“Grace, come here and let me fix your
hair,” Mama called. Her knees cradled my
shoulders as Gladys and Marjorie unwound
their hair from brown paper strips that had
curled it during the night. Mama brushed
and pulled and pulled and brushed. She
pulled my pigtail so tight I thought she’d
stretch my face. Then she undid it and
started brushing again. She braided it next.
Two tight, tight braids. I thought they
would fall right off my head she pulled so
“There, now. You look so pretty.”
Then she brushed off my shoulders and
folded down my socks, and you won’t
believe it. She hugged me. It was fast as
lightning, so quick I wasn’t sure she’d done
it. I felt the shock that follows a summer
thunderstorm, could almost smell the
smoke that proves what happened. She
stood up straight. “I’ll walk you down to
The mustard-colored bus clunked to a
stop, and my sisters climbed on. Mama
pressed me forward toward the five steps
that would take us on our way. I turned to
walk down the middle and saw that my sisters hadn’t saved me a seat. Two yellow-headed girls whispered in the seat behind a
skinny boy. It was a long way back until I
found a seat alone. At least I could look out
I grabbed the seat to keep from bouncing out of it as we made our way over ruts
and dips of the unkempt road. I felt something sticky under the seat and realized
someone had stuck chewed gum there. I
needed to wipe my hand, but I didn’t want
to dirty my dress. I wanted to sparkle when
I walked in Bethel School.
My sisters hurried off the bus and into
the building, and I picked up my lunch
sack and started back down the bus steps. I
looked down to make sure I wouldn’t miss
my step, made it to the ground and saw
shiny black shoes.
He pointed to a chair outside an office
with a cloudy glass window. “Sit there.”
It seemed like 100 years before a lady
came out with a book. “Honey,” said the
lady. She wore a blue dress with a white
collar. And she sat down in the chair next
to me. “You look mighty pretty today.”
“Your Mama should have known better.”
Her blue-gray curls looked salt-sprinkled.
“This school is for white children only.”
Her breath smelled of peppermint.
“You’re too dark to go to Bethel
School.” She had three shiny sea shell buttons on the front of her dress.
“You need to go back home and tell
her to find out where the school for
Negroes is.” Her shoes sparkled.
“You can take this speller with you.”
Her left shoe had mud on the heel.
“The bus will take you back home.”
I didn’t feel the book I clutched in my
white hand. I don’t remember how I got
back on the bus or where I sat. Jolts from
the rocky road beat me. The driver must
have told me I was home, and I must have
gotten off the bus, and I must have started
walking down the dirt path. I know I still
held tight to the book.
Mama came running out. She grabbed
me so tight, I couldn’t breathe. She hugged
me tighter, rocked me, and I heard her crying real hard above my head. She’d never
ever done that before.
“I already know the alphabet,” I whispered. I had to tell her my secret so she’d
see it wasn’t my fault.
No one talked much at dinner that
night, and Daddy walked in late looking
like he needed something. After dinner,
Mama sent us all to our room. Daddy had
gotten dark silent.
“If you hear a ruckus, get under your
bed and cover your ears,” Mama told us,
then she shut the door.
Out the window, I saw Uncle Isaac
walking quickly to a far away shed.
I smelled them before I heard them.
Smoke and corn whiskey, sweat and danger. I wedged myself under my mattress.
But I didn’t cover my ears all the way.
I heard shouting and “nigger” and
“whore” and a gunshot. Then silence. I felt
my hands and thought of how they always
look fresh-washed pink. We didn’t call our
colored help “niggers” but I knew others
did. I’d never heard the word “whore,” but
I felt what it meant. Open and dirty. Bad. I
heard my Mama’s name.
Red Hat and Orange Hat came back
after dinner the next day. No one would
look at me.
“Now, honey, you go gather up your
special things,” Red Hat told me. I had no
idea what she was talking about. The only
things I had were the three new dresses
Mama had sewed me and the new shoes
When the leaves
began to rust,
I knew it was
finally my turn
to go to school.
Mama still stood
back from me,
but she sewed
me three new
Daddy took me
by the hand
and let me pick
a brand new
pair of shoes
I chose the ones
If I had to wear
shoes, I figured
I ought to at
least choose some
that were pretty.