When we got to our room, Evie Sheffield shoved past me.
“Watch out, Bulldagger!” she said, and laughed.
I ignored her just like Dr. King said I should. Mrs. Fitzgerald was always quoting Dr. King to us, and according to him, “The best thing to do with ignorant and conscientiously stupid people is to ignore them.” So, I made my way to my seat without giving Evie a sideways glance. That didn’t stop her, though. She kept on needling me even after we settled into our next lesson.
“Don’t act like you don’t hear me, bulldagger!” Evie shouted.
Mrs. Fitzgerald busied herself, writing the spelling words on the board, pretending not to hear us.
“Before we go over our spelling words, can anyone tell me what today is?” Mrs. Fitzgerald.
I was sick of being the “teacher’s pet,” so I refused to raise my hand. I decided if no one else raised their hand, then we’d be sitting there until the cows come home. Mrs. Fitzgerald waited, now and then glancing at me, her eyes pleading me to raise my hand. I couldn’t do it even though I knew if she didn’t get a response, she would stand there, making us feel uncomfortable until someone spoke up. She believed that as colored children, we needed to learn to speak up for ourselves so that we wouldn’t be afraid to speak up as adults. We spent a lot of time talking about the racism going on down south and Fannie Lou Hammer, Dr. King, and the SLCC. And, before he was killed, we talked about Malcolm X when he became El Hajj Malik El Shabazz. Mrs. Fitzgerald said he became more like Dr. King after he went to Mecca.
I liked Mrs. Fitzgerald. She wasn't like the other white people. The ones down south seemed to be meaner than snakes. Daddy told me never to judge people by the actions of one or a few. So, I couldn’t say all white people were mean. I only really knew two, Mrs. Fitzgerald, and Mr. Moskowitz, who owned the corner store on 103rd and Wilmington. There were plenty of other white people in our community. Most of them owned the stores, they just didn’t live there. They pretty much ignored us unless we were spending money, and some of them were flat out mean. Like Mr. Crogan, who owned the store on Central Avenue, and most of the cops. Someone coughed. No one raised their hand. My stomach took over, and not wanting to miss lunchtime sitting in class, I raised my hand to end the torture.
“It’s Memorial Day,” I said.
“That’s right, Zayla. And who would like to tell me what this day commemorates?”
“Men who died for our country."
“Very good, Michelle. And when did Memorial Day begin?”
“In 1868 by Major General John A. Logan, the commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, for the annual decoration of war graves.”
“My father told me that freed slaves started the first Memorial Day,” I added. “On May 1, 1865, in Charleston, South Carolina. They dug up the bodies of over two hundred Union Soldiers that were buried in a big grave and worked for two whole weeks to give all of them a decent burial.”
“Why would they do something stupid like that?” Evie blurted out.
“Because, stupid, they were grateful that those soldiers fought for their freedom.”
“That’s a lie!” Evie shouted.
“Okay, everyone. Take out your spelling books. Zayla, will you start us off?”
I considered my options. I was proud to be Compton Elementary School’s spelling bee champion six years running. I was also tired of being called the teacher’s pet. I decided the last thing I wanted to do was start us off.
Evie shouted, in answer, “Yeah. Spell BULLDAGGER!”
She spat the word out like a loogey she’d coughed up from the deepest part of her lungs. For a twelve-year-old, there weren’t many words I didn’t know or couldn’t figure out if I heard them used in a sentence. I’d never heard the word bulldagger. It sure was funny to me, though, so I laughed and said, “Oh, yeah? Well, I’d rather be a bulldagger than an old African booty scratcher.”
The class erupted in laughter. The easiest way to get a roomful of twelve-year-old colored children laughing was to call someone an “African booty scratcher.” For some reason, it got our imaginations running wild, as we pictured a bunch of Africans sitting in a hut scratching each other’s naked rear ends. Daddy said if we knew our history, there wouldn’t be a damn thing anyone could say about Africans that we would find funny. Sometimes Daddy didn’t get it.
“Yo momma’s an African booty scratcher,” Evie fired back.
“Shut up, Evie! Ain’t nobody talkin’ to yo’ black ass anyway!” Dee-Dee chimed in, surprising me.
“You shut up, mule-latto!”
“I got yo’ mule-latto!”
“Yeah? Then why I see you and Zayla kissing behind the building?”
A dead silence followed by a thunderous chorus of “Oooooooooh!” reverberated around the room. I slid down in my seat and prayed for someone to pull the fire alarm. Dee-Dee sprang out of her seat.
“You ain’t seen me and Zayla kissin’ behind no building!”
I wanted to ignore the melee ensuing, until I heard the slap. I looked up at the picture of Sojourner Truth hanging between Harriet Tubman and Nat Turner and wondered what they would do in that moment. I pictured Ms. Truth and Ms. Tubman shaking their heads in shame. I saw Mr. Turner jump out of his frame and cheer Dee-Dee on for standing up for herself.
“Fight! Fight! Fight!” the class chanted.
I felt terrible for a moment and then found myself thankful that no one was thinking about Dee-Dee and me kissing behind the building anymore.
I pushed my way through the crowd. Dee-Dee had Evie in a headlock when all of a sudden Florence pushed through the crowd. The next thing I know, Florence had a handful of Dee-Dee’s hair. Dee-Dee screamed and didn’t let Evie go. I knew I shouldn’t have gotten out of my seat. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have seen them trying to double-team Dee-Dee. Which means my hands never would have reached out and pushed Florence with all their might. Florence wouldn’t have lost her balance and fallen backward over Evie’s desk. And I wouldn’t have been in the thick of my first real fight. If I’d stayed in my seat, Mrs. Fitzgerald never would have grabbed my arm with one hand and Dee-Dee’s collar with the other and tossed us out into the hall like ragdolls. Evie and Florence wouldn’t have come tumbling out behind us. And none of us would have had to see Mean Man Mulligan’s face all day.
The door to the principal’s office loomed in front of us. On the other side, typewriter keys click-clacked nonstop. Evie got to the door first and made no attempt to open it. She just stood there looking up at the chipped black letters as the rest of us made like a wall next to her. Mrs. Fitzgerald shoved us aside and flung the door open so hard, it slammed against the wall. Ms. Lucille stopped typing and looked up over her glasses as we stumbled in like inmates on the chain gang.
“Hi, Lucille. Is he in?” Mrs. Fitzgerald asked, pointing in the direction of Mean Man Mulligan’s office.
Lucille nodded. Lucille Bradbury was the school secretary. I avoided looking at her because whenever she laid those sleepy eyes of hers on me, my words got all tangled up in my mouth. A cigarette dangled between her red, lacquered lips. She took one final drag and smashed it out in an ashtray overflowing with red-stained light brown butts. She pushed her glasses up on her nose and shook her head, ‘umph, umph, umph’. Her eyes zeroed in on me. I focused my attention down at the gold-speckled linoleum floor.
“Zayla Lucille McKinney, I know that’s not you I see.”
I kept my eyes glued to the floor and mumbled, “No, ma’am.”
“Well, it sho’ looks like you. I don’t know what you actin’ like you shame fo’. You ain’t gon’ find the truth down there on that floor.
Y’all sit down, and I bed’ not hear a peep out of you.”
Evie and Florence sat closest to the door. I sat one chair away from Florence. Dee-Dee sat one chair away from me. I couldn’t understand why she behaved as if I’d done something to her. She wouldn’t speak to me. She wouldn’t even look at me. That’s when two words entered my mind: Melody Armstrong. I would never have tossed Dee-Dee aside like that. Ever. So, I couldn’t understand why she’d do it to me. Everyone’s not like you, Daddy said in my head. The sooner you realize that, the better off you’ll be.
Tears stung my eyes, and I focused my attention on the ceiling until they retreated. Ms. Lucille ‘umph, umph, umphed’ again and went back to her typing. Dee-Dee folded her arms across her chest and gazed out the window. It was as if I wasn’t even sitting there, but the whole reason she’d gotten into a fight in the first place was because of me. If I’d known kissing her would create this mess, I would never have followed her behind the building.
Except for the click-clacking of the typewriter keys, the office was quiet. It made it easy for me to hear the familiar sound of high heels click-stomping down the hall. They paused on the other side of the door, the knob turned slowly, and with a whoosh the door swung open. I took a deep breath and exhaled as Queen Zora, otherwise known as my mother, barged in.
Trapped on the wrong side of the counter, I looked around for someplace to run and hide. Thankfully, Florence, Evie, and Dee-Dee put some distance between the door and me. Momma shot me a look that turned from anger to outrage. Suddenly, I remembered the dress I’d balled up and shoved in my desk that morning. At the same time, Mean Man Mulligan came barreling out of his office, holding the gnarled remains of a cigar between his lips. He dropped it on the pile of butts in Miss Lucille’s ashtray, and red-stained butts bounced onto her desk. She brushed ashes off her lap and mumbled a few choice words under her breath as she dumped the ashtray in the garbage can.
“Good morning, Mrs. McKinney,” Principal Mulligan said and stepped aside.
He and Momma exchanged pleasantries. She took a few steps, then turned and shot me another look. This time her eyes walked up my jeans, over my T-shirt, and back down to the Chuck Taylor All Star Converses laced on my feet. She closed her eyes in that “God give me strength, so I don’t kill this child” kind of way before she walked off.
When Mulligan’s door opened again, Momma stormed out and shot across the room past Evie, Florence, and Dee-Dee. I swallowed and looked up into her eyes. Without a word she grabbed me by the collar and snatched me out of my seat.
“If it wasn’t for a shame, I’d beat your ass good right here in front of your friends. Kissing! And don’t you dare lie and say Dee-Dee made you do it because I know damn well she would never do such a thing. Would you, Dee-Dee?”
Momma glared at Dee-Dee as if she dared her to disagree. I held my breath and waited for her to confess. She looked at me and back up at Momma, then shook her head and smiled her weasel smile.
“Of course not, Mrs. McKinney,” she said, almost purring.
Momma turned her glare on me. “Come on here before I kill you!”
“She’s lying!” I shouted.
Momma yanked me toward the door. I glared at Dee-Dee on the way out. She turned away. Evie and Florence looked away, too, more out of fear of Momma than of embarrassment for me. Momma stopped in the hall and snatched me up so close I could smell the coffee on her breath.
“Nobody would be calling you a damn bulldagger if you went to school dressing and behaving like a young lady!”
I stood there trying to figure out what, exactly, was a bulldagger. So much had happened, I’d forgotten all about that.
“Do you hear me talking to you?” Momma barked.
“Does your head make noise?”
“No,” I mumbled.
“Then stop shaking it and answer me!”
“I’m sorry, Momma.”
“All niggas are sorry!”
She raised her hand to slap me. My arm shot up reflexively. She knocked it away and squeezed my cheeks until they were almost touching.
“Fighting in class! Getting sent home! Kissing a girl! You make me sick!”
“Dee-Dee’s lying, Momma! It was all her idea.”
Momma grabbed a good chunk of skin from the inside of my upper arm and twisted it. I screamed as the pain pushed tears from my eyes.
“Shut your lying mouth,” she whisper-shouted in my face and pulled the flesh of my upper arm in the same spot again. “I might not know much, but I know you!”
Momma pinched me again, and I screamed out louder. The classroom door closest to us opened. The teacher frowned down at me, then saw Momma. She smiled politely and closed the door. Momma could have killed me out there in the hall, and no one would have done anything until it was time to call the undertaker.
“I said shut up before I give you something to scream about. And why are you at school dressed like that? Where in the hell is the dress you had on this morning?”
She shoved my face away from her, spun around on her pink stilettos, and stomped off. Outside, I took running leaps on every crack in the sidewalk, landing hard and looking up to see which one would break her back.