“Only wild animals act like that.”

I started a new school in the sixth grade, moving from the backward, poor, ‘leftover’ school (not the one with the dangerous kids, not the one with the money) to a place with kindergarten through twelfth in one small building, a school district with only two black families, mine and the other one … a level of integration that was constant nearly the whole time I lived there.

When we moved in, the Johnsons and the Taverniers were already there. So the Taverniers had to leave. Then the Johnsons left and the Christmases came. There was one crazy year when there were suddenly two extra black families in the neighborhood. (The Quota Monitors at the border must have lost their jobs over that one!) It didn’t last, though. Neither family managed even a year in residence. When the Guidry’s moved in, neither the Christmases nor our family started packing. The Christmases did eventually leave, but then we got another family and no one left … and maybe that was because three black families had stopped seeming like a bad or frightening thing … or because that new family had the same last name as my family, and the Quota Monitors were confused.

The lack of contact with black people made for some … moments

Walking home from school with the kid who lived a few doors down: “You’re actually pretty,” he said, “I mean, you’re black but you’re actually pretty. Must be because you don’t have liver lips like most black people.” Talking to my girlfriends about actors and singers we loved: “Mick Jagger is so sexy, even though he has those nasty nigger lips.” Reaching up to grab my flute from a shelf in the music room and having another girl from the section reach out and touch my hair: “Oh, it’s soft, not like straw or anything. It almost feels like real hair.” Working with the music teacher after I was chosen to sing in competition … and given a Negro Spiritual to perform: “You aren’t singing like a black person. Can you sing more black? You should be saying ‘dem’ and ‘dis’ and ‘dat.’ Like black people do. Try it the right way.” Studying the two paragraphs covering the Civil Rights Movement in our history book and having my teacher inform the class that it was Miss Jane Pittman who wouldn’t give up her seat, who sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott (Yes, Jane Pittman, a fictional character … though brought wonderfully to life on the small screen by Cicely Tyson). And, when I corrected him, having that teacher mock me in front of the class for not knowing such an important piece of my own history. Going into the shower at gym and having my friend take my forearm and rub it roughly: “I just don’t see how this works,” she said. “Shouldn’t you just turn white if you washed properly?”

Moments. One after another after another. Some made me sad, some made me angry. Two pushed me to violence.

First there was John, who waited outside my 7th grade history class every day so he could put himself in my face and say one of his three stock lines: “Ugly black bitch,” “Lazy black bitch,” “Stupid black bitch.’ First I ignored him. Then I tried to engage him (“Why do you think it’s ok for you to do that?”), and when that didn’t work, I went back to ignoring him. And when I did that, he felt victorious. He stepped into my path and laughed in my face, said there was nothing I could do to stop him, that he’d be there every day, and I was powerless.

So I took my big, out-of-date, hardcover history book, and I slammed it into his head.

Yes, yes, yes, I should have ‘used my words’ and all that. Of course. But the book was so satisfying … not just in that moment, but in all the moments afterward when John would move to the other side of the hall when he saw me coming, when he would avoid me whenever possible. Yes, I could have found some eloquent way to turn the other cheek, but subtlety and intelligence were lost on John. And, too, even as the meek-and-mild child I was at that time, the idea that some ignorant lout thought he had power over me was just unacceptable. That cloth-bound slap said everything I needed to say. Right to the point.

Then there was 8th grade and Michael. We were rearranging the desks and chairs and I caught Michael’s finger between two desks. It was an accident, but knowing that wouldn’t have made it hurt any less, and I’m sure it hurt a lot. But instead of a yelp of pain, I got: “You stupid nigger.” I don’t have a memory of thinking anything in that moment. It was the first time anyone had ever called me a nigger. I have no memory of thought, all I know is that somehow my hand closed around Michael’s throat and dug in. “Say it again,” I said. “Say it one more time.” Then I got the yelp of pain. Poor Mr. A, our mild teacher. He tried to pry me off, but I wouldn’t budge.

He finally got me loose and sent me to the nurse’s office … yes, I was sent to the nurse, even though it was Michael with the rough gouges in his neck. Mrs. Workman (all these names are real names — I’ve no interest in ‘protecting the innocent’ here) was furious with me, couldn’t understand how docile, mousy me could have done such a hideous thing. “You hurt that boy,” she scolded. I had no reaction. “What’s wrong with you? Young ladies don’t act like that. Only wild animals act like that. Are you some kind of wild cat or are you a lady?”

I looked at her a long time. “Has anyone ever called you a nigger?” I asked. She was a white woman, so I was pretty sure I was right to think she’d never had to worry about such things. She backed off and went to her desk, picked up the phone. “Let’s see what your mother has to say.” She got my mom on the phone and told her that I had attacked another student ‘for nothing.’ My mother asked to speak to me. She asked what had happened. I told her. She asked if I was ok. I said I was and passed the phone back.

Again, I know violence isn’t the answer — I knew it then and I know it now. I’ve never resorted to violence again after that day, but on that day …

I didn’t hear anything my mother said to Mrs. Workman. I saw Mrs. Workman’s face register surprise, then go a little pale, then red. Then she said goodbye and hung up the phone. To this day, I have no idea what my mother said (I know you’re reading this, ma chère mère, and I’d still love to know!). I know it wasn’t what Mrs. Workman wanted or expected to hear, that my mother didn’t express appropriate shock and outrage at my behavior.

“Well, I’m sure she’ll want to talk to you when you get home,” Mrs. Workman said. I just smiled. I knew my mother wouldn’t scold or punish me, knew that she wasn’t an advocate of violence but that she would back my play, that if she ‘talked to me’ that night, it would be to make sure I really was ok, to be balm not brickbat.

_____

is hosted by Stacey and Ruth at Two Writing Teachers.

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28 thoughts on ““Only wild animals act like that.”

  1. When will we understand each other? When will kids quit bullying and throwing out hurt and hurtful words? I wish we knew this story did not happen today for someone else today. Peace to you and yours.

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  2. Thank you for sharing your experiences. I am a teacher in a small school in a small town. We are a very white community. I worry so much about the experiences of my black and hispanic students. While I hope that I’m not as stupid as the teachers and school officials in your memoir, I wonder and worry what happens in my one black student’s head when we are discussing civil rights and slavery in 5th Grade US History. What sorts of pressures are placed upon him in that moment? We strive to be fair to all our students and we struggle to stop bullying at our school. Still, I’d be an idiot to think that his race hasn’t been thrown up in his face. Violence isn’t the answer but I understand that there are words that hurt so much that violence is the only response that makes sense in that moment of pain. I just hope that my student has way less reason to respond with violence. Then there is a little hope.

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  3. The teacher in me says, yes, use words. But the outraged person in me says, good that you slammed him in the head. As a father, I am of mixed emotion (we have been dealing a bit with some bullying issues with one of my sons and I have bit my tongue from saying, punch the kid in the face and he won’t bother you again).

    In the town where I grew up, there was only one black family and they definitely felt like outcasts. I think back now and wonder what I could have done to connect more with them and how, even with open-minded parents, I was not equipped with the tools to bridge the racial gap.

    Years later, in the National Guard, I found myself the only white member of an all-black infantry Platoon from the nearby inner city and it was only then that I came to somewhat understand the isolation that comes from race. It was clear from the first day that some of the group did not like my presence there — that I was unwanted. This changed over time, but the unspoken elements was unnerving.

    What made a difference? One man — a black sergeant named Calvin — went out of his way to make me feel welcome, to become my mentor and let me see the world through his eyes and experiences. He didn’t ignore the fact that our skins were different, and that I was from the suburbs while he was struggling the city. He saw me as a person and I am always grateful for that and I try to remember that.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences, as painful as they were.

    Peace,
    Kevin

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  4. Oh, wow. That was powerful. Thank you for sharing those stories.

    I’m a funny creature when it comes to violence. I’m overall a pacifist, but I have this streak in me that cheers when someone stands up aggressively against insult or victimization. I love it that you whacked that lug of a boy on the head with your history book. You showed him you weren’t willing to be a victim.

    As for the other boy, I’m sure that his pain from the incident went away much faster than your own.

    I’d also love to know what your mother said on the phone.

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  5. Yes, those lovely mother lioness phone calls that you never find out what exactly was said but still knew it cut deeper than you ever could. She’s quite good at those. 🙂

    I’m not saying the kids in my class (and around it) weren’t bigots. I’m sure there were a bunch. But I never encountered it, not even once. Maybe high school makes them more vocal.

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  6. I was really hesitant about posting this once I saw where it was going … this was really not at all the memoir I started out writing … I had something funny in mind and then it just went way down another path!

    Thanks for your comments, everyone. Liza, I was really struck by your comment: “I wonder and worry what happens in my one black student’s head when we are discussing civil rights and slavery in 5th Grade US History. What sorts of pressures are placed upon him in that moment?” This really resonated for me. How many times was I sitting in class when everyone turned to look at me because we read or heard something about black people? On another ‘memoir Monday’ maybe I’ll write something about the whole ‘representing the race’ issue that has come up in some interesting and amusing ways for me.

    Definitely my hesitance about posting this was about the unapologetic violence. To this day I do not feel bad for my behavior in either incident … and yet I feel that I should. I really don’t believe in responding violently, and now ‘use my words’ to great effect. Even as a kid I was a talker and not a fighter. In the 4th grade I got out of plenty of trouble just by being able to talk around other kids. But something about those two incidents was different … and still feels different when I look back at them.

    Kevin, I can’t imagine how hard it must be to work through issues around bullying and violence with your sons. I know how you handled the baseball situation, though, and that tells me you and your son are on solid ground, that you’ll both find the right response. It’s interesting that you had a similar situation during your Guard service. I wouldn’t say that I ever felt like an outcast (and Fox’s response tells me that she certainly never did), but there was definitely difference. I know only a little about how all of this affected my brother (but I know he reads this, so maybe he’ll chime in like Fox did), but I suspect that he had a harder time than I did ‘simply’ because he was a boy, and there’s a whole different package of loaded stuff about black men.

    Fox, I’m glad you didn’t have similar experiences in elementary school … but fate sure saved up a whopping dose for you when you got to HS. I wish you could have been spared that, too. And you’re right: our mother is tops when it comes to classic lioness behavior. Harm her kid in any way and she’ll take you apart — calmly, eloquently, so skillfully you won’t even notice you’re bleeding until she’s walked away. She’s a good one to have on your side!

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  7. maggie, dammit

    Wow. This is… this is really wonderful. And awful, of course, but…. this is really a fantastic post. I can’t thank you enough for sharing it.

    Did your mom ever weigh in?

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  8. Lea

    I agree with Maggie – incredibly well written post. As a Native kid from the rez, my family always made it clear that there were situations where violence was going to be excused. I can just imagine what my ma would have said….

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  9. This is remarkable. Not only what happened and the way you dealt with it, but the way you shared it. Blogs are blessed to have writers like you.

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  10. juliebrock

    I was engaged from beginning to end, and I am so so so glad you hit publish and not just save.

    I resonate with all that has been said in the comments and am so grateful to you for your willingness to share your story. I learn so much, and am inspired by your ability to share such poignant memories with a riveting style.

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  11. This made me cry, how your mother stood up for you. And I am really glad you hit that bastard John in the head with the book. When I think back to that era in my own life, the handful of hurtful comments I received and the somewhat creepy attentions I received from a certain boy still stand out in glaring relief, and while those things don’t hurt or bother me now, they really did then. The way you were treated was much, much worse. It is clear you had a strong sense of self and of dignity, which I’m guessing is another gift from your mother.

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  12. A great story.

    There’s a very good book written about being different called “The Painted Bird” by Jerzy Kosiński. The subtext being that birds will attack another that is slightly different from them.

    When I was in the first and second grade I had very bright red hair. I was constantly being picked on and teased about my hair by, not only the other kids, but also adults.

    I used to hate my hair.

    On my first day in the first grade I was beaten up by five or six other boys. Over time I started to fight back. Trouble was that the teachers saw me in all these fights and figured that I was causing them.

    A decision was made for the safety of the other kids (without ever asking me about why I was in so many fights) that I was to be kept in the library in isolation during recess for a period of six months.

    This cycle repeated itself in the second grade. After my second “stretch” in the library, my mother was called in and told to take me to a department of education child psychologist for testing.

    Apparently all that time in the library had advanced my reading skills way beyond other kids my age. The psychologist never asked me why I was in so many fights. He did ask my mother out for a date though.

    I was declared “uncontrollable” and put into a “boys home” for two weeks.

    I remember the time fondly as the other boys there treated me well. It was like a holiday from the crap I was catching at school.

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  13. Thanks so much for the positive feedback. It was your responses that inspired me to take a chance and send this to Stacy over at Indie Bloggers.

    Razz, your comment reminded me of The Boy with Green Hair, a movie from the late 40s. I saw it when I was in grad school and wondered how I’d never heard of it before. Surely part of the reason you were singled out as the trouble maker was the stereotype that red heads are ‘fiery’ and short tempered …

    Linda, as my sister (Fox) and I commented, our mom is the total lioness when it comes to her kids. She will take on anyone on our behalf. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t call us out when the situation requires … but let someone else treat us badly …

    I wouldn’t have described myself as having “a strong sense of self and of dignity” … not even close. But I was a kid raised on ‘Afro-American’ History comics, the Black History Calendar and the Negro Almanac. I had some pretty strong feelings and opinions about race and prejudice. I probably wouldn’t have stood up for myself had either John or Michael reacted to me because of my gender, my body, my looks … but my color? That one I was pretty clear on from such an early age. And that definitely came from my family — my mom, my dad, my aunt, my grandmother …

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  14. You piqued my interest with the concept of being raised on Afro-American History comics. Can you tell me more? (Comics and their use in learning are interesting to me)

    Thanks
    Kevin

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  15. Hi, Kevin– I have no idea where those comics came from. They were a gift from my aunt (she was also the source of the famous black people flash cards and the black history calendars!), but she could never remember where she found them.

    They were great comics. I learned about all kinds of people and events with that series. They were full-color comics and the artwork was great. The stories ran the gamut from inventors to writers and artists and soldiers and cowboys … you name it, it was likely to show up. Sadly, they were lost in one of our many moves during my childhood. I’ve always wished I still had them. I would have loved to use them when I was teaching high school, and I’d love to use them now.

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  16. Hi – I’m visiting from “Ask & Ye Shall Receive.” I read your comment to my comment & followed the trail. I am embarrassed to say that I completely missed what you saw immediately in Driz’s post. A perfect example of why what you’ve written here is so important.

    I read all your “Hey” entries & this one is my favorite. I especially loved your description of the nurse’s reaction to your mother’s voice. The ignorant & cruel things people have said to you – – you take it a step past the intellectualism of the word “racism” & make your reader feel the pain. I think that’s what’s missing from the equation when it becomes just an academic debate.

    You put a face to the little girl & bring out the protective instinct that makes people want to kick the ass of anyone who messes with her:) I think when you question your violent reactions you should consider the possibility that God was acting directly through you in those moments . . .

    I grew up with that kind of stupidity. During the Chicago riots one of my adult family members said, in kind of a crazed tone of voice, “Black people are going to take over this country.” I was scared. I clearly remember my little girl brain thinking, “Then I want some black friends!”

    After childhood with my ignorant tribe, in my 20’s I worked in a group home where I was the only white employee. It was like having my head ripped off my body, re-arranged & put back properly. The best education in so many ways.

    Unfortunately, my experience was unusual. For the average white knucklehead who believes racism is a thing of the past, the unfairness & hurt & anger need to be s.p.e.l.l.e.d. o.u.t. and personalized. You did it with this entry.

    It should be required reading, the beginning chapter of a book or a series . . . this might also be something your students would be interested in writing about.

    I seriously apologize for writing my own book here . . .

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  17. Hi, Pam (?)–
    Thanks so much for checking out my blog (and reading so many of the posts!), and for your really wonderful comment on my “Only Wild Animals” post. I’m sure Driz was just trying to get a rise out of Mary, but he pissed me off all the same. A little snarky back and forth never hurt anyone, but he took it to a bad place.

    Your comment (never worry about posting too long a comment on my blog … haven’t you seen how unashamedly long-winded I am?) was really great. I like the idea that my violence could have come from a place of good rather than just my anger … not that anger can’t be good.

    During the Chicago riots one of my adult family members said, in kind of a crazed tone of voice, “Black people are going to take over this country.” I was scared. I clearly remember my little girl brain thinking, “Then I want some black friends!”

    I love that! Such excellent child-logic. And just plain old logic-logic. I don’t remember my parents ever telling me anything good or bad about white people or any other group of people. There must have been some interesting conversations, but I must have been out of the room or asleep or something. I do remember being very young — five or six — and having my brother tell me all the things that were true about black people that proved we were the same as white people. We were on the jungle gym at the park across the street from our apartment. How interesting that he felt he needed to lay out that argument for me. I wish I could remember what else we’d talked about, how we got around to that particular subject.

    I’m glad my piece touched you, moved you. I like your idea of expanding on that theme. I have done a lot of work around racism with my students, and I’ll continue to (especially because they are often the ones parroting back racist ideas to me and need a little gentle reeducation). I need to do some writing of my own, too. Maybe that would help me as I continue to try working through the pain of the Bell verdict.

    Thanks, again for coming over, for reading and for leaving such a thoughtful comment.
    Stacie

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  18. As the mom of two mixed race kids, I totally have no issues with your response. There are some situations that words CAN’T defuse, and some people who badly need a punch in the face. My kids would rather deal with conflicts with words, and are good at it. But, there are times, and we’ve discussed them, where it really is okay to hit back.

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  19. LB– I’m much better at using words to deal with conflict. I was better at it as a kid, too. I think that’s part of the reason John felt safe sharing his bile with me every day. I was a pretty quiet, meek, gentle kid — even though, with my height and size, I could have been pretty intimidating — who better to pick on? I’m glad your kids prefer words and glad they’ve got you helping them see that sometimes words aren’t the way to go. As the aunt of two mixed race kids, I’m hoping they know this, too.

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  20. I know I’m very late to this. I just dicovered your blog from your comment at Lisa’s Open Mic Friday. I shared this on my Facebook page. No one really pays attention to me there, but this was so powerful that I hoped someone there would wake up and discover your writing, too. Thanks for sharing these experiences. We all need to spend much more time trying to understand each other.

    In the sixties and seventies, I went to schools with children who were mostly black like me, but it’s amazing how much prejudice and ridiculousness you can still encounter when most of your teachers are white, and many of your classmates are so confused about their identities, that they pretend to hate you for trying to be articulate or artistic. I could go on and on. I just wanted to thank you for this.

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    1. Hey, thanks so much for coming over to check me out from Lisa’s blog (love that Lisa!). I’m on vacation right now, but after reading your comment on Helen’s story, I bookmarked your blog for checking out when I get home! 🙂

      I appreciate your comment. I still marvel at some of the things that happened in my quiet, friendly little upstate town. Whenever I ask myself if I’d like to move back, I just have to remember stories like these …

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      1. And I just found this post through Ré’s Facebook page! Oh how I love the internets and engaged readers, writers, and friends! This post was amazing. I wish my parents had given me some of your family’s feeling about protecting ourselves, that sometimes it’s okay to hit back. I was so much raised to be a good girl that when a boy teased me in fifth grade, I went home and cried because I had no defenses whatsoever.

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  21. “So I took my big, out-of-date, hardcover history book, and I slammed it into his head.”

    Love that line. If I was there I would have whacked him with my book too.

    No one can know exactly how you felt then. Only you.
    And this one

    ” I saw Mrs. Workman’s face register surprise, then go a little pale, then red. Then she said goodbye and hung up the phone. ”
    Go Mama GIrlGriot!!

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