In the fall after Jingles died, I began 9th grade at Sayre Junior High School in West Philadelphia. I put on an air of cheerfulness at school but underneath my buoyancy darkness had overtaken me and it took every ounce of strength to get myself out of the house in the morning and functioning throughout the day. So good at being cheerful was I that I won a city-wide smile contest while at Sayre and got my happy face in the newspaper.
The teacher who most influenced me at Sayre was Mrs. Shrot, who taught art, which I had no aptitude for whatsoever. Mrs. Shrot also told stories, in installments, at the end of each class. One of the stories was The Count of Monte Cristo. I lived to hear Mrs. Shrot’s next chapter as she wove the tale of Edmond Dantès and his drive for revenge against those who had wronged him in his youth. Years later when I was teaching special education at a Philadelphia elementary school, I modeled Mrs. Shrot by telling this same tale in the same detail. At the description of the Abbé Faria’s chest, filled with shining gold coins, and diamonds, pearls and rubies, one of my students, a child with an IQ of less than 70, exclaimed, “I can see it with my eyes,” which is exactly what Mrs. Shrot taught us all to do.
The school was interracial and I felt far more akin to the black students than I did my Jewish peers. The black kids were outsiders; many them came from homes as troubled as mine. I had almost nothing in common with the Jewish girls who attended Sayre with me but occasionally, when I was not brooding in my room, I hung out with them at their homes.
I particularly liked to visit the home of a friend named Linda because her mother baked cookies and painted our toenails pink. Linda’s mother was completely absorbed in every aspect of her daughter’s life. She joined in as we gossiped about classmates, tried out makeup, and discussed boys. The mother was one of the girls, which I thought was a wonderful thing. I fantasized about having Linda’s mother as my own.
My phony ebullience made me popular in junior high, along with my willingness to help my less bright and lazier classmates with their homework assignments. This popularity led to a nomination for the presidency of the school. In a rare gesture of help, my brother created my slogan and had tags made up: We Want Malinda for President. I distributed the tags throughout the school and campaigned hard among the black kids. I won the election and imagined it the beginning of a political career that would take me to the United States Senate. I was particularly thrilled by my victory because it meant that I would be class valedictorian at graduation the coming spring. It would be a chance to show my mother that I wasn’t a son-of-a bitch-bastard after all.
The day I won the election I ran home from school to tell Anna. She was on the phone when I came in the house. I shouted, “Mom, I’m the new president of the school.” My mother looked up at me, paused a second and said, “Why the hell wouldn’t you be?”
But I was a corrupt 14- year-old. After a particularly hard night with my mother – she had beaten me with her belt for some forgotten transgression – I showed up at school in a despairing mood. I was having trouble moving my left arm and my back hurt. The faculty advisor to the government club was Miss Williamson, a kindly woman who had a distinct handwriting, which I was expert at copying. I ran into Linda, of the wonderful mother, and she asked me if I would forge a note so that she could get out of class. Wanting badly to keep her friendship so that I could go over her house and be with her mother, I wrote Linda a note and signed Miss Williamson’s name. Linda got caught with the forged note and immediately gave me up. Miss Williamson called my parents into the school and in front of them talked about what a disgrace I was to the school and my office. I had betrayed my fellow students and her, which was true. I had become the thing I hated most in the world – a disloyal person. Resignation from the presidency was the punishment. With it went my chance to speak at graduation.
As Miss Williamson and my parents spoke, I could see their lips moving but didn’t understand what they were saying. I felt myself drifting away from them, floating upward in the room and out the window. I wanted to tell Miss Williamson about Jingles and the black and blue marks under the long sleeves of my blouse I was wearing, in hopes that she would forgive me, but no words came, then or anytime thereafter during the long year I had to remain at Sayre, existing in a humiliated state but not quite feeling it. It seemed that I had discovered a new technique for facing my life. I could separate emotionally from the world of my parents, siblings, and friends. While living among them, I could remain outside myself. I could be a spectator in my own miserable life.
I left Sayre Junior high as a failure. My political career was over, and I had lost my friendship with Linda and any future chance to have my nails painted by her mother. She was no Doc Holiday, and I couldn’t abide betrayal in a friendship even if she had wanted one with me.
Forty years after leaving Sayre, I ran into Linda in a department store. She was wearing an orange vinyl raincoat and sported the same hairdo she had had in junior high. Twice divorced and on her third marriage, she was trying to build a career as a real estate saleswoman, but it wasn’t going well. She had not gone to college and never developed a career of any kind. At her mother’s encouragement, she had married early. After her first divorce and her move home with a young son, she felt unwelcome, and married again, sensing it was a mistake. Her third marriage was to her best friend’s husband.
I was struck by the different paths Linda and I had taken in life and wondered how much our mothers had contributed to this. My life had been an unending rush toward career success at a time when the neighborhood girls were programmed to marry the first or second boy who asked them. Sometimes they married both, successively, except for Linda, who went for three. There was the occasional elementary school teacher or medical technician, but by and large these were temporary runs around the track, designed to end as soon as a boy-man appeared at the end of the trail, waving a college diploma and the promise of carefree days and boring nights, but hell, there’s a price to pay for anything that’s lightly acquired. By making me an outsider had my mother in some way knocked me off course to what was supposed to be my life? In looking back, given how things turned out, maybe I should have grabbed onto that brass future. What’s the worse that could have happened? Perhaps I had been blessed by my peculiar childhood. As the ancient Hebrews have pointed out, misfortune can be an ambivalent gift; for better or worse, it makes you different. Maybe I was rationalizing my own experiences, but after running into Linda, I felt grateful that her dream parent, of the cookies and pink nail polish, and complete enmeshment in her daughter’s life, had not been my own.
Oddly. Linda and I became good friends in our seventies, after reconnecting at a class reunion. I like her and her husband – we are dog people – and enjoy dining out them. We have never talked about the Sayre incident, and I’m not even sure if she remembers it. But like Jingles death, it has haunted me. And it almost led to my own death.
It was a relief when the school year was over and graduation out of the way. I could head to West Philadelphia High School, start anew, and try to redeem myself for all the harm I had done the year I was 14. And maybe, just maybe, I could stop crying every night about Jingles.
For her part, Anna could not forgive me for losing the presidency. She refused to speak to me for months after the disgrace, as she called it. If I went into the kitchen, she walked out; she made nasty comments about me on the phone to her sisters; I was on my own when it came to meals.
One cold, winter morning a few months after the Sayre incident I tried to tell her about an abscessed tooth. I needed a dentist badly because of the excruciating pain I was experiencing. Anna ignored me.
By early afternoon my cheek was swollen to the size of a grapefruit. I had to get help. Our family dentist agreed to see me, but his office was an hour away by car from our house. I begged my mother to drive me. She refused. So I set out on my own at 1 PM.
I walked three blocks to the 60th Street trolley, which took me 2 miles north to the Market Street elevated train. The train carried me to 69th street, after which a bus drove me down US 1 to Sproul Road in Springfield Township, a suburb of Philadelphia. I then walked a mile down Sproul Road to the dentist’s office. When I got off the bus, it was snowing. I was not wearing boots, but I did have a hat and gloves with me.
I got to the dentist’s office about 3 PM and waiting until 5 for him to fit me in. Instead of doing root canal, as he should have, the dentist pulled my tooth. I was grateful that the damn thing was out. I told the dentist to bill my father, knowing the guy would sweat bullets before being paid, which was what he deserved for yanking out my tooth.
After the extraction, I began the long trudge back to US 1. The snowstorm had turned into a winter blizzard while I was getting my tooth pulled and I had difficulty walking. My hat and gloves were useless against the storm, and I was soaked and half frozen by the time I trudged the mile to where I expected to take the bus back to the El at 69th Street. I waited on the corner of Sproul Road and US 1 for an hour. No bus came. It was getting dark, and I did not know what to do. I knew if I called home, no one there would help me. The street was deserted of people and cars. It got darker, and I began to panic. I resigned myself to dying of frostbite on that street corner, so I sat down in a snow bank and waited for the cold to overtake me. I wasn’t particularly unhappy about the prospect of death. It might be a relief, I thought. It would put an end to this sorry life I was leading. I figured my father would be sad for a while but he’d get busier at work, and he’d be OK. My mother would be glad that I was gone. Harvey wouldn’t care one way or another and Sherry would get our room and some attention for herself in the bargain.
A black pickup truck plodded down US 1, its chains cutting through the snow mounds. The driver spotted me and stopped. “What are you doing out here, little girl?” he said.
Feeling more like a drowning animal than a young human I told him I was waiting for the bus to 69th Street. The driver said bus service for the day had been terminated. He offered to take me to 69th Street. He apologized for not being able to drive me all the way home. “Does your mother know you’re out here?” my savior asked. “She must be pretty worried.” He told me to be careful, a warning that amused me considering that I was heading to the most dangerous place I knew.
I took the El to 60th Street, picked up the still running trolley, got off three blocks from my house, and walked the rest of the way home. It was 8 PM when I walked through the front door. My mother was sitting in the living room watching television and knitting. She didn’t look up or say a word to me.
I went up to my room and threw myself on my bed. I was alive! I couldn’t believe it. I got up and stared at myself in the mirror to be sure it was me. I barely recognized the girl peering back. She had a hugely swollen face and straggly matted hair. Her skin was pale and eyes bloodshot. Who are you? I thought. How did you get here? I couldn’t relate to the girl in the mirror but somehow I figured out who this distant person was. I was so grateful to be alive I wanted to get down on my knees and thank God over and over, only I no longer believed in a Supreme Being and figured the gesture would be meaningless. I didn’t know who or what to credit for my good fortune, other than the guy in the truck. It was luck, I decided. Pure, simple luck. Fate at its finest. I felt that my life was going to change. I told myself: If you survived this, you can survive anything. You did it! You lived! You can make it in this world on your own. No matter what happens in the future, you’ll be all right. I vowed to honor my survival by creating a great life for myself, one full of fun and love. I fell asleep in my wet clothes, my jaw throbbing. Feeling victorious.