School days from hell
For better or for worse, my childhood in Miami was mostly a saga of being bullied by my classmates and neighborhood children, being resented by most of my teachers for asking too many questions and reading too much, being on the sickly side from malnutrition and anemia and being mostly ignored by my parents and tormented by my sister. Whether this combination of factors contributed to my ultimate rebellious nature or not is an open question. It seemed to me at the time and for the rest of my life that there was nothing I could do as a child to win anyone’s approval, with the exception of two outstanding teachers.
I was as good a little girl, at least to all appearances, as can be imagined. I was a Brownie, a second class Girl Scout with many badges, I was in 4H, my grades were almost without exception “E’s” for excellent, I did my chores and earned my allowance, I was in the top level of Sunbeams—a children’s Bible organization—at church and sang solos in the children’s choir, but no one was ever impressed. Nothing I could ever do would please my parents. “She responds well to praise” is written on an old report card I kept for some reason. I assume the teacher writing it figured it was over my head. My sixth grade teacher said that, as well, to me, so it probably appears somewhere on my permanent record.
My guess is that I probably responded so well to praise at school because I received so little of it at home. I might have had a smart mouth, but that was my only defense in a family of smart mouths. However, the training I received in this area did come in handy later on.
The bullying started the first day of school when it came out that, even though I was the youngest person in the class, I could already read. My teacher’s reaction was one of disgust and I was chased home, about a mile from the school, by a group of screaming children throwing sharp edged coral rocks and green avocados at me. It was continued on a fairly regular basis by a certain redheaded boy in my third-grade class who made it his practice to punch me in the stomach everyday while we were lining up for lunch. The teacher was often witness to this but sadistic enough to look away when she knew it was coming so that she could later say I was lying about it if I complained. There was no use mentioning it to my mother, as neither of my parents ever felt it was their place to question anything that went on at school.
They often stole my lunch money, causing me to have no lunch. My mother was quite humiliated when I was sent home from school with an application for free lunch because I had so often been unable to pay for my lunch. She called the principal and let him have it about the insult to our status. Some sort of arrangement was made about the lunch money, perhaps she somehow paid in advance, but no one seemed to think there was any action required against the bullies. They continued to pull my braids, push me off the monkey bars, surround me on the playground and shout cruel, made-up nicknames and hit me as hard as possible when playing dodgeball, all of the standard techniques that people used to find so amusing before consciousness was raised in recent times about the long-term effects of bullying. Needless to say, I came to dread lunchtime and it’s possible that my eating troubles date from there.
The only person even listening to me was Norma, next door. She was a huge, overweight woman with whom both my sister and I ended up spending a lot of time. Born in Poland before WWII and probably Jewish, though she never said so, she had grown up in The Bronx, then lived in Cuba. She was plain and obese and the phrase I heard most often yelled at her by her Cuban husband was “cochina fea,” meaning “ugly pig.” I am sure that her exceptional intelligence did not help matters. I often came home to Norma after school to spend the two or three hours until a parent or my sister returned from work or school and she was usually more of a mother to me than my mother was, at least when I was small.
My parents were quite ambivalent about Norma and her family, her Cuban husband, her two boys from an earlier marriage. She was suspect simply by being a divorcee, and her New York accent did not help matters. Their house was dilapidated; the yard, a sea of gray sand full of old tires and other forms of junk. They were clearly beneath us, but Norma, herself, took care of me after school and they, grudgingly, appreciated that much. Lonely and neglected as I was emotionally, I loved her dearly.
She, at least, would have a normal conversation with me, tell me about all the places she had been, New York City, Cuba, California and Europe, and she answered my questions honestly, as far as I could tell. The fights at her house were as bad or worse than the fights at my house, so I had no reason to be ashamed of my family in her presence. I might have learned something from her fights if they had been in English, but the Mesas always fought in Spanish. What my parents most feared, I gathered from my eavesdropping, was her possible negative influence on my sister. A model for the ladies we were being trained to emulate, Norma was not. And, nobody in Norma’s house went to church, a fact which, alone, would make her suspect to my mother.
Many is the time that I failed to elude my pursuers coming home from school and just ran into Norma’s house, slamming the screen door, rather than be forced to find the key to my own house and unlock the door under pressure. I suspect that Norma, given her appearance and history, was quite familiar with the experience of being bullied. Norma would be ironing or cooking when I got there. Her youngest son Stevie, in the class behind me, would usually not be home for quite a while since he dawdled on the way home from school. If she could make it to the door fast enough, she might yell at my pursuers but, generally, when they saw me going in her door they would turn around and run away. I would stay there until Stevie got home while she fed me some of whatever she was making, maybe fried plantain if I was lucky, maybe a tortilla, and engage in conversation with me just as if I were an adult.
She had no advice on how to deal with the bullies other than to avoid them, if possible, but she did fill my head with possibilities for the future. She told me about her life, she told me about books she had read and asked me what I had been reading lately, we discussed the news. When I brought home my report card filled with good grades and endured the indifference of my parents to it, I always took it next-door for Norma’s approval. Her motivation for her kindness to me is explained in part by the fact that she only had sons. When her baby girl was born her interest in me subsided but, by then, I was a smart mouth pre-teen and it was not the blow it would have been earlier.
In addition to Norma, there were the two special teachers. Mrs. Maxwell, my fourth grade teacher, who had an arm shriveled by polio, understood my situation immediately. She asked me privately to befriend a boy in class, another polio victim, who could only walk with braces and crutches. She arranged for me to be allowed to join our school’s Future Teachers of America chapter, even though you were supposed to be in the sixth grade to do that. I was thus allowed to spend my spare time helping first-graders learn to read. She made special arrangements for me to spend recess in the school library instead of on the playground where I was such a target. When I was disappointed because I was not chosen to play Mary in the class Christmas play, she made me the angel who narrated the story, giving me the only speaking lines and explaining she had saved me for that role because I read so well. It was the beginning of my understanding that there could be teachers who would help, rather than hinder me.
The other teacher who alleviated somewhat for me the hell that was school was my sixth grade teacher, Mr. Levine. It was not so much his attention to me in particular, but Mr. Levine’s unorthodox methods, that saved me. It started with the seating arrangement. Instead of having us all facing forward in our desks to the front of the class, he arranged us in groups of four. He made a great show of doing that randomly, pulling names out of a hat four at a time, but when I landed in a group with the three other smartest pupils in class, all boys, we knew that the arrangement was in no way random.
Mr. Levine explained that he had done this so that we could help each other learn new things as he assigned them and that strategy worked surprisingly well, in my group at least, since he would explain something new, make an assignment based on it, then allow us to talk to each other quietly while working on the assignment. In later years, in college, I would loathe any kind of group assignment because it always meant that I would end up doing all the work, but in the sixth grade, perhaps because of his personality, it worked.
The other thing that Mr. Levine did that focused my aspirations was to assign special individual projects to my group, as close as he was probably allowed to creating a gifted program for us. He consulted with each of us to determine our interests. During this conversation, I told him that I had been eager to reach the sixth grade so that I could study history but then I had been disappointed that there was so little in the history book about what had happened before history started with writing. It just said that people had lived in caves and used stone tools. I thought there had to be more to it than that. How had they invented writing? In view of the complaint and the question and since I had won the school spelling bee, and scored so high the preceding year on reading and language, he suggested I might want to research the origins of the alphabet and write a report on that. It was a wonderful educational experience that I am willing to say contributed to my later decision to be an anthropologist.
Mr. Levine, unlike my other teachers besides Mrs. Maxwell, had no compunctions about calling on me or members of my group in class to answer questions and there were never any limitations on how many questions I could ask before being instructed to shut up. He was funny, he was cosmopolitan, he was innovative and creative and, when we went through a period of learning to dance in PE and I mentioned I could jitterbug, he whipped me out of my seat, put on a record and jitterbugged a whole song with me, to the amazement and delight of my classmates. Sixth grade was a golden year for me. There is no doubt that in the fourth and sixth grades I was the teachers’ pet, as accused by my tormentors, but it was worth it. If I learned nothing else that helped me later, I learned early to find the good teachers and enlist them to my aid.
A secondary advantage of the group seating, for me, was that one of the boys in the group became my first real boyfriend. Dougy and I were inseparable at school, ate lunch together, met at the Little River movie theater for every Saturday matinee, flew kites together, rode bikes together, read the same books and discussed them together. He walked me home from school to protect me from the bullies, which was somewhat absurd, since he was, as another poor skinny nerd, as much their victim as I was. He gave me the first present I ever received from a boy. And, we talked together, endlessly.
Childhood ended abruptly, in good ways and bad, when sixth grade ended. There being no junior high school nearby, we were bussed from our neighborhood to two different junior high schools. Who got sent where depended on our addresses. The school that was the most logical place for us to go, sociologically, was Little River Junior High School and that was where, to my great sorrow, Dougy was sent. It was not too bad a bus ride and served a working class student body much as my elementary school did. I would have fit right in, or fit in as much as I ever did anywhere. But, we were assigned junior high schools on the basis of residence and the geographical cut off point was 23rd Ave., my block on 93rd St. Everyone west of there was bussed way across town to Horace Mann Junior High School, located in Miami Shores, a middle-to-upper class part of Miami, and attended by students from families that belonged to country clubs. At Horace Mann, I was surrounded by the sons and daughters of doctors and lawyers and the talk was about things I had no experience with—tennis, sailboats and vacations in the Bahamas.
For me, the bullying stopped and was replaced by pervasive snobbery. If you got there on a school bus, you could safely assume that you were pretty much scum, especially if you were wearing homemade clothes, as most of mine were. (In later years, when bussing black children to white schools became a way of achieving integration, I remembered my experience of being bussed, had great sympathy for black children having to face it and knew that it was an imperfect solution.) The bus ride was about an hour each way, and I had no one to spend that hour with. My friend Glenda was younger than me and still in elementary school and Ralph, the son in the Alabama family, felt that I was too far beneath him socially to be friends with. His big sister, Linda, also being forced to leave her friends in Little River, had no such feeling of superiority and we became bus-friends, amusing each other on the long ride.
I would watch the working-class houses with the small and sometimes untended yards give way to enormous mansions with yards maintained by landscapers, see the big boats on trailers, the drive-ways with more than one new, expensive car parked in them and felt keenly that I was a bug creeping onto the turf of the rich. There were any number of situations there that tended to make me feel always the poor relation, but my grades and my own family pride gave me courage enough to make a few friends. At least, these people, country club or no, were unaware of anything in my past and I was able to leave the never-ending hatefulness I had experienced in elementary school behind. Here, amazingly, intelligence seemed to be something of an asset, even for a girl. I assessed the situation, tallied up my assets and found one saving grace in my situation. I could play the violin, sort of.
That year, the school had started an orchestra and, for reasons I can’t begin to explain, I was the only person who signed up who could already play an instrument. I had taught myself to play my sister’s violin by ear and I could read music to sing because I had been going to church all my life and been in choirs since the age of six. I had not put the two skills together yet, but I was able to play some simple tunes for the music teacher, who did not immediately put me down for having learned them by ear, as my earlier teacher had done during the three lessons I had had from her. The other kids were in awe of me and it gave me just enough confidence to hold my own with the other girls, all snotty and rich.
However, this tenuous skill also generated the experience that gave me a lifetime mistrust of classical musicians, as well as persons above me in the American class system. This was that sometime during that year there was a citywide conference of junior high school orchestra members. The music teacher, anxious I’m sure to alert his colleagues that Horace Mann now had an orchestra, had no one to send to this conference but me. I told him I had no one to drive me there. I told him that I was afraid to go alone. I told him that I was in no way ready, given my inadequacy in reading music for the violin. But, he would not be denied.
On the day of the conference, I went all by myself on the bus to the school where it was being held, in my homemade clothes, clutching my sister’s violin in its battered case, having received no instructions whatsoever as to what to expect. I was taken in hand by some adult, seated in the violin section on a stage filled with musicians and music stands and handed sheet music far, far beyond my capacity to sight read. I could only foresee disaster and was soon crying with frustration and shame. A woman came and asked me what the problem was and I explained to her but all she could say was do the best you can. I gathered up my violin and my purse and my bus tokens, got the hell out of there as unobtrusively as possible and hightailed it back to my side of town, where I described the experience to no one. There was no fallout with the music teacher, who I can only hope was chagrined enough to contemplate what the experience of his students might be, in future, rather than to pursue his own goals over their vociferous objections.
This bad experience was not the only class-related bad experience I had at Horace Mann. There was a dance. Since I was not a member of the in-crowd, I had no guidance as to what everyone else was going to wear to the dance. Many of the other girls did not have dates but were going anyway, so I did not think it would be unusual for me to go stag and I knew that Ralph, the son of the Alabama family, also being bussed to Horace Mann through the geographical fluke, was going to be driven there, along with his date, by his father. He grudgingly agreed to let me ride along, since there was no possibility that my own father could be convinced to drive me across town to the dance. I wore my best skirt and blouse and thought I was dressing up by borrowing some scatter pins from my sister.
As it turned out, all of the girls dressed the way they dressed for similar functions at their country clubs, in very dressy party dresses. I spent the dance hiding on the second floor balcony, peeking down at the terrace of the school where he dance was held, from behind the wrought iron railing, hoping that no one had seen me before I found my hiding place. It is a Cinderella story without the godmother. When the other girls asked me at school the next week if I had gone, I lied and said no and begged Ralph not to betray me.
I was able to redeem myself, somewhat, when there was a talent show at the end of the year and, having recovered somewhat from my earlier humiliating experiences, I tried out for it. I sang a Harry Belafonte song, the side B to Day-O, a folk song about a mule. I had no accompaniment and I had no music. All I had was my good ear, my good voice, my experience singing in church and a whole lot of moxie. The judges were enthusiastic. I looked like I was 10. I had long, blonde, pretty hair. I sang a capella with perfect pitch. Put me in front of a mic, teach me some hand gestures, they said, and I would be dynamite. As it turned out, they were right. I brought down the house and it was a big house, too. Even my parents, who had tried to talk me out of it, were surprised and enthusiastic. Unfortunately, it was the end of the year, too late to have been any use in raising my status at Horace Mann.
By the end of that year, the new junior high school, located only a few blocks from my house, had been completed. It was raw, but it was there, and many of the students who had been bussed to Horace Mann the preceding year were reassigned to the new Madison Junior High School, though not, disappointingly, my former boyfriend, who remained at Little River. I dreaded going to the new school. In spite of my low social position at Horace Mann, I had made enough of a place for myself that I could not bear the thought of a new school, one where I could assume I would be again relegated to nerd status and where there would be only band, not orchestra.
I begged to my parents to be allowed to take the city bus to Horace Mann so that I could stay in the orchestra. My music teacher had told me that an exception could be made for me to do this and he could arrange a special bus fare to defray expenses, but my parents would not even consider it. Their objections were the expense, the fact that they would have had to interact with school officials, something they were not accustomed to doing, and the long bus ride. To them, the time spent on the bus ride, which would be a lot longer on the public bus, would be time I would not be doing chores to support both of them working. By this time, my sister was gone and I was needed to cook, clean, do laundry and yard work. That was the given reason, but I realize now that a big part of it was probably also the fear that I would get “too big for my britches,” would become too invested in these rich folks across town and, eventually, look down my nose at my working class parents.
Meanwhile, a new world had been opening up for me in Opa-Locka, where the “world’s largest outdoor skating rink” had recently opened. Glenda’s family had moved to Opa-Locka the year before and I had been taking the bus to spend the night with her on Fridays or Saturdays. We could walk to the rink from her house and I had been having my first experience of popularity there, based on the fact that I had been rollerskating since before I could remember. I was a really good skater and in high demand as a partner by the boys who were good skaters since probability was low that I would trip them up. I was scum at Horace Mann but I was aristocracy in Opa-Locka.
So, I ended up at the new junior high, within walking distance of home, where I took my revenge by becoming, for the first time in my life, a discipline problem. I started hanging out with the Cubans, the coolest people at the school, who tolerated me because I was funny. I began to sass my teachers in order to amuse the Cuban students and I became sneaky. I took my model from the movies, “The Wild Ones” and “Rebel Without a Cause.” My skating and dancing ability stood me in good stead. There was no orchestra but the coolest kids in school went to the skating rink and, at school, there was dancing to records in the gym at lunchtime. For the first time in my life, I could be counted as being in the periphery of the in-group. Adding to this tangential popularity was my smart-mouth.
I had come into a period of more than normal adolescent rebellion. I decided that if my parents were going to insist that I attend an inferior junior high school that had no orchestra because I could not be spared from working, then I would turn myself into the person most valued by students at that junior high school and that person not only skated and danced well, but was full of witty sass for the teachers, guaranteed to amuse the Jimmy Dean emulators, including the Cuban ones.
The Cubans were the top of the pile at Madison Junior High. They wore the best clothes and were the best dancers and the boys seemed to be uniformly handsome, with their dark hair cut into DAs (duck-ass haircuts), and their tight jeans and turned-up collars. They were to be seen on live TV every Saturday on local American Bandstand, to which they once took me, as a sort of a mascot. When the Cubans arrived at the skating rink, in cars is driven by their older brothers, that is when the party started. All I had to do at school, since I was already known at the rink, was make a few wise-ass remarks in class and I was “in like Flynn” with the Cubans. That raised my status enormously with everyone else, as well.
The excrement hit the ventilator when my grades began to slip and my mother was called in by my teacher to discuss a flip answer I had given on a history test. When asked to fill-in the blank next to the name John Fitch, I had answered, “John Fitch married a bitch,” intending to show it around at the lunch time dance in the gym when we got our tests back. I did, in fact, show it around after the parent-principal conference, since it was satisfyingly full of enraged comments in red pencil.
I was also implicated in the Great Pink-and-Black Rebellion. Since we were a brand-new school, there were no colors for the sports teams. The student body would vote. Pink and black were, strangely enough, the cool color combination favored by the American Bandstand and skating rink crowd, who could really give a rat’s ass about sports and school colors. When we were asked to nominate color combinations for the upcoming vote, I started a movement for pink and black. The Cubans and their followers jumped right on board and we all wrote in pink and black, then persuaded enough people to vote for it that it won, to our vast collective amusement. It was a wonderful prank to play on the jocks, at whose hands we had all, at one time or another, suffered. The athletic department, not surprisingly, overruled the vote of the student body and chose the runner-up combination, but not before some effort was made to discover who in the hell was responsible for the pink and black revolt. I was not caught but I’m sure I was under suspicion in some circles.
To nip this whole thing in the bud, before I became the problem child my sister had been, my parents decided to move me to Central Florida and plunk me down in a tiny high school populated by rural southern teenagers who all grew up together, a place where there was absolutely no hope that I would have any form of social life. I am sure there were other factors. When I was a much smaller child, my father and I had fantasized living on a small farm with a garden, pigs and a cow, to the point that when I suggested putting a “For Sale” sign out in the front yard he had laughed and said, “Sure, why don’t ya?” And, I did. My parents, I imagine, were also driven by the hope that they could stop working at their always miserable jobs.
But, now I was a teenager and the most important thing to me in life was friends. The very last thing I wanted to do was change schools again. Just when I seemed to have recovered from the whiplash caused by changing junior high schools and to have finally found a popularity combination that worked, they were going to rip me out of my school again and put me in a school where I had an ice cube’s chance in hell of making friends. The resentment that started there was never to abate. I resent it to this day.
When my mother asked me, in my 30s, what could she have possibly done to make me so rebellious as to be expelled from two colleges, to get busted and then have a child with a black man, I pulled no punches. I told her, “You can start with your forcing me to go to Madison when I could have continued at Horace Mann and then you can really add to that yanking me out of Madison and dropping me into cracker-land. Did either of you ever consider what those changes were like for me?” She had no answer.
© Jentri Anders, 2016