I felt different in that camping ground that one week.
The cabin had a concrete floor; bunk beds and cots with flat, stripped, flat mattresses; a mirror above a white, simple sink; a single lightbulb in the middle of the room that was able to illuminate the inside of the cabin to a dim brown; and a stale smell. There was no electricity, so there was no fan to stir the humid air. It was a new experience for us. We had been invited by a friend of my father’s from work. The young school administrations like my father, born in the 1940s, children of the 1950s, coming of age in the 1960s, and now — married, fathers, and working together—they were going to be modern men: rub shoulder with everyone at work. It was the mid 1970s. So, there we were at the invitation of Daddy’ work friend—the seven of us: sister, eight; me, six; brother-one, four; and the twins, two years old; and our parents.
By the time I was six, I had already received various signals that something was wrong with me.
1. There was the time I was riding my bike up and down the treelined street on Maple Lane in the neighborhood, and two even younger kids with red hair, freckles, and no front teeth just started throwing rocks at me each time I passed their driveway—making me feel like a monster
2.On the back of the bus when Ann Fox keep making fun of my skin color every single day for 110 days
3. On the first day of kindergarten, when we all started in the cafeteria before our teachers would come to get us and the boy next to me was sitting there one moment and viciously biting the back of my hand in the next—the teacher had to pull him off to get his teeth out of my hand; He left deep, bloody teeth marks
4. Being told I had chocolate all over my face by other kindergarteners, daily
5. Being told I was a brown Brownie when I wore my uniform to school
6. Not being allowed to see my hair when it was wet, as my mother immediately covered it with a towel, put it through a 10-hour process, leaving it straight rather than in its natural kinky-state
This problem was about my skin color and hair. I was a black girl: apparently gross and repulsive.
It was not always bad. The first day of kindergarten, the teaching assistant, Miss Lemtwist, gave me a nickname. She was a middle-aged woman with a short, neat hair-- blonde She always wore a cream-colored pants suit. She called me Honeybee. She said it was the meaning of my name in Greek. It was the first and last time I was ever singled out as special just for showing up and being me. She watched my every move with a kind, caring look. Whenever she saw me, she had something special for me. If I were sad, she pulled me aside and asked me why. No matter how silly my malady, she comforted me.
“Why are you crying Honeybee?”
“I don’t like the color pants I am wearing,” I wailed.
“Well, you won’t have to wear the same pants tomorrow Honeybee,” she said, eyes welling up, understanding and validating my feelings. I was the only one she treated like in the whole class. It was as if she were my guardian angel. If someone told me now that there was never an actual Miss Lemtwist, I would believe them.
At the camping ground, I was expecting the usual stuff from the world.
We were at the pool. My father’s friend’s family was there too. The other mom palled around with my mother. My father and his colleague were there in the lounge chairs talking about work, their yards, and world news. The family we were with had a son. He was older and bigger than me, but still just a little boy. He had black hair, pale skin, and dark freckles. I tried to stay away from him, least he throw a rock at time, call me chocolate, bite me, or hate my hair, but suspiciously he was not ignoring me, and he was not picking on me.
I loved the water, but I was not a swimmer. He was in the water swimming like a fish, and he had aqua-colored snorkeling goggles. He gave them to me to play with. He wanted me to get in the pool with him. I kept telling him I would, but I disappointed him. Instead, I was there putting the goggles on and putting my face in the water, so I could enjoy keeping my eyes open while partially submerging my face in water. Then, I took them off, and they fell in the water, sinking to the bottom of the pool. That boy dived into the water and grabbed those goggles for me and presented them to me as if I were a queen. It was a pregnant moment. I can remember just staring at him, trying to figure out the catch, but he just smiled, holding out his goggles like a knight in shining armor, his wet, dark hair slick against his head, in contrast to me, who was not even allowed to get my hair wet in white-people-public. I took the goggles and the kindness, the moment imprinting on me.
The camping trip and the nice white boy sticks out as much in my memory as all of the name calling, rock throwing, ostracizing, and shunning that went on before and after that. I wonder where he is now-- probably beloved somewhere living his best life not even knowing how precious of a little boy he was.
To add to that memory, I remember sitting around a campfire singing “I Love the Mountain”, roasting smores, and everyone was smiling at everyone.
We learned “Going on the Lion Hunt,” with Cricket, the young, short-haired, brunette camp counselor.
We did a Native American leather craft and made sand-in-a-clear-jar art in the craft’s class.
I even got lost, and everyone banned together to find me. I was just in the craft class where my family had accidentally left me.
I sweated every night in our hot cabin and ended up so mosquitoes-bitten that I could barely open my eyes, but in that camping ground, for one week, I was happy because it seemed like I wasn’t a little problematic black girl anymore merely because nobody seemed to notice it.