When I was in elementary school, the cafeteria was the best place to see where you stood socially. Everyone segregated themselves into groups at different tables. Whether this was conscious or unconscious I didn’t know; they were still so young that the idea of social circles may not have been very solid in their minds yet. But it was an unspoken rule that the black girls sat at one table, black boys at another, popular kids of both genders in the middle table, foreign kids who couldn’t speak English well sat in the very back. This boded well for the unspeakably unpopular kids, who sat with the foreign kids because they did not yet know the extent of their unpopularity.
I was never privy to the whole “social circle” thing. I didn’t believe in stereotypes, which never did me any favors throughout school: I liked video games, classic rock, black clothes, boyish things like karate. I was an unspeakable weeaboo. I couldn’t place myself with the popular kids (hell no, they wore polos and played soccer), and I couldn’t place myself with the unpopular kids because not even THEY liked Final Fantasy or Black Sabbath or anything cool. So I sat with the black girls.
We didn’t have much in common in terms of music or hobbies, but I quickly grew to like them. They were loud, they were shameless. Whereas white girls would whisper behind your back and give you that “I really don’t like you” fake smile, the black girls would look you right in the face and tell you if your headband was ugly, if you needed to wash your hair. They had a good sense of justice. If one of us felt wronged, the whole table would rush to defend her. No one seemed to notice or care that I was the only white girl sitting at the table. We complained bitterly about how skewed the school system was, how the Gifted program was a bunch of bullshit because all they did was eat candy and color maps, how the teachers were racist. They brought up subjects that none of the white kids did, because they never dealt with the brunt of the public school system’s flaws. These girls were from the ghetto of the city, coming down to the condescending but wealthy public school system of West County. They were outcasts here, surrounded by polo-clad preppy kids. I could relate to them more than anybody.
Even at ten years old, I picked up on the subtle racism against any non-white student. It was so imbued into the everyday routine of things that I probably never would have noticed it if it hadn’t been for all my non-white friends. My Korean friends talked about how difficult it was when they couldn’t speak English very well, because they were often ridiculed or treated like babies by the teachers. A Chinese girl named Sarah was screamed at during gym, while we were playing volleyball. She’d never played and kept messing up, much to the chagrin of our overly-competitive coach. He’d reduced her to tears, while her friend frantically tried to explain, “But she doesn’t speak English! She doesn’t understand you!” He wouldn’t accept that as an excuse and eventually sent her out of the game. The black kids were watched like wanted criminals, scrutinized much more than the others. I noticed little things. In class, if a white kid was talking, the teacher politely told them to quiet down. If it was a black kid, they would yell at them to knock it off. At lunch, teachers repeatedly walked to our table to tell us to quiet down, looking fearful as if we were going to hit them. Never mind that the popular white kids’ table was the loudest of all of us, and were never told to quiet down.
There were no black kids in the Gifted program. There were no black kids in orchestra. No black kids were given any awards for art projects or academic success. The teachers were afraid of them. The general feeling was that the black kids were a blight on an otherwise well-off school. They were overlooked, discredited. And it pissed me off so royally that I never wanted to sit with any white kids again.
The racism wasn’t extreme, but subtle. Like I said, it was barely noticeable unless you happened to be friends with the non-white kids who bore the brunt of the racism. I could see it plainly, and it angered me that no one else could. If you were black and got in trouble for something, you bet your ass you would be booted off to the principal’s office and yelled at for a good hour. If you were Asian and got in trouble for something, obviously you couldn’t speak English well so you would get a polite reminder of how to behave in an American classroom. If you were white, teachers acted like nothing happened. Like that time three white boys forcibly held down a couple girls from my class and tried to pull their skirts off (I talked about this in a previous article). I knew for a fact that if those boys were black, all hell would break loose. But no, they were white and of the popular, polo-wearing variety, so nothing was done.
One time, I got into a fight with my best friend, Sapphire. She was black, 5’11”, and she looked 17. Everyone was scared to death of Sapphire, but only I knew that her bark was worse than her bite: She wouldn’t hurt a fly. She was also very clingy. She got extremely angry at me for wanting to go hang out with my other friends during recess. For days, she wouldn’t even look at me unless it was to say what a horrible person I was. I didn’t want to go back to school because I knew that she had bad-mouthed me to everyone at the black girls’ table. I wasn’t allowed to sit there, and I wasn’t allowed to sit anywhere else. I was without a group. I was alone.
Of course, the teachers all had a fit. A huge black girl against a tiny 5’2” white girl (with a disease, on top of it) was more terrifying to them than anything. I had teachers, counselors, and even the principal all trying to help me out. I knew this was another one of those subtly racist moves: The black girl is the enemy, the white girl needs protecting. I’m sure I’d been a bitch to Sapphire too, but no one even asked for her side of the story. That really bothered me. They’re drilling my best friend because she’s black. They think she’s gonna hurt me because she’s black. I was pissed all over again. Eventually, Sapphire and I made up, crying because we’d been stupid and fighting was dumb. But it stuck with me, how everyone had pounced on her because of her race.
Later, in 6th grade, something else happened. I shared a table in my Social Studies class with a quiet boy named Alex and a very bitchy, very obnoxious girl named Ally. From the moment I sat at that table, Ally would make it a point to whisper something malicious to Alex, who looked put on the spot because he had no idea who the hell this girl was. Even so, she tried hard to make me feel bad. One day, I came in with my older sister’s notebook because I didn’t have mine. Her name is also Ally, short for Allysandra. When Ally, short for Alexis, saw my notebook, she got the bitchiest horrified expression and said, “Why does your notebook have my name on it?” I looked at her like I couldn’t believe her stupidity and egocentricity at the idea that she was the only Ally in existence. “My sister’s name is Ally,” I said patiently. “This is her notebook.” Ally just looked at me like I was some lesbian stalker freak and upped her attempts to make me feel like an outcast after that. I recalled my teacher, Mr. Smith, saying that we may all switch tables a total of 3 times during the school year, so we should choose wisely. I wanted to get the hell away from Miss Alexis, so I pleaded, “I want to move tables. They’re really bothering me at this one.” Mr. Smith waved it off and said “Yeah, sure”, assuring me he would switch me soon. A week passed. Nothing. I asked again. Same response. Eventually I realized that I wasn’t going to switch tables, so I just bit the bullet and waited for Social Studies to be over.
Sapphire was in my science class, taught by the same teacher. I sat with her and another girl who never bathed and tried too hard to belong to a clique. Mr. Smith hated Sapphire, most likely because she was black and had no interest in being bubbly and hyper like the other girls. There was a total of 2 black girls in that class: Sapphire and a girl named Paige, who looked and acted like a black Barbie doll. I was often pissed at that teacher, too. Sapphire would sit down at our table, a scowl on her face because she had to wake up at 4 this morning for her mom to give her cornrows, and pissed because she hated being surrounded by all the fake-enthusiastic yuppies, our teacher included. Sapphire wouldn’t even have to open her mouth, and Mr. Smith would storm over and say, “I’ve had it with your attitude, Sapphire. Go stand out in the hall.” She would stare at him in disbelief. “I didn’t even do anything! I just sat down!” she would say, which was the truth. He would threaten to call her parents. She would say, “Fine, they’ll think this is ridiculous too.” Then he’d send her to the principal. This was almost a daily routine.
I wore black and kept my mouth shut so often that I’m pretty sure most people thought I was mute. I was petite, little, sweet to people if they were nice and still sweet to people even if they weren’t, and then I’d kick myself and wish I could come up with a clever comeback or just hit them with a book. The only thing keeping me from getting treated like Sapphire was that all the teachers knew I had CF, so I was pitied. Sweet, quiet, and sick. Pity kept me from being picked on by teachers.
Well, almost always.
At our school, we had a snack bar that was open during lunch. Lunch was only 15 minutes long. The lunch line lasted probably 10 of those minutes. And the lunch was always something like french toast sticks, something small and frozen and barely palatable. So the only rational thing to do, of course, was to get in line for the snack bar instead, where they had chips and ice cream and stuff that actually tasted good. Typically, I would get in the lunch line to grab my nachos and pizza on a good day, and then rush to set my food down before I got into the rapidly-growing snack bar line. Most of the kids did this. The result was that most people didn’t even eat lunch because the two lines added up to over 15 minutes, and then the bell would ring.
The vice principal, a very bitchy black lady with a whiny voice, noticed this. So one day, she announced that the snack bar would be closed during lunch. Everyone was pissed. The next day, we all sat in the cafeteria, being pissed. I still sat at the black girls’ table, as I had for two years now, only this time a select few white girls also sat with us. Most of them were unpopular too, but the far end of the table was full of the preppiest, most stuck-up white girls imaginable. How we got saddled with them, I don’t know, but they left us alone so we didn’t mind. Anyway, these preppy girls traipsed back from the snack bar with sodas and chips, looking thrilled. “The snack bar is still open!” they said gleefully. “I thought they closed it,” I said, confused. “Well, it’s open.” They shrugged, not caring as long as they could get their snacks. Sapphire and I looked at each other. Confused, but happy, we got up and got in line. By now, several of the popular girls had gotten in line and come back out. Now, it was just me, Sapphire, a few black girls and a few unpopular girls. We stood in line not for five seconds before the vice principal storms over, looking scandalized. “The snack bar is closed,” she shrieked, as if we’d just beat someone up. We stood there, stunned, including the lady operating the snack bar. It turned out that she couldn’t speak any English and had opened it because she hadn’t understood the vice principal. “They already got some,” we explained, pointing at all the popular girls in their Abercrombie garb. The vice principal shook her head. “I don’t care, you all line up over there now,” she snapped, pointing at the opposite wall. We begrudgingly did so. “I want all of your names,” she said, taking out a notebook and a pen. She snapped her eyes onto Sapphire first. We all gave our names sulkily, looking angrily at the preppy girls sitting at our table who didn’t get in trouble at all. The vice principal was furious that we’d had the gall to even get in line for the snack bar, never mind the fact that the lady operating it had opened it and other kids had already gone up to buy stuff. None of those kids were black, though. Or unpopular.
It was odd. At a predominately white, preppy, helicopter-mom-ruled school, there was no room for anything different. Teachers were afraid of “different”, they equated “different” with “failure” or “negligence”. Because I hung out with black girls and didn’t wear a miniskirt, I was pegged as a bad student right from the get-go, before I won the school-wide vocabulary award and scored one of the best reading grades in the school. I quickly learned that I was at the arguably lowest tier of the social hierarchy at school, just by my hobbies, clothes, and association with the black girls. It has always bothered me. The fact that such accredited schools have an underlying air of racism, even now, bothers me. We talk about stamping out racism, fighting prejudice. But it starts in schools like these.