nerve to ask my own mom, because we were Catholics, and if something happy came out of wrapping (not even rubbing) my legs around that pole and climbing, then it had to be bad.

My friends and I were both naive and innocent. We spent recess playing games like Statue Maker and soccer. I was fond of using my transparent red visor cap to catch the bees that gathered pollen from our playground’s clover. The three of us liked to suck nectar from the honeysuckles growing along the playground fence. We were neither warped nor damaged, nor were we exposed to “bad influences.” We were simply curious fifth grade children with both too much and too little information.



That Old French Magic
February 6, 2008, 10:38 pm
Filed under: "sitting on the swings", elementary school, existentialism, French, magic, playground

By Katrina N. Mueller
Third grade at the time

It all started with a cloud.

Stacy was proud of her French heritage and would flaunt it at every opportunity. She was tall and thin, with long, straight hair down to her bottom. My small, chubby body, and mop of unruly curls seemed ugly by comparison. I was in awe of her. Stacy was exotic and beautiful and strong, like a fantastical bird of prey. I felt lucky, and a little confused, when she acknowledged my existence.

One day, in early March, Stacy and I were playing on the swings. We were chattering idly when suddenly she glanced up and gave a startled shriek. I jumped and looked around wildly for the cause of her alarm.

“Stacy! What’s wrong?”

She let her swing slow and then stop, pausing dramatically before she pointed into the sky with a trembling finger. “It’s him,” she gasped. “It’s the Snake.”

The proper noun status of the word was apparent in her voice. I followed the line from her finger to a single, thin cloud in the sky. It looked vaguely like a kite, or a snake, I supposed. A rough diamond shape with a trailing wisp behind it. Curiosity overwhelmed my fear and I said timidly, “…the Snake?”

Her deep brown eyes were wide as she imparted the tale:

“Several generations ago my family was cursed by gypsies. No one is allowed to speak of what happened, but ever since that day, the Snake has been following us. It watches from above, waiting, following us and using its dark French magic against us. It’s… Oh no!” She cried out again and stared at the snake. “It’s déjà vu!”

“What is déjà vu?” Panic gripped me. If there was any sort of strange French magic going on, I wanted no part of it! “Stacy! What is déjà vu?”

She looked at me again and whispered, “Déjà vu… It’s an old French magic.” I leaned close, afraid to hear more but too enthralled to stop her. “It’s like going back in time. The Snake is sending me back in time! I’m having déjà vu, and you’re a part of it… I remember sitting on the swings with a girl like you. A blond girl in a purple coat! You’re a part of my déjà vu!”

I stared at the Snake in the sky, paralyzed. The shape of the cloud had sagged and melted, but it didn’t matter. The Snake had already cast its magic on me. I had gone déjà vu with Stacy. My life, I realized, wasn’t my own. I was part of Stacy’s déjà vu. I didn’t exist, except as a part of the Snake’s dark magic…

I don’t exist! And at that thought, my uncertain grip on reality shattered. I ran blindly, screaming, from that thought. Only later did I realize I could hear her laughing as I ran.

I’m not sure how long I was lost in that frenzied state. I remember being sent home from school because I kept babbling about not existing – deep thoughts for a third grader! It took awhile for me to realize I still existed apart from Stacy’s monster snake-in-the-sky.

To this day, I still shudder helplessly when I hear someone say those two words: déjà vu. That old French magic still gives me the shivers.