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.

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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’.”



French Lessons

by Dan Moreau
Age eight at the time

At age eight, my parents enrolled me in the French School. Unlike the American School, which cost more and was farther from our house, the French School embodied my mother’s ideals of sophistication, culture and civility. She herself had been raised by French Catholic nuns and instead of rebelling against them, as so many other girls did, she embraced them.

We had just moved from Miami, Florida to Bangkok, Thailand. In Miami, I had just finished the first grade, but because I was starting at the French School with no preexisting knowledge of French, the principal thought I should repeat the first grade. My parents didn’t object, nor did I.

In early September my parents dropped me off by the front gate to my new school and wished me luck. I don’t know how, but somehow I managed to find my classroom. Our teacher’s name was Madame Unarat. She was petite and plump with short dark hair and owlish glasses. That first morning I sat quietly at my desk, pretending to understand everything that my new classmates and teacher said.

At noon, the bell rang for lunch and Madame Unarat let us out into the courtyard. All the other kids had brought packed lunches. Everyone except me. I think my parents had sent me off to school without lunch, assuming—and perhaps rightly so—that the expensive tuition they were paying would at least include meals. It didn’t.

As I sat by myself on a bench, biting my fingernails, my stomach growling, a woman who worked at the school approached me. She was wearing lipstick and perfume and the collar of her blouse was stylishly raised up. She asked me if I had eaten. I didn’t say anything. She repeated herself, this time in English. I shook my head in reply.

She took me to the school cafeteria. They called it a “cafeteria,” but it was more like a French bistro with a chalkboard out front that displayed the day’s specials. It was where the teachers and school staff gathered for lunch, coffee and cigarettes. She bought me a chicken drumstick and took me back to the courtyard where I devoured the drumstick down to the bone.

A boy from my class sat next to me on the bench. He was the biggest kid in our class and looked older than the rest of us with the lip shadow of a prepubescent mustache. He spoke some English and, unlike the other kids who as a rule ignored me, he was friendly to me. Too friendly. But where he was talkative and warm, I was aloof and tightlipped.

Though it was only my first day, and though I didn’t understand a word of French, I instinctively knew where this boy stood in the playground hierarchy and even though I had no friends I wanted nothing to do with him. Without knowing it, I had made a swift and vital decision. I would rather have no friends at all than be associated with this social pariah. In approaching me so early on, he might have befriended me before I caught on to what the other kids were saying about him. And in hindsight, it was the right decision. Slowly but surely, as my French improved, so did my rapport with my classmates. I made new friends; he didn’t. We never talked much after that.

Because of my age and because of the mistaken belief that children pick up languages like head lice, by proximity and by immersion, my parents thought I would come home one day, fully fluent in French. That wasn’t the case. I had to learn French like any adult would, through repetition, rote memorization and trial and error.

Every day after school I met with Madame Unarat for an hour or two. That was when my true instruction began. Her methods were simple yet effective. She would read from a primer, pausing after each word, which I repeated until she was satisfied with my pronunciation. It was painstaking, frustrating and laborious and sometimes she would raise her voice in anger when I couldn’t sound out a word correctly. But it worked. By the end of the year, I spoke enough French to get by on and was admitted to the second grade.

My second grade teacher didn’t have Madame Unarat’s patience and treated me as any other student. Monsieur Stricte was a dark, wiry, morose man. By then, I had quit having afternoon lessons with Madame Unarat. It was assumed that I was fluent. I wasn’t. I spoke a hybrid of playground argot and slang. Yet I went to great lengths to conceal my failings. I copied off of classmates, I cheated on reading comprehensions by looking up the answers in the back of the book and, most of all, I kept a low profile. To my parents and everyone else, I seemed to be doing just fine.

One day, in the middle of the semester, Monsieur Stricte asked me point blank if I spoke French. I had just handed in an assignment on which I had done better than everyone in the class. Like with every other assignment, I had cheated on this one too, but my mistake was to give myself too many correct answers.
Monsieur Stricte stared at me coldly. His eyes said it all. I knew what answer he was looking for. To say yes would be to perpetuate a charade he plainly saw through. It was also a lie. Yet the truth was more complicated. Yes, I spoke conversational French. No, my written French and reading skills were awful. After a few awkward seconds, I shook my head. The following day, I was demoted to the first grade where Madame Unarat welcomed me, literally, with open arms, wrapping me up in a tight bear hug in front of the entire class. I was never so happy to see her.



Shoes Can Buy Me Love

Brian Greene
Age 12 at the time

My family moved to Virginia Beach, Virginia when I was 12 years old and in the sixth grade. My father was in the Navy, and we were transferred to Virginia from Charleston, South Carolina, where we had been living the previous three years. In South Carolina we lived on the naval base but in Virginia Beach we lived in town, amongst the civilians. I was to find that life for a pre-adolescent was much different at a regular neighborhood and at a public school than how things were on the base, and at the Navy school.

On the base in South Carolina, there really weren’t any established cliques amongst the kids who lived and went to school there. Of course you made friends with certain other kids and hung out with them more than others, but there were no exclusive groups everyone was either part of or refused admittance to. Maybe this because the society around a military base is so transitory, and so diverse; with the sailors getting transfers so often, families came and went on a daily basis, and the ones who came in arrived from all over the country, and sometimes different parts of the world. We were all too transient, and too different from one another, for there to be much of a social status pecking order in place amongst us kids.

It was much different in Virginia Beach. On joining the new school, I learned very quickly that my class was split into two distinct groups. There was a pack of about 10 kids, probably half boys and half girls, who were clearly the elite here. They made the best grades, the boys were the most athletic and the girls were the prettiest. They sat amongst themselves in the cafeteria and if you weren’t invited to sit at their part of the table, you wouldn’t dare go over there. All the rest of us kids were simply “the others,” the commoners who simply took up space and were the ones the elite crowd could look down upon.

I had no great desire to get in with the popular kids, but what did bother me was that, even within the group of “average” boys and girls, I didn’t seem to be making any friends, even after I’d been in the town, and at the school, for a few months. The other nondescript kids were generally friendly with one another, and many of them seemed nice enough. How come none of them were trying to befriend me, when I was one of them?

Finally, I decided I would try and find out why none of them were making friends with me. I asked a boy named Mark, who had done more than any of my other classmates to be nice to me. We were outside on the playground at recess, and Mark and I were kind of standing off by ourselves.

I said, “Do you know why Marvin or Stacy or none of the other kids ever talks to me? I saw Stacy at the park near my house the other day, and when I went up to say hi to her, she walked away. People are always doing that to me. I’m not talking about Greg and Melissa and those kind of kids, I mean the regular ones, like us.”

Mark looked like he was carefully considering how to answer my question. Then he came to a decision in his mind and he said to me, “I’ll tell you the truth. It’s your shoes.”

“My shoes?”

“Yeah, they’re Weo’s.”

“Weo’s?”

“Yeah. You know how at the A&P grocery store they have some things that are like a sale brand? They call those things Weo’s. So to us anything that’s cheap like that, we call it a Weo. You should get your parents to get you some Nikes or Pumas, or at least Converse.”

“And that’s really why kids won’t talk to me?”

“Yep. A lot of them think you’re a nice kid. They say if he would just get rid of those Weo’s, we would play with him.”

It seemed that even amongst the “regular” kids, there were certain status symbols. I felt both confused and ashamed to learn that I was being shunned by them because I wore cheap, non-name brand tennis shoes.

That night, before I went to bed, I told my mother about my conversation with Mark. I asked her if she could buy me some Converse, if we couldn’t afford Nikes or Pumas. I made a deal with my mom, that if I mowed some lawns and put together a little bit of cash, she would pay for half of a new pair of Converse if I could cover the other half. I remember having a kind of creepy feeling when I bought the shoes and wore them to school for the first time. It was like I was buying the chance to make friends. In South Carolina, you made friends with certain kids just because you liked them and they liked you. Here, I had to wear a certain kind of shoe before any of my peers would consider befriending me. It didn’t feel right.

But I forgot about all of that when, at recess that first day when I wore my new shoes, Stacy – the same girl who had snubbed me at the park in our neighborhood – came up and talked to me. I’d had a crush on her since the first day I was at that school, and now she was flirting with me. I asker her to “go” with me about three days after that, and she said “yes.” After we started going together she got her parents to buy her a pair of Converse that were the same color as mine.



Immigrant Kids

by Wynn Putnam
Age seven at the time

When I was almost eight years old, my family emigrated from Holland to Ontario, Canada. We spoke only Dutch, so when we went to school in Ontario, the teacher put my twin sister, me, and my two older sisters all in grade one. Once we learned how to speak English they would reevaluate us to see if my twin and I should really be in Grade three, and my older sisters in Grades four and six.

This was a one-room school house so we felt awkward and big sitting in the grade one row while kids our own size sat on the other side of the room and at the back. When the older, bigger kids would point and snicker at us we did not know what they were saying so we smiled at them. We wanted to learn to speak English, and be able to join in with their fun and sit with them.

This was a country schoolhouse, so everyone brought their lunch. At noon we followed the other Grade Ones, got our lunch bags from the hall, and started to eat. But one day when we went to get our lunch bags, a couple of the bigger kids went in front of us and grabbed them. They looked in our bags, ate what they liked, then tossed the bags into the garbage.

My sister and I went back to the classroom and tried to communicate to the teacher that these kids had taken our lunch. We could not say what had happened, and she thought that we did not have a lunch that day. Apparently a kid at the back said that we had already eaten our lunch and some other kids laughed. We started to point at the kids who had taken our lunch and made gestures with our hands, when the teacher took an apple out of her own bag and started to cut it in half. We shook our heads and started to cry. All of a sudden a few of the younger children came over to our desk and gave us some of their lunch, a cookie, an orange — I can’t remember exactly, but they wanted to share. We stopped crying, smiled, and told each other in Dutch that the foods we were now being given were delicious, even better than what had been in our lunch bag. We communicated our thanks to these kids by smiling and making gestures of what we were trying to say.

For the next while we put our lunch bags in our desks, because it took quite a bit more time before we could speak English well enough to tattle on the few kids who tormented us because we spoke a different language. Most kids in the class tried to help us belong, even when they could see how big we looked in the grade one row, and that we talked in a strange language.

Smiling faces are the same in every language, and it’s easy to communicate with other kids that way and join in their fun. Kids like to sit with you when your face shows a friendly smile — even if you cannot speak their language, they understand.



The Pencil Box

by Suzanne Maclyn
Age seven at the time

In second grade, I was the new kid, again. My family moved ten times by the time I was twelve years old. I went to so many different schools that while eventually being “the new kid” became normal for me, it was never easy. Every time I started a new school, I had no friends, and I didn’t know the rules. Sometimes I cried because I did things wrong—or at least the wrong way for each new school.

Going to a new school usually meant that I had learned different things than the kids at my new school. In second grade, I knew how to read and spell better than the kids in my new class. Because of this, my teacher would have me tutor the other kids, most of whom did not speak English at home. We always had a spelling test on Mondays. If kids missed spelling tests because they were absent, she had me give them the make up spelling tests during lunch and recess. That was okay by me since I had no one to play with at recess anyhow. If there were no tests to give, I would pick up all the trash in our classroom. Sometimes I helped the teacher correct papers.

I was only seven years old, but I was tutoring classmates and giving them spelling tests, which in hindsight is just weird. The kids in class sure thought it was, and they were not nice to me at all.

One day I brought a new pencil box to school. I had decorated it by writing, “I love Jesus” and drawing special Christian fishes on it. I really liked going to church on Sundays, and thought that my pencil box was pretty. I was sad when the kids in class started to make fun of my pencil box, pointing at it, and singing in a teasing way, “She loves Haysoos!”

Haysoos was a boy in our class, but I didn’t really know him. His friend Raul yelled across the class and told me that Haysoos didn’t like me. I was angry at the way everyone was laughing at me, and I told him that I didn’t like Haysoos either!! I finally said that I hated Haysoos, even though I had no reason to hate him. Raul pointed at my pencil box and told me that I loved Haysoos. I was confused and told him that I hated Haysoos. I could not figure out why he kept pointing at me and laughing. Haysoos was mad and he was making mean faces at me.

I wanted to stay in the classroom during lunch, but the teacher needed to lock up the classroom, so I had to go outside. On the playground, the boys started running around me in circles singing, “You love Haysoos! You love Haysoos!”

I was getting so mad! I didn’t even really know Haysoos! Why were they saying this? I was screaming at them, telling them I didn’t even like Haysoos! When we went back to class, Raul came over to me and showed me on my pencil box where I wrote “I love Jesus.”

When Raul read it to me, he said, “You wrote it right here: See? I love Haysoos.”

I argued with him, “That says, I love Jesus!”

Raul retorted, “That is Haysoos! You spell Haysoos J-E-S-U-S!”

Now Raul was trying to give me a spelling lesson. But I still did not understand how J-E-S-U-S could be pronounced “Haysoos,” so I just kept fighting with him even though it only made me cry. Finally other students in the class told me that in Spanish, the name Jesus is pronounced “Haysoos.” I didn’t know what to do. I was very surprised, and finally understood why they were making fun of me, but it only made me mad at myself. I felt stupid.

When school finished that day, Raul and some other boys followed me and teased me even more. I was so aggravated,that I threw my pencil box into the trashcan. I wanted to show them that I didn’t love Haysoos.

I was very sad when I got home. All I could do was cry when I thought of my pretty decorated pencil box in the trash. I kept thinking of how happy I was when I first brought my pencil box to school, and how sad I was when I found out Haysoos’s name was spelled the same way as Jesus’. I was angry that the kids at school were having fun teasing me, too.

I thought that if I threw my pencil box into the trash, Raul and his friends would stop taunting me. Well, they kept harassing me anyway. But I wasn’t the only person that they picked on. They were mean to a lot of kids, and even to each other sometimes. I learned to stay away from them whenever I could. Plus I was just waiting. Waiting until my family had to move again. Then I could go to a new school.



A Giver
November 13, 2007, 10:47 pm
Filed under: books, japanese, making friends, mixed race, new kid, reader

Kat Kan
Age 13 at the time

When I was in school in the United States, it was miserable. Before then I had lived in Japan, as a military dependent with a Japanese mother and lots of family who accepted us mixed-race kids. Life was so great. Then we moved to Tacoma, Washington, where my father was stationed, and all of a sudden I became a pariah — for having a Japanese mother, for looking like the local kids with German ancestry even though I was mixed-race (how dare I!), for getting good grades. So, instead of trying to make friends, I closed in on myself. I turned to books and they became my friends; science fiction books and mystery books became particularly wonderful friends. Andre Norton became one of my favorite authors, and Mr. Spock on Star Trek was the character I could identify with. Simon and Garfunkel’s song “I Am a Rock” was my anthem: “…and a rock feels no pain, and an island never cries.”

When my father returned from a year’s tour in Vietnam and we moved to Warner Robins, Georgia for my eighth grade year, I thought life might be a little better. The teachers seemed to like me, and the other students didn’t really notice me, so I didn’t get into trouble. There was even one girl who said she wanted to be my friend, that we should exchange Christmas gifts. I bought her the best gift I could find for my $1.00 monthly allowance (this was back in 1968), and I wrapped it and took it to school the last day before Christmas break. I gave it to her, and she thanked me and said she forgot my gift at home. She never did bring it by, not to my house, not to school. And now, 39 years later, I can’t remember her name. It took me years before I would ever take a chance at making a friend again.