by Jessica Forbes
“Look at your hair. Can I touch it?” Leah, a recent friend of mine, asks me as I sit beside her at a round lunch table. Without waiting for an answer, she runs her fingers through my hair. “You have pretty hair. I wish I had your hair,” she exclaims with a pout.
“Thank you,” I mutter and give a quick, forced smile while trying not to noticeably pull away as she continues to play with my hair. Leah does have my hair. In fact, most of our physical appearances are alike. We both have brown hair and brown eyes, and are average heights. However, a couple of my attributes are noticeably different. In my home, I am accepted for them, even reprimanded if I’m caught lacking confidence, but at my high school, I am constantly reminded in the cafeteria of my “uniqueness.”
“Is it real?” she blurts. I give her a sharp look and sit up properly, lifting my shoulders, straightening my back, and holding my head higher. “I mean, what’s your hair naturally like? Do you, like, have a fro or somethin’? Your hair’s so thick. How long does it take you to straighten it?” I cringe a bit and look down at my tray of school food, picking at the instant mashed potatoes with my spoon.
“I’m not sure,” I answer for both questions. I take a quick bite of food and look around the cafeteria at the sea of white, trying to end the conversation. Leah doesn’t recognize the hint and keeps talking, but I ignore her petty comments. A group of camouflage-clad, Red Wing-wearing teenagers glares at me from a table across the cafeteria. I glare back as a group of three boys suddenly plops down at our round table.
“You can’t have that,” Tim, the group leader, says, grabbing a food item from his best friend, Alex.
“Why not?” Alex exclaims, trying to grab his food back. “Is it ’cus I’m black?” He isn’t black, but the saying seems to be popular in my segregated school. His arm is smacked quickly and all eyes turn toward me. Silence overwhelms the table for a few seconds. Then, the boys quickly turn back toward each other, snorting and cackling over their obnoxious joke.
“Sorry, Jess,” Ben, the last of the three boys, says. He looks slightly embarrassed by the other two. I give another forced, tight-lipped smile. He changes the subject quickly. “Did you finish your AP Government homework?”
“Yes, I did,” I reply.
Tim mimics my words, emphasizing my “yes.” “Why do you talk like that?” He asks with a mouth full of food. “Why are you so…proper? What was the word she used in class today?” He looks around at his small group of friends.
“Concise?” Alex recalls. “Yeah! Concise.” Cackling starts again. He slouches and rests his arms on the table, leaning toward me. “What kinda word is that? Geez, you act whiter than I am with all your…proper-ness.” I stare at him, any amount of emotion washed from my face. We are all seniors sitting at the table. Words like “concise” should be familiar.
Tim looks from his best friend to me and speaks up, still chewing his food, “Why don’t you talk anymore, Jess? You used to be really, like, outgoing and stuff.” I shrug and look around the cafeteria again, putting an end to another conversation. I don’t talk anymore because I’m made fun of for saying words like “concise.”
I think for a second and ask, “What did you mean? I act white?”
Alex answers, “Like, you don’t act black, ya know?”
My face starts growing warm, and I blurt, “So how exactly is a black person supposed to act?”
He squirms in his seat a bit. “I dunno. I guess, you ain’t, like, ‘gangsta’ or something, and you speak too good.”
I roll my eyes and spring from the table, trying not to be upset by his ignorance. “I’ve lived in this town longer than you have. Of course I’m not going to act ‘black,’ but you know what? I am black, so explain to me why speaking well is unacceptable for me because of my skin color!”
I grab my tray and strut to the dumping area but am interrupted by a boy from the “redneck” group. He spits on the floor in front of me and smacks my tray from my hand as he walks past. He throws over his shoulder an obscene, slang word as everyone in the cafeteria stops and stares at the commotion. My fists clinch and I grit my teeth, my chest heaving and my face boiling hot for a minute or two. Then, I collect myself, hold my head up, let my jaw relax, and walk out of the cafeteria.
Once home, I am speaking nonstop, recounting the events of the day to my family as my white mother rushes around the kitchen, preparing chicken enchiladas with rice, and my black father drops his company vehicle keys on the kitchen table.
“I did really good on my math quiz today. You know I was struggling a bit this week, but I think I finally understand what I am learning in Trig.”
“Don’t say ‘good,’” my mother lashes out at me. “The correct word is ‘well.’” She crashes her way through the pots-and-pans cupboard, and I wonder if she heard any part of my announcement other than my grammatical error. I restate my first sentence correctly and am reprimanded again by my father.
“Sit up straight,” he commands. “Quit slouching.” I sigh and remove my elbows from the dressed dining table. I think of Leah’s comments in the cafeteria as I straighten my back and shoulders. I grab from the glass bowl full of freshly picked fruit sitting on the table and chomp down on a juicy, bright green apple just as my father asks me a question and looks at me expectantly for an answer. I glance at him while chewing fervently. I am making slow progress on swallowing my giant bite of apple, but I am not about to answer my father with my mouth full.