During my parents’ divorce, I lived at Eastside Village with my grandmother, a woman I barely knew and who knew even less about me. “Well, okay then,” is what she said when my Aunt Joanie dropped me off and told her I would be staying for a while. I was thirteen, troubled and full of angst, something my grandmother, despite her agreeable manner, didn’t tolerate.
“You will not be disrespectful in my house,” she warned when I slammed the refrigerator and complained that she had old people food.
Her tone was stern, but her voice wasn’t raised. I watched in shock as she stood up to me, telling me she had no problem showing me the door, that she wouldn’t hesitate beating me with her cane if it came down to it. And then she poured herself a cup of tea and sat down at the table.
“I don’t know you, not like a grandmother should,” she confessed. “But I can tell you’ve been through some things,” she stirred her tea and then dipped the wet spoon into the sugar dispenser. “You’ll have to find a way around it.”
“How?” I tried to hide the quiver in my voice.
“By controlling what you can and recognizing that everything else is just that…everything else,” she took a sip of her tea, pulling back when it burned her mouth. She nodded at me and then said, “find what makes you happy.”
My Aunt Joanie picked me up Monday morning and dropped me off at Eastview Junior High School, where I was greeted by Principal Washington and my homeroom teacher Mrs. Coleman. Their smiles were big as they told me all about the school, my classes, how happy they were to meet me. After a tour of the campus, I waited in homeroom, picking a seat towards the back, while Mrs. Coleman wrote the agenda on the board, standing on her tiptoes to reach the top. Students began trickling in with backpacks dangling on one shoulder, hair styled with gel, new sneakers and trendy clothes, and the gift of gab, announcing their presence through laughter, Yo Mama jokes, a recap of last night’s television shows, and complaints when they read the board.
I had first lunch, so after science I followed the lunch crowd to the cafeteria, spotting a few girls from homeroom already sitting at a table in the back. They were laughing, each wearing a similar button-up top, the first two buttons left undone, jeans with holes in the knees, and white shoes. Their speech patterns included phrases like, “She is straight trippin,” “You go, girl,” and “If I’m lying, I’m dyin.” I paid for a carton of chocolate milk and moseyed over to their table.
“Hi,” I said, making eye contact with the girls who were in my homeroom. “Aren’t you in Mrs. Coleman’s homeroom.”
They stared for a moment and then all burst into laughter.
“Who wants to know?” they laughed again.
“I…I was just…” I turned to leave, my cheeks on fire.
They kept laughing, mocking me as I walked out of the cafeteria. On my way to the bathroom, a girl from my homeroom named Tracey Calhoun stopped me, resting her broken leg on a bench.
“Hey, those are the Sequoia Girls,” she informed. “Ignore them,” she smiled, exposing wire braces as she hopped away on her crutches.
Instead, I ignored her and began planning, plotting my steps to becoming a Sequoia Girl. They had embarrassed me, but they had what I didn’t: charm, style, power. I convinced my grandmother to buy me a pair of white shoes and button-up shirts. I cut holes in the jeans I had, put enough gel in my hair to lock it in place for a week, and went to school with a new attitude because in my mind I had been transformed. I was one of them.
“Hey, girl,” I said as I passed them in the halls. “See you in homeroom.”
I held my head high, exuded as much confidence as I could muster, but they didn’t see me, didn’t acknowledge me. They chatted about a cute boy named Christopher on the basketball team, passed around answers to the history test, checked their makeup in tiny mirrors, and criticized Tracey Calhoun as she passed, her cast now signed by half the school.
“I mean, who does that?” they laughed.
Tracey Calhoun’s eyes widened at the insult. She quickened her pace, the ends of her crutches slapping against the ground. Once in homeroom, I glanced over at her, gave her a sympathetic smile.
“What are you looking at?” she barked.
“I was trying to be nice,” I defended.
“Nice?” she jerked her head back. “You’re one of them. You’re not nice.”
Though it was already too warm for a jacket, I slipped mine on trying to cover the button-up shirt. I played with my hair, untangling the strands from the gel until frizzy ends fell against my shoulders.
At home I put the white shoes back into the box and slid them under my bed, hung up my jeans, and asked my grandmother if we could take the shirts back.
“What’s wrong with them?” she asked, her hand on her hip.
“They don’t fit,” I lied.
“Are you telling me those shirts don’t fit you, even though I watched you try them on?”
I didn’t have an answer, so I shrugged.
“Maybe you don’t fit,” she said, letting her arms hang at her side. “Is that why you wanted to buy all that stuff? To fit in?”
My eyes welled, and my body started to shake.
“Ahh, come here,” she pulled my head to her shoulder. “Let this be a lesson,” she patted my back. “Life is slippery like a slide. If you hold on too tight you can’t enjoy the ride, and if you’re not careful you’ll fall right off and hurt yourself. Control what you can and leave everything else.”