Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Ain't No Man Got To Be Common, Pt. 1

"Ain't no man can avoid being born average, but there ain't no man got to be common." - Satchel Paige

Note: I'm rather bored with unpacking and parsing the world's problems. I've resolved to use this space to tell deeper stories for a while. If no one digs it, I'll return to using my mouth full of clouds to storm upon the world. Otherwise, I'm going to spend the next few posts sharing more intimate fare. He who knows the world is clever. He who knows himself is wise 'n all that.


As long as I've been alive, I've harbored a deep yearning to produce extraordinary things. I've only ever wanted what comes from me to mean something more than my own ego. The nonsense started back in kindergarten when the school administrators of our local elementary had me take the Iowa test three times, finally in the presence of my mother, some really nice white lady from the Board of Education, and the principal, who was fierce and black and kind, in that matter of fact way black women who have so many kids slip through their fingers must be.

The nice white lady spoke slowly to me and ensured I did nothing wrong despite my time behind closed doors in the principal's office. Only bad kids went to the principal with their mothers. Only problem kids had to sit with a white lady from the Board of Ed. I wondered what my father would think. If he'd lean into me as he did my older brothers. She told me she was there to watch me take the test. The principal was there because it was her school. Rosalita was there because I had rights, or at least that's what I figured. For me, my mother was Columbia, the Goddess of Liberty as depicted by Phyllis Wheatley in her poem directed at George Washington where she encouraged the fight for freedom while she herself was a slave. That was women for me. Always offering what they themselves could never enjoy. A fount of hopes and dreams that pour from a lonely spigot of quiet suffering.

I liked the white lady's nose. It was aquiline. I knew this then as Ma allowed me to freely rummage through her old art school books. I loved noses. Still do. Aquiline. Roman. Grecian. Sephardic. African. She didn't wear glasses. She smiled a lot. When she spoke she started a sentence looking at me and ended it looking at my mother. She told me not to worry, handed me a big-ass Ticonderoga  #2 pencil, a test book, and an answer sheet where I had to color in the tiny circles which corresponded with my answers. I got it and went to town, never questioning why it was my third time taking the same test in the presence of a bunch of grown-up women. I remember moving so quickly through the test the kind lady with the nose like Gwenivere stopped me and said I don't have to rush. I wasn't. I just knew the answers. Well, I was rushing a little bit. It was springtime in Chicago and my action figures and I had a date to make trouble in the backyard.

I had to leave the room after I was done so I went to the lobby and read Highlights for Children. My favorite was Goofus and Gallant. Goofus always seemed to be having more fun. Gallant seemed like a square. I remember the principal coming to get me as if I actually had a voice in matters inside. I sat down, the young lady from the Board of Education with the lovely nose and nice smile and kind voice thanked me for taking the test yet another time. I told her I would take it again if I had to. The principal seemed tense, but she was a principal, so why wouldn't she be? Then I saw her face. She wasn't smiling. Wasn't speaking at all. It was written all over Rosalita's countenance. Life would change. It had to. Her son scored a near perfect on an Iowa test meant for kids in a far higher grade. It was perfect the first two times, thus necessitating the third time around. Thus necessitating my mother's pain.

There was nowhere for me to go. There was no place for what I could do, at least where my father could afford to send me on a firefighter's salary. I'm almost certain she thought of her own education and how she turned down the Art Institute of Chicago's scholarship because she just wasn't the type to spin her wheels. Instead, she got married and made babies, two of which would plague her until she died and one for which she could do nothing, and he could do nothing for her. Of course, she'd kill to provide for me. She and the old man didn't play when it came to their children. Having a smart kid wasn't such a big deal, so that wasn't the problem. John and Wally also had serious smarts. We never spoke of that day, but if I had to guess, I think her dilemma had nothing to do with me at all. Chicago just didn't have many answers for a working-class family with a five-year-old who effectively tested out of grammar school.

The nice lady from the Board of Ed left after thanking my mother and the principal, who seemed to provide my mother consolation instead than congratulations. Rosalita and I walked home holding hands. I remember standing in front of my house on Green Street and feeling different. She told me to go play while she made me some kind of lunch. She wouldn't notice me watching her cry over the kitchen sink from the hallway.

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