If you really knew me, you would know…
That when my eleventh birthday was around the corner and my father had failed at student teaching and we were living on my mother’s newspaper salary of $6.25 an hour, my mother scraped together every last dollar to present a $20 bill for me. That we were about to move away from my beloved childhood home where I was best friends with everyone within shouting distance, where I was about to be the king of the elementary school that I could ride my bike to, that I’d be moving to a big city and knew no one… and that $20 was like a gold brick because of all it could buy at the Gorham Market, my childhood store with 3-cent Bazooka gum and fireballs that would spice your whole mouth for an hour and 10 cents.
If you really knew me, you would know that when I got to Merrill Middle School, it wasn’t a pretty picture. I got lost on the first day because the yellow school bus number had changed from morning to afternoon, and my oversized high-top boys’ sneakers, all the fashion rage in upstate New York, were just a reason for kids to trip me in every hallway in Denver, shouting, “What’s with your giant shoes?” I spent two years at that school finishing all my homework in class and getting straight As without even trying while girls in the hallway pulled each other’s hair out and every race, blended in the remnants of forced-integration bussing, smacked me in the face with the word that would always haunt me: “You’re such a loner.”
If you really knew me, you would know that when someone’s beautiful voice came over the PA system and announced that a new arts school was opening in Denver, and if anyone was interested, they should apply and audition, you would know that I spent the next six weeks of my life creating a portfolio and writing and rewriting every last word that tumbled around inside my head and that in those same moments my parents, having dragged me halfway across the country, had decided to separate, and I needed that arts school like I needed to breathe, and yet… even with my best words on paper and an interview I thought I nailed… I got put on the alternate list.
If you really knew me you would know that when all the racist fucks on my side of town realized that their innocent white daughters would be attending Cole Middle School and Manual High School, they withdrew their interest. You’d know that my parents, back together after sending my sister and me to New England for the summer, called and told me, “You got in. This is your chance,” because we’d moved to Denver to be in a more diverse space after my mother’s racist parents fled to the northern suburbs during the 1960s “white flight”, and that I took that chance and two RTDs or seven miles on a bike to get to that school every morning for the next five years, where I met Kevin who came out just in time for his Catholic parents to kick him out, and Lisa who taught me what a bat mitzvah was, and Jermaine who lived three blocks from the school and taught me that you could be Black and beautiful and openly gay in 1993, and Olivia, my forever best friend whose father was from Panama and whose mother’s white parents disowned her for marrying a black man… And of course, Mrs. Clark, the mother of us all, who raised her writers with as much love as her five biological children, and has always lived by the same simple phrase:
If you really knew me, you would know that I have had a taste of poverty. That I have become a mother who was shaped by a high school that ditched the dress code and told every kid that being gay or straight or trans or Black or Brown was just the way the world was, that I have known kids who were shot by gangs in the distance between Manual and Cole in the same the four blocks we walked each day for our arts classes and that those years between my $20-bill eleven-year-old-self and when Mrs. Clark gave me this paperweight to put on my desk because she just “knew” I was going to be a teacher–? These moments, these memories, make me the mother who doesn’t think twice about what my daughters wear to school or what our school puts up for all the world to see in the gym on the first day.
If you really knew me, you would know that Mrs. Clark is why I stand here today, and why I am asking you to share a little bit of yourselves with me.
If you really knew me, you would know that I care about what you have to say.