FRESH YARN presents:

Nadine Washington
by Bernadette Luckett

Everything about Nadine Washington was big. She was the tallest person in our fifth grade class. She was the tallest person in all of St. Columba's Elementary school. Her voice was the loudest in the schoolyard and her arms, her legs, her hands and her hair were massive. Even with your eyes closed, you could sense when Nadine was around. Her presence was overpowering. And if she was walking toward you, it was like a herd of buffalo heading your way. You'd feel the rumbling under your feet and in a panic, you'd run to avoid the stampede.

Everyone made fun of Nadine, except me. She was the only person the class bully, Earl Atkins, would stop teasing me to go after. I liked her for that. And I felt sorry for Nadine and her bigness, and the anger she felt about the unfairness of it all.

Aside from her weight, her height and her large limbs, Nadine was the darkest person at school. I think she was the darkest person I had ever seen, with skin tones at St. Columba's ranging from vanilla to caramel, caramel to mocha, mocha to chocolate and chocolate to… Nadine. It was a time when it wasn't so wonderful to be dark.

St. Columba's schoolyard was a large, gray cement rectangle, caged in by a Cyclone fence. At lunch, different cliques of girls sat on green wooden benches that lined the perimeter, gossiping about boys and trading lunches. I didn't belong to any one clique. Actually, I didn't belong to any clique. But this one time, for the first time, I was sitting with the popular girls. See, I had been sitting alone and they came over and told me to move, so I wasn't really with them, but… if you drove by in a car and looked into the yard, you might think I was.

In a grand gesture of sucking up, I offered them my lunch to pillage. I had made it myself and it had all my favorites: a tuna sandwich, with separately wrapped lettuce and tomato, so the bread wouldn't get soggy; Laura Scudder's barbeque potato chips, which I was about to smash up into delicious crumbly pieces and sprinkle onto my tuna; and two pink Hostess Snowballs, which I routinely ate in ritualistic fashion starting with the creamy white center, then peeling off the pink marshmallowy coconut layer, and finishing up with the chocolate cakey middle. They grabbed my bag and tossed me back some mystery meat sandwich which I ate, taking tiny bites and pretending to enjoy it while trying to control the gagging.

I sat there and listened to the popular girls talk. I laughed at their jokes, acknowledging their comments with interjections of approval. Then, the ground began to vibrate. Everyone looked up and saw Nadine bounding toward us from across the yard. Nadine's large legs were equally thick at the knee, calf and ankle, making them look more like tree trunks than human limbs. As she approached, one of the girls joked, "Look at Nadine's fat legs." We all laughed and in my eagerness to belong I added, "Yeah, black just like her face!"

The laughter stopped.

What the hell was I saying? In an attempt to cover, I faked a coughing fit then mumbled something about a food allergy. But it didn't work. Everyone was staring at me, then at Nadine. When I saw her face I knew she had heard what I said. In one second, everything about her seemed to shrink. Her big, wide-toothed grin disappeared, her full lips sucked inwardly like pulled by some great implosive force. Her whole face shriveled up into a pained, dried-apple doll expression. She spun around like a tornado and whirled back across the yard and into the school, crying… loudly. "That wasn't very nice, Bernadette," one of the popular girls said. "You made fun of her too," I answered. "That's different," she said as she shoved the rest of my pink Snowball into her mouth.

Sister Mary Catherine let Nadine go home early that day, then she took me aside for a talk. She was solemn. She sat in her heavy oak principal's chair, swaddled up in black and white nun clothes. Her fingers fidgeted with the wooden beads of the long, black rosary that was attached to her side. She stared at me and spoke slowly, careful to enunciate each word as if doing so would drive the words deeper into my brain. Her white face was flushed and became redder as she spoke. She began. "Bernadette, Nadine is sensitive about her color. You should never call someone black." As bad as I felt about the whole thing, I didn't want to be in trouble. I immediately went on the defensive explaining that Nadine's legs were black and what I said wasn't really an insult, as much as an honest observation. She wasn't buying it. We were still Negroes then. I was a Negro too but I was a 'good' color of brown and Nadine wasn't. Black wasn't beautiful yet. Black was an insult.

Nadine skipped school the next day too. That made me feel worse. Everyone in my class was mad at me for what I said to her. Sure, it was okay for them to call her a cow, or King Kong or joke about her every day of her life, but I had crossed that invisible color line.

When Nadine finally came back to school, she didn't talk to me anymore. Everyone was nice to her for a while. I was happy that at least some good had come from it. Then, all the kids fell back into old patterns and Nadine became the butt of jokes again.

At the end of an unforgiving year, we had our class picnic. I sat in the bleachers watching my classmates play baseball. Nadine was up. She picked up the largest wooden bat and took a few practice swings. I clenched my teeth together to prevent any spontaneous remark from slipping out. There was no way I was going to be responsible for another black on black crime. Earl Atkins pitched the ball. It sped by Nadine a little on the inside, just below her waist. It was a bad pitch. I saw that, but Nadine didn't. Her hands tightened around the bat and her face tensed up. Her whole body twisted with all its mighty force and spun around swinging the bat, slicing through the air. The ball whizzed by. Nadine caught up in the velocity of the spin continued around in a circle, clouds of dust rose up from her feet and then… she let go of the bat.

It flew, slow motion, in lopsided circles across the field, across the bleachers, right toward my head. I went through the process of seeing the bat, registering the picture, thinking about the implied danger and concluding the need to take action. As my brain screamed at my muscles to move, I learned that the velocity of a thrown bat was far greater than the speed of my mental processes. The thick side of the spinning bat made full contact with the side of my head and I dropped, out of the conscious world, to blackness.

When I woke up I was lying down on the bleachers, looking up at nuns and the entire fifth grade class. Someone was yelling for ice. I was embarrassed and quickly tried to sit up. My head hurt but I lied and said I was okay. Disappointed, everyone dispersed, except for the nuns and Nadine Washington. She was holding my hand and crying huge, wet tears that splashed onto my arm. Nadine said she was sorry. I started crying too and said I was sorry.

I was sorry I had called her black.

I was sorry being black was bad.

I was sorry I had sat in an unprotected section of the bleachers.

And I was sorry that I had to learn the hard way, that the hurt you give out, always comes back to you. I'll always remember that. You don't have to hit me in the head with a baseball bat.


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