By Cherie Ann Turpin
The stench of old urine was almost overwhelming. The floor had not been mopped, and the desk chair itself was covered in dried urine. Emma Smith was forced to sit in that very chair for an entire week. At eight years old Emma was potty trained and normally would not have urinated all over her school uniform, her desk chair, and the floor around her.
Emma was a transfer student from St. James Parish School, a Catholic school in Cleveland to Saint Margaret Parish School, a Catholic school in Bedford, a quiet suburb far from the city. Her family arrived as new residents of the adjacent suburb Bedford Heights, part of the early wave of African-Americans migrating to outer suburbs for better schools and clean streets during 1974. During their first week of suburbia, eggs were smashed against the side of the tan, three-bedroom house, and the word “nigger” was drawn in large black letters in their driveway. Dan Smith was short, reddish-brown, and stocky, with prematurely grey hair and matching grey eyes that tended to frighten strangers. Dan, still wearing his mechanic’s uniform, stood outside in his driveway staring at the slur crudely drawn, as if to comprehend the implications of bringing his family into a war scenario. His normally calm face drew tight with silent anger, anger he swallowed as he washed and scrubbed away the offensive word from his property.
“But the schools out here are better, Dan,” pleaded his wife Janet, her large brown eyes watching him mark the kitchen floor with dirt from his work boots while he paced. “The kids need to be away from the city. It’s not safe for them.” Janet watched Dan as he stopped in mid-pace and said, “and this is safe?”
Emma’s first day at Saint Margaret’s was marked by the initial reaction of the two girls to her appearance at the bus stop one cloudy Monday. The two were waiting for the school bus at the end of Deer Run Drive, and were curious about the waif-like girl with three big plaits and cinnamon skin wearing a dark blue uniform and neat white oxford shirt with a rounded collar. Her brand new saddle shoes were black and white leather. She carried a Scooby-Doo lunchbox full of snacks, fruit, and a cheese sandwich. The two blond girls wore identical uniforms, and carried lunch boxes as well. Emma spoke first, smiling. They stared at her for one whole minute, silently.
“Why do you talk so proper,” responded one of the girls. She made a “eww” face, and whispered to the other girl. The yellow bus appeared, and the two girls got on first and moved to the middle seat, while Emma sat up front. The entire busload knew that the Black girl talked “weird” by the end of the bus trip.
Third grade teacher Miss May was not amused at the prospect of her classroom becoming integrated. By the time the urine incident happened, she had routinely downgraded Emma’s homework and marked her as disruptive in class for asking questions. Unfortunately for Emma on that fateful day, the row where she sat had been punished because one student spoke out of turn: no bathroom or playground breaks for the entire afternoon. Emma tried to hold the pee inside, and begged to be allowed to go to the toilet.
Miss May, a tall, thin, stern woman with cold grey eyes shrouded by spectacles and short bangs, was not moved. She watched the little girl squirm and finally, as the urine flowed, cry silently, ashamed and humiliated. Emma’s luminous brown eyes lost its shine that day, and grew duller as the week progressed and the smell lingered. Her little classmates were already hostile to having a Black girl in their midst; they laughed at her in the playground and on the school bus taking her home.
“Why don’t you like me?” Emma asked Miss May, as the class filed in a row to depart for the weekend.
Miss May paused for a moment, then bent down, looking at the sad girl, “Of course I like you, Emma.” Some of the girls in line giggled.
Emma felt something break inside herself, and a voice near her ear began to speak: she lies, bitter, angry woman. Emma looked around to see who was talking, but saw no one. I am here, child, take notice of my voice.
To be continued….
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