I had to crane my neck even further towards the table of sixth graders who broke into applause after hearing my boss, Ms. Larry, tell them that we were going to have a watermelon eating contest. Since my arrival three weeks ago at Lodi Middle School, I neither paid the kids or Ms. Larry any attention. I came in with my school board issued badge clipped to whatever clean shirt I could find, listened to what we were supposed to do that afternoon, and did it. I didn't make a scene. I didn't argue with the kids who called me a fat fucker, even though they were told at the beginning of each day that cussing was not allowed. I tried to a make myself as invisible as possible.
The kids sat at tables with little white lunch bags filled with dry bologna sandwiches with slices of thick cheese that made the sandwiches stick to the roof of your mouth when you tried to chew it, plastic bags of wilted carrots that looked like they had been dipped in baby powder, and little packets of mustard and mayo. Sitting next to the bags were little cartons of chocolate milk that spent more time on the tables than in their mouths. I called them the rainbow tribe when I talked to my friends about my disdain for them—cocoa, saffron, cinnamon, graham cracker, lemon yellow, brown—little people who had no idea what it was that they were getting themselves into.
I jumped up from my seat, started walking towards Ms. Larry, then stopped. Ms. Larry had short hair that looked as if someone had quilted pieces of gray into the layers of brown, a rosy face flushed with excitement, a thick, flat nose, and perfect teeth that you couldn't help but see since she smiled at everything—even Liza whose skinny self told Ms. Larry that her outfits made her look like she was the old woman who lived in a shoe. Ms. Larry was perpetually happy and chipper, ready to save a world she really knew nothing about and it didn't bother me until she brought up the watermelon.
I walked over to Albert City, a short, white man with curly red hair and designer flip-flops. He always wore t-shirts with some type of slogan on it, "A way to get the students to read more," he said once. Today his shirt read, "Love like you have never been hurt before." I read his shirt before I poked him in the side and rolled my eyes.
"Yes, Mrs. Campbell." He called everyone Mr. or Mrs., students and staff. It used to annoy me until Albert explained that he was southern— from the great state of Alabama—and that I should get used to it because he wasn't going to change.
"Did she say that we were having a watermelon eating contest?" "She did." Albert smiled.
"And you think that's ok?"
"Mrs. Campbell, why wouldn't I?" I stood a good two inches over Albert and he looked up at me and I could have sworn that behind his smile, behind his face, behind his pale skin was a reptile face and a reptile tongue, like the 80's movie V, waiting to thrust out at me, as if to say, take that, I am going to eat you before the world does. I just walked away from him and walked right out the door.
"Frankie!" I banged on my roommates door. I had been standing there for five minutes and I knew that she was ignoring me. James, her boyfriend of the week must have been there. I didn't care. I needed to vent and she was what I had to work with at the moment. "Come on." I kicked her door with my foot and she finally opened the door.
"Melanie. What? I didn't answer you for a reason."
I pulled her out of the door by her arm and drug her into the living room. "Do you know that my boss wants to have a watermelon eating contest?"
Frankie looked at me and rolled her eyes. "And?"
"And? Look Frankie, there isn't anyone in that program but little brown kids… you don't see what the problem is?"
"Yeah...you pulled me out of my room to tell me the same thing you tell me all the time—the world isn't fair to black people."
"It isn't. But this time they are going too far. They are brainwashing our brown kids earlier than before."
Frankie laughed with her eyes but frowned to show some support. I hate her perfect brown rice skin, thin frame and black bobbed weave. In front of me I saw what I will never be: thin, cute, acceptable. "Look," she said, "You can't save all the brown children. You need to be trying to save yourself. That dissertation can't write itself."
Frankie was right. I didn't care. "Look, I can't let them humiliate themselves like that. Not in front of all those white people."
"Girl, they are kids. Kids, Melanie. They shouldn't become your cause."
I looked at Frankie and tried to find the 65 year old woman hiding behind her skin. She was 21; I was 30. I wanted to slap her upside her head but thought better of it because she normally had answers that I was too afraid, or too tired to figure out on my own. Here I was, 30 years old—thick around the midsection, dark as molasses and a 5'10 giant in date land—, with three degrees, count them, three, living in a student apartment with a senior in College. Our apartment had basic white walls; a small kitchen that didn't get much use, furniture that was built to last not for aesthetics, and light brown carpet that looked like it was being eaten by a dog we didn't have. Our walls were bare and with the exception of a small 10 inch black and white TV, nothing else was there. My room was separated from Frankie's by an even smaller bathroom with a pink shower curtain and fish with little suction cups lined in a row at the bottom of the tub. I only had my laptop, bed with an argyle bedspread I bought at the goodwill and the bedroom dressers that came with it. I moved a lot. No need for extras. I pushed Frankie aside and went into my room. "See you in the morning." It was seven pm.
I clicked on my laptop, set it in my lap and opened the folder that had bits and pieces of my dissertation. Every time I saw the title of my dissertation, "The Americanized African: its political, social, and economic implications as seen in James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Ralph Ellison," my stomach went flat, like a Coke left out after a night of partying. I had worked for months just on the title, and now as I looked at the empty space after it, I wondered if I would ever get to it. I had pages of notes, information about each author, and a few underlined quotes I could use from each book. Not enough for a dissertation. Not enough to even present to my committee that nagged me every time I saw them in the department hallway. After reading the title out loud to myself, I shrugged my shoulders and pushed my laptop aside. Part of my resignation was the fact that I was at odds with my department, my dissertation chair, and anything and everyone else that didn't fold me into its arms. Hell, if it wasn't for them I wouldn't be at Lodi Middle School working with brown kids who relished a watermelon eating contest. If it wasn't for them I wouldn't be sitting here with a mental block, with a star throbbing in my head.
"Dr. Walker. I just checked my mailbox and I only had a teaching assignment for the fall."
"Ok." She tilted her head down and looked at me over the rims of her square framed glasses.
"I applied for a summer position." I sat staring at her trying to see if her face would finally open up to me; finally let me know that I was, at last, a part of the "it" that made this department breathe.
"Well, Melanie that's because you didn't get one for the summer." Her hair, usually long and straight to make her appear younger, was now in a ponytail. The imprinted crow's feet danced around her eyes when she talked. Dr. Walker's face was not as made up as it normally was and she wore khaki Capri's and a short-sleeved blue and yellow sweater. It was too damn hot for a sweater, even a short sleeved one.
"Can you tell me why? I have been here for three years. I have seniority."
She straightened her back and turned towards her computer. She now spoke to me without even looking at me. "Are you taking any hours this summer?"
"Then you are not teaching. The graduate school says that you have to take hours to be eligible to teach in the summer."
I knew this. I had come prepared for this argument. "I talked to some of my classmates and they are teaching and they aren't taking hours either." I heard my voice get louder as I said each word and then Dr.
Walker looked at me.
"I'm sorry, Melanie. The grad school has its rules."
"What am I supposed to do? I only have dissertation hours left." "I'm really sorry. I don't know how else I can help you."
I left the office and when I got further down the hall I kicked myself for not saying more. For not confronting her about the white students who had positions while I did not. I wanted to threaten to go to the Office of Minority Affairs or the NAACP, but I knew they couldn't make them give me a job. I sulked away and tried to figure out how I was going to survive until the August refund check.
* * *
For some reason I had more energy as I got ready for work. Instead of picking out a crumpled t-shirt from my laundry basket, I found a nice Ohio State Alumna t-shirt, ironed it, and put it on with a nice pair of blue jeans. When I got to work, I sat at the table contemplating my next course of action. I knew what I needed to do—stop this contest—but figuring out how to do it was the problem. While I waited for everyone to get there—Ms. Larry, Albert, and Sheila Goode (my other co-worker who popped chewing gum incessantly and dressed like she was always at a party)—I made sure that my clothes were not wrinkled, a sense of pride that I had not had in quite some time. When everyone was there, I looked at the always–smiling–Ms. Larry, rubbed my temples, and said to her,
"A watermelon eating contest? Is there something else we can do?" Her expression did not change, not one muscle moved in her plastic face; just a flush that she usually experienced when she was presented with something awkward.
"I asked the kids and that's what they want."
"Are we the teachers?" I asked my voice full of desperation and disgust at the kids for even asking for it.
"We are. And as teacher's we have to provide them with the things that they may not get at home. That is our job. That is our responsibility."
Her smile, unwavering, caused a slight nausea in me and so I picked at a piece of dried apple that had hardened on the table. Ms. Larry then began to talk about the day's activities and I promptly tuned her out until she called my name, "Melanie. You will have group 2 and you will be making beaded necklaces."
Great, I thought to myself. Group 2 had some of the little girls who scared my grown up self. I wasn't scared to argue with them—I was scared because they told the truth about everything. They were relentless, even, in their pursuit of it. Somehow they had decided that they were given the barometer of what is and what isn't and if they smelled it, felt it, they called you out on it. So I avoided them as much as I could. There were three in particular, Talia, Tawanna, and Tiffany—the 3 T's is what I called them. They were glued to the hip and caused more trouble than any other kid in the program. They headed the truth squad and all three took turns at lead truth captain. "Yay! I get to play with beads!" I said this with a fake smile that I had rehearsed on the way here. Everyone laughed and smiled with me.
I carried the buckets of beads that came from Hobby Lobby and wanted to chuck them in the garbage. I knew better and when I walked into the cafeteria over to my group they were there: the 3 T's; Portia, who told us every day about her boyfriend Juan and his gold capped teeth; Randy, an overweight, cocoa brown kid who read X-Men comic books no matter what it was that we were doing ; Kris, long and lean and burnt cream colored who was fascinated with what new pair of Michael Jordan's were coming out (I thought, seriously, that they stopped making them when he retired), and Janet, a Mexican girl who wore full makeup and carried a pink compact with white swirls on top that she opened and closed more times as if she forgot a spot—as if a speck of makeup fell out of place since the last time she checked. I looked at them and realized that this was what I was missing. I would use them, turn them against the idea and watch Ms. Larry crumble under their pressure. I smiled at them, big and wide, told them to follow me to the classroom and I even placed my arm on Portia's shoulder, which she promptly removed with a thick and hard smack of the lips, "Get yo hands off me. I don't even like you, ugh!" I ignored her and tried to think of something witty to say, but it escaped me and so I left it alone and led them into the classroom like a mama mallard.
Inside the classroom the first and boldest of the 3 T's, Talia, screamed at the top of her lungs, "Get the hell off of me Randy with yo fat ass." Normally I would yell at them, try and make them feel the disgust that I had stored away when I left work and brought back with me. But I needed them. "Talia," I said calmly. "That wasn't a polite thing to say to Randy, now was it?"
Talia stared at me. Her cornrows frayed at the ends, she had a blue halter top whose straps were almost at her elbows, a pair of cut-off jeans with hearts drawn on them in black marker, and white high top Pro-Keds. "Why they hell are you being so nice to us anyway?"
I stood frozen in place. I wasn't ready for this. Somehow I thought that I could sweet talk them, get them to see where I was coming from without them knowing that I was doing it. It didn't seem to be working right now but one thing I did know was this: If I got one of the 3 T's on my side, then the other 2 would follow and so would the rest of the group. "Talia, it isn't polite for young ladies to use swear words."
"She ain't no young lady." Portia jumped in and laughed.
"Hold-up, I know she ain't talking about Talia." Tiffany, tall and stocky like me and the color of a greasy paper bag, jumped up and threw her book bag on the classroom floor, her long braids swinging like whips.
"Ok, Ok. We are making beads today." They ignored me, their voices grew louder. "Look," I said a little more firmly without yelling. "If you all don't settle down we will not get to go to the gym. Do we want to stay in the classroom all day?" Talia's face softened a little bit and I felt like I had a small victory.
As they were talking and trying to string the beads on thin wire, I tried to figure out how to get them to think about the danger of this contest. I went to the chalkboard and wrote, "Malcolm X."
"Why you write that on the board?" Kris asked.
All the kids looked at the board. "Do you know who this is?"
"Do we care?' Tawanna, the quietest and smallest of the 3 T's, asked with a bracelet of pink and green beads around her wrist.
"You should. He is a part of our history. Our family."
"He ain't my family. My mama don't know him." Talia said with her head cocked to one side like she was daring me to challenge what her mama did or did not know.
"Not literally our family. But someone who cared about our future and was like family to all of us."
"He got money?" Janet asked while looking at herself in the compact. "He is dead," I said.
"Then why we talking about him?"
"Don't you want to know why his last name is "X"? I offered in hopes that it would make them curious.
"Noooooo!" They all said in unison.
"Well, I am going to tell you anyway." I went back to the board and erased the "X" and wrote in large letters the word, "LITTLE," next to his first name." His name was Malcolm Little and he changed it to Malcolm X because he didn't want to have a white man's last name…."
Portia stood up, turned her back to me and started rubbing Randy on the head. Talia started laughing and said, "You got my leftovers." The whole class erupted and, like that, I had lost control. It was Wednesday and the contest was on Friday. I had two days to get them to turn their hatred of me into hatred for watermelons.
At home that night, I scrolled through the pictures for a long time before I cut and paste them to a document. As usual, I should have been working on the thing that was sure to liberate me, but I was dazed by the pictures of pygmies with kinky hair, large noses, large lips, and wide grins that held large sugar cubed teeth. In each of their white gloved hands were thick slices of watermelon. I cringed. In place of the unnamed pygmy faces I put the faces of my group, all the kids who were ready to bite down. It could have been them, could have been me, or Frankie or any other black person—kid or adult. We were all one second glance away from being pygmy watermelon eating people.
Sugar cubed teeth dipped in blood.
What the hell was wrong with me? Why did these kids even matter? I told myself the day that I walked into Lodi Middle School that this was just a resting place, just a thing to get me through the summer. The first day I was there Ms. Larry told me their stories, told me of the empty fridges, no one home when they got out the program, the kids who cursed like sailors just to get attention. These kids I used to be. Kids who I never wanted to see again because they reminded me of whom I once was; who I was striving to not be ever again. I told myself that first day that the kids weren't my responsibility that they didn't mean much to me. I said it in my head over and over again each day I stood in front of them, every day that I went through the mindless lesson plans. They couldn't mean anything to me. They couldn't belong to me. If I let them, if I did, then I risked becoming the "me" I had tucked away with each school, each degree. And even though I couldn't risk becoming the me that I hid, I couldn't let them subject themselves to something that they couldn't understand. There was no way. And if these pictures couldn't change their minds then we were all in trouble.
The next day I asked Ms. Larry if I could have the same group I had yesterday. She looked at me—her blinding teeth exposed—and nodded her head. "Yay! Melanie! They asked about you after program and that means a lot. That is major. Remember you have to stay firm." I smiled back at her and wanted to pull each of her teeth out and take them to a solar plant or something. I am sure someone was fired for letting them get away. I had the pictures in my hand and when I walked into the classroom I didn't speak. I just placed the pictures on the desk in front of the students.
Portia picked up one photo and tossed it to the ground. Randy didn't look up from his comic book and Kris rolled his eyes at me. Talia, who had come in by herself, picked one of the pictures up and studied it.
"Is this funny to you, Melanie?" She let me name linger in her mouth so that I knew that she had an attitude.
"What do you think, Talia?" I looked at her with a half smile. "I think you hit yo head on something."
"Don't you want to know what that picture means?"
"Naw she don't want to know. Don't none of us want to know." Tiffany walked in and took over and her thin eyes seemed to get smaller, slicing me in half as she twisted her face up at me.
"We tired of all this black stuff. We didn't come here for this. Come on, we going home." Talia grabbed her bag and the other T's followed after her. Normally I would let them go, let them leave the program if they didn't want to stay. I didn't care one way or the other—one less problem kid is how I looked at it when they left. But not this time. I stood in front of the door. "Ok, Ok. No more black stuff. Let's play Apples to Apples."
The 3T's looked at each other and went back to their seats. While they played loudly, cuss words slipped out at regular intervals and I fought against the tears that were trying to come out. I had no idea what it would take for them to see that they mattered. That what it was that they were about to do, would haunt them for the rest of their lives. I let me head sink down and waited for another cuss word.
At the end of the program, I was drained. I decided that I was going to give up my crusade. I was going to go home, have a glass of wine then finally work on my dissertation. I knew when I had been beat.
Somehow it had become a part of my makeup—fighting for something, being told no a few times, then giving up. Damn, is this what my life is going to be from now on? No idea how to fight for something until the very end? I sighed and tugged at my t-shirt. At least I didn't have to iron anymore.
We stood at the cafeteria door as the kids filed onto the busses. I had a smiled plastered on my weary face and I waved and fake hugged kids as they walked by. The 3T's, always the last to get on the bus as if this somehow highlighted their dominance, walked past me. I didn't have the energy to say bye to them and so I looked the other way. Talia stopped right before she walked through the door. "They were pygmies. Why grown–ups think we so dumb." She sucked her teeth then walked on the bus.
Frankie was standing in the kitchen doorway with a glass of Merlot and I took it out of her hand and took a few sips. "You know, those kids are not as dumb as we think they are."
Frankie took her glass back and I could see that she wanted to say something. "Go on and say what you about to say M'dear." Her 65 year old mind danced behind her young eyes.
"You don't want to hear the truth, Melanie. Never have."
I wasn't really in the mood for this but I didn't think that she was going to let me off easy this time. "Ok, you are right. I don't like to hear the truth. But tell me anyway."
She drank the rest of her wine, refilled the glass then handed it to me. "You are just as bad as the white people you rant and rave about. You went in there thinking the same things they did about those kids and now all of a sudden you want to save them over a watermelon. Get real Melanie. Who needs saving over a watermelon?"
* * *
I stood by the table and watched them snatch up the hunks of watermelon. Ms. Larry had asked me to do the dirty work—cut the melon, call the kids, and give them the directions for the contest. I didn't know what to tell them—eat it until you choke on your dignity? Don't swallow the seeds because then your life will surely be over?
What the hell did she want me to say to them? I didn't say a word and they laughed, spit seeds at each other and threw the rinds in the grassy plots that lined the concrete. Ms. Larry and Sheila watched over us; I felt like I was the mammy watching over the barefoot, raggedy tooth kids. Ms. Larry brought over another watermelon and sat it down next to me.
"See, Melanie, they love it."
Love it? Love it? The kids tore into the red flesh of the melon and all I saw was them eating me. I saw them eating away at the very fabric of my made up life; my make believe world where I was hiding, lost. I saw them swallowing their potential, eating at an already fragile core. I sighed heavily. There was nothing that I could do to stop the damage that was done to me so why did I think that I could save them. I looked at the rainbow tribe and my eyes locked with Talia. She wasn't smiling; she wasn't frowning. She looked as lost as I felt. I grabbed the whole watermelon, tucked it under my arms, and ran to my car.