Challengers and Georgio Girls

30 Jan

me 1986It’s 1986 and I’ve just transfered to the gifted class at then new school. I have just turned ten. Two days later three girls from my class would get to spend the entire day watching television footage of the Challenger disaster, while the rest of us worked on assignments. I didn’t know why these girls were special, I accepted their status as fact. Their apparent worth only confirms for me my lack there of.

Though I am only ten, I am in the final stages of puberty. It has hit me hard. I stand a towering 5-feet and two inches (I would only grow one more inch before leaving elementary school, which would in turn be my adult height). Nearly C-cup breasts sprout from my chest. I am the only black face on this classroom. Only one of eleven in a 1200 student school.

These three girls are a special clique. Everyone is reading The Babysitters Club books and these girls have created a real life club of their own. The call themselves The Georgio Girls and they meet one day a week after lunch. The Georgio is for an expensive and pungent perfume that was well marketed and trendy at the time. i never cared for the sent, but throughout the late eighties you could identify every middle income woman who pretended to be wealthy by how long the scent of her Georgio perfume lingered after she’d left a room.

Tanya was the head of the club. She was a tall, academic-minded girl with square shoulders and glasses. Her father was a lawyer and she lived in the neighboring affluent community. Like me, the school was not her neighborhood school. she was allowed in because of the GATE program. Tanya commanded authority because she did not have to ride her bike or walk to school, like everyone else did. She was an only child and was used to getting what she wanted. Life in our fourth grade classroom was no different. Tanya pretty much always got what she wanted, including the privileged to watch thew news all day with her friends.

Kelly was a tom boy, but her pretty face and long blonde hair suggested more future prom queen than future lesbian. She was athletic and played softball and soccer at a time when not many girls did. Kelly was one of those friendly people who was liked by almost everyone. It never made sense to me why she was in this power clique, except that she had three brothers and these girls offered an ultra-feminine contrast to her male-dominated home.

Tammy was a waif-thin Mormon who had five brothers and sisters. She took dance and gymnastics and had long, dark curly hair. She was one of those people who had been told she was cute and pretty her entire life. She sometimes talked about going on auditions for commercials and television shows and would one day perform in the school auditorium during an all-school assembly as a member of The Safety Kids.

For some reason, mostly novelty, these girls decide to befriend me toward the end of the school year. I was desperate for connection and friendship, things I hadn’t managed to find since we’d moved from our old neighborhood the previous summer. The new house had put a strain on my parents. My dad worked a second job at the Shell gas station and while I wasn’t ashamed of this, I felt like it was some secret I need to keep. My brother, who had fought long and hard to avoid moving to this neighborhood, had become an instant celebrity at his junior high, making my awkwardness feel al the more awkward. We lived on a new street, in a partially-developed neighborhood. It would be two years before all of the houses around us would be finished and sold. The silence at night was so deafening, it was difficult at times to sleep.

The Georgio Girls decided they would allow me to eat lunch with them and I welcomed the privilege, though I wasn’t exactly sure why it was being bestowed on me. I hung out with them and laughed at their jokes. I listened to the rules. Something about having to wear two tank tops at once and Chrissie shoes by Bass that you could only buy at Nordstrom. I’d never been in one. And of course the most important rule: Georgio Girls wear Georgio perfume every day. I didn’t own it. I wasn’t a Georgio Girl. I couldn’t even fake it. I don’t know why these girls are hanging out with me, but I am needy, desperate for their attention and approval.

So it happens that one day, perhaps less than a week, that the Georgio Girls decide to make me their new pet, we are walking from the lunch arbor to the playground for a post-lunch game of jump rope, when Tammy grabs my arm and screams, “Ohmygod! Look!”

larm bells are going off inside, but I don’t know what to be afraid of. I smile and we the other two girls pull in toward us. Tamy grabs my hand. “Look at her hand!” she squeals, and proceeds to flip it from palm to knuckle-side. The other girls stare on. My heart is pounding and I am confused by the attention. I can’t figure out what they are marveling at.

“That’s so weird,” Tammy continues. “Her hand’s a different color on each side.” More flipping. My ears are filling with the sound of rushing blood. They burn. So do my eyes. I stand there, my arm flipping like a rag doll’s. I want to disappear.

“Why does it look like that?” she asks. I am not sure what she’s asking. It’s my hand. My black hand. Hasn’t she ever seen a black hand befo–

The question is disruoted in my mind before I can even ask it. She hasn’t. None of these girls have. Their eyes are unified. I’m a freak. A novelty. A fun little knick knack you twirl around in your hands at a gift shop, but would never buy. And in the seconds that I stare into these girls eyes I see everything that I have come to believe about myself:

I am ugly.

I am strange.

I am shameful.

I am worthless.

And I smile at these girls, these girls who are everything that I am not. I pull my hand gently away and say what I think they want to hear, “Well, I guess god had to make us white somewhere.” They smile and laugh. I try to keep from crying. Not because they’re laughing, but because I know that what I have just said is wrong. I fight back the tears as we continue on to the playground, heartbroken that I have just given the only response I could think of.

This post was inspired by Julie Pippert’s Hump Day Hmm for January 30, 2008.

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16 Responses to “Challengers and Georgio Girls”

  1. Robert January 30, 2008 at 11:11 pm #

    Sounds like you had a pretty rough time with what you had to do to assimilate. Did you continue to be part of their group? Did you think what you fained in education was worth what you were giving up of yourself to get it?

    I had a good black friend in high school who had similar statistics to deal with in her classes, and she chose to go to an all-black college for a really nice scholarship. I wonder sometimes if that was her subconscious (or conscious) attempt to regain some of her racial identity.

  2. Yolanda January 31, 2008 at 7:03 am #

    Great questions, Robert. I didn’t remain part of their group, but I didn’t leave because of my “otherness.” Students who were behind in their assignments had to stay in a recess and I was perpetually behind in math, because I had gone six months without instruction (see here). But like your friend, I leapt at the chance to escape being the only black face in a sea of whites and Asians, and for junior high I was bussed to a magnet program at a school in the poorest part of town with a student body that was 80% latino and 20% black. It didn’t end my experience of otherness and explaining that might just lead to another post…

  3. Garrett January 31, 2008 at 7:48 am #

    I feel sorry for those girls… They are only in the 4th grade and already they are so far off track from what should be right and important in their lives. 10 year olds are old enough to start thinking they actually know something when really they don’t know anything. All they know is what their parents and “friends” tell them. I use the term friends loosely because 10 year olds don’t know what real friends are. There are many adults who don’t know what friends are.
    “I smile at these girls, these girls who are everything that I am not.” This statement is so absolutely true. You certainly are not those girls and you never have been nor will be. For that I am thankful, you are a much better than that. It’s sad really because those girls are only 10 and it’s not their fault they behave the way they do and think what they do. They are doing the only thing they know and understand and I feel sorry for them. :(

  4. Julie Pippert January 31, 2008 at 8:22 am #

    Oh Yolanda…my heart broke for you, reading this. How hard to feel like a fish out of water. I totally understand the desire to accommodate and fit in. BTDT too many times.

    I spent my beginning years in really diverse areas. I was always happy there. You read my 8th grade break? We moved to a white bread area, sounds a lot like what you describe. It was dreadful, just dreadful. This is one GREAT thing about where we are and one reason we chose here…so diverse. I think i associate diversity with happiness. I had never thought of that before, seriously, never had until now.

    I am so into your story now, eager to know what happened next, how you overcame this, did it work out, were you ever comfortable and happy in school—find your place.

  5. Yolanda January 31, 2008 at 10:11 am #

    Garrett–
    These girls were like many girl: privileged, sheltered, and from the dominant culture. At ten they had never been forced to think outside the small world of their suburban community where everyone looked like them and the world they saw in television reflected, essentially, the life they lead. They were materialistic and opportunistic and those world views were supported at home and by the culture at large. I can’t blame them for their ignorance and their small understanding of the world. And were I different person at that time, I might have found their small-minded amusement at my hands completely laughable. I have always mourned my reaction much more than their ignorance.

  6. Garrett January 31, 2008 at 10:13 am #

    You require to much of yourself… you were ten… YOU DIDN’T KNOW ANYTHING!

  7. Yolanda January 31, 2008 at 10:19 am #

    Julie-
    I know exactly what you mean about diversity contributing to your quality of life. Garrett and I have contemplated several moves during the past few years, but I have been turned off by ethnic ratios of 90% white. There is nothing strange to me about being the only black face in a sea of others, though I never fail to notice it (in a restaurant, at a movie, an office meeting, a college course)….

    Sigh. Much to be explained abut that. Another post, another post.

    But, yes. There is more to my school story. Much more left to be told. It’s odd actually that much of this story has come to be centered on race so far. It’s a third rail for me. A topic I like to stay fr away from, because my feelings are so mixed up and I have so little clarity. I almost titled this post “Sell Out,” which tells you how complicaed things are for me.

  8. Garrett January 31, 2008 at 10:50 am #

    I have a difficult time with moving to an area thats 5 percent black people or less… And because of that you know the interracial ratio is going to be even worse. We’ll be like one of 10 couples in the whole city.
    At the same time though I ask myself.. how will that ever change if nobody of color or diversity moves there?? But, like many things I let my fear guide me. Fear guides me much more than I wish it did. I learn this more and more as I move through life lately.

  9. Yolanda January 31, 2008 at 11:12 am #

    Garrett–
    Oh my beloved you’re comment-happy, today. :-)

  10. Robert January 31, 2008 at 11:57 am #

    I grew up in an environment where I was well known and well liked, and I seldom was faced with adversity in my education until I went to college. I did not struggle academically. The great irony was that I was there on a very nice scholarship, but my hallmates all assumed I must be stupid because of my major (business, which at a Tech school is viewed like some people viewed the “short bus” classes in elementary school). At first I was ostracized because I was “stupid”, then because my computer did not connect to the network (though none of them were able to diagnose why, and I finally proved I was right about it six months later), and then because they found out I was not stupid but one of those “scholarship kids”. They were helped in learning this by my roommate who, after hearing one of the other guys on the hall screaming a tirade about how much he hated kids with my sort of scholarship and wanted to ask one how they got it, decided to simply say “Ask Robert, he’s got one.” When this boy had been thinking I was a “slow” kid and suddenly I had something he wanted, he literally never spoke to me again except to occasionally swear at me. Oh, and one other time: to ask me if I would hold a class for him in my registration schedule so he could get in it.

    Somehow I never got away from being an outsider, even though I tutored everyone on the hall in chemistry (they gave me old tests, I wrote my answers on them to study, and they all studied my answers) and several in calculus (since I had tested out of the class that made them so much better than me to be taking). I was asked literally every day on that campus ‘why are you here?’ by someone, and by the end of my second term there, my response was simply “I ask myself that every day” and by the beginning of the third that changed to “Don’t worry, I won’t be much longer.”

    Again, I did not leave over difficulty with grades – I made the Dean’s List all three terms (two 4.0’s). I left because the atmosphere was so venomous, I knew it would kill me to stay. I was also displeased with how dishonest the business school had been about their effort to improve everything about the school, but I sat in classes where profressors blatantly helped athletes cheat (one stood in full view of TA’s bringing in worksheets filled out so each jock only had to write his name on the group of papers and hand it in).

    So, I can definitely empathize with feeling like an outsider. I just didn’t have any racial reasons behind mine.

  11. Robert January 31, 2008 at 11:58 am #

    Oh, and if you’re looking for a city that is accepting of mixed-race couples, Atlanta is a great one. There’s a large black population, too, but the cosmopolitan feel of the place is generally accepting of all sorts of people.

  12. Lynne January 31, 2008 at 4:58 pm #

    I absolutely can relate to the cruelness of 10-year-olds (though not for the same reason). To a certain extent, yes, they’re parroting their parents. But even at that age, there are some who have realized that their parents are small-minded idiots and chosen the different path. Unfortunately, they tend to not be the ones who scoop up those of us who are so desperate for friendships.

  13. Yolanda January 31, 2008 at 8:22 pm #

    Lynne and Robert–
    I identify with you both. One can feel a sense of otherness, regardless of race, gender, etc. In fact much of my experience of otherness throughout my life has had much more to do with class than race. And I don’t dismiss the capability even the youngest kids have to be cruel and mean. I’m not sure whether these girls were “mean girls.” So much of the angst I carried at that time derived from the tremendous senses of loneliness and alienation I had throughout adolescence. The incident with the hand tapped into something that ran very deep for me. Unfortunately, as deep as it ran, it bubbled just under the surface and was easy to bleed out.

  14. Robert February 1, 2008 at 7:50 pm #

    My angst against Tech might have been misplaced somewhat, since I’ve definitely known graduates from there that are not like the guys on my hall. I think I just got a particularly bad batch to live with, but it made my life there miserable. I didn’t appreciate having to fight the school all three terms I was there for the money in the scholarship they promised me. I didn’t appreciate not getting the full benefit of their on campus ethernet until I had about two months left. I really didn’t appreciate how bad most of my business professors were at teaching (or even understanding how to teach) their subjects. But it all added up to one big bad experience with almost no highlights – and none of those really had anything to do with the school, but instead with people I happened to experience those things with while I was in school there. The experience poisoned my experience at my new school, too, but thankfully I went back to that school for graduate school and was able to make the most out of my return. I’m a much happier person than I was when I left Tech, but I’m also wiser about how easily a bad situation can bring down even the best students.

  15. cadiz12 February 4, 2008 at 10:41 am #

    i distinctly remember watching a segment on Sesame Street that showed palms when i was probably four or five, and thinking to myself, “self, if you just show your palm, no one would be able to tell you aren’t white!”

    thinking about that now makes me kind of sick.

  16. Yolanda February 4, 2008 at 11:59 am #

    Ah, Cadiz. I had never considered this story in more universal terms. But I suspect we are not alone in this experience.

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