I had been hit for no reason. I never saw by who. I was in a crowd, then I felt a swift and sudden punch to the back. Everyone was moving around me. When I turned, I saw so many snarling faces all I could do was keep walking. When we got to the lunch room, we were organized into grades. Four different first-grade teachers calmly called out names. They were calling their classes together. I got Mrs. Phinecy.
When I got home, my dad asked me if I had a white teacher or a black teacher. My six-year-old answer was that she was kinda brownish. She was light-skinned, had a kind face. She wore a perfect skirt and flowered blouse with a thin sweater pulled over it. When she called my name and I walked to her line, she patted me on the head. I started to cry. I fell in love with her then, and I love her to this day.
I wish I could find Mrs. Phinecy and wrap my arms around her. I would try to remind her I was the one who learned the Sh, Th, Ch sounds first when she taught me how to read, and that when I did, she smiled at me and winked. I would remind her of the love she displayed when one of the boys was too scared to raise his hand in class and sat in his chair and urinated on himself. I would remind her how much love she treated that child with and how much care she put into explaining that he had done nothing wrong. That he was not to be made fun of, and that any of us could go to the bathroom if it was an emergency, at any time.
She was kind, she was loving, and she treated the kids she taught like gold. We were an unruly bunch but I never heard her raise her voice. When I fell asleep during a test, she gently woke me up and gave me time to make up the test. I can’t remember any of the discipline rules in her class. Can’t remember if she had a chair in the back to sit the disruptive kids in, if she sent them to the office, but what I choose to remember is that Mrs. Phinecy loved us all so much that none of us bucked in her class.
One day, for no reason at all, she pinned a note to my chest under my coat that was addressed to my mother. The note read, “Jesse’s reading comprehension is off the charts. We tested him, and he understands what he reads at a fourth-grade level. You should be proud of him. He loves stories.”
My mother complained a little bit about an outsider telling her to be proud of her son. Talked about it over dinner, how no one needed to tell her to be proud of her children. This woman didn’t even know her. Who was she to tell her how to feel?
For good measure she added a, “Yeah, I’m proud of you, but as much as you like to talk, we already knew you liked stories.”
The first week of first grade, I met Brotherhood. He was a black kid with a sly smile and he said to me, “Hey White Bread, you want a cookie?”
I looked at him with distrust. All the kids hated me. Why would this boy give me a cookie?
“We can’t eat cookies in class,” I said.
He slid his hand in a pocket on his backpack and pulled out a curled-up hand. He slipped something that very easily could have been nothing into his mouth and, with a look of bliss that could have been fake, and an exaggerated slow chewing motion, he ate what very well could have been a cookie, or a hand full of air.
I have to tell you, my interest was piqued. “You don’t have any cookies,” I whispered. We had a work page on adding single digits to complete and I wanted to make Mrs. Phinecy happy.
“No cookies, huh?” he showed me his hands.
Holy shit, cookie crumbs! This was getting interesting fast.
He stuffed his hand in his bag again, then held a hand that was just a little bit too closed to be holding a cookie, and he stuffed it in his mouth. I stared as hard and as carefully as I could, but his hand was too sly. I could not get even a peek at any cookies through his fingers. He rolled his eyes as he chewed and smiled at me.
“My mama makes the most delicious cookies you will ever taste. Way better than any White Bread cookies. If you promise to be my friend, I’ll give you one.”
“Okay!” I said excited, nodding emphatically. “I’ll be your friend.” Someone wanted to be my friend. A black boy wanted to be my friend. Maybe he would introduce me to his friends and they would not hate me anymore.
He stuffed his hand in his bag again and came out with another phantom cookie my eyes were just too slow to see before he stuffed it in his mouth. This kid had hands like David Copperfield. His lips were covered in crumbs, and his fingers, too.
“I need a really good friend,” Brotherhood said. “If I am going to give him my mama’s cookies, he had better be my best friend.”
“I promise. I’ll be your best friend at this whole school. You don’t even have to give me the cookie.”
His eyes popped open wide. “You don’t want one of my mama’s cookies?”
“I’ll be your friend even if you don’t have any cookies,” I said.
He stuffed another one in his mouth, chewed slow, savoring what was most likely air, before he pointed at me with a finger coated in cookie crumbs and smiled.
“Fine then, we are best friends. My name is Brotherhood. What’s yours?”
“I’m Jesse. Jesse Teller.”
“Here you go, Jesse, have one of my mama’s delicious cookies.” He reached in his bag and his eyes widened. His mouth popped open and he stared in shock. “Damn, White Bread, I ran out of cookies. You still want to be my friend?”
“I’ll be your best friend, Brotherhood,” I said laughing.
“Fine then, White Bread, you’re my friend. Sorry about the cookies.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “Did you ever really have any?”
“What do you think?”
I gave him the benefit of the doubt. We were best friends. Brotherhood would be my best friend at school for six years. He never took me to his house. He never introduced me to his friends. He never gave me his phone number. But I can’t count how many times I was getting my head stomped on by a group of black boys and Brotherhood stepped in. I can’t tell you how many times he helped me pick my books back up or sat with me on the playground when the other white kids were mad at me.
Brotherhood gave me hope that black and white could get along. He was funny, he was smart, he was a trickster, and I will always be his friend. I have no way of getting in touch with him. I remember his first name, but not his last. We were kids, and even if we were standing in front of each other, our faces have changed with age so much that likely, we would be unrecognizable.
So, until I learn better, I just assume that every black man I meet is Brotherhood all grown up.