Authors: Andrea Davis Pinkney
We left the building at the place where I’d hoped to enter, through a set of steps alongside the gymnasium that led to Prettyman’s baseball field.
Maybe it was seeing those bases and that green-green grass that put a hankering on my feet. Maybe it was the sky so big above me. Maybe it was the bullfinches, free in the trees, and still singing. It didn’t matter that home was two miles away. I took off my Vaselines. Held them tight by their straps. Hugged my lunch tin. Then I ran and ran and ran till I saw our house and Goober waiting for me inside the front fence. Mama was there, too, hanging laundry. She didn’t see me coming until Goober called out, “Dawnie!”
Mama put both her arms around me and smoothed my rumpled hair. My muffin had lost its curl. My bow had flown off while I was whipping through the streets and avenues that led me home. Mama’s hands smelled like her lavender laundry starch. Their gentleness was a sure comfort. She kissed me twice on my forehead, then by my ear. She whispered, “Dawnie, Dawnie, sweet potato pie.”
Something inside me tumbled open, and I cried.
Pulled pork and fried pickles for supper. I tried, but couldn’t eat none of it. My stomach was too tight. And queasy.
Goober sat with his chin rested on the table.
He rocked gently in his chair. He’s been very quiet all evening. He hasn’t looked at me much. His eyes have gone someplace else for now. He’s locked himself off.
All through supper, Goober mostly watched the pickle person he’d put on my plate. Finally, softly, he said, “Eat, Dawnie.”
“Not hungry, Goober,” I said.
The Panic Monster had a hold of me all night. He sure works hard, even when I’m sleeping.
Daddy had to wake me this morning. I’d slept past the in-between, past the clock, even.
“Dawnie, time for school,” he said, rubbing slow circles on my back.
Mama was there, too, saying, “You don’t have to shine, but you
have to rise.”
There was light at my window. It startled me. Morning had snuck up on me.
I dressed quick. I could only stomach orange juice.
Mama had set out one of my church skirts, a simple blouse, and a cardigan. It was still more dressed up than if I were going to Bethune. At least Mama took pity on me, and let me wear a plain white headband, not a
I hurried into my clothes. But the Vaselines —
Mouse traps on my feet would have been more comfortable than those shoes. Mama and I agreed on my loafers, which I wear for everything except baseball.
Mama secured my knuckles around the handle of my molasses lunch tin, which she’d still dressed up in the Peach Melba fabric.
This morning my picture was in our town newspaper, the
The headline said: S
Daddy bought ten copies of the paper. He’d picked them up on his way home from the dairy supply, as newsstands were just opening.
I’ve clipped the article here:
The first steps toward school integration in Hadley began yesterday when one brave Negro girl entered Prettyman Coburn School. With
courage and determination, the child faced hundreds of angry protesters who assembled in an effort to keep Prettyman Coburn segregated, and to prevent the child from enrolling.
Many parents have refused to let their children attend Prettyman Coburn School. By midmorning yesterday, several had come to the school to remove their children. In a statement, Spencer Lloyd, the principal at Prettyman Coburn, said, “Allowing Negroes to attend our school poses a hazard to the safety and well-being of our institution.”
Local officials and members of the state legislature are in continued talks with Virginia governor Thomas B. Stanley about next steps in the process. Until further notice, school integration remains the law. Any Negro wishing to attend Prettyman Coburn School, or any white student wishing to attend Hadley’s other public school, the Mary McLeod Bethune School, is free to do so under the laws set forth in the recent
Brown v. Board of Education
Supreme Court ruling banning segregation.
Even though the paper never printed my name, there were photographs of me going into Prettyman.
Looking at the newspaper pictures, I don’t recognize myself. My hair is all muffin-y. My Vaselines are catching glints of light from every which way. And my face —
What is that eyes-looking-straight expression?
Under my picture the caption says: “A Soldier for Justice.”
Today Daddy and I walked to school at a clip. We said our good-byes at the same corner, Waverly and Vine.
I saw the police cars up ahead, but very few other people. Seems the angriest folks had stayed home. It was quiet, too. Like a fever that flares one day, then cools the next. I sure didn’t miss all that hollering, but I noticed right off there was no school bell. I did miss that.
I went around to the back of the building, where I’d left Prettyman yesterday, and got in that way. It was easy. The policemen didn’t even see me. I came in on my own.
Walking two miles to school with Daddy is a long way, but today, moving through the corridors of Prettyman felt like a road that never ends.
Even though the floors in that school glisten — somebody sure has a good mop — there is no pretty scenery along Prettyman’s halls.
This morning Mr. Lloyd gave me my class schedule and pointed me toward my homeroom. He wore the same pained expression as someone who was being forced to clean a skunk’s den. He did not want to be doing this.
I walked with my eyes and feet forward.
Oh, did I get some ugly stares.
I know for sure that I look like a regular person. I have two arms and both my legs. I have one head on top of my neck. It’s a round head like everybody else’s. Even though my hair is still muffin-y from Mama’s curlers, as far as I can tell, there are no trees or corn stalks growing out the top of my head.
And even though Mr. Lloyd was hard-pressed to direct me toward my homeroom, as far as I know, I do not smell like a skunk.
By most counts, I’m a normal girl. But with the way those kids were staring at me today, you’da thought I was a bearded lady at the Lee County Carnival. From morning to afternoon, there was all kinds of ogling at me in the hallways. And people got all quiet.
And stepped away to let me pass.
And wondered if I was gonna bite them.
Balancing all my schoolbooks on my head would have been an easier weight to carry.
Just as heavy was meeting my homeroom teacher, Mrs. Taylor. She looks like a turtle with pearls, and glasses on a chain around her neck. Mrs. Taylor was not too happy to see me come into her classroom. Neither were the kids in that class. There was more silence than in a graveyard at midnight. I spotted Bobby Hatch right away. He stuck his tongue out at me when Mrs. Taylor had her back turned.
After that, I didn’t look left, right, and especially not behind.
I kept my eyes up front, where I found my seat, and an uneasy peace.
The rest of the day was like walking through a field of fog. I somehow found all my classes, where silence and more staring met me.
When I got home from school, our small living room was filled with people — Reverend Collier, Mama, and of course, Goober. Those people from the NAACP were there, too. Daddy had left for
work. They were all waiting for me. Their heads were down. They were holding hands, praying.
Soon as I saw everybody, I asked, “What’d I do?”
“We wanted to make sure you got here in one piece,” said Mama.
One of the NAACP men said, “We’re here to guide your transition into Prettyman.”
“And to offer support to you and your family,” said the NAACP lady.
Reverend Collier said, “While waiting for you to return from school, we were pausing for a prayer.”
Goober spoke next. “Amen for Dawnie. No broken pieces on Dawnie.”
I couldn’t get my Keds on fast enough. I spent the rest of the afternoon in our yard, batting at the tree mop.
Goober sang, “Amen for Dawnie … Dawnie amen!”
Today I remembered what hard wanting is. Mrs. Taylor presented each of us with our class jobs for the school year. With the naming of each job came some kind of reaction.
It went like this:
Job: Line Monitor:
The student who helps us line up.
Two eager volunteers stood.
Job: Office Messenger:
The person who takes notes to the school office.
Boys mostly, saying, “Me, Mrs. Taylor.”
Job: Morning Salutation:
The student who reads the day’s date in front of the class.
Girls mostly, saying, “
, Mrs. Taylor.”
The kid who sponges the blackboard and claps dirty erasers.
Silence. Let’s not all jump at once. Not a
within fifty miles of Hadley.
Job: Bell Ringer:
The one who rings the school bell mornings and afternoons.
Every hand, including mine, up high.
back so fast.
I didn’t speak out like the other kids, but
were fighting each other all over my insides.
Mrs. Taylor explained that Melanie, the girl whose job it was to ring the school bell, would no longer be attending Prettyman. Her
parents have sent her to a private school.
Later I overheard another girl tell her friend that Melanie’s parents did not want their daughter going to school with a colored child, so they took her out.
Mrs. Taylor told us that Bell Ringer is a popular role among students, and requires what she said is “a level of responsibility.”
I listened carefully when she explained that each year a student from one grade gets the Bell Ringer job. Last year’s Bell Ringer was a sixth grader. This year, Bell Ringer is reserved for seventh-grade students.
Mrs. Taylor said, “Bell Ringer is a duty that’s to be earned. It’s a privilege. The student who will take on this role is the one who can best master all subjects during this school year.”
At Bethune, that was me.
Mrs. Taylor told us that the decision for who would get to ring the bell is made at the end of the school year for the school year coming up. Bell Ringer is a job that starts in May, then begins again in September. Since Melanie’s gone, Mr. Lloyd, the school principal, will be the Bell Ringer for now.
Mrs. Taylor called each name in her roll book,
and assigned us our jobs. Far as I could tell, the roll book names were listed alphabetically. But when Mrs. Taylor got to the
s, Dawnie Rae Johnson was nowhere. Finally, after somebody named Mary Anne Young, Mrs. Taylor called out my name.
Now, this is what makes no sense. Every kid sitting in that room is in seventh grade. Some of them didn’t look too awake. But even the most slowpoke sleepyheaded seventh grader, even the dumbest worm in the can, knows that the letter
does not come after the letter
. And I would bet all the dimes I’ve saved from my Christmas money that Mrs. Taylor knows this, too.
I was sure not going to head to the front of that classroom, snatch the roll book, and point out the right way to list names in alphabetical order.
So from now until June, Dawnie Rae Johnson will be wiping the blackboard and clapping dirty erasers every afternoon.
Mama took one look at my new textbooks and said, “This is serious business, Dawnie. This school does not mess around.”
I told Mama about Prettyman’s baseball diamond, and clapping erasers, and how badly I want to be Bell Ringer. She listened, but was most interested in my studies.
We laid out each of the textbooks and school papers on our kitchen table and studied them carefully. The papers told us what we’d be learning all year, in every subject, each month. It listed the school principal and our teachers:
School Principal — Mr. Spencer Lloyd
Homeroom — Mrs. Vera Taylor
Math — Mrs. Barbara Hughes
English — Mrs. Jane Ruth
History — Mr. Andrew Dunphey
Science — Mrs. Polly Elmer
Gym — Mrs. Gail Remsen
And so on.
I’ve never seen anything like these papers. Not ever.
The papers said things like
History in Context.
There was one word I knew for sure
the paper said:
“What’s that?” I asked Mama.
“Pulling apart a frog.”
“Why in the world would anybody want to pull apart a frog?”
“Biology is science, Dawnie. Seeing the parts of a frog will help you learn about innards.”
The closest I’ve come to pulling apart a frog is
a frog from the pond down near Orem’s Pasture, and
a frog back from the start line while waiting for the whistle to blow at a frog jumping contest, and
frog legs with gravy from a platter at a picnic.
I looked real good at that paper, then at the thick, shiny books with covers that cracked open and gave off a smell that said
And, oh, those book pages. Smoother than silk cleat socks.
was why I wanted to go to Prettyman so badly. There had to be something in one or all of those silky books about how you get to be a doctor. But, Lord, did those lessons look hard, even for me.
My palms went warm. Itchy, too. It was just like before a baseball game, or when I first taught myself how to work a pogo stick.