Can’t picture her face. Every day she helped me with my jacket, I can remember that. Every day, when the other kids went to the coat room to put on their jackets, I took mine to my kindergarten teacher and she helped me put it on. I couldn’t work the zipper and she would always zip me up tight and pat me on the head. One day, my zipper was stuck. It would not go down at all. It would go up, and it was getting dangerously close to my neck. I couldn’t take my coat off when I got to school, so I stood in the coat room and cried. She found me there, trembling and shaking, and she went to a shelf where she put her purse and pulled out a candle. She ran it up and down the teeth of the coat twice, before struggling with it for just a moment to get it started. Then, the zipper glided down the coat as if by magic.
I have lived my entire life and never told anyone that trick. Never told them that if your zipper gets stuck, you can lubricate it by running a candle against the teeth. I kept that part back. It is all I have of my kindergarten teacher.
When the substitute pinned the letter to my chest, it was like every other day. When I got outside to the playground and waited for my sister to come get me so we could walk home, the bully who always yelled and said terrible things at me laughed and told me my teacher was dead. I didn’t know what it meant, but I told him he was a liar.
The note said she went peacefully in her sleep. I had a lot of questions when my mother told me my teacher had died. Passed away was the term my mother used.
“When is she coming back?”
“Where did she go?”
“Heaven, to live with God.”
“How did she get there?”
“God just took her.”
“Can he take me?”
“No!” Smack upside the head. “Don’t even think that.”
“Did he reach down from the sky and pick her up?” I did know God lived in the sky.
“No, he only took the good part of her.”
“What is the good part?”
“He left the body. The body is just trash.”
That was the moment I lost all respect for my body. “Then what did he take?”
“Her immortal soul.”
I had no idea what that was. “When is she coming back?”
“Never. I already told you that.”
“Who is going to zip up my jacket?”
I was told if I wanted to cry to go lay in my bunk bed and cry all I wanted. I did. I cried for hours. Until my mother called me for supper. Then, she told me I was done crying and she never wanted to hear about it again.
This was kindergarten. It was a bad start.
We moved. We left the good neighborhood we could not afford with the big bush you could crawl and hide under. We left the front porch we were not allowed to stand on because it belonged to the downstairs tenets and they hated kids. We left the short walk to my older cousin Gorgeous’s house and we moved into Crimson Blades territory.
The one thing my mother loved most about the new house was that it was one block from an elementary school and we could walk home for lunch. When she got the letter with the news, she went ballistic.
“My babies are not going to go to that school with those people!” Rose shouted. Her fist was curled into a clenched talon, the letter crumpled into a knot.
She called the school board, she called the superintendent, she called the mayor but I don’t think she got through, and when all her calling, yelling, cursing, and threatening was over, I was still going to be bussed to the “Black Side” of town to go to school.
I knew nothing about black culture, had only ever seen one black person before. This was Milwaukee in ’82. We were one generation from the Civil Rights Movement. There was a crippling amount of hate and distrust. My entire family was racist, all except my grandmother, whose best friend Penny was black. They worked together, and when I went to my grandma’s work, I would just stare at Penny. See, nothing was integrated back then. The Germans, Pollocks, and the Italians had the south side of the bridge. The Blacks and Latinos had the north.
When Mumble was a child, his father had put him in the attic with Mumble’s mom and had taken a lead pipe with him when he joined the other racists of the day. They gathered in a mob that fought on the bridge when the Blacks and Latinos tried to cross. Milwaukee had known riots. Mumble’s family had been on the wrong side of that fight.
When you grow up in a racist house, it all becomes fact. You don’t know to question it. You take in what you are given like the meals set before you at dinner. You eat all their bullshit about where people belong, and what certain people are good for. You drink in their “facts” and their “rules” and you never know to question it.
I was told to stand up and fight. Never lay down for them. I was told they were animals and I was better than them. I was given an education the summer between kindergarten and first grade about how superior I was. I was told that I was fighting a war. My uncles, my grandfather, my stepdad and my mother all had advice for me. They talked about punching, they talked about kicking, but above it all, they talked about teaching the blacks their place.
My grandma walked me to the door and kissed my cheek. She zipped up my jacket and said, “Don’t be afraid, and don’t learn to hate.” Then she patted me on the head and ushered me to the door.
I went with her.