Inevitably, in one form or another, a student in every class asks the question: “Miss, were you a hippie?” It’s a question that floats on their internalized images of the type, all flower-loving nonviolence, and the readings that hold sway in our content–readings by Michelle Alexander and Angela Davis detailing the human poisons of the privatized prison industry, articles about resource wars in Africa, about housing toxins and educational disparities. I sense their disappointment when I tell them that I came of adolescence after the hippie years under Jimmy Carter. Vietnam had passed; Jimmy Carter was kind. The hippies had a crisis of relevance.
“Well, then, have you ever hit anybody?” It is a related question.
“No, but almost… once.”
The gymnasium of Youree Drive Junior High School in Shreveport, Louisiana was aflutter with four nets, sixteen girls swatting badmintons back and forth. Others waited in the wooden bleachers for their opportunity at the net, each student, floor and bleacher, clothed in an unflattering onesie—a flimsy knit number, light blue shorts separated from a blousy blue and white striped tank by a drawstring at the waist. To any visiting, it gave the illusion of unity and pride, a team of young girls committed to the tenets of cooperative play and healthy movement. It was a lie, of course.
I was on the floor, racket in hand, and at some juncture between points earned, a classmate came toward me from the bleachers, demanding that she and her friends receive the equipment after we’d finished our match.
Treating the request as I would any other, I looked at her and said simply and matter-of-factly, “I’m sorry, we’ve already promised the rackets to someone else.”
There was a pause, a piercing glare, before my able-bodied classmate flew at me with balled fists. She hadn’t intended to hit me, but I ducked at a speed that mirrored hers, eliciting a raucous laughter of surprised appreciation from her friends in the bleachers. THAT was the intent, and one that would continue as she positioned herself in the days that followed for pushes and bumps and sneers accompanied by a single monosyllabic elongated slight: Girrrrrl. At this point in history there were no hotlines or prevention programs or tell-the-teacher mandates (I wouldn’t dream of it), and I knew that if this humiliation was to end, I would have to take matters into my own hands.
In class, I studied her from my bleachered seat, not so much the way a boxer studies the moves of her opponent as the way a snake observes the habits of a hawk. She wasn’t small but lean–chiseled into a muscular defiance, her coordination and athletic prowess far exceeding any of my own efforts for which the highest achievable accolade was a respectable attempt. I imagined the fight and wondered how long it might be before the teacher rescued me. Would the audience cheer us? Would I be suspended? Would my teacher think me the instigator? Was I?
The day came, and I didn’t have to wait long; P.E. was second period. We were returning to the locker room after court play, and the crowded spaces were abuzz with girls chatting, picking up the wire baskets that housed the street clothes we’d arrived in. It was there, in front of the wall of baskets that she pushed me from behind and teased, predictably, “Girrrrl.” Stifling the fear pounding through my body, I turned to meet the intensity of her gaze with my own, and with a feigned confidence, I punctuated the words, “You best not do that again.” She did it again. I repeated with greater urgency, “I said, you BEST not do that again.” Stone-faced, she lifted her fists to her chest. I duplicated her behavior and a circle of girls formed around us. They were quiet, without cheers, as we two held each other’s unflinching attention in coiled preparation. It could be that our silent audience sensed my peril and felt pity. Perhaps they wondered about irreparable damage. I had wondered no less. But what hadn’t occurred to me in all my imaginings of this scene, was that the girl I deemed predator would lower her fists as slowly as she had raised them, turn around, and never touch me again.
Across twenty-five years of a teaching history, students have heard the story. They ooooo and ahhhh in just the right places and feel satisfied that their teacher once stood up to a bully in her junior high locker room. But there’s an omission from the story that only one class has ever heard: the classmate who stood in front of me with balled fists and the anger of centuries was black. It is a calculated omission on my part, as relatable to time and history as the inherited confusions governing the behaviors of each girl, each color. The only class ever to know a fuller truth was a middle school classroom in the only school I ever taught with a sizable black population. In that classroom, when I finished the story, Jaimie, an insightful black student, more comfortable with questions than answers and enough knowledge of time and place to infer a few missing details, said simply, “She was black, wasn’t she, Ms. C.?”
The story of that near fight, and a decades-long tradition of fearful silence, sits atop another—many, actually, though most of them largely hidden to me at the time, stories that I was destined by birthright to ignore and misunderstand, stories slowly revealing themselves over years of reading and observing, snakes morphing into hawks, hawks into snakes…