Memoir by Jonita Davis
“What you do?” Trey sidled up to me like he was trying to hold my hand. He didn’t. The boy wanted information. He kept his mouth twisted in my direction and an eye to the man walking on the other side of me, that pale hand on my shoulder. “Momma gon’ kill you for bringing that white man to our house.”
He cackled. Probably at the thought of me getting a whipping without his being involved for once. He quickly stopped like he decided that was enough torture for me.
The white man in question was towering over all us, still chattering away. “I just need her to know that this is a big deal for our school and that you did such a good job getting on their radar …”
I had tuned him out. Trey was right. Momma was gonna kill me when she saw that this man had walked us home from school.
He wasn’t just any white man, he was THE MAN in charge of our school. Principal, Mr. Laborn. He was taller than my daddy and balding, but seemed to be happy about it. In fact, he was one of those people who is happy all the time. I never could understand them. He was particularly happy today. About something I did. So happy that he was walking us home from school to talk to my mom about it.
We lived around the corner from the school. Usually, we would run through the backyards and bypass the sidewalks on the street leading home. Aubry and her cousin were usually waiting to fight Trey and harass me. My other two brothers, Rob and Tony, normally ran ahead crying. They were only in kindergarten and first grade. Aubry and her cousins didn’t mess with the little kids. She and Trey were in the sixth grade, and I was in fifth. We were fair game.
As we passed Aubry’s group waiting for us at the corner, where we usually turned for the homestretch, they all just stood, jaws dropped almost down to their ashy knees exposed through holey denim pants. Momma would have killed us for leaving the house in holey clothes. She said it was a sign that Aubry and her cousins had no home training. Aubry’s short, stubby pigtails were the only thing on her that didn’t show how shocked she was to see the principal, hand on my shoulder, walking us home. The look on her face said that we were going to pay for this tomorrow.
“Hey kids!” Mr. Laborn said to them.
I don’t think he knew that he was saving Trey and me from a beat down. Audry and them stood stock still. They forgot how to speak. We kept walking, leaving them behind, short dirty ghetto statues.
Mr. Laborn kept talking, “… and I wanted to call, but I thought, no, this needs to be said in person …”
Wait, did he say ‘call’? Lawd, help me. “I gave you the number to leave a message at. Did you leave the message?” I asked. ’Cause the last thing I want to do is tell Momma that having a phone we couldn’t afford would have prevented the visit.
“No. I must speak with your mother in person …” he rattled on.
My stomach sank with every step we made closer to the house, situated in the middle of the block. We were there in a few steps, although they did seem to take forever. My little brothers had run ahead and apparently told Momma what and who was coming. They were grinning through worried eyes out the bay window overlooking the sidewalk leading to the house’s side door, the one we usually entered after school.
Momma was already on the porch. “What is this?” she asked, face straining to maintain composure, arms crossed for restraint, and a smirk that said I was in for it.
“Jo did it!” Trey yelled as he ran past her skirt, leaving it to swish in the warm wind.
She laid her gaze on me just enough to crack the memory of a switch in the air. “What did you do?”
“Uh, Miss Holley. She did nothing wrong,” Principal Laborn said. “In fact, I am here with good news!” He launched in on the speech he’d been rambling on the short walk over.
Every time he said a word like ‘gifted’ or ‘achievement,’ I looked up at my mother for some sort of sign that I had in fact done good by letting this man walk me home. He then followed with talk of money; words that forced my head down because I knew my momma sent me to the store with food stamps at least once a week. Money was one thing we ain’t got.
But, her face stayed tense, arms crossed. She let him make his whole speech before saying, “I’ll think about it and get back to you. Come on in this house, little girl.”
I looked up at Mr. Laborn to send a mental SOS. Abort, abort. Mission fail.
He got it. “Miss Holley, I am doing a poor job of relaying the information here. What I mean to say is that your daughter has done something no one in our school has ever done.”
My mom stopped her retreat into the house so fast at those words that I ran smack into her ample trunk. Good going, man. My eyes signaled. Keep going.
“Your daughter has caught the attention of the Indiana State Board of Education. They want to reward her high grades and test scores with a trip to college. This has never been done before for a student from our school.”
“I understand what you mean, but you must know, Mr. Laborn, that we don’t have the money around here for that type of stuff. We are not THOSE PEOPLE.”
“Oh, no, we aren’t asking for money. The teachers and I have already come up with the money to pay for things. We even have enough left over so that Jo can have spending cash during the trip.”
Wait, did he just say that they raised money for me? For me? I needed to stay calm ’cause this was new territory, and I wasn’t sure where Momma would go. If I was in trouble or if money were required, I could predict her actions. Not now. I could only watch.
And, her demeanor didn’t give out much in the way of hints. “So what do you want from me?” she was trying hard to keep her composure. I am not sure what was underneath, waiting to get out, though.
Fear is what I felt. Fear.
“Just sign this paper.” He took a folded sheet of paper out of his back pocket. “Give her permission to go on the trip. She will be chaperoned and safe. They will be staying in the Indiana State University dorms on campus with security always around. Your daughter will be safe. Please, Miss Holley. She earned this. She deserves this.”
Momma took the paper from the man.
“We’ll see. When do you need this back?”
“End of the week,” he said eagerly. “If you have any questions, please call or come by the school. We will find the answer. This is an amazing opportunity for your daughter. We want to help her take advantage of it.”
“All right. Thanks for stopping in. I’ll get back to you.”
Although her mouth was still saying maybe, Mr. Laborn and I both knew that she had been swayed. She was going to let me go. Two weeks living on a college campus with other fifth and sixth graders!
Mr. Laborn shook my hand and my mom’s. Then he turned and walked back to the street to head to the school. I realized that I had forgotten my fear from the walk over. I still wasn’t sure what Momma was going to do to me, but I followed her into the house. She held the door open for me, watched me walk in with her eyes at an inquisitive squint.
“Ummm Hmmmm. Why you bringing the white folks home with you?” she mumbled.
I got ready to defend myself, but she had already taken the letter and moved into the living room. I followed, but she didn’t stop. She continued into her bedroom where she paused at her dresser. I slowly walked toward her and stopped at the threshold of the room.
She was bent over the dresser with a pen pressed into the paper Mr. Laborn handed her.
“Looks like my baby is going to college,” she whispered just loud enough for me to hear. She handed me the paper and told me to put it in my bag to take to school the next day. I couldn’t see her face through tearing eyes as I grabbed it. I hugged her quick before she could say anything and ran to my room.