A SPOT OF VANILLA IN A SEA OF CHOCOLATE
by Mary Elizabeth (Leach) Raines
© M. E. Raines, 2017
“She tells me to take off my dress,” says Tanya. Her raspy voice has a high-pitched growl like that of a tiger cub. “I take off my dress.”
Tanya is entertaining our class by explaining why she has been absent from school. Her pigtails, as tiny and as defiant as she is, stick out at sharp angles from the sides of her head like pieces of frizzy twine, clamped at the ends by white barrettes. I sit right behind her, mentally tracing the grime-embedded grooves in the plastic of those barrettes as she continues her salacious story.
“Then she says to me, ‘Take off your slip.’” It is 1957. Slips are an indispensable undergarment. Even impoverished girls like Tanya wear slips. “I take off my slip. Next she says, ‘Take off your socks.’ I take off my socks.”
Tanya pauses dramatically and surveys the kids who are clustered around her. “Then she says, ‘Pull down your underpants.’ I pull them down. I is stark neggid.” A ripple of titillation runs through the class. “Next my mamma tells me to lie face down on the bed. She says, ‘Don’t you dare move, or you’re gonna get it even worse.’”
Unable to repress a grin at the attention she is receiving, Tanya’s tan cheeks turn into walnuts. She then proceeds to describe in lurid detail a savage whipping her mother has given her, the worst yet. This one has kept her out of school for a week.
“My neighbor lady saw me in the hall,” concludes Tanya with a proud smile. “She says to me, ‘Girl, you still alive? After hearing you scream, I thought for sure your mamma done kill you!’”
Lots of kids brag about their beatings, but Tanya’s story is the most brutal I’ve heard. Even though she is smaller than anyone else in our fifth grade, she is the undisputed alpha of the class. In our school, the tough girls rule, and scrawny Tanya is the toughest of them all. The boys have their own barbarian world, one that involves a lot of fist fights and rumors of violence. Once they enter the doors of the school, however, they sink into a mute and collective invisibility, subject to absolute domination by the girls.
I am terrified of Tanya and, like the boys, I try hard to be invisible. You do not want to cross her. Despite being the size of a seven-year-old, she is scrappy and mean. Lines run along her mouth like the wrinkles that are usually only seen on hardened middle-aged women, and her scratchy voice sounds as though she has been smoking two packs of cigarettes a day since birth. The very mildest retribution Tanya bestows on those she deems to be her enemies is to put thumbtacks on their desk chairs. She makes enemies easily, so I always check my seat before sitting down. A number of the girls in our class have missing clumps in their hair, hollowed-out scoops in otherwise smooth surfaces. These pockmarks are the ruins left when gum has had to be cut out. Sticking gum in another girl’s hair for no particular reason is one of Tanya’s favorite torments. The very worst that Tanya might do to her enemies remains sketchy, but I suspect that it is dreadful. She is easily capable of carrying out what I saw the seventh-grade twins do to one of their victims.
The fight with the twins happened after school. That day, as I stepped out from the wooden doors, the usually bustling playground and sidewalks were eerily deserted, with only a few newspapers blowing across the pavement, like the scene from a science fiction movie after the atom bomb has been dropped. Confused, I rounded a corner. There, a few yards in front of me, stood a dense, surreal ring of kids silently watching as the sisters repeatedly smashed another girl’s head against the window of a parked car. The fight ended when the twins slashed their victim’s forehead open with a razor blade. I saw her afterwards standing on a street corner. Blood streamed down her face, and she was laughing hysterically. The next day the twins were taken to the Detention Center—a feared place that is mentioned only in apprehensive whispers.
I worry constantly, wondering when the inevitable day will come that Tanya will cut me. This is because, in our overcrowded class of fifty fifth-graders, I am the only white girl. Our family, new to Chicago’s south side, lives modestly. Even so, I am privileged in comparison to most of my classmates. My father is getting his Ph.D. at the University. I am clean, smart, well-fed, and I own more dresses than the other girls. I stick out, a spot of vanilla in a sea of chocolate.
In contrast, Tanya only has one outfit, a faded orange striped dress that she wears every day. It has puffy short sleeves and a bow that ties in back like the dresses worn in storybooks by cheerful white girls. Tanya isn’t cheerful. She scowls a lot, and she smells, too, a thick cocktail of little-girl sweat, cat pee, and mildewed socks.
Her ears are pierced, but she is too poor to wear earrings. Instead, broken-off toothpick pieces have been inserted into the holes, like bits of bone, to keep them open. Her fuzzy unclean hair has a dingy caste of grandmother gray to it, along with stray pieces of lint. She wears it in the same three pigtails as every other girl in class except for me: there are two tightly braided pigtails in the back, and one that hangs over the side of her face. Most of the girls have crisp even lines where their hair has been parted. Not Tanya. Her parts make crooked paths across her scalp as if her sparse frizzy hair has been carelessly stitched on like the wig of some Frankenstein’s monster.
When I’m not slinking nervously from Tanya’s view, I am watching my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Oldman, beat kids up. He is white, too. A bull-shouldered man with a marine-style crew cut, Mr. Oldman’s large face turns crimson whenever he is enraged. He becomes enraged multiple times a day. As anger overwhelms him, his tongue protrudes rabidly from between half-clenched teeth, and his body begins to quake. While he has never hurt me, he is happy to push the black girls around, mostly shaking them furiously. His primary targets, though, are the boys, who are routinely beaten up for minor transgressions. His favorite punishments include cracking their heads together, twisting their ears viciously, or punching them.
Once he grabbed and heartlessly twisted the ear of a boy named Jimmy for some negligible infraction. When Jimmy began crying, Mr. Oldman knocked him out of his seat. The sobbing boy lay defenseless on his back on the floor, while our teacher, with a snarl on his red shaking face, straddled him. He pummeled him with his fists while he barked, “Stop crying!” I think Jimmy’s offense had been giggling at something, or maybe it was looking up from his desk, because we are forbidden to raise our eyes from our books or papers when we are working.
Mr. Oldman has other strict rules. They include bringing four sheets of lined paper and two pencils to class every day—nothing less, and nothing more. If someone brings the wrong kind of paper, or too much paper, or too little paper, they get into trouble, said trouble meaning that they will be battered in some way.
On the day after Christmas vacation, Tanya comes into our colorless classroom grinning broadly. She skips proudly to her desk, carrying more than the requisite supplies. In her hands is a red cardboard pencil box. She places it on her desk, lining it up carefully, fondling it, and opening it periodically to inspect the various compartments inside. That cheap pencil box was her only Christmas present. She beams with the joy of ownership.
When Mr. Oldman enters, he surveys the room. We all sit with our hands obediently folded in front of us. I pray that he won’t spot Tanya’s shabby gift, but of course he does almost immediately.
“What is that?” he demands.
“It’s my present,” Tanya replies.
“You aren’t allowed to have that. Bring it up here. Give it to me now,” he bellows, his face beginning to flush.
“No. It’s mine! It’s my Christmas present,” she cries stubbornly. The tension mounts and the kids begin squirming in their seats. Nobody has ever defied Mr. Oldman before!
He repeats his request, growing angrier.
All of us know that if Tanya gives the pencil box to Mr. Oldman, he will confiscate it and she will never see it again. He’s taken other things from kids, and no one has ever gotten anything back.
Rising, he stamps down the aisle, redder than I’ve ever seen him. Even the scalp under his crew cut is crimson. His head shakes with rage as his tongue darts out in the strange lizard-like way it does when he is angry. Snorting more like a beast than a man, he stops only a few inches in front of me and reaches down to snatch up her prized pencil box. Tanya beats him to it, clasping the cardboard edges with her skinny brown fingers and holding on tightly.
“LET GO OF THAT,” thunders Mr. Oldman.
“NO. IT’S MINE,” Tanya shouts back, clutching the box even more fiercely.
He tries to pry her fingers off of it. Tanya is surprisingly strong. She won’t let go.
Then Mr. Oldman bends down and proceeds to bite the back of Tanya’s hand. He draws blood. Yelping in pain and surprise, she lifts her wounded hand in the air…and, with a smug chuckle, he dives in, grabbing the box.
As he walks back to his desk with Tanya’s Christmas gift, a gloat of satisfaction flashes across his face. Tanya, however, is not finished. Leaping out of her seat, she races to the shelf above our coats and grabs a clothesline that she has brought to use as a jump rope during recess. She unwinds about four feet of it and turns toward Mr. Oldman, whirling the rope above her head like a cowboy ready to lasso a steer…or an overseer preparing to whip a slave. With a roar, he turns and lunges at her. She snaps the rope in the air in front of him. He jumps back.
Then Tanya begins screaming. Head held high, pigtails stiff, she continues to twirl the rope, keeping the large man at bay as she pelts him with a torrent of profanity. He circles her, snarling. Spittle runs down the sides of his mouth. Every time she tries to hit him with her rope, he jumps back, surprisingly agile. Their face-off is an even match: the red-faced giant with clenched fists and the scrawny little brown girl with the motor mouth and the snapping jump rope.
And then the door opens. The principal sticks his head in. The kids gasp. An innocuous looking man who always wears a starched bow tie, everyone fears him, for he has the power to send us to the Detention Center. Mr. Oldman and Tanya, suddenly co-conspirators, freeze in their spots and assume wide-eyed looks of innocence.
“Is something wrong?” asks the principal.
Mr. Oldman hesitates, and then says, “No, nothing.” He goes calmly to his desk and sits down, smiling benignly at the principal as he puts the pencil box in a drawer and closes it. The official, after eyeing Tanya quizzically, apparently reassures himself that everything is okay and, with a shrug, shuts the door. It is over. Tanya carefully coils up her jump rope, places it on the shelf, and returns to her seat. Mr. Oldman begins to teach again as though nothing has happened.
Tanya’s Christmas present is lost forever. As for me, my hair remains gum-free. I still worry, but, for today at least, nobody cuts me.
© M. E. Raines, 2017; Copying or reproducing in any form is prohibited by law. Readers may feel free, however, to link to this story.
Author’s Note: The events in the preceding tale are true. It is a story that has long needed telling. For their protection, the names of the characters have been changed. The boy called Jimmy and the girl called Tanya, if they are still alive, are by now the age of grandparents or even great-grandparents. The circumstances of their lives were beyond their control. While I was truly afraid of Tanya, she never harmed or, in fact, even acknowledged me, and I have great sympathy for her courage.
Readers who liked this story may also enjoy the newest books of fiction by Mary Elizabeth Raines (published under Mary Elizabeth Leach), “The Man in the GPS and Other Stories” and “The Secret of Eating Raspberries.” Both are available in paperback and on Kindle on Amazon.com.