I was a ripe, sitting target for a bully when I entered the fourth grade at Heritage Hill Elementary School in Springdale: I was a shy 9-year-old; my single mother was settling her three kids after abruptly leaving our father and bouncing about in a station wagon; my two older brothers were preoccupied by their sibling rivalry-turned-rage toward one another; counting my brother, Kenny, I was one of five blacks in the entire school.
It was 1974.
Black folks were rocking Afros, platforms and pleather; however, many of the white people then ensconced in Springdale weren’t particularly feeling blacks’ badass blaxploitation beauty.
I quickly realized just because Springdale Acres, the sprawling complex that was our new home, overlooked I-275 didn’t mean anyone who lived in it or in the enviable ranch houses across the road actually traveled that expressway to a larger world.
The other three blacks at Heritage Hill were a doorway-sized gym teacher with a TWA (teeny weeny Afro) who flirted with my mother; Erica, another fourth grade girl as cute and smart as I who didn’t take kindly to me as her competition; and Curtis, whose father was a brilliant music teacher for the Princeton District who signed me up to play alto saxophone.
Of course, growing up in Hamilton, I’d been to school alongside white kids. I even brought hungry and dirty white kids home with me. My mother fed them, called their parents and gave them some of my brothers’ hand-me-down clothes. (They were always boys.) One of my best friends at Jefferson Elementary in Hamilton was a white girl with an overbite named Karen. She lived on a weird corner beside a gas station and my mother let me play at her house but her mother never let her play at mine.
Heritage Hill would be my new-black-girl boot camp, preparation for the rest of my life being the new..., the only...., the first...
I didn’t know it then but I was gonna need those extra layers of thick skin, my always fully charged bullshit detector and a spine like a steel rod. It was the first time I felt alone in the world and had to call on survival skills I didn’t know I had because, in my formerly nuclear family such as it was, I never needed survival skills. I had a basketball team-sized gaggle of adult half-brothers and biological brothers who looked out for me.
And, of course, there were my parents who each swaddled me in attention and adoration in their own ways.
When I walked into the fourth-grade classroom of a disheveled, middle-aged hunched over teacher whose name I can no longer recall, I nearly passed out.
“This is Kathy. She’s new,” he barked to the class.
Fourth-grade bodies squirmed in their seats.
I took the desk second from the teacher’s, second row from the door.
To my right was Robert, a raven-haired, red-lipped white boy whose face and nearly Dorothy Hamill-esque mop top I’ll never forget long as I’m black.
Robert very quickly picked up on every open fissure I had showing and even the ones I tried hard to hide.
But he pounced on my blackness with vim and vigor.
First, he delighted in whispering “nigger” to me two desks away from the teacher.
I’d heard nigger only sparingly in my girlhood house and in the streets of Hamilton; it was like Sunday clothes — only pulled out for special occasions. My father only called another black man a nigger when he was really defaming that black man’s character.
It was a curse word.
But Robert dropped it on my head like he was sprinkling me with confetti and it hit hard as body blows.
I suddenly hated going to school. Thoughts of that school made me physically ill, but I wasn’t wily or brave enough to skip so I trudged ahead, pushed forward by thoughts of my parents going places they’d rather not every single day.
Then, Robert ramped it up. He left pages on my desk ripped from God-knows-where of lynched black people — sometimes burned and castrated — hanging from trees.
Our little ritual went thusly: I’d open a textbook or move a notebook, find the photograph, look at him with wet eyes, register him sniggling gleefully, ball up the paper or cover it over then turn forward and look straight ahead the rest of the class.
Finally, he whispered his dad was a member of the KKK and he was going to come get me and do to me what had been done to the niggers in the pictures.
That was enough fear and loathing.
I told my teacher who, surprisingly, intervened swiftly. My memory says I’d kept one of the pictures for proof.
He was angry and red-faced, spitting as he yelled at Robert.
I felt protected.
He moved Robert across the room and to the back.
The playground was a minefield where I developed and honed my now-legendary peripheral vision. I knew when Robert was behind me or coming up on either side.
I didn’t tell my mother about this until I was a grown woman working at the newspaper in my hometown and the subject of bullying came up randomly. She was hurt because she knew I’d kept that awful secret just to keep stress and drama away from her as she worked one shit job after another and battled our father for child support. From the horror stories she told me at night about her racist, misogynistic bosses and slave wages, I could tell she, too, was being bullied out in the world.
I saw her soldier on, so I did, too.
Later that school year, Robert and I ended up simultaneously crossing a dam at a creek running below our complex and except for a silent staring match I’ve never laid eyes on him again.
I ain’t never been bullied again, either.
CONTACT KATHY Y. WILSON: [email protected]