Winner of the 2017 CA Non-Fiction Prize judged by Roxane Gay
The hallways at Spence were blue and narrow. They wound one into another, and I couldn’t tell how many times I had turned the corner. I followed the tour guide, peeking into classrooms where the chairs were arranged in circles or squares instead of rows. Inside, girls in navy blue skirts and white blouses were learning, and I could imagine myself sitting among them—lighting Bunsen burners and wearing goggles, reading aloud from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, figuring out algebraic equations with mechanical pencils. I could see myself among the girls in the hallways too. They sat on the floor with their backs against the lockers, talking loudly, even as we passed. I waded through the web of their bare legs, strips of their inscrutable conversations.
P.S. 11, my elementary school, was official and plain: a brick building, a few stories high, in the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn. We lined up in straight lines when we moved through the hallways, and our classrooms were bright and orderly. My parents had wrangled me into the school, the best in the district, even though I had been zoned to another. I liked my school, and I had no complaints. I liked the tire swing in the playground and the bodega where I bought potato chips and quarter waters. I liked the library down the street where I could use the massive computers and read magazines while I waited for my father to pick me up. I was a favorite of my teachers and selected most mornings to recite the Pledge of Allegiance over the loudspeakers and then the school motto.
We are proud to be learning and learning to be proud at P.S. 11.
It was nothing more to me than a mantra, and I didn’t see then that the motto was the invention of a school run nearly entirely by black women—teachers, school safety officers, the principal and assistant principal—designed to help us, we hundreds of black and brown children, to affirm our own dignity, while we were young, while school still served as a kind of shield, however insufficient, from the rest of the city, its hard facts and violence.
P.S. 11 was a place I had mastered, where I understood how things worked. The Spence School was a secret with its dim blue hallways and classrooms I peered into from the outside. It was across a bridge and over water, less than ten miles from Brooklyn, but farther than I knew to expect.
My interview was with the Head of the Middle School, Mrs. Eston. She had short blond hair, cropped close to her head, droopy eyes, and a pleasant, clear complexion. I must have told her that my favorite subject was Language Arts, and I had composition notebooks filled with the beginnings of novels. I probably mentioned that I spoke Spanish, my parents were teachers, and I had a grandmother in Bushwick, a grandfather in the Dominican Republic. I might have said I had been working toward a school like Spence my whole life, without ever knowing that Spence existed. Every spelling bee, citywide test, book report, and worksheet had been so that I could land here, across a desk from a dignified white woman like her, who was interested in me, and who had the authority to verify that I was good enough, smart enough to belong here.
Mrs. Eston seemed amused by me, and I remember being moved by how much she seemed to like me. The proof that I might be worthy of becoming a Spence girl started to accumulate. We sat together in her office for what, in my memory, seems the better part of a day. It was likely twenty minutes, half an hour.
When I left her office, I had to wait for my parents to collect me. I didn’t venture beyond the corner where a pizzeria sold slices that were cracker-thin and floppy, dripping with oil. My mother had given me money in case I got hungry or had an emergency all by myself. I settled on a bench to eat my slice and survey the street. It was the first time I had been alone in the city.
In my imagination, Manhattan was a special place where we shopped for good leather shoes or summer reading books at the flagship Barnes & Noble on Eighteenth Street, where we went for dumplings in Chinatown.
The Upper East Side was a different Manhattan. Old women with painted faces walked tiny dogs on leashes. The high school Spence girls paraded around in unsupervised packs, laughing and sipping sodas from tall paper cups. To me, they were glamorous, these older girls in dainty ankle socks, their uniform skirts rolled up to their thighs. I wondered if I would ever be like them, as the oil from the pizza dripped over my fingers, and I kept an eye out for my parents who were coming to take me home. It would be months before we heard whether they had decided to let me in.
* * *
The idea of Spence was both problem and promise for my family. My aunt warned my mother against sending me to school with rich kids. They got themselves into the kind of trouble that would slide off them and stick to me. White Upper East Side kids got their hands on drugs easily; they stole vodka from their parents’ liquor cabinets; they had sex in Park Avenue apartments where they spent their afternoons bored and unsupervised. Most of them didn’t believe in God. They lied, cheated, stole, and talked back to their parents.
My parents were used to protecting us from the dangers of our neighborhood, Fort Greene. All they had to do was keep us inside. It bothered my younger brother that we couldn’t play in the back of our building like the other kids, but our parents promised us one day we’d thank them for protecting us from something big, like getting shot, or something small, like picking up curse words and the crude habits my mother called malas mañas. Even at my grandmother’s railroad apartment in Bushwick, I was relegated to the couch, where I watched cartoons or soap operas while my grandmother cooked, and my brother enjoyed a few clandestine hours playing basketball down the block with our male cousins. My grandmother’s logic was simple: the street wasn’t for girls.
I was accustomed to this life of tucking into my books, smiling my good-girl smile, and keeping still. In my mind, for someone to say I was tranquila was the highest compliment any little Dominican girl could get. My rebellions were small, fleeting, and largely unnoticed. Once, I snuck out of the apartment into the hallway where my cousins were playing soccer, and I was so angry at being excluded that I found a way to steal the ball and kick it as hard as I could, up to the ceiling, where it knocked out the hall lights. My uncles came into the hallway, swinging their belts and yelling. They spanked everyone except for me. There would be a repair to pay for, a super to pacify. No one suspected I was the one who had knocked out the light, and while my brother and my cousins got beat, I sat back on the couch, where I should have been all along, while an uncle patted my hair and asked whether I was all right.
I was a prized child, especially on my mother’s side, where I was the first granddaughter and the first of our family born in the United States. My aunts, uncles, and grandmother praised and coddled me, kept me on the couch. They warned my mother, “Don’t let her go. You won’t be able to watch her. She’ll change.”
My mother sent me all the same. She had dropped out of high school to come to the U.S. to support her family at seventeen. She had worked in factories in industrial Brooklyn and finished college only after she was a mother of two, learning English as she went. My father, a teacher in East New York, one of the roughest neighborhoods in Brooklyn, had a sober sense of what might await me if I didn’t take this leap. They had been champions of my education my whole life: my mother recited my spelling words with me and learned them herself; my father fought to get me into the best school in our district and the gifted program; he quickly stepped between me and any kid who tried to intimidate me, the rare teacher who doubted my potential.
They knew how much Spence would ultimately offer me, even if, by the end, it might upend my sense of self. When the acceptance came, and I stepped off the ledge of my old life, they dropped into a freefall too.
* * *
On the day of my orientation, I went to the annual Spence Family Picnic in the afternoon. My mother and brother met me at an athletic field at the farthest edge of the East Side, by the river. My mother was younger than the other parents, and she likely wore one of her silk blazers, the enormous shoulder pads accentuating the fact that there were just over one hundred pounds of her. I stuck with the other new girls, making jokes and telling little lies to win them over.
Elle was the first to approach me. She had rust-colored hair, an explosive laugh, and braces. She ran across the field to welcome me. And there was Cate, who, like Elle, was a Survivor—she’d been at Spence since kindergarten. She was soft-spoken with milky skin and long blond hair, a ballerina whose sisters also went to Spence. And there was another new girl, Kristen, who was transferring from a Hebrew primary school. We sat on benches and strolled around the Astroturf, and I felt surprisingly free, making corny puns and talking about my life in Brooklyn, combining evasion and exaggeration to render what I wanted and keep the rest concealed. It was easy, and I felt like my new life was already underway.
My father picked us up afterward. I don’t remember whether he drove up from Brooklyn just to collect us or whether he parked somewhere and sat waiting in the car while we were at the picnic. What I do remember is that his absence was intentional. When I asked him why he didn’t join us, he said, “You don’t understand, Naima. If people see me, they’ll treat you differently.”
He didn’t go on to explain but I knew what he meant. He was tall and heavy, a black man, not yet fifty, with a long beard and a mustache. He often wore a baseball cap and smoked a pipe, and I was used to the privileges and pains of having a father who others considered intimidating. A pair of older twin boys at P.S. 11 had teased me until my father came up to the school to set them straight; eventually, the boys I would date would defer to him, look down at their feet while they talked to him, and later rave to me about how cool he was and how scary. My mother was light-skinned, Latina, slight; she’d face another set of problems—underestimation, innuendo—but meeting her wouldn’t change the way my classmates saw me. I had seen my father harassed and mistreated by shop owners, airport security, and white strangers enough to understand. To be black was different. And yet, I wasn’t sure my father was right. The girls were nice, their parents smiling. Still, he’d made up his mind.
I wasn’t used to my father being absent from any part of my life and, certainly, not from school. While my mother washed my hair and ironed my clothes and cooked my food, my father was the one I revolved around. He knew the names of my friends; he had taught me how to swim and to play chess; he gave me books to read that he had once loved; he had tutored me in Math. When we went swimming in the Dominican Republic, I climbed onto his shoulders and jumped off into the ocean. When I was frightened on an airplane, he vowed to rescue me if the plane crashed. It was his guidance that had brought me to Spence, and now, it seemed, he wouldn’t follow me in.
We slid into the car, the bronze Honda Accord, and told him about the picnic, the white women and their jewelry, and we told him the story of how poorly my brother had behaved.
Luciano, nine years old, had tugged at my mother’s jacket, interrupting her conversation to ask her to take him to a spread of food at a table nearby.
“The chicken, Mami! I want the chicken,” he had said.
My mother had ignored his urgent whispering then, but now, in the car, as we drove back to Brooklyn, we could all laugh about it. It was both cute and terrifying, and it would become one of our most treasured family jokes—the story of that time Luciano had begged for chicken in front of so many Spence parents and almost blew it all.
* * *
A few days into the school year, I found a Xeroxed sheet of paper wedged into my locker. It was a handwritten invitation to the first bat mitzvah of the year. Proper invitations had gone out months before, but all of the new girls were invited to the party at the Plaza Hotel.
Bat mitzvahs weren’t an expense I had accounted for in my assessment of Spence, but I already had a dress to wear and my mother went out to the Macy’s on Fulton Street, armed with coupons, and returned with some piece of jewelry as a gift, likely a pair of tiny diamond earrings or a gold bracelet. The gifts were as much for me as the girls in my class—they were my parents’ purchases, made on credit, toward my inclusion, the long-shot hope that the girls in my grade would hold me in esteem, and I wouldn’t feel so different.
(It is strange, all these years later, to think of these girls, women now, walking around in their lives, maybe wearing the pair of earrings my mother bought them, not knowing how they got them, not thinking of me, not remembering my mother.)
I didn’t know the birthday girl very well. She was blond, athletic, and we sometimes sat at the same table in Math. She spoke the way I had imagined white girls would speak from television: she had an Upper East Side drawl, every vowel sound a diphthong in her mouth, every declaration lurching into a question.
Of the actual party, I remember little: wood paneled walls and chandeliers, but I can’t be sure I am not picturing another ballroom, some other party from that year. A troupe of professional cheerleaders performed—the Knicks Dancers—and the birthday girl read from the Torah into a microphone. I was astonished at how lovely she was in a sequined dress, at how mature she seemed at thirteen—the flatness of her stomach, the fact of her breasts, the way her straight hair gleamed as gold as her dress.
I remember too the girls from my class circling around me to marvel at my outfit: they couldn’t believe how adorable I looked. My dress had a blue velvet skirt, white puff sleeves, a row of beads along the waist. I wore opaque white tights and patent leather shoes. Their dresses had straps and high hems; they wore black; they wore sequins and lipstick, their hair ironed straight, their legs bare. I had worn a little-girl dress to a grown-up-girl party.
I sensed then, more acutely than I had yet, that I wasn’t one of them. I felt stocky, flat-chested, childish, brown. The sensation would return to my body during dance rehearsals when I looked in the mirror and saw a line of white girls at the barre and then me, when I started to clip a bobby pin to the bridge of my nose in secret at home, when I saw a photograph someone had developed of a group of us, and my skin had turned up orange under the flash of the camera.
There was much about myself that I couldn’t change, but there were some things that I could. I could wear my hair down; I could put on heels. I could ask my mother to never make me wear such a little-girl dress again.
* * *
Before Spence, I might have said that I knew how to swim, to dance, to play an instrument, and to sing. I learned quickly that, at twelve, I was already too much of an amateur to keep up with the girls in my class. I had spent my summers swimming in the ocean in DR but I couldn’t swim chlorinated laps the way they did; I had done ballet at a dance school in Jamaica, Queens, but there were girls in my class who trained at the School of American Ballet in Lincoln Center; I had played alto saxophone for two years, often in the second or third chair, in the P.S. 11 band, but girls in my class had been playing the piano or the violin or the flute since they were three. I liked to sing but I didn’t know how to read music, and I faked my way through choral classes. I wasn’t behind in any of my academic classes, if anything, I was ahead of the girls in my class, and I relished this way that I had earned me my place among them. I knew how to find an image in a poem and say what it meant, I knew how to string words together, imitatively, to say back to a teacher what they wanted to hear. Class was my magic power. There were different classes here, too, from the usual subjects I’d had at P.S. 11. I took a listening course in classical music, Latin, Drama, and Public Speaking. I avoided painting and drawing, where the gaps between what I had learned at P.S. 11 and what the other girls had learned at Spence were too obvious. I could keep up, or surpass them, in English, in Chemistry, so I loved to strap on goggles and light the Bunsen burners. I wanted to read aloud in class, to be Titania or Puck.
There were free periods at Spence, stretches between class when we sat on the floor in the halls and wasted time, talking and laughing, instead of doing our homework. I spent a lot of this time, and nearly all my time, at first, watching. I observed how the other girls peeled clementines with their fingernails, the orange skin unwinding in a single reel. I saw them wrap their bodies around chairs in class, one foot up on the seat, the other leg folded underneath them, a pair of plaid boxer shorts under their skirts. At lunch, girls shredded bagels with their hands and ate only half; they devoured crackers and tea, or shared a plate of iceberg lettuce and balsamic vinegar. I watched the way they ran their fingers across their scalps, scooping thin strands of untangled hair into a ponytail. More than once I untied my own hair, which my mother had carefully secured with yarn, and tried to wind it up the way they did. But my hair was too heavy, it resisted the yarn, and without my mother’s sure hands, I couldn’t put it back up, and I’d spend the day with my hair wild and large around me. At home, I’d make up a story about how it had come undone in PE.
I spent so much time observing this new world, the habits, postures, and speech of the girls in my class, that I remember mostly them, and not myself from that first year. While I have a reel of memories of bat mitzvahs, I have no memory of how I celebrated my own thirteenth birthday. I know that the year prior, when I turned twelve, I saw Titanic at a movie theater in Queens with my best friend from P.S. 11. When I turned fourteen, a year and a half into my time at Spence, three classmates threw a surprise party for me at someone’s double duplex on the Upper West Side, and at the end of the party, my friends and I bounced up and down, holding hands and shouting the lyrics to a punk song, while the governor stood in the next room, talking to my friend’s parents. I ignored the thought that maybe I should stop jumping around, maybe I should quiet and go say hello, or at least make a good impression on the governor of our state, but instead I took my friend’s lead—she was used to him coming over—and I screamed and head-bashed and ate leftover cake. But when I think of that first year, of thirteen, I see everyone but myself.
* * *
My close study of the girls in my class, and its steady effect on me, wasn’t lost on my parents. When I wasn’t at school, I was thinking about it, writing out the class gossip in my diary. I started listening to pop radio so that I could sing along to the music I heard at the bat mitzvahs. I requested a $200 leather bomber jacket with a big Spence S on the back before I realized they’d gone out of style. And there was my speech, peppered with likes and elongated vowels. “School” became “schoo-ool,” hungry became “hung-ray.” My parents overheard a girl from my class promise to call me the next day around “nineish,” and after that, they started calling me “Spenceish” and referring to my friends as “Spenceish girls.”
Behind their teasing, I sensed growing ambivalence. My mother had picked me up from enough Spence parties and functions to know that she hated the way some of the girls sat with their legs open, wrote on their arms in pen, and talked back to their parents. Once, she witnessed a girl tell her mother to shut up in public, and she had turned quickly to scold me.
“Maybe those white parents will take that kind of behavior, but I won’t. Try me.”
The Spence girl sense of entitlement was catching. Suddenly, there were things I felt I deserved. My parents had run an our-way-or-the-highway household, but I was emboldened now to ask for small things. I wanted privacy to do my homework. I wanted them to lower their voices while I spoke on the phone. I didn’t think they had to scream at me if I was already listening. My bids for power were swiftly shut down, but I still claimed my independence in small, unseen ways. There was the radio and what my brother deemed “white people music,” the forbidden thoughts I recorded in my diary. I slouched in class, and I talked back to my parents in my head since I couldn’t out loud. I shook my hips at the white boys at parties and dances; I told lies to the girls at school about my life; I hiked up my skirt an inch or two.
If I was losing a sense of a common world with my parents, it wasn’t because I had slid easily into the world of Spence. The class was small enough that we were yoked all together, but there were girls who I knew would never invite me to their homes, whose invitations to a birthday either never came or did only out of a sense of magnanimity. There were girls far beyond the reach of me and my friends, girls who stuck with one another, spent their weekends together but were constantly negotiating clique wars. According to rumor, they had pimples professionally popped, boyfriends in the city and not only at camp. The rest of the class referred to them as Jewish American Princesses, whether they were, in fact, Jewish or not. The term, in its open use of ethnicity, made me nervous, but my classmates used it to mark the line between the girls who were at the top of our seventh-grade social strata and those of us who populated the middle and the bottom.
I didn’t understand the intricacies of class at Spence, the difference between a country house in Montauk and a country house in the Hamptons, a penthouse on Second Avenue and one on Park, a Kate Spade bag versus Hermès. Aside from wealth, race divided us, too, although not cleanly; in a class of fifty girls, the lines were often muddled, and there were only six girls I knew who weren’t white, and half of us had joined the class that year. Other factors mitigated where someone stood in the class, too: zip codes, the vetting that occurred between parents. No matter the complexity of the formula, where I stood was clear. The fact that I lived in Brooklyn alone was sufficient to mark me far outside the New York of my classmates; for some of them, the city below 59th Street didn’t exist. And there was the puzzle and problem of my race. I had a teacher, as well as my classmates, ask whether my long hair was real. I had more than one girl ask with interest, “What are you?” A drama substitute cast me in a sketch about race as the black character, which struck me as patently unfair—couldn’t I be whoever I wanted to be? Why did the other girls get to choose?
Another new girl, Kristen, whom I had grown to love fiercely and whom I had preemptively deemed my potential best friend, once told me a story about her father’s misadventures on the subway. She offered some elaborate reason for why he had been forced to take the train, some logic for why it seemed to him like a good idea at the time. Her father made his way down the stairs, he rounded a corner, and he bumped right into a big black man. My potential best friend laughed then at the punchline, the end of her story—the black man who had surprised her father. I don’t know what I did, whether I laughed or stood silent or asked her what was so funny, but I do know that the figure who came to my mind was not a stranger, but my father, in a plaid, long-sleeved shirt, his silver pens tucked into his pocket, his scarcely lined brown face, the color that I had called “burnt sienna” as a child, after the crayon I would use to draw him, and he had in turn had called me “peach brown,” although it wasn’t quite the right color for me, it was a little too white.
* * *
The tensions with my parents reached a head one night when they were driving me home from Spence. A school event had ended after dark, and they came up together from Brooklyn in the Honda to bring me back home. We listened to the radio as we rode down the FDR Drive. I could see the city lights and the East River churn. My father smoked his pipe, the sweet tobacco smell floating out the window, my mother looked despondently out the window, her chin in her skinny hand, and my brother I remember only as silent and small.
I suspect the fight started with my mother: my power struggles were chiefly with her. If I sighed more dramatically than was allowed, or if I rolled my eyes, or if I disagreed with her, she would launch her attack. I could count on the fight to escalate. My mother’s anger rose up quickly and swallowed everything with the force and speed of a tropical storm. Soon she was shouting at me. What was wrong with me? Who did I think I was? When I started to cry, my mother kept screaming.
“I am taking you out of that school!”
She likely said something about the way I talked to her, the way I answered back—it was unacceptable. The word bounced in her mouth, the roundness of ‘p’ and ‘b’ identical on her lips. I worried about her when I made her angry, when she screamed. She would turn red, a vein in her forehead would widen and pulse, and I wondered whether her rage would be enough to kill her, or me, all of us.
“If you think I’m one of those Spenceish mothers, you’re wrong. I won’t take this from you!”
Any talk was backtalk, and if I spoke, she became angrier. This seemed unfair to me, and so I spoke anyway, knowing the consequences—more screaming, more threats.
“Take what? I didn’t even do anything.”
“I’ll take you out of that school!”
“Would you do that to me? Would you ruin my future?”
“I’ll take you out of that school!”
Through my tears and her screaming, I felt as if we were careening out of control on the highway. The traffic seemed too fast, and I worried we would slam into another driver or the median at any moment and die in a pileup, an accident caused by our inability to get along, my new insistence on not being squashed down. We didn’t crash. And so I answered back again.
“If you take me out of Spence, I’ll never forgive you.”
My mother turned to me and repeated my words, her voice shrill and disbelieving.
“That’s right,” I said. “If you would do that to me, if you would ruin my future, I wouldn’t forgive you.”
After that, her screams swelled to a higher pitch, and I don’t remember whether my father joined in or not, but either way, I remember the sensation of being outnumbered, of being crushed, and so I cowered into the backseat and cried as quietly as I could. I don’t remember my brother, what he said or did. But I couldn’t unsay what I had insisted on—I had hinted at the burgeoning power that I didn’t have a hold on yet. Soon I’d be able to protest, to scorn them. One day, I’d be gone.
My parents talked about that night for years. They brought up my outburst, my threat to never forgive them, as proof I had become an absolute brat at Spence, disobedient, ungrateful. If I raised my voice, even a little, or I hesitated to do something they wanted me to do, my mother would lower her eyebrows in disgust and say, “Don’t think I forgot about the time you said you would never forgive us! I didn’t forget. I remember.”
I remembered too. I remembered the way it felt to talk back, my voice steady, expanding, answering. I remembered the strain of the seatbelt strap across my chest when I leaned forward in the car to talk back. I remembered that for an instant I had refused to accept what my parents decided for me as a sentence. I didn’t feel sorry for what I had said—I wouldn’t let anyone take away the future I felt was mine. Unacceptable. I was a Spence girl now, my old life already behind me.