I can remember not wanting to stand for the morning pledge in my Ceramics class. I’m certain that it was my junior year of high school, but I can’t recall what set me off. In my first class of the day, I challenged myself to remain seated while the morning announcements crackled throughout the school. The faceless administrator may have started or ended with the Pledge of Allegiance, with boiler-plate business in between, I can’t remember. I just remember sitting nervously as my white peers stood around me. Their gazes pointed in the general direction of a flag, hands on chests, chanting in unison.
My Ceramics teacher didn’t notice, until 30 second in, that something was wrong. We locked eyes, me sweating behind the bust of Nefertiti that I was trying to recreate and he, behind a twitching mustache. I understood that twitch to mean that he was angry. It only twitched when he pulled student-made “smoking devices” out of the kiln. “Who made this??” he’d demand, gripping a crudely made bowl.
He waited until the pledge was over and students sat down to chew me out. “Halliburton! You get on your feet for the pledge.” It sounded like he wanted to end that statement with a clipped “dammit.” I remember taking a breath before I replying: “Until that flag lives up to its promise, to me and my people, I won’t stand for it.” Admittedly, my voice was hurried and shaky because I don’t do conflict. It makes my face hot and my eyes tear up.
The hush in the room was noticeable. The white students stared at me with wide eyes; some frightened, some confused. But all were coming to the quick realization that: OH SHIT, THIS IS A RACE SITUATION. My teacher’s mustache was shaking off the Richter Scale. “If you can’t stand for the pledge,” he spit out, “you can sit in the hallway.”
I didn’t say anything. I quietly began working on my Nefertiti, sculpting her nose like the one in my encyclopedia. The class eventually settled into its normal shuffle, chatter rose and mingled with the 70’s Gold FM our teacher played every morning. However, under the sweet melodies of Bread, the mustache and I understood that we were engaged in a stand-off.
The next day, I remained seated while the pledge sounded off. The mustache told me to “GET!” And I got. The pledge is only about 45 seconds so everyone could see that my little trip to the hallway was silly. When it was over, I returned to work on Nefertiti’s smug smile. Karen Carpenter sang while the mustache crossed his arms in simmering rage. We kept this up for a full week. Mustache, Nefertiti, and Me, quietly lobbing the ball back and forth while Crosby, Stills, and Nash strummed their guitars.
Eventually there was a quiet concession on behalf of the mustache. I stopped going to the hallway and he stopped saying anything about it. Students continued to chant the pledge while I sat amongst them adding clay to Nefertiti’s receding chin.
The only event that got me to my feet was when the Twin Towers fell the following year. In my senior year of high school, I was still going strong in my new first period class, Food and Nutrition. I sat quietly and it seemed that my teacher didn’t mind. On September 11th, 2001, New York City was on fire. The fine particles and acrid scent would reach Suffolk County before the day was over. I stood for the pledge after that. My heart wasn’t in it but I stood because we were NEW YORK STRONG.
I even stood while brown kids were getting harassed and beaten in the streets. The Indian restaurant my mom and I went to closed for the week because the owner’s son was curb-stomped by patriotic white kids. I stood for a flag that would lose its shit during a national crisis. I hated myself for performing a feeling that wouldn’t last longer than a year. I understood, at the age of 17, that those planes weren’t the magic bullet to end racism and forge solidarity in our long-broken nation. I hated myself for giving up my sit-in for white students to freely say things like “towel head” and “we’ll put a boot in your ass.”
Years later, I would sometimes recite the Ballad of Not Saying the Pledge, misremembering that I maybe I was kind of an asshole. I’d tell the ballad to friends, laughing at the shit-stirrer I was back then. After watching Colin Kaepernick take a knee before playing football for millions, I realized that I had it wrong. I certainly was not an asshole kid who liked to stir shit. I was actually quite timid and wanted to be liked by everyone. But there was something about me that shifted, something that made me angry about performing for white people every day. I found out that nothing changed after 9/11. The flags we quickly bought were just tiny bandages desperately covering a festering wound in our history.
Fifteen years, hundreds of police shootings, and a maniacal president later; the Klan and the Neo-Nazis are back. A football player has taken on the wrath of an entire nation who still believe the lies of a Band-Aid flag. Kaepernick’s only crime is his simple attempt to clean the wound that has grown poisonous over centuries. Instead of performing for white America, he kneels.
I’m obviously not sorry for my small-scaled high school protest. I’m a teacher now and I hope that I meet a young version of myself who is not as timid as I was. I hope they that they continue to hold a mirror up to a nation that still makes false promises. And if they have to be dismissed to the hallway, I hope they go proudly. I’ll join them.
“Have a good day, Charish,” RJ* says every time he leaves my classroom. I wish him well as I wipe down the white board. When the classroom is clear of my college freshmen, I sit down and stare into space. In the empty room, my thoughts feel loud and echo against the walls. There’s something about RJ that bothers me. There’s a nagging thought that is burrowed in the back of my mind. This young man with his goofy grin and enthusiasm for classroom discussion reminds me of someone in my past. When RJ speaks up, it always comes from the gut, visceral and emotional. He, like most of my students, have learned that they can slip curse words into their vernacular and I won’t judge them for “keepin’ it real.”
“So like, I didn’t know how to be black when I was in high school,” he began with an nervous laugh. “I wasn’t white enough for the white kids and I wasn’t black enough for the black kids. Like, shit, cut me some slack. You know?”
I did know. We were reading a short excerpt from a memoir that echoed RJ’s sentiments. It was a lighthearted piece, but there were definitely undercurrents of pain and a desperate desire to belong. I think RJ picked up on what the author put down in a major way. He is a biracial boy, who might have a white mother and black father. I began to pick up on these clues when students talk about themselves in regards to our readings (I’ve hit the sweet spot in classroom discussion where students feel comfortable having a dialogue among themselves while I stand on the sidelines).
When it dawns on me, who RJ reminds of, it hurts my heart. When I was ten-years-old, living in Indiana, the only other black kid in my elementary school was Robert.* Well, I was the black kid and Robert was the “mixed” kid. We were the one and a half black kids at North Elementary. We rode the same bus and took the same 5th grade class. While I was the poor student who couldn’t do homework, I was also a nice kid. I was sociable and polite; keeping my rude comments, hands, and feet to myself. Robert was none of those things. He was loud, combative, and angry. So very angry.
At what, I wasn’t sure. I remember him playing basketball with the white boys and always ending up in fights with them. He was put into the corner by our teacher, Mrs. Hoffarth* and if it got bad enough, she sent him to the hallway for a spell. Mrs. Hoffarth was a very old woman who enjoyed children who were seen and not heard. I’m not entirely sure what she got out of teaching elementary-age students, but she seemed especially intolerant of Robert’s Nonsense.
My relationship with Robert was complicated. At a time when we started to notice boys, got our periods, and worried about our breast sizes, the girls of my class were a mess. Suddenly, it was decided that we should all make moves to obtain boyfriends. And naturally, the girls decided that Robert would be perfect for me because even then, Indiana kids knew “likes go with likes.” Never mind that Robert was more like a brother to me. He loved goofing around with my mother and me at our bus stop. She’d ruffle his tight sandy curls and make faces at him when he got on the bus, like he was her son. She once revealed to me: “I feel sorry for that Robert. His white momma doesn’t know what to do with him.” In my child-mind, I wondered if black kids having white mothers was a bad thing. But his family seemed like a sensitive subject, so I decided to leave it alone.
I wondered if family was what made Robert so angry that he fought so much on the playground. Was it his parents that made Robert bust some white kid’s lip (I later learned that the word “oreo” had been thrown around one to many times)? That was the incident that earned him week-long suspension, which was rather extreme at our school. While he was gone, there seemed to be a lightness in our classroom. It was as if the “bad element” was gone and we could finally learn in peace.
In his absence, Mrs. Hoffarth did the unexpected. She took this opportunity to express her grievances about a 10-year-old black boy and invited us to do the same. We had an impromptu meeting about The Robert Problem. I watched as, one by one, all of my white classmates voice their “concerns” about his behavior, while our teacher nodded thoughtfully. She interjected with a few “Mmh-hms,” and some exasperated “I know’s” before turning to me.
“Charish, you can tell us what wrong with Robert? Why does he do the things he does?”
My face grew hot under the sudden scrutiny. Up until then, I had listened quietly to the child mob tattle to their mom. I cringed when my secret crush Eric L. described how he felt when Robert shoved him and called him a “stupid white boy.” I didn’t have anything to add to this discussion, knowing that it was a cowardly way for Mrs. Hoffarth to wield her authority. All head turn to my directions; all eyes were on me. My mouth went dry.
“I don’t know.”
That didn’t satisfy our teacher and back then I didn’t know why. She tilted her head to the side and narrowed her eyes. “You and Robert seem very close. . . Are you sure you don’t know?”
Racism can be hard for a 10-year-old to spot. I couldn’t articulate the discomfort that I felt, I just knew this line of questioning was wrong. What she wanted to ask was: Is Robert’s behavior a cultural issue? Is this a black thing? Can you tell us more about the black experience?
Robert eventually came back to school. And when he did, he was transferred to Mr. Easton’s class. I rarely saw him, but when I did, he was quiet. His eyes were always downcast. When I tried to say hello to him or talk to him on the playground, he evaded me. He avoided all of the students from his former class. It wasn’t until we all got to middle school that Robert became a new boy. He was tougher, slicker, and understood long before I did, what it meant to be a black kid in Indiana.
I moved from Indiana and lost track of everyone from that school. But Robert was in the back of my mind wherever I went. It wasn’t until a year ago, I thought about him and couldn’t shake him. I tried to look him up on all of the social mediums, but his name was too commonplace. Hours of clicking led me to something startling. My chest felt tight when I saw his photo. His eyes were the same haunting green that I remember. As my eyes scanned the webpage, I began to cry.
I was reading what appeared to be a profile for inmate pen pals. My old friend was in prison, seeking female friends who could write him letters. He was sent there the same year I took my first teaching job in Thailand and he wouldn’t be released until 2026. We’re the same age. We came from the same bus stop, same classroom with Mrs. Hoffarth, same middle school with lockers down the hall from one another. We were on the same track: One and a half black kids from Indiana.
Students from my next class are starting to filter in. As they find their seats, I sigh inwardly. When we were kids, I didn’t know my path would lead me to the front of the classroom just as Robert didn’t know his fate lie behind bars. RJ is not Robert (most of what I think I know about him might be speculation), he’s made it much further than my old classmate. This kid is in college sorting out his major, making friends, and expressing himself in my class. I’m not his mother nor am I the lady at the bus stop who can ruffle his hair and make funny faces at him. I’m not even his friend. He has plenty of those already.
I’m his professor. The best thing I can do is not be the white teachers who give up so easily; the teachers who can’t see past the surface of a “bad attitude.” Had I known how precarious Robert’s future was, I would have tried harder. I still don’t know what that would have looked like but I know that 10-year-old Charish could have been more fierce with her loyalty.
Higher Education wasn’t meant for the underrepresented students like Robert and me. It doesn’t just open it’s gates to the black and brown kids of America. The students I get are diverse in class and race, but I can spot the kids who got to my class by the grace of God. They’re hanging on by a thread, worrying about their grades, money, or family back home. They haven’t shaken loose the past like I did. It’s all so tenuous and I can see it on their tired faces when they show up.
If I can just remember that every time I start class, maybe I can keep them on track for a little while longer. Maybe I teach because I’m still trying to save Robert. Perhaps I’m still trying to stand up for the black boy who was absent that day. I’m still desperate for the opportunity to articulate what Robert and I couldn’t. I suppose in a Trump world, now seems like a perfect time to be fiercely loyal to the Dreamers, the LGBTQ kids, and the black kids who need the loudest voice. I can keep trying to be that loud voice.
*names have been changed
I think I was about thirteen when I learned that black people can’t go just anywhere in the United States. It was a very quick, subtle lesson that could have easily been missed but I did spot the concern on my mother’s face when she said, “We’re not stopping in Rogers for anything.” She said this in response to my stepfather’s unfurled map of Northwest Arkansas. As they sat in the front of our family van, charting a route to Fayetteville, I paid close attention to the unspoken tension from the backseat.
My stepfather noted that there was no way of avoiding the town. We’d have to drive through it to reach our destination. But no, we would not stop. From our vacation home in Bella Vista, where money made more of a difference than color, I was more out of touch than I understood. I didn’t notice the lack of black folks in the tiny community, which was devoted to the Walmart corporation. There was literally a golf course behind our rental. Elderly white men, in their golf carts, regularly made stops yards from where I sat on the patio to read.
It was when we made plans to see the university town of Fayetteville, I was reminded that I was black and that I was definitely The Other. No amount of money would change the fact that when we hit the open rode someone would have to pee. There was a good chance that we’d have to pull over in one of those dinky Arkansas towns. Even if we drove through without gassing up, peeing, or stretching our legs— there was a good chance that state patrol could pull my stepfather over.
The journey only took an hour. It was mostly quiet aside from my parents speaking in hushed tones about this forbidden town of Rogers. “You just don’t stay around this area after dark. Everyone knows that,” said my mother. The tension didn’t let up until we got to the city limits of Fayetteville. Only then, my sister and I felt comfortable enough to start jostling around in the backseat. My parents began talking louder; their laughter was nervous with relief.
I didn’t fully understand the term “sundown town” until I was in college and I had read there were many of them in Illinois (where I went to school). If white people didn’t want blacks in their town after the sunset, they let us know it. In the Jim Crow South, The Negro Motorist Green-Book was a valuable lifeline for those who wanted to travel safely. This annual publication informed black travelers which hotels, restaurants, and service stations were relatively safe. Most importantly, the Green Book told us which towns to avoid entirely. This booklet, first published by Victor Hugo Green, probably saved lives in the 1960’s. In a time where the middle-class was booming for all Americans, families wanted to take road trips on the interstate highways. Black families wanted to go on vacation as well. It was just more. . . challenging for us.
I was thirteen-year-old in 1997 when my mother, a child of the 60’s, grew concerned about traveling through her native Arkansas. Twenty years later, in 2017, the NAACP has just issued a travel advisory for the entire state of Missouri. They ask that black people “use extreme caution” while traveling to or through the state. They cite incidents like the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, university students who received death threats in Columbia, and recently passed legislation that makes it difficult to sue employers who are guilty of discrimination. An entire state is on notice.
I have written and spoken about this before. I have described what it’s like to travel to Thailand, Finland, Estonia, and Ireland, as a black woman. I may have experienced awkward moments but I don’t remember a situation that made me grit my teeth and stay silent like my mother did in 1997. She knew better than I the dangers that lie in wait in our own backyard; that simple road trips could go horribly wrong if she didn’t keep her wits about her. What I didn’t realize was that things hadn’t really changed and that, in some cases, we were backsliding. I have a U.S. government-issued passport that will take me everywhere in the world. The sundown towns of my own nation. . . the jury is still out on that.
Fayetteville was nice. We had a chain-restaurant meal and did a little shopping but we didn’t stay too long. I’m now certain that while we had fun, my parents thought about the drive back to Belle Vista and the potential issues that could arise. We took off long before dusk. Our drive was quiet.
I let out a small gasp when I use the ATM machine. My husband stands over my shoulder and sounds frantic, “What??”
“They allow people to take out $3,000 at a time!”
He looks relieved. He thought there was something wrong with our account. “You’re in a casino.”
We are at Hollywood Casino because I want a sure bet: The Epic Buffet. I know that with $10 a piece, we won’t exactly beat the house, but we’ll leave properly satiated. But in order to get the buffet, my husband and I have to walk through the frenzied lights and sounds first. That’s when I see the hordes; tired and bored Toledoans parked in front of penny slots, pressing buttons and waiting. There are the usual gray-heads, but a few younger people as well. They all have one thing in common: Desperate hope. . . and probably addiction. Hence the $3,000 cash allowance at the ATMs.
My husband and I eat our meal, commenting that we’re the youngest people at the buffet. While I fork through my dry baked cod, I get the itch. I try push it to the back of my mind and continue eating. But on the second trip to the food line, I can’t help but sneak a peak into the open gaming area, back at the color lights and fake cash register sounds. The itch gets stronger and when I return to the table with my over-salted chicken, I tell my husband: “We’re going to play with $10 dollars before we leave.”
He raises a brow before saying that he didn’t bring any cash. I brush off his concerns. “They have ATMs.” He nods and goes back to eating.
Addiction, in my family, is a bit of an issue. I can trace it back to the stories my mother told me about her father, Archie. My grandfather was a drinker, gambler, and from the way mom had a penchant for dramatic flair, probably a horse thief as well. He came home regularly without important items like shoes. Perhaps he lost his shoes in a card game? My own father, though I didn’t know him well, had a deep relationship with alcohol and a menagerie of drugs. My uncle, a Vietnam veteran, was more or less on a similar path. The war did its best to solidify that path. These were the men in my family.
My own flirtation with addition first came in the form of gambling in college. I learned how to play poker in my school’s cafeteria and I’d like to believe I got good at it, until I didn’t. A dollar a hand was easy enough, but when I began seeking out the game instead of going to class, it was cause for concern. I put an end to it before it affected my grades because I was more afraid of failing than falling into a legacy. But addiction has a sneaky way of mutating itself. Gambling turned into smoking. I only quit smoking because I was scared into quitting. When a day-long asthma attack couldn’t be abated with a simple emergency inhaler, I had to haul-ass to an emergency clinic. I was on bedrest for days after, trying to catch my breath. Though my family’s legacy and my own flirtations haven’t gotten me into deep trouble, I still regard every sip of alcohol warily. It could always become the start of something sinister.
So I should know better than to withdraw money at a casino. Also, you can’t just pull $10 out; it has to be twenty. I find a machine to break my twenties into four 5 dollar bills. I give half of it to my husband, fearing that if I do this all on my own, it will take longer. And if it takes longer, I’ll start to enjoy it. We each take our ten and split up. Sitting at my machine, I don’t notice that it’s a penny-slot. This bores the hell out of me but I do get accustomed to pulling the arm. You press a button, pull the arm, and watch the cherries line up. Press, pull, watch. Press, pull, watch.
This goes on until the motions are robotic. The frenetic jingle-jangle noise fade into the background as my only objective becomes these three actions: Press, pull, watch. I lose that first $5. I move on to another machine and lose that money as well. My husband breaks even though. He has managed to retain his ten dollars and is satisfied. Nothing fazes him. I should be thankful that he gets no real pleasure from gambling. It makes it easier for him to guide me out of there. Truthfully, when I look around, I realize I get no real pleasure for being here either.
Toledo was promised a great deal when Hollywood Casinos broke ground. There were supposed to be jobs and the surrounding community was to be “revitalized.” Whatever that means. Things haven’t really materialized the way people thought they would. Downtown Toledo still looks bombed out. The revenue hasn’t made a dent in the homeless population or help curb the state’s opium crisis. The people who sit at slot machines and stand around the craps tables know it too. This place hasn’t changed the community for good or bad, we’re all just. . . stagnate.
I pause before we leave. No one looks happy as they flush money down the toilet. The scene is a far cry from the billboards and commercials that show young, vibrant people blowing on dice before they toss; jumping in the air and hugging when they strike it big. Beside me, there’s an ancient women who’s hair is pulled into a small tight knot. She’s wearing a Garfield the Cat t-shirt and purple sweat-pants. Her walker is parked next to the machine. As she slowly pulling a rewards card, something of a quick debit card, out of her machine, she lets out a tired sigh.
Seeing enough, I turn to my husband. “It’s time to go.”
As we walk to the elevators that lead to the parking garage, I see a sign that advertises El Dabarge’s free concert tonight. Now if that isn’t a sign from the gods, I don’t know what is. While my flirtation with addiction leaves me feeling hollow, the Epic Buffet certain does its job of filling my belly. I am suddenly reminded that I have the things I need. My husband and I have the basics and a little more to enjoy a meal out of the house, a trip to the theater, and coffee and a book at Barnes and Noble. There is real, tangible joy from those things. They aren’t based in fluke or luck.