Martha King



It was very dark in the hallway of the Venable Elementary School in Charlottesville; it didn't have the smell of school I knew - synthetic sweeping compound and waxed linoleum. Instead, the floors were wood, the color of telephone poles, exuding a faint scent of creosote. I waited on a bench, holding forms. Surely someone had visited the school and registered me, but it was the wrong day. School had already started. I had my health report properly signed, and a new dress. It was pale blue with green and purple violets on it and I rubbed the fabric over my knees because it pleased me. I felt complacent assurance; school was a pleasant chore, except for arithmetic.
     But I'd shocked the first old lady I'd spoken to. I'd been ordered out into the hall to wait. The shadowy building droned remotely, crammed three stories deep with children's bodies.
     A bell rang, but nothing seemed to happen. I kicked my legs gently against the bench, trying to keep two different rhythms with my hands. A boy went by, stared at me and swaggered, ostentatiously swinging a key fastened to a large block of wood by a short length of chain. I had never been in a school were bathrooms were locked or where anything more than simple permission was needed to visit one, so his behavior was a mystery to me. More silence. No one. I had almost decided to breach the office door again when another elderly woman ordered me inside. While women at desks stopped typing to watch, I offered my name.
     "I ask the questions, young lady."
     I felt my stomach sinking. It was clear the very least of this woman's interests was my desire to be in the same classroom as Florence Greene. My irregularities were her interest. I was hot with embarrassment.
     Eventually a monitor was summoned, a wan sixth grader wearing a blue armband on her pencil-thin upper arm. She kept it from slipping off by keeping her elbow crooked. When I tried to ask her something, she hissed, "Wee doan talc inth'hawls n'theus skuule." And went up the stairs ahead of me, twitching her behind in disgust.
     By noon I'd found out more: We don't talk to our neighbors in this school; we don't wave our hands to be called on in this school; we don't interrupt in this school; we don't ask the teacher questions in this school, we don't draw pictures when we feel like it in this school. All aimed at me, at me.
     In this school we wait. There are no real children. There are no real ideas. Iron is real. Life is iron.
     At noon I found Florence.
     We sat together on a swing, scuffling our feet in the deep pit of dust beneath the seat, and I opened my brown paper lunch bag, softened and wrinkled from desperate rolling. Florence traded me her lunch. She, gracious friend, ate my sticky peanut butter on health loaf. I ate her baloney on Wonder bread. It was delicate, exquisite-the stuff of magic independence, for Florence was allowed to buy her own lunch herself in a grocery store on her way to school. What else did she do here, in 'this school'?
     In Charlottesville, girls in the sixth grade got pregnant and were expelled. Boys in the fourth grade carried knives. They hardly seemed afraid that fighting would get them into trouble at home. Instead, their fights were often expected elements in larger battles; aspects of serious enmity among adults. There were threats and rumors of beatings and stealing, and stories about broken bones and knife cuts. Reform School was an actual presence-boys were sent there and the news of it would wash across the playground like rain.
     Daily bad kids were sent to the office. The principal hit them on their open palms with a wooden ruler. Older, more evil boys were slammed on the buttocks with a large wooden paddle. It was drilled full of holes like a Chinese checkers board, so air would rush through and not slow it down. The rest of us were switched wholesale for general infractions like wiggling in auditorium. Everyone in the class would have to line up in the hall and allow the old woman to hit at our calves with a switch. After the first time, I learned to jockey for position in the middle of the line. The kids at the ends got burning red welts.
     I learned fast enough. I learned how to walk in the halls and to keep my eyes down. But I couldn't learn anything about my classmates. I was of no interest to them. Nothing outside was. The world was not theirs and they wasted no energy pretending to like it. The girls quarreled bitterly among themselves about affronts I couldn't see, tiny offenses that impugned their dignity. They looked at me with depthless eyes. I was ignored, but I was afraid, knowing almost atavistically that a flash of bigotry or terror could connect them into action against me.
     I was used to conducting my life warily, used to irrational or uncomprehending adults, but this was different. My gift of gab was worthless, and not simply by dint of my detrimental Northern accent. Being articulate was an offense. The teachers were more openly hostile on this point than the kids and I was warned by them about conceit, insolence, and superiority. My school achievement dwindled to holding back tears, sitting poker-faced with burning rocks in my throat.
     I couldn't find out what Florence did. We almost never met, not even on the playground after that first day when she had stayed past the end of her room's lunch period to be with me. She had been punished for it. In the afternoons, we could return to the familiar precincts of Florence's house and yard, where she and I answered Aunt Flora's unworldly inquiries. Yes'm. No ma'am.
     At school Florence looked fine when I caught a glimpse of her. She was getting on with it. She did nothing to alarm the fragile powerless souls who loved her. I'd see her marching down the bleak hall to the principal's office, gallant as a hero, as a famous Revolutionary War general, her name an emblem but not a shield, her hair frizzing red around her wide intelligent forehead. Aunt Flora smiled benignly. Chris took her home to Ruth on weekends.
     I retreated. I was shamed. I spent more and more time away, in the claustrophobia of Aggie's company. As I wasn't being taught foreign languages or the classics Aggie felt school was next to worthless anyway. I was more than welcome to play sick and come with her to have afternoon tea with her friends, or sit in the public library, or go out in the car to vistas she wanted to paint. She'd teach me French, she said, and spent two afternoons reading a French novel to me. The language, she claimed, would sink in. She scribbled outrageous lies to explain my absences on her snooty pale blue stationery, which I had to turn in at the principal's office. My shame was compounded.
     I was rescued just before Thanksgiving.
     My mother had ended our personal post-war housing shortage at the White Plains post office, a victory story she relished telling for years. There was a woman in the line ahead of her who was driving the postal clerk crazy, not to mention all the other people in the line. She was shutting up her house, she said. Her husband had passed away. She was going to visit her sister, she said. But she might not stay in Florida the whole winter because her other sister wanted her to come to Arizona, and how long would the post office guarantee a forwarding order because she certainly wouldn't be back if she were going somewhere else before the summer was over, and maybe not even then, oh she just wasn't sure. Mail piling up on her porch for months would never do. My mother drank in every word, left her place in line, followed the woman out into the parking lot, and arranged to rent her house on the spot. It turned out to be in Ossining on the Hudson River side of Westchester County. There was a place for me to come home to.



Virginia governor J. Lindsay Almond Jr. in 1958 announcing the closure of the Venable Elementary School rather than allow black children to attend. After law suits on behalf of locked-out white students, it reopened in 1959. However, many white families were given tuition stipends by the state for all-white "segregation academies," a practice that continued until the mid-1960s.


Ossining is also home to Sing Sing. The commuter train goes right through the prison and I could see a view almost this good (but from the other direction) out the attic windows of my best friend's house.