Telling someone to forgive and forget, when you aren’t present for their nightly parade of memories of the past, is sometimes another blow on the back of a wounded soul. I don’t know how, but I have learned to forgive and I hope I learn this mythical thing called forgetting. The human mind is designed to have survival tactics imprinted within higher and lower brain functions. You learn how to walk, in part, because you look up from your crib and see everyone walking. The images are frozen into your mind until one day, you pull one leg to the front into a lunge position. Your hands are on the floor. You pull the other leg forward and now you’re in a four point stance. And, somewhere in your mind, you tell yourself that now is your time. You push off of the floor with your hands. The first time you fall backwards. On a subsequent attempt you might fall to the side. On still other attempts you fall forward. But you keep trying and the victory of a moment in time is claimed by a tiny creature. You can walk. You arrived and you studied and you remembered and you imitated and you won. Memory is a thing which must be honoured for its ability to be utilized before there are words to order the thoughts.
I ask if anyone ever forgets anything? Even if a memory cannot be immediately summoned it is still there, locked away, waiting to erupt at a visual, tactile, or olfactory prompting.
I’m a solitary person. I do not run from company so much as I desire to be alone. It is my natural state. I know how to amuse my own self very well. At times, I access this memory voluntarily and at times it is an involuntary action and it can be as pleasant as other involuntary actions such as breathing. I like to breathe and I’m glad it’s not a thing I have to decide to do. But I really wish I could elect what memories come to mind. One particular makes me shut the door, quickly, so that the monster hiding in the dark does not escape to wreak havoc upon the tentative peace I’m learning, each and every day, to keep.
I was chosen to be the narrator of the school play when I was in the third grade. My teacher, Mrs. Schmidt, thought I had the best speaking voice. I could read with great fluidity and since she was the only member of the audition panel, I was chosen. I went to rehearsals. I told my grandma and granpa about it when I went to church. I told the mailman and I told Mr. Johnny at the corner confectionary. I told the principal of Toussaint L’Ouverture Elementary school, Mr. Acme Price, II and he gave me a dollar! I experienced an ebullient state of joy over being chosen for something important.
It seems as if I had been in training for this honour for some time through Easter speeches, Christmas plays, and Christmas speeches. In those days, so long ago, children were trained in church to read aloud, memorize Bible verses, and to speak in front of people. My granma was very precise about words. I was reprimanded for saying, ?make me something to eat.? Rather, it was, ?cook me something to eat.? My granma informed me that dinner was not made, it was cooked on or in the stove. And finally, ?man don’t make no food, God does.? Her teaching was the beginning of my lifelong adoration of the use of words.
I lived with my mother, brother, and sister in a huge house in the very mouth of the school. I told my mother about the play. It annoyed her when I would come home late from rehearsals. I had to rush home each day to relieve the babysitter. I think I was about ten at the time. Had she known about the audition I would have never been allowed to tryout (perhaps this is the beginning of my ability to hold what must be held). It is far easier to ask forgiveness than permission. I didn’t tell her until I was picked. She was so very conscious of what was thought of her outside the house that she was not going to have me tell the teacher I couldn’t do it. She wasn’t about to tell the teacher herself.
The night of the performance came. There had been a rehearsal after school. Afterwards I walked through the cold home. I crossed the corner of Caroline and Hickory. I walked past the iron works plant. Past Mr. Mahone’s house. And then past the home which Red the photographer shared with his mother. I walked past Mrs. Sullivan’s Soul Food Caf? and then I crossed over to my house at 3128 Hickory (I learned recently that Maya Angelou had lived for a short time at 3126 Hickory. Maybe there was spirit of intertwined genius and struggle which existed before the bricks of the two homes were set into place). I put my key in the lock and walked into a home only incrementally warmer than the air outside. I didn’t have to call out. I knew no one was there. It didn’t even register to me that she would respond to my night by leaving with my brother and sister. How could I know that on this great occasion that I would be all alone?
It was about five in the winter evening. The sun had already started to go down. There was very little light in the house. The play was maybe an hour, perhaps two, away from opening. There was no one to fuss over me. No one to fix my hair. No one who had already laid out my clothes. The year before would have seen a difference of dessert and fjord. My granma had gone and taken the sun. I was on my own. I shaped rather than combed my long coarse, thick hair into place on top of my head. It was still the seventies and an afro puff was entirely acceptable. I stuck a barrette on each side of my head. I put on my cleanest pair of socks and underwear. I put on the dress I had word three years earlier at my aunt’s wedding. A pink maxi dress with a hood. It fit. My granma had taken her complete bounty. My cheeks were no longer so round that they obscured my vision when I smiled and my collarbones were visible at all times. The formal dress of a seven year old still fit although it was no longer a maxi.
I had been making notes, through the time of rehearsal, on the pieces of white thick paper which all pantyhose were wrapped around my mother queen-sized panty hose. I gathered these notes. Put on my scuffed shoes. Walked out of the cold into the cold and headed back towards the school. There were refreshments back stage, Mrs. Schmitt had assured us before we left. She was a White woman from Canada but she knew our situation. She knew many of us went home to stare into an empty lit white space wishing that there was any old thing to eat.
At school I sat and read for about an hour. When I read a book everything outside vanished. I was in the world of the writer and it was far more pleasurable than any day’s reality. The big kids were in charge of backstage activities. A girl with a headband wrapped around her afro took me by the hand and guided me to my position at stage left. The curtain rose and I smiled. My smile was met with a mouse squeak at laughter. I knew it was over my clothes and hair. I went on with the smile and I spoke. I heard someone say, ?she talk white.? And then there was another sentence of rudeness from the front row, ?she always be talkin’ like that.? Mr. Price heard it too. He stopped it. The play went on. For an hour I recalled my lines from memory. My toe nails were happy. My follicles were over the moon. And the tips of my ears were very pleased.
Backstage I ate more cookies. I drank more punch. I picked up my coat and my notes and walked home. They were there. No one asked me anything. I went to bed cocooned in the night.
The next day at school brought back whispers of the first few moments of the play with great volubility and loquacity. No one spoke to me on the playground. They spoke about me around me. I felt the tears well up and I went to stand under an awning by myself. A few boys walked up with a small kindergarten girl. I remember her. I can’t forget her. She had good hair, big eyes, and a perfectly round face. One boy spoke to her and then he spoke to me, ?go and hit her dead in the stomach,? ?you better not hit her back or we all gon’ kick your ass.? The little girl changed from angel to demon. She relished her work. She stepped forward to hit me. I pivoted. She tried again, this time a slap. I blocked it. She attempted one more time and I pivoted in the opposite direction. The bell rang. The crowds which gathered for the execution of my sentence for the crime of talking white was to be denied.
I went through the day and didn’t think about the little girl. What was an attempted being juxtaposed with the weekly beatings I received at home? And after school I walked home, alone as I always did to the infrequent music of children walking behind me talking about me but not to me. When I got to my house one boy came running up from behind. At the same second he punched his fist through the air and it connected between my eyes. It would have connected with my eyes had I not been wearing glasses. Everyone laughed and dispersed. The proper talking girl had once again been humiliated in exchange for the honors she received. I had been knocked off of my pedestal physically. I got to my knees, found my door key, and walked into the house with my broken glasses in my hand. When my mother arrived I received more blows. And later on, with no tears in my eyes, I found some grey tape and repaired my glasses. Knowing, instinctively, that there would be more ridicule in the morning.
Over the years I have seen the names of those boys in the crime papers of St. Louis. One was sentenced to death and another was sentenced to life. I don’t know what happened to the third one or any of the other followers. What’s more is I don’t care what happened to them. They do not occupy the active space of my memory. I do remember Mr. Price, the third grade, I still use the British spellings Mrs. Schmidt passively taught me. She encouraged my writing with Mr. Price and his successor Mr. Boyd. When third grade ended I mourned her as she left the left L’Ouverture to teach in another place.
I cannot close the door on the bad memories as I would no longer have the ability to access the compassion and kindness which proceeded and followed. I do not have the ability to forget that moment of standing on that stage and using the experience for the rest of my life. Human animals remember as an act of self-preservation, to recognize good as well as evil if an appearance should be repeated. So I will remember the sound of those voices pronouncing my speech as white. I will remember how I got up not knowing if another punch or kick was to follow. I will remember what it felt like to walk into a cold house and look into an empty refrigerator as those moments may come again. I may have to do as I did that day in December: go on.
Articles by La Vonda R. Staples