Once a year I talk with an old friend of mine.
We were close during our Middle school and Junior High school days in the 1970’s, in St. Louis, Missouri.
She was diagnosed with MS a few years ago.
She called at first to say it was going to be manageable, but then her handwriting started to get bad and she had to stop sending Holiday cards.
Now we talk now instead of writing.
When we were kids we wrote to each other every summer while I was away in Maine and she was at a camp in Michigan, at a lake.
We smoked our first cigarettes together, hiding in a wood fort out behind her house, by their garage.
Her mother told us, years later, that she could see the smoke coming out, but she never “busted” us.
We got into trouble together at school but we were good kids, really, just high-spirited.
We spent every day together for several years.
The last time we talked she told me how her kids were doing.
“Kathy,” she said,” I took a job, even with the MS, just so I can send them to a private school.”
I mumbled something about getting a good education and how important that is today.
“No, Kathy,” she said, ”I don’t want them to go through what happened to you.”
I tensed up.
“What do you mean,” I asked.
I always felt defensive about my years from 14 until I was 17 or 18.
Something changed for me then.
I got lost.
“I remember that day they knocked you down.” She had my attention now, I remembered that day too.
I had forgotten that she had been the one with me.
“We were just minding our own business and they knocked you down,” she said, “I don’t want my kids to go through that.”
“Yeah, two guys, they said, ‘Hey baby what’s happening?” and I said “Nothing”,” I remembered.
One of the guys hit me in the face, and my glasses went flying.
“They knocked you down.” She said. “For no reason.”
Down to the ground.
Humiliated and hurt.
We saw our friend Bill get knocked down too.
He was not a full black; he had a soft fro and hung out with us “freaks”.
He had an American flag bag with a peace sign on it.
He was a gentle, quiet and well-spoken person.
Not cool, if you were a real black.
One day, The ‘Jughead’ Jones and his group asked Bill for some smoke. Before he could answer the group surrounded him. They took his bag, emptied the contents and knocked Bill down. They kicked him in the face, the stomach, and on his back.
And we just sat there, stunned and ‘freaked out’.
At lunch period one day we were locked into the cafeteria while Jughead and his group chased some other boys with chains and sticks.
We watched through the giant plate glass windows, like it was a movie.
On the school bus one morning Juggies group told the driver to pick up their friend, a high school student, who was walking on the sidewalk.
“I can’t do that,” the driver said, “It is against the rules.”
The group surrounded the driver, while he was driving, and threatened to kill him.
He picked up their friend.
There was a special assembly for us the next day and the bus routes were changed.
The bus had been over-crowded anyway.
Once when I could not get a seat, I sat on the steps. We drove by a cemetery and I saw a single old woman standing by a grave with a priest.
I felt like I was seeing my future.
In grade school Derek Parks and Stacey Ward would often wait for me after class.
I don’t understand why I actually met with them, went to the appointed place and time.
I knew they were going to hit me, usually in the stomach.
One time I asked them to please not hit my stomach again and Derek hit me in the heart, hard.
It took my breath away.
Years later, in Junior High, Stacey offered me protection in exchange for answers to tests.
“If anyone gives you trouble, you let me know.” She said.
I was the smart girl.
I gave her answers and never asked her for any favors.
When I was 15, I went from being a morose teen to being diagnosed with depression.
One Doctor’s opinion, but I was withdrawn and angry for a while.
I shut down and ‘self medicated’, but it was the 1970’s, and that was going around.
Teens are magnets for depression, and anti social behavior.
But if they get enough love and attention they do very well.
I have seen teens thrive and it always makes me think I did something wrong.
I was a bad person somehow.
I never explained clearly what was going on, to anyone, ever, until just now.
I have told some fragments, nothing more.
My old friend remembered.
I was touched and moved by the simple fact that she was there and she remembered.
There had been a witness, even though I thought I was alone.
Race in America in the 1970’s was messy.
Something new was happening but no one knew where we were going.
I wept when president Obama was elected and I saw the joy in the faces of the crowd.
We are the same age, the president and I.
I felt like an old soldier who has just found out that the war is over.
I felt that my battles were parallel to his.
Whatever I had lost, he had gained.
Balance had been achieved.
But when I look around, at the world, I somehow don’t think we have made it to the Promised Land.