I Remember Sixteen
December 18, 2017
In the dark of my room, after all the lights have been turned off and I am drifting off to sleep, I often think of times gone by. I remember myself as a young girl, sixteen years old, who could not envision what life would be like at 20 years old, 30 years old, or more. She had trouble, as did many teenagers, trying to envision the next day. Anything further was a mystery to be contemplated, perhaps, but too far away to trouble about.
Sixteen. Fraught with body images, no different than today's girls. Fraught with worry about fitting in - wondering where to fit in since her world was full of so many differing groups of people. She was a teenager, she should fit in with her peer group. But, she didn't. She was a sibling, she should fit in somewhere in the family dynamic, but she didn't. She was a writer, yes, even then, perhaps she fit in with other writers. But, no, not even there.
I do remember, in the blackness of the world just before sleep comes, being so shy and uncertain of who I was or who I was supposed to be. Wondering if... I was. Kind of existential, though I didn't know it, then.
"You're a crybaby," one of my classmates once said to me. He was smirking, because he knew that would upset me. It might even make me cry.
"What?" I remember whispering, because I wasn't sure why he would say such a thing.
"You cry about everything," he said. His brown eyes bore into me, as if slipping the sword deeper into my heart.
I am not sure why it was a bad thing to be a crybaby, except that I did try to depict a strong character, a strong aura; I was always standing up for weaker classmates. It was something I felt deeply about - counter-acting bullies. After all, I'd been bullied, not that long before. That was one reason I bristled at the 'crybaby' label. I mean, who would ever be afraid of a crybaby?
I am not sure what I did next. We were in the busy hallways of my high school. Moving from class to class.
"You don't know me," I think I said. I can see my face, grimacing in anger, but also confusion. WHY was he calling me a crybaby?
"You cried at the movie," he said, his grin growing bigger, taking over his face. He had a nice face. A face I liked. Sort of... an L.L. Cool J look. He was large, like L.L. Cool J. and had that swagger. But, to my knowledge, he was a gentle soul. Quiet and shy. He kept to himself. We were friends, but only in school. This was 1968, he was black, I was white, and never the twain should meet, beyond school walls.
I started to understand his statement. The movie he was talking about was Romeo and Juliet, circa 1968, directed by Franco Zeffirelli. Our English class, and perhaps several others, had taken a 'field trip' (I wonder if they still call them that, today) to a movie theater, to see the Shakespeare play in a movie setting, as Zeffirilli saw it. It was unique. The main characters were teenagers and kept to the language of the time - not our time, their time.
Then, as now, I find the story one of deep sadness. Yes, I cried. Perhaps many of the girls cried. How my schoolmate knew, I don't know. I don't remember if we were seated near each other, or not. Regardless, his statement rang true in my heart because, despite my outward appearance of solidness, steel, coolness to all, inside, I was a crybaby. I cried at everything!
"You cried..." and he gave me other instances he'd seen me cry. I honestly don't remember them, now. I remember being surprised that he knew about them, however. I remember turning many shades of red, and feeling tears well up in my eyes.
Nothing came of his declaration. He moved on to his next class, and I moved on to mine. Neither of us brought it up again. Yet, it stayed with me all these years. Crybaby. Clearly, an insult. Clearly, not something anyone should be. Clearly, his way of putting me in place. A place where he was dominant. Which, I will tell you, was not easy in those days.
I once asked him why he was always so quiet and stayed in the shadows (which was hard for him to do, given his size and that sunlit smile). His answer troubled me, but at the time, I certainly had no idea what to do about it.
"I keep to myself," he said, not looking me in the eye. "'Cause there are too many of y'all around."
Y'all... white people.
I remember a lot about high school, about being fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen. But, I don't remember thinking I was different than my friends who were African American. I wish I had. I wish I had known what they were experiencing. How life was different for them.
I remember being friends with the majority of students in the school, many of whom were African American. And then, I remember going away for the summer, to my Dad's in Maine, NY, a rural community outside of Endicott, NY, in 1968. I remember being insulated from the outside world, where race riots were taking place, even in my hometown of Rochester. I remember going back to school in September, and being shunned by my former friends, because they had determined that all white people were untrustworthy and two-faced.
I remember being shocked at what had gone on while I was away enjoying the stream behind my Dad's trailer; enjoying the barefoot feel of my feet in the grass and living among nature, with nothing more to do than read, listen to music, and watch a little TV. While my high school friends were in turmoil, of a kind I will never fully understand as I was then and am now of the privileged white race. (did I try to understand? yes, of course, but it's a unique experience and I can only try to understand...I can never fully 'get it'.)
"You're a hypocrite," one black friend told me, sneering into my face.
"Why?" I asked. I was surprised and confused.
"When was the last time you visited my house?" she asked.
I sighed. I had never visited her house. My mother wouldn't allow me to. And, in those rough times of my life, I rarely defied my mother. I defied many other people, but not my mother.
So, a hypocrite I became. In name, if not in action. To this day, I don't expect her to understand how extremely impossible it would have been for me to defy my mother and visit her at her house.
Am I still? Well, I am a crybaby.
A hypocrite I hope not. I have no one to hold me back and I have learned through the years that I should have/could have defied my mother. I could have visited my friends in their homes, and let my mother rant about it. I believed in the rights of all my friends, race or creed notwithstanding, and I should have acted accordingly.
The problem is, the underlying reason of not defying my mother was totally separate from the issues of the day. It had nothing to do with race, on my part. It had to do with being a lost soul - forever drifting in a shadowy world no one, none of my friends or my family, could see or understand.
And so, today, I remember that sixteen year old girl and how she couldn't make sense of life, of her life, of the world around her. She preferred to stay home alone and read, oh! how much easier was that! And somehow, she, like so many others, didn't imagine a life beyond - say, 19 or 20 - she allowed her lack of vision to insulate her from action.
Right or wrong, that was who I was. And in my soul, I remember that young girl, and how she did cry - about not being stronger, and she did feel the sting of the label 'hypocrite', as she felt so misjudged by it.
If she could have known, just a bit of what I know now, how different she might have been.
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