Growing up working-class in a small Southern city, I early acquired a racist vocabulary. This was by no means encouraged by my parents, who were mortified when, at four or so, I referred to a fellow customer at Sears as a nigger. I have no memory of doing that — I was told about it years later — but I’m sure I was baffled by the punishment I received. The kids in my neighborhood used the word “nigger” as a matter of course. To them, it was an appropriate term for a person of color, and I followed suit, even after the Sears incident. Why punish someone for calling a bird a bird? And why would a bird object? So, I think, my reasoning went.
At the time, I barely knew any black people, but that changed when I started school. On my first day of the first grade, a black classmate spoke out of turn and was made to stand in the trash can. I likewise got into trouble for, among other things, spontaneously performing the Tarzan cry, and though I was spared the trash-can treatment, my teacher must have decided I was going to be too much to handle, and quickly had me moved to another class. My new teacher, Mrs. Orr, was black, and she told me to have a seat when I arrived one morning in the middle of a lesson. I remained standing and stuck my tongue out at her.
“Why did you do that?” she asked.
I was positive she knew why. Kids and teachers were natural enemies: cats and dogs; mongoose and cobra. That’s what I’d learned from TV, but on TV it was funny, and kids who misbehaved were often the most beloved.
So I was shocked that the kids in Mrs. Orr’s class didn’t laugh or give me looks of complicity when I stuck out my tongue. Instead, they stared blankly: the same response I’d received in my first class when I performed the Tarzan cry.
“Class,” said Mrs. Orr, “is this any way to act?”
“Noooooooooooo,” said the class in unison, and, cowed, I sat.
Still, over the few next few days, I continued to annoy, sometimes without trying. For instance, we learned how to write our names, and, being besotted with American Indians, I embellished my name with Indian touches, such as turning the letter D into a bow about to shoot an arrow. I thought it demonstrated imagination — a trait my parents prized in me — but Mrs. Orr held my paper for everyone to see and said, “Class, is this the way we write our name?”
“Noooooooooooo,” said the class in unison. Even at six, I was clearly out of step with my generation.
One overcast day, for some infraction or the other, I was sent into the hall. I was often sent into the hall — a punishment that made no sense to me, since I preferred the hall to class. I suppose I was meant to reflect on the reason I’d been banished and return contrite, but this time I wasn’t invited back. Instead, Mrs. Orr appeared and told me to follow her, and we walked down the hall to another classroom. It must have been recess; the room was empty. There was a nearby stairwell, and Mrs. Orr sat me down on the steps.
“This is going to be your new class,” she explained, meaning the empty room. “I think you need a different teacher.”
“Is she a nigger, too?” I said.
I said it casually, curious. And Mrs. Orr cried. She cried quietly, and she spoke in a soft voice that pierced my hushed confusion.
“If you learn just one thing from me,” she said, “I hope it’s that I’m not a nigger.”
I don’t remember the name of my next teacher. I can’t even reconstruct her face, which has merged with the face of my fourth-grade teacher, who was young and white and mean. My first-grade teacher was all of those things, but she eventually warmed to me, and I remember the day I wrote a story about my father killing a water moccasin poised to strike, which so impressed her that she left class to show it to another teacher. (The story was a lie, though we’d been told to write an account of something that had really happened to us.) I was in her class for the rest of that school year, and Mrs. Orr had me for maybe all of two weeks; but her name is forever engraved in my memory, and so is what she taught me as I sat on the stairwell, as if arrested between levels on the scale of evolution.
A reedited version of this piece appears in the nonfiction collection Subversia.