Sixth period and I was still high on the smell of new school supplies: notebooks filled with blank pages, pencils with a sharp tip, and pens with fresh ink. I was in my desk early for Honors English, examining my thighs in the red and white dress I was wearing. If I crossed my legs, you could see the muscles I’d earned from soccer and tennis. But you could also see a tiny dimple where they pressed against the plastic desk chair. I practiced crossing and uncrossing as the class filed in, finding the perfect angle to showcase only smooth skin.
I didn’t notice her until the bell. One seat up, one row over. Her hair was black like mine, but in tight corn rows wound up into a bun. Her neck was stiff from effort, gaze fixed on the empty teacher’s desk at the front of the room, while everyone around her chatted, loose-limbed and easy.
I should say hello. But that would mean leaning forward to get her attention and I couldn’t think of anything smarter to say than “Hey! You!” If I said something, maybe she would feel more welcomed. Or maybe that would just draw attention to the fact that she felt out of place.
I knew three black kids at our school: Erin and Nikki, who were in some of my classes, and a guy named David who went to Young Life and was, according his friends, the whitest black guy in school. In his khakis and polo shirts, David walked straight by the area in the front hallway where the non-whitest black kids hung out before school, gaze fixed ahead as though he didn’t see them at all.
Despite having a Confederate soldier as our school mascot, there was no outright war between students, only a civil ignorance.
But I could not ignore the discomfort in the planes of the girl’s shoulders, a straight parallel to the black board. I leaned forward (with a quick glance to see how this affected the smoothness of my thighs) and had opened my mouth when Ms. Saunders walked in and began to call roll. I didn’t even break the girl’s peripheral vision.
After class, I thought, getting happily lost in names of the American greats like Hawthorne and Poe and Hemingway and Emerson. I felt satisfied by the way my print curled up the edges of the college-ruled paper, page after page. I was too naïve then to miss Morrison and Angelou and Douglass and Hughes.
The bell rang again and before I could jam my notebook into my backpack, the girl bolted for the door, coltishly quick. Her disappearance made no ripple in the room’s conversations.
Tomorrow. I can talk to her tomorrow.
But the next day, her desk was empty. Maybe the whole thing had been a scheduling screw-up. But I imagined her a few classrooms away, a smart girl hiding in a non-honors class, sinking comfortably into a desk surrounded by friends where she would study the same dead white writers and curl up the pages of a notebook just like mine.
I’m linking up with a bunch of lovely writers over at Yeah Write who curl up notebook paper all the time, or at least get callouses from typing so much on their laptops. Anyone else have first-day-of-school regrets?