by Bernadette Luckett
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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,
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
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.
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.
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
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
she let go of the bat.
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.
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.
was sorry I had called her black.
I was sorry being black was bad.
was sorry I had sat in an unprotected section of the bleachers.
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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