I didn’t want to go to school. None of us did, not even Bud, who loved his books. They told us that Rain Valley School was integrated—whites and blacks, all learning under the same roof, taught by the same teacher—a white teacher. At Faith Baptist School in California, segregation was law. We were taught in the black building, and they were taught in the white one.
For as long as I can remember, the whity-tities, as we called them, hated us and treated us with contempt; so we hated them back and made fun of them amongst ourselves, since we couldn’t do anything to them in public. None of us could even fathom what Rain Valley would be like. Jenna least of all.
“Those whites have got the meanest tempers in the world!” she frowned. Back in California, a white girl had pretended to be her friend, all the while she had been setting Jenna up for a mean hearted trick. None of us really had anything to say in response to her statement. We all understood too well what she was talking about. When Papa mildly suggested that things were different here in Rain Valley, she shook her head adamantly. “Papa, it ain’t gonna be any different. Just wait and see.”
“Alright, we’ll see,” was his permissive reply as he laid his great big hand on her shoulder.
“I can’t go to school and sit next to one of them, Papa, I just can’t!” she wailed woefully.
“Yes, you can, Jenna.” Tears began to fall from her grey eyes.
“No, Papa. They’ll hurt me, and snub me, and play pranks on me, and—”
“Jenna.” She stopped. “Look at me, girl.” She raised her tearstained cheeks up to him. “You need to go to school for your education. And I know you can survive it. Look at me, Jenna.”
“And if they hurt you, snub you, or whatever mean things they did to you back at Faith Baptist, you gotta keep your head high and your chin up. Don’t stoop to fight with them. It ain’t gonna do anyone any good. I know it’s hard,” he took her head in his cupped hands, wiping the tears off her face with his large thumbs. “But I know you can do it. Now go wash off those rivers from your cheeks. I think your Mama’s got something ready for dinner.”
I watched this whole scene with a growing sense of shame. I had complained earlier to Jenna about having to go to an integrated school, getting her all upset about the thing. My heart sank when I realized I had only been encouraging her to act in the way she had, getting angry at white people. Resolving to do better and never to complain again, I sat down to my place at the table, waited as Papa said the blessing, and ate my potato soup, a more thoughtful girl than before.
We started school on Monday.
Bud, Jenna, and me trudged through the mud along the roadside. It was about a half-hour walk to the school, and we were told we’d see the building straight ahead to the right of the road. After fifteen minutes, the grumbling started.
“We’ve been walking for hours and I still don’t see no building,” huffed Jenna, catching her breath as we started going uphill.
“Aw, come on. It ain’t even been a half hour,” I retorted grumpily.
“Why did the road have to go uphill?” she demanded.
“Just cause that’s how the builders made it.”
Bud, after seeing how unsuccessful Jenna had been, began differently.
“Boy, does that hay stack look like a bully slide or what? I sure’d love to find out.”
Jenna, catching on quickly, grabbed my arm.
“Let’s try it! Just one quick slide!” I shook her hands off in frustration.
“No, we are not going to skip school, so don’t even hint at it!” Bud dropped his shoulders and sighed in annoyance. He knew that without me, he could go nowhere. Well, I knew that if we didn’t go to school, Papa’d hear about it from someone, and we’d all get thrashed! He always found out—somehow.
At the end of thirty minutes, and after trying to block out the complaints that followed me wherever I went, we saw the school. It was a tan building, looked like it needed some painting, but was in presentable condition.
“Looks like a school for old maids,” snickered Bud. I had to admit, the place did look pretty prim and proper. A small, stone chimney rose out from the shingles in the roof, puffing out bits of smoke daintily. A strict row of tulips lined the walls in perfect order, spaced exactly a pace apart.
“We don’t have to go.” Bud looked up at me hopefully. I almost relented. Almost.
“We gotta go. Pa would be disappointed if we didn’t,” I added weakly. Picking up my led-weighted feet, I took a step. The door to the school building was thrown open and a little boy rushed out to us.
“Hey. Are you the new family from California?” His dark hair whipped about his face as he stood there. I nodded. The blue coat he wore against his dark skin hardly looked warm. And the dark hand he held out to us looked thin and bony.
“Pleased to meet y’all. I’m Jeremy. Miz Emma axed me to come out and meet y’all.”
“Lena,” I said, taking his hand. “That’s Bud, and this here’s Jenna.”
Jenna nodded politely, but made no sound. Bud did the same.
“Won’t y’all come on in?” Jeremy asked, puzzled at their silence, but cheerful all the same.
“I reckon we will.”
With that, we started up the hill. Jeremy, in spite of his light build, walked quickly, and we had trouble keeping up with him. Jenna, pouting down at the ground, didn’t say a word. Bud kept up a good pace, and soon we arrived at the door of the pretty little schoolhouse.
The door was flung open wide, and Jeremy stepped off to the side.
“Here they is, Miz Emma!” he announced, proudly, dragging a reluctant Bud over to the boys’ side of the room.
At the very front, behind a wooden carved desk, sat a young white lady, dressed in a plain brown muslin, and writing in a page of sorts. She stopped and looked up as soon as Jeremy made his grand entrance. A bright smile lit up her face as she eyed us and stood up.
“How d’you do?” she asked in the smooth, refined talk of the North. I cringed
“Fine, ma’am,” I answered hesitantly, feeling Jenna tightening her grasp on my dress. I wrenched it loose, free and wrinkled from her hold. She said nothing and did not look up. At the moment, I wanted to do the same. But I remembered Papa’s conversation, about holding our heads high, and so I did. My chin went up and I did not back down.
At first, she looked taken aback, her eyes widening in surprise. But just surprise—nothing else. I could not read any other sign of emotion, not even alarm or anger.
“What are your names, children?”
“I’m Lena, and this is my sister Jenna,” I mumbled, reluctantly. Pointing to the other side of the room, I added, “That there’s Bud.”
“Well,” she said, her voice brightening. “Come on down to the side, here, and you can sit on the bench, next to Jean.”
Her voice made me think of yellow buttercups in the springtime, bright and cheerful—but too buttery. I wasn’t tricked. Her butter slid off me like water off an oiled pipe-hose. She carefully lifted her skirts and, gesturing to a side bench, walked elegantly to her desk.
“We’re here to get an ej-yoo-ka-shun,” pronounced Bud proudly, as he sat stiffly down next to Jeremy. I’m sure my eyes must’ve flashed something fierce, because when I shook my head almost imperceptibly at Bud, he faltered and his eyes grew wide—and Bud was not one to be cowed easily. After that, he didn’t make a noise.
We sat through another half-hour of hearing different members of the class read excerpts from the Bible. Glumly, I noted that Jean, the girl next to me, kicked her legs against the underside of the bench we sat on, beating out a steady…rat…tat tat…rat…tat tat…It took all my patience not to pinch her in the leg. Right as I was losing my nerves, Miss Emma rang the bell, and we were sent out for a lunch break.
Immediately, we were crowded with kids from five to fifteen, looking us over, grinning at us, and bombarding us with a volley of questions. Miss Emma, rising from her desk, suddenly appeared in the midst of it all.
“Children, there’ll be time for questions once your outside. Let’s let our visitors have a chance to catch their breaths.”
Catch our breaths? Hadn’t we just been forced to sit down in a stuffy classroom with twenty other bodies for the last half-hour? I should say we needed to catch our breaths—outside, in the fresh air! Miss Emma’s words seemed to work, and we were let alone for a few minutes, before Jeremy came up to us again.
“Hey! How y’all’s likin’ school?” he asked, his brilliant white teeth shining out from between his brown lips. I shrugged. For a moment, he looked disappointed.
“No, I mean, really.”
“I dunno,” I answered, rolling my eyes. Put off by my reply, he looked me straight in the eye, his own eyes flashing defiantly.
“How come you don’t like it here? Why don’t you like us?”
It was too much for Jenna.
“How come you asso-shate with them whites?”
I squeezed her hand angrily.
“Ouch! It was just a question!”
Jeremy stood, as if rooted to the ground.
“Why, it’s just the way things are here!”
“That’s just exactly why we don’t like it here, then!” Bud frowned at Jeremy. “C’mon, let’s go sit over there and eat.”
Jeremy came hurrying after us, his blue jacket, nearly flying off in the wind. I decided to wait. He ran panting up to us in disbelief.
“You actually believe that stuff?—I mean, like that whole thing about whites and blacks?”
“Course, who doesn’t?” I answered quickly, raising an eyebrow.
“But…but it ain’t true!”
I stopped, turned around, and looked at him.
“Maybe it ain’t!” I shouted, fed up with his questions. “But they think it is! Nothin’ else matters!”
“But—” he stopped. I hung my head, ashamed that I had lost my temper. But what was a body to say? Bud just stood, staring at us both, and Jenna clung adamantly to my arm. Jeremy’s eyes filled with tears, and he shook his head. “Black is just a color, Lena. You should know that.”
I narrowed my eyes.
“I know it. So what?”
“What you look like on the outside don’t define who you are on the inside.”
“Well they don’t believe that,” Bud interjected rebelliously.
“But these here whites—they is different.”
Jenna snorted, and I noticed Jeremy looked hurt. Unwilling to argue more, I shrugged again.
Sitting next to Bud and Jenna, overlooking the dusty road, I suddenly felt lonely. Jeremy had said something, something he believed to be true. But I couldn’t see. I couldn’t see the difference between here and California. Segregation…integration…blacks and whites…
A tear found it’s way into my eyelid. More followed, welling up until they became too heavy, and began to overflow. One by one, they fell, washing the bitterness out of my day, and one by one, they landed in the fresh soil, never to be seen again.
Black is just a color. I looked down at my bare arms, stretched across the grass. I wiggled the dark toes that were immersed in dirt. As I reached up to wipe the tears off my cheeks, I noticed how brown my hands were. And I heard what Jeremy said playing out in my mind: “what you look like on the outside don’t define who you are on the inside.” Had I let myself be deceived into thinking that my black skin was really all there was to me?
Taking Jenna’s hand, I pulled myself up. I still hurt...hurt from the scars left because of segregation and hatred. I did not know; but, perhaps, as long as I knew who I was, the color of black on my skin would never be able to matter, to me at least. And maybe, just maybe, I would be able to face another day at Rain Valley School.
Sequel to "Home is Where the Heart is".