Human Touch

In physical therapy, as I’ve written about a few times in the past, you have people handling your body, rubbing, patting, stroking your body. It’s a constantly strange truth.

I imagine that, for some people, it isn’t strange at all. For people who have been allowed to grow up without any unwanted, uninvited touch, without any body shaming, without any violence, the intense, intimate touching of PT must just feel … harmless? Helpful? It must feel like what it is: therapy to help you recover from an injury. I have no idea what that could feel like, to be able to let someone touch you so freely, so thoroughly, without flinching away or drawing into yourself. I still fight against my therapists’ hands, still fight my startle response and my inclination to jerk back, harden myself against that touch.

*

In Jamaica, in the town where I like to stay, there is an American massage therapist. I had my first massage with him in the summer of 2005. It was much more intimate than what happens in PT. I was covered with a sheet, but under that … nothing but panties. Before I got undressed that first time, we had about three minutes of conversation about what kind of body work he would be doing, about any particular aches or irregularities I might be feeling, about any health concerns he should know about. Then he left me alone to disrobe and secret myself under the sheet. And then we got started.

And it was entirely fine. Somehow, it was entirely fine. It’s a truth that makes no sense. I didn’t fight him, didn’t flinch away, didn’t stiffen my body in protective protest.

Why not? Why on earth was that possible? And possible each of the additional five times I’ve had a massage with him? How? What does my mind see as the difference between massage touch and PT touch?

And how is massage touch received by people who don’t struggle with PT touch? Does it really just dissolve them into a goopy mass of pleasure sensation? What must that be like?

*

One morning in PT, Jeremy took hold of my arm. I’d been telling him about the pain I’m having in my bicep and along the back upper ridge of my shoulder. I’d been doing some stretches before heading over to his table. I was feeling pretty good, relaxed, happy to see improvement in some of the tougher exercises, pleased to have graduated to muscle-building work.

Jeremy took hold of my arm and tried to stretch it out. My resistance was instant and intense. “It’s me,” he said, patting my bicep gently. “Me, your old friend. Relax. Relax.”

I’m all one step forward, a dozen and a half back. So tense, I could feel my bicep flexing against him. And for the rest of the session, I felt my body resisting him, refusing to go limp again and again and again.

Jeremy – aside from the fact that he’s a little too big and loud, a little too — as I’ve said — BMOC jock dude-bro – could easily be a massage therapist. When he has massaged my shoulder, it’s felt as good as my Jamaican massages. And yet I stay wound tight. And the same is true with all of my therapists – Yu-Lan still exclaims in wonder on those rare occasions when she feels my arm go limp.

I want to say that it’s my body steeling itself against pain. Moving in the ways the therapists try to move me usually means pain. PT these days usually means pain. Isn’t it only natural that I’d flinch away from that? But I know better. I don’t love pain, but fear of it isn’t chief among the reasons for my response to PT touch.

So what do I do with any of this? It’s interesting to realize that I perceive different types of intimate touch so very differently. And it’s interesting to realize that, because no everyone has a history like my history, there are people in the world who don’t have a problem with intimate touch at all. And … what? What’s next? Where do I go with this?

Yes, obviously, to a therapist’s office, but I want something more, something this minute. Yes, a magic bullet that will allow me to relax in PT … but also just a clear conclusion to this mental meandering.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe just recognizing this different perception is enough for now. Maybe I need to sit with it a while before I can start to process it. Maybe.

I am coming to the end of what I hope is just my first set of PT visits for my shoulder. My arm is starting to feel better. I have some of my range of motion back. I am no longer sleeping sitting up. I have moved from the tiny one-pound weight to the less-tiny two-pounder. Progress! But I’m not ready to be finished yet. My arm has a long way to go, and so does my thought process. The things I’ve learned about myself in PT have begun to get deeper. Not sure this is the argument to use with my insurance to get a second round of PT approved!

I’m glad to feel my body getting stronger, working back toward health. I have a very long way to go, but it feels good. For the first time in years, I am out and about without a cane, and I’ no longer wearing my arm in a sling. I’d forgotten how it felt to be so free. It’s scary but also excellent. Just like all the things Yu-Lan and Jeremy are teaching me about my response to touch and my ability to trust. A VERY long way to go. Glad to be on the way.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

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The Most Important Thing

I decided to try another erasure poem taken from a news article, see if this is really a thing I’m going to spend a month doing. After listening to stories from several angles on my morning news, I chose as my source text a Times interview with Mr. Facebook.

The Most Important Thing
(An erasure of a Mark Zuckerberg interview in response to the Cambridge Analytica data breach.)

Facebook embroiled, prone to abuse.
Privacy issues, important responsibilities.
At their most basic level,
everything that happened
was more important, the most important.
There were certainly other things.
Going forward, are there others out there?
A full investigation,
a large amount of information,
policies, suspicious activity
capacity to make sure.
It’s really important.
You may have forgotten you’ve connected.
We’re going to tell,
we’re going to be conservative,
we’ll build.
We’re going to have to grow.
The important thing –
it’s a high-touch process.
The specific point, I guess technically
would be the point, a situation
a real person-to-person relationship,
sensitive, sexual, clear.
The first thing is community.
There’s no wrongdoing here.
That’s the basic driver –
access, responsibility, community.
It’s not good.
It’s a clear signal.
This is a major trust issue.
This is an incredibly important point –
we feel a responsibility.
You’re the first I’m telling.
I feel a lot better now.
This is a massive focus, really important.
We want to unify.
This is a really important question, really important.
Our mission
is to build community in the world.
Really important.
We’re doing something unprecedented,
building community all over the world,
connect across boundaries, new challenges.
We have a real responsibility, seriously.
I’ve made all kinds of mistakes.

This was an interesting exercise. When I started reading the interview, I thought I’d make a fairly short poem because every clip I’d heard from the interview seemed fairly empty and devoid of poem fodder. But as I kept reading, I realized that was kind of the point: Zuckerberg talks and talks, his responses performative rather than substantive. Yes, of course that’s an “of course,” but it surprised me how little he tried to paint something pretty over that.

And then there’s how not accepting of blame or responsibility his answers are, how he spends so much time making sure to tell us how revolutionary and innovative and community-centered his work is, blah, blah, blah.

This is surely another “of course!” I’ve never read so carefully through anything Zuckerberg has said, so I find myself surprised. This poetic form forces me to read the words differently as I search for the phrases that need pulling out.

There was a lot here. The repetitions, the self-promotions, the clear effort to distance himself from anything that could look like guilt. Made for a much longer poem. And I’m sure MZ wouldn’t be happy with the choices I’ve made here, with my final line maybe especially.

I may have to try this a time or two again before April rolls around.


It’s the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge over at Two Writing Teachers! With hundreds of folks participating, there’s more than a little something for everyone … and plenty of room for you to join in!

Finders Keepers

I’ve been thinking about thinking about what form I’m going to write in April, what I’ll spend my month trying and trying to learn and grow comfortable with. I’ve been reading through plenty of lists of poetic forms, looking for one that would feel like the right challenge, not feeling inspired, not feeling pulled in any one direction.

Until today. I might just be onto an idea. In last year’s Girls Write Now poetry workshop, we worked on erasure poems. I’d never written one before, hadn’t heard of the form until that day. It took me a few tries to really process the “how” of it. And today I thought it might be interesting to spend a little more time with the form. And by “little,” I mean the 30 fast-approaching days of April.

An erasure poem is a kind of “found” poem. You start with an existing text and pull out words and phrases — “erasing” the parts you don’t want to use — to create your poem. Robert Lee Brewer at Writers Digest gives a good description of both erasure and blackout poems, and also makes important points about plagiarism and crediting the author of your source text. And Robin Coste Lewis’ Self-Portrait as the Bootblack in Daguerre’s Boulevard du Temps is a wonderful example. Would that I could create something so fine.

And then I thought I should have a theme of some kind. I immediately thought of taking news articles and finding poems in them. There is so much going on that I can’t find words to talk about because it’s so ugly, so painful, so demoralizing, so devastating. Maybe taking someone else’s words and finding my voice in theirs will be a way for me to start talking about some of those things.

Naturally, it turns out that this isn’t an original thought. The New Republic published a piece last October about the rise in erasure poetry that’s been inspired by Trump’s election. The piece includes a link to some stunning erasure poems from Trump’s speeches.

So. Not original. I still like the idea, and I think I will keep liking it enough to have at it come April.

I gave it a try today. I read a piece in The New York Times about Puerto Rican survivors of Hurricane Maria, and used that as my source text. I like Lewis’ style of attribution, so I adopted and adapted it:

Addressing the Crisis
(An erasure of Daiza Aponte Torres’ “The Refugees in New York’s Hotel Rooms“)

My life upside down
my two daughters,
the island
my home destroyed.
Hundreds of families.
We’re barely surviving.
Stranded
after the storm.
Not enough,
discriminated against.
Confined.
Limited.
Denied.
We are traumatized.
No one will know
the disaster continues
every day.

Yes, I think I’ve found my 30/30 challenge. Have you found yours? What will you be working on next month? Want to join me for some erasure poems?

 


It’s the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge over at Two Writing Teachers! With hundreds of folks participating, there’s more than a little something for everyone … and plenty of room for you to join in!

Baking with What You Have

I am still struggling with internet connectivity in my home, which is making all things difficult, and really getting on my nerves. Verizon is due to visit me again tomorrow, so I’m going to pretend at optimism that the problem will be resolved. In the mean time, I’m going to take advantage of this rare moment of weekend net connection and post one of the essays I wrote in January.


This morning I made cornbread. Cornbread is one of my staple comfort foods. It’s quick and easy to make, it reminds me of my childhood, and it connects me to my mother and grandmothers.

And that’s part of why I made it. The other reason is that I wanted to bake something in my new kitchen, wanted to fill my new apartment with the warm scent of something in the oven.

I am months and months — and surely more months still — away from settling into this apartment. I’ve begun the slow process of unpacking, have grown familiar with my new commute, have been reminded of some of the awkward truths of living in an apartment building. One o the things that helps make this space full of boxes and disarray feel more like home, however, is using the kitchen, cooking for myself instead of buying take-out or getting by on cashews and cheese. I haven’t found my grocery store yet, but a handful of ingredients made the move with me, and so … cornbread.

 

Moving house forces me to look at all the things I own — as they’re going into boxes or as they come out. It forces me to see the things I’ve chosen to hold onto … and pushes me to ask why. I haven’t read more than a couple of pages of Marie Kondo’s book, but looking at my things as I begin unpacking has made me think I need to read that, that it will resonate with me and might help me find (finally) the way to pare down my possessions. This close look at my things has been eye-opening.

It’s no surprise for me to see how sentimental I am — the bits and pieces of ephemera I’ve carried with me for years that I just can’t seem to say goodbye to — but it’s a little maddening to see what my sentimentality costs me in time and energy and storage space.

Unsurprisingly, this sentimental keeping of things doesn’t only apply to the tangible objects in my rooms. Two days ago, it was The Morphine Man’s birthday. And of course I was aware of it, of course I spent time thinking about him. How much storage space in y head and heart is he taking up? And for why? Even if there is some future version of the world in which he and I are somehow back together, it won’t win me back all the time and tears I’ve spent on him in these intervening months, decades …

How do I declutter on all fronts? I want to own less stuff and hold onto less baggage. This move is a good time to start on the one. How do I start on the other?

 

The cornbread was good. I mean, of course it was. Cornbread is pretty much always good. But it was also clearly the first step on a curve. It’s the first thing I’ve made in this new oven, so there are still things to learn. With my last oven, it took me a while to learn the exact difference between the temperature in the oven and the setting on the dial: +50°. Things began to run smoothly after I bought an over thermometer. This new oven has its own secrets to reveal. One batch of cornbread isn’t going to tell me everything I need to know.

Patience. In all things. Sure. Easy to say.

Next up is maybe mac and cheese. Or maybe my molasses spice cookies. I’ve only ever made them successfully in my mother’s oven. My old oven was always and always just too hot for that dough. It will be interesting to see how this new oven does.

Patience. I rarely have much for myself, even as I am notorious for having oceans of it for others. Definitely need to draw some of that inward and give myself a break.

I’ll clear out some of my things as I empty these boxes. I’ll make room on my shelves and in my closets. Slowly. And I’ll clear out thoughts of AC, The Morphine Man, other people and things from the past that aren’t serving me today. Slowly. Slowly. Slowly.

And, as I make room, as I clear away, there will be space for new things. Maybe I’ll finally learn to make tuiles and florentines, use my beautiful new counter tops to properly roll out biscuit or cooking dough. Maybe I’ll finally open my heart, air it out, be ready.


GriotGrind Next Wave logoIn 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Airing my dirty laundry …

At the end of December, I moved house. Goodbye to the many-splendored joys of living in Crown Heights, and hello to … Sunset Park! I’ve moved to south Brooklyn, to a neighborhood with which I already have a love relationship, having worked here happily for a dozen years. Sunset Park is a wonderful community. And my apartment is beautiful. And I have unobstructed views from my windows to let in sunlight and starshine and all of that.

BUT

My heart remains … if not fully broken, then still badly bruised. I realized just before Christmas that my response to having to leave my Crown Heights home was translated in my body to the response I have after a break up. I was grieving a lost love, licking my wounds, crying myself a river. Leaving Crown Heights was breaking my heart.

I wish I’d figured that out sooner. My move would have been far less difficult. All the while I was pining, I wasn’t doing any packing. So I didn’t start getting shit into boxes until three days before the move. Seriously. Three days. To pack a large apartment with a 10-year accumulation of mess.

Predictably, I failed. And failed on a luminously-technicolor scale. The movers arrived on the morning of the 30th, and maybe a hair more than half my house was ready to go. When that happens, what it means is that the movers pack your stuff. When that happens, what it means is that your things go into giant boxes any which way, and there’s no handy labeling of anything so you end up not knowing where things are.

It also means I let the truck head for the new place knowing that I hadn’t packed much of the kitchen or finished the closets in my bedroom or front hall. And that was stupid, but I just couldn’t bear to take any more time getting things in the truck, couldn’t bear to have strangers—men—pack my clothes, my underwear and bras. Couldn’t bear to have them handling my world of purses and scarves, my jewelry.

When that happens, it means you spend the better part of the next two days schlepping back to your old apartment to pack the things you left behind and cart those things in (expensive) cabs to your new apartment.

Sigh.

This was the worst move of my life. No question.

There’s one way this move could have gone more smoothly. Many friends offered to help me pack. They understood that I didn’t have much time between signing my lease and move-in day, and some of them knew I have a shoulder injury that would make packing difficult. So they stepped up.

I turned them all down.

I had so many reasons. I wanted to be able to sort through everything, do some enormous culling of my possessions so I could move with less stuff. I wanted to have the boxes organized and carefully labeled. Also, and most importantly, I totally underestimated the amount of stuff I own … which happens when you’re not paying full attention because you’re busy grieving your lost love. When everything’s put away, it doesn’t look like all that much. Start pulling things out of cabinets and cubbies … and you suddenly have ten fucking years’ worth of accumulate to somehow cram into far too few boxes.

But all of this—while also true—is just the story I told myself about why I couldn’t accept help. The real story is uglier, sadder.

*

I recently contributed an essay to Wendy Angulo’s “Lifting the Burden of Shame” project. Very specifically, I wrote about the shame I was taught to feel about being Black. So much of that essay seemed to fall out of my pen. But there was also the part that snuck up on me and smacked me upside the head … with a sledgehammer.

I thought I was aware of the ways and places shame manifested in my life. The ways and places it still manifests in my life. Writing that essay showed me how wrong I was, how sneaky and insidious shame is. That sounds obvious, but it surprised me all the same.

Writing that essay and then getting myself moved also made me think of Cisneros’ “A Smart Cookie” in The House on Mango Street, of Esperanza’s mother stirring oatmeal at the stove, angry, saying, “Shame is a bad thing, you know. It keeps you down.” So far down. So firmly down. So adeptly down that you don’t notice the damage until someone or something slaps you hard enough to wake you up, force you to see the hole you’ve allowed yourself to dig, the dirt and leaves you’re covering yourself with.

 

Yeah. What does this have to do with the hell of my moving? Everything. Every last thing. I couldn’t accept anyone’s offer of help because of shame, because I didn’t want any of those people—my friends—to see me.

People think they know me. I’m a middle-aged Black woman with a fair amount of education, a sense of humor, some creative skills. But I’m like Dorian Gray and his creepy-ass portrait, looking good on the outside … but behind the scenes I’m all chaos and disaster, oozing noxious slime. Behind the scenes is the real me, and the real me is a mess.

To let people come help me pack would have meant letting them see the slovenly way I keep house, letting them see that I am a borderline hoarder, letting them see how not at all together I actually am. It was easier to have the worst move of my life, to spend hundreds of dollars I couldn’t afford on cabs than to expose my shamefully disorganized, dirty, disgusting underbelly to people who like and respect me.

*

Was my shame-induced hiding successful? Of course not. Yes, the movers got to see me, but they were strangers I’d never see again, so I could manage the mortification their judgment caused. No. One of my friends came on moving day morning, and instead of helping oversee the move-in end of things, she wound up spending hours—HOURS—packing, seeing my mess, dealing with dirt and trash.

My heart ached the whole time. How was our friendship supposed to survive everything she had to see?

I tried talking to my mom about it the next day when she asked why I hadn’t invited help. She told me, unsurprisingly, that I was being overly hard on myself, that everyone has dirt and dust behind their bookcases, that no one’s house looks good when you start stripping away the decorative distractions. And I love her for that … but I don’t think she understood the true state of my apartment.

This terror of having anyone see my filthy house, it’s more than just shame. It feels connected to Impostor Syndrome. I present as someone who has her shit more or less together, and letting people see how badly I keep house lays bare that lie, makes plain just how much I don’t have together, opens the door to questions about what else in my life is in utter disarray, what else in my life I’m lying about.

 

Welp. My ugly secret is exposed. As he wheeled my bed down the hall to my new bedroom, the mover looked at me and nodded. “This is a nice apartment,” he said. I could imagine the rest of his thought: “And you’re going to fill it with crap and keep it as badly as you did the old one, aren’t you?”

*

So I’m in my new apartment, in my new neighborhood. I finally finished the move last weekend, bringing the final things from the old place, and I have begun to settle in—my kitchen is unpacked, I’ve broken down a bunch of boxes, my cats no longer spend hours in hiding. It’ll be a long time before I begin to feel settled. How long will it be before I begin to root out and deal with my shame? Unpacking is slow and exhausting. Eradicating shame is work. But it’s clearly time I got down to it.

La Impostora Regresa

Wednesday was a great day. An essay I worked hard on and was proud of was published on The Rumpus. I was (and am) crazy-thrilled. I pretty much never send my work out. I either post it here or leave it gathering dust in the back folders of my cloud drive. So writing a pitch, sending my essay out … it was a huge deal for me. And then to have the piece accepted … ! Of course I was happy.

In the essay, I give white people some marching orders, elaborate on something I need them to do. And, shortly after I shared the essay, two different white women commented to say they would be changing their behavior post haste.

Their comments surprised me. I mean, yes, I was telling people to make a change … but was I expecting them to do what I’d asked? Was I expecting them to tell me they’d listened to what I’d said?

My first response to their comments was to start writing back, something along the lines of: “Oh, well, you don’t have to make that change! I mean, if you *want* to, sure, but don’t do it on my account!”

Happily, I stopped myself from typing or sending those messages. Because I was asking them to make a change. Quite clearly. asking.

So why was I so quick to back off my request the moment someone let me know they were considering it?

Oh yes, she’s back!! La Impostora and her twice-damned syndrome!

I know, of course, that this is still a beast I have to battle. I haven’t kidded myself that I had somehow magically vanquished Impostor Syndrome as I lay sleeping. I’ve simply been waiting for her to rear her ugly head again. But I wasn’t expecting that head-rearing to happen in response to publishing this essay. And that’s silly, of course. I had put my work out in the world and it was getting a good response … of COURSE I would suddenly find myself pushing back against Impostor Syndrome. What better, more obvious time would there be for me to be showered with gifts from this treasure trove of insecurity?

Who am I to think I can tell white folks what they should and shouldn’t be doing? Who am I to think my feelings about people’s behavior meant enough, mattered enough, carried enough weight that I could say, “stop doing this thing you’re doing that’s upsetting to me?”

I’ve wrestled with my Impostor in the past. So many times. There have been times when I haven’t noticed her creeping into my thoughts. Those times, she has been able to drive a wedge between me and whatever goal I’m pushing toward. Those times are the most frustrating because I don’t recognize the pattern of self-denigration and self-denial until it’s too late to stop the thoughts and move forward. Sometimes I am able to see what I’m doing early enough in the pattern to shoulder past my Impostor and get shit done. The hard truth is that the Impostor wins these head-to-heads far too often. I am hoping that one day I’ll have done enough work on myself that, even if I still have to fight La Impostora, those fights will all fall into the second category, the push her aside and get back to work category.

In the case of my essay on The Rumpus, there were many opportunities for La Impostora to shove me backwards over a cliff. I had originally sent that essay to another publication. It was accepted, and then I received a contract that had some troubling language in it. I balked at signing, but my Impostor slapped me back: who was I to question what An Important Well-Respected Magazine wanted from me? She instructed me to sign and shut up. But I couldn’t get past my hesitation. I reached out to the mag’s editor to suggest some revisions to the contract language. By the time I learned that the magazine wouldn’t budge on the demands, I’d received an acceptance from The Rumpus … which was when La Impostora smacked me again: How dare I consider pulling my submission from The Magazine and moving forward with The Rumpus? And, too, there was no way I was good enough to be published on The Rumpus, so I should just forget all about that.

Sigh.

And now she’s back again, telling me to back down from the entire premise of my essay simply because someone read and respected what I said.

Listen (speaking entirely to myself here, but sometimes these things need to be said aloud and in public): I am a person who has the right to like or dislike whatever I like or dislike. I have the right to tell people to stop doing something that displeases or disturbs me … and they—because they are sovereign, fully-autonomous beings—have as much right to decide to do what I’ve asked as they have to tell me to shove off because they’re under no obligation to listen to anything I have to say.

I have no problem with folks taking issue with the point of that essay. I was ready for that, steeling myself against how hurt or angry it would make me. I was ready to defend myself, to haul out receipts and invite folks to step back. The few negative comments I’ve seen haven’t troubled me at all.

And maybe that’s a sign of progress in my fight against La Impostora. In the past, if someone questioned my position, I’d have been inclined to turn around and question my position right along with them. I mean, if something I said raised their eyebrows, I must have made a mistake, right? I’m not saying that I don’t make mistakes. I’m saying I no longer instantly assume that anyone questioning me must have the right of it.

I tend to think I’ll be fighting La Impostora forever. I don’t want that to be true, but it feels true. Seeing ways that I’m getting stronger against her helps. And I know I’ve written about Impostor Syndrome more than once, but the more I “talk out loud” about it here, the better I seem to get at recognizing the pattern before it derails me. If it seems annoyingly repetitive, you’re welcome to scroll on by. Imma keep working through.


I’m following Vanessa Mártir’s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.
I’m months behind on my #GriotGrind, and it’s unlikely that I’ll write 52 essays by year’s end. But I’ve written more this year than in the last two combined, and that adds up to a solid WIN in my book! Get ready for #52essays2018!

Bad Brain

In kindergarten, one of my classmates saw it as his special mission to teach me all the ways Black folks (“you coloreds,” in his words) were inferior to whites and just generally bad, wrong, non-human. Every day, he shared some new “fact” about Black people: we were talking monkeys, if God cared about us, we’d be white. And on and on.

Kindergarten. I was the only Black child in my class, one of maybe six Black kids in the whole school. It was a fun time.

One day, as he was telling me some racist, bullshit “fact” about what I was, I wrote his name on a piece of paper and showed it to him. I said something along the lines of, “And this is what we know you are.”

I don’t know why I did that, what I thought would happen, what I wanted to prove. These many years later I am convinced I was conducting a science experiment. That boy had been telling me, repeatedly, that I was dumb, that all Black people were dumb. But I could read and write, and I knew that he couldn’t. I was the only child in the class who could, which won me solo reading time while everyone else was being taught their letters.

I think I wrote out that boy’s name to prove—to both of us, like as not—that I was not the one who was dumb.

He looked at the paper, grabbed it from me and brought it to Mrs. Moore, our teacher, to tattle on me.

“Look what she did,” he said, presenting the damning evidence of my early literacy.

Mrs. Moore, conveniently (or willfully) oblivious to the racist drama that was my day to day, looked at the paper and said how nice it was that I had written his name.

That was the first time I used my education to make myself feel superior. I don’t know how I knew that was something that would make me feel better in that moment, but I knew it would. And it did.

That was the first time, but definitely not the last.

In fourth grade, I started a new school. On that first day, one nice, gentle boy went out of his way to welcome me and make me feel less like an outsider. It was a relief to have someone befriend me so quickly.

At lunch that day, a group of kids approached my new friend and me. They were fronted by a large, tough-looking Black girl. They stopped in front of us and the girl, pointing at my friend, asked me, “You like him?”

It was, of course, instantly clear that I shouldn’t like him, that he was not someone other kids liked or accepted. If I said I liked him, I might be saying goodbye to the chance of having any other friends. And it was only lunch on day one. But how could I say I didn’t like him? He was the only person who’d been friendly to me. The kids in front of us were unknown quantities—and also didn’t seem particularly nice or friendly. I could spurn my friend and still end up shunned by other kids.

I had already determined that kids in that new school weren’t smart. They didn’t know things I knew, didn’t seem interested in reading or school, didn’t pronounce basic words correctly. So I used my words. Did I like that boy? “In some circumstances yes,” I said. “And in some circumstances no.” My friend heard the “yes,” the bullies heard the “no.” As I’d hoped, no one knew what a “circumstance” was. They accepted the answers they’d chosen to hear, and I was safe.

And again, not the last time I would use what I saw as my being smarter than other kids to protect myself.

So what is that about, that immediate transformation into that snobby smart kid who lords her cleverness over others, looks down on them because she knows something they don’t?

That’s a pretty ugly thing to see and know about myself. Yes, I was a child in those instances I recounted. Sure, but there were other instances in my adolescence and teens. It’s also true that my ugliness surfaced when my back was up, when I felt attacked. Okay.

But … it’s still problematic.

*

I grew up and became a teacher, first of high school seniors then of adults learning to read, adults studying for their high school equivalency exam. I was fiercely supportive and protective of my students, particularly the adults, clapping back whenever some fool asked if my students hadn’t learned to read or finished high school because they were “lazy or just retarded,” the two options I was offered again and again.

I came down on those people like a vengeful harpy. How dare they make assumptions about the grit, intelligence, value, strength of the fabulous people I got to work with. I invited them to stop and tally up the raft of privileges that made it possible for them to learn in the school systems they had access to, the privileges that enabled them to complete high school and go on to college.

I got angry not only because I loved my students but because I had learned something child me hadn’t understood: literacy, a big vocabulary, success in school, love of reading … these things quite often have absolutely nothing to do with level of intelligence. Neither do knowledge of history, science, literature, or math. These things all have to do with education, and to look down on someone because they’re less educated is disgusting.

I wish someone had said a word or two to child me about any of this. I grew up poor but so privileged. I grew up in a family that prized reading. It’s not surprising that I was a reader before kindergarten because there were books everywhere in my home. My brother, sister, and I were read to and encouraged to read all the time. I grew up in a family where school was prioritized and any other responsibilities could be made secondary to getting that education. I never had to put my needs aside to help care for a crew of younger children, never had to worry about finding a quiet place to study in a too-full house or apartment. I was able to go to a summer camp that introduced me to worlds of new ideas to explore, that encouraged my creativity and taught me skills I couldn’t have learned at home. I grew up with both of my parents—at least in the beginning—and my mother very attentively at home for most of those years. I grew up with enough food on the table. I grew up without experiencing violence or witnessing violence in my home or neighborhood. I grew up in a community that had clean drinking water and access to healthy food.

I could go on. I was fortunate in the circumstances of my childhood. Incredibly fortunate. Was I a smart kid? Maybe. Most likely. But I wasn’t exceptional in that way. What I was was lucky to have the family I did in the places where I lived, to have been able to learn in the ways I was taught and to have access to schools and libraries.

Child me believed education equaled intelligence and put a lot of store in braininess. Being smart was one thing that couldn’t be taken from me and the one thing that—even if someone mocked me for it—I never felt ashamed of. I was made to question the value of my color, myself as a girl, my belonging each time we moved to a new town, my attractiveness to boys, my body, my hair. So many things about me weren’t “right” or acceptable, were outside the norm.

But my education, my smartness, that was mine. I could control it, I could grow it. Yes, of course there were folks who were smarter than I was. But that didn’t take anything from me, just inspired me to learn more things. No one could touch my smartness. I wrapped myself in it whenever anyone came for me. I might have been ugly, brown, nappy-headed, fat … but I was smart. And, nine times out of ten, I was smarter than whoever was working on bullying me, and my Big Bad Brain saved me again and again.

I’m not proud of assessing my long-ago classmates and deciding they were dumb. Grown me would not use that calculus. But child me used what she had, and I am grateful I had that. I was never truly bullied, not in the horrifying truth of bullying that we see today. And part of that is surely because the kids I grew up with weren’t that cruel. And part of it was because the act of bullying hadn’t been honed into a killing tool when I was a kid. But part of it was also because my brain, my own brand of Jedi mind tricks, allowed me to navigate potentially rough waters.

I’m not proud, but I can at least be glad that I kept most of my ugly thoughts to myself. I didn’t talk down to people or call them out for not being whatever “smart” meant at any given moment. I was a pretty shy, quiet kid. Calling people out didn’t become part of my repertoire until much later. My bad behavior was mostly happening in my head. That doesn’t excuse my incorrect assessment of other people’s intelligence, but at least it kept me civil and polite. I let my brain loose on occasion, but only when truly pressed.

I’m not proud of the intellectual snobbery in my past. I worked hard to change that behavior, and I keep a close eye on myself even now. I’m not proud, but I have to remain thankful for it. It served a necessary purpose.

I wrote recently about an experience in high school when two boys were mocking me because I was fat. I wrote that I listened to the way they spoke and concluded that they were dumb. It hurt to write that, to remember that way I had of being in the world. I almost changed what I’d written to make myself look less ugly. I didn’t change it. That was real. Just as those boys looked at my body and decided they knew something about my value, I listened to the way they spoke and decided I knew something about their intelligence.

Obviously, we were all wrong, those boys and I. I’ve spent a lot of time working to be more right in this way. The difficulty I had writing about my part in that incident tells me I still have work to do.

 



I’m following Vanessa Mártir‘s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.
I’m months behind on my #GriotGrind, but I’m determined to do my best to catch up, to write 52 essays by year’s end.