Lies We Tell Ourselves: Shortlisted for the 2016 Carnegie Medal
Жанр: Детская литература
Год издания: 2018 год
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It’s too late for that now.
The door behind us opens. I swallow and try to smile again. It doesn’t work.
“Sorry, this was all Helen had.” Miss Freeman holds out a hideous pink high-collared blouse. “Let’s see if it fits.”
I take off my stained white blouse.
“Ooh, the milk went all the way through your slip, too,” Ruth says. “Mama’s going to be so upset.”
“No, she won’t,” Miss Freeman says. “She’ll know it wasn’t your fault, Sarah.”
That’s right. Mama will know. Because it’s not my fault.
It’s hers. And Daddy’s. They were the ones who wanted this.
If it hadn’t been for them we could’ve stayed at Johns. I’d be president of the choir and taking college prep classes. I wouldn’t have to worry about Howard revoking my scholarship once they hear I’m in Remedial. I wouldn’t have to worry about Ruth getting her arm broken on her way to Homeroom.
I shouldn’t be thinking this way. It’s disrespectful. Besides, it’s my own fault. I never said I didn’t want this. Our parents asked Ruth and me years ago if we wanted to register at Jefferson—to get the best education we could, and to do our part for the movement. We said yes right away. Why wouldn’t we? Adults had been telling us all our lives that it was up to us to make sure we got a good education. Besides, back then, it seemed impossible that integration would ever really happen here.
But I still said yes.
I have no one to blame but myself. Anything that happens now is my own fault.
I close my eyes and say a quick prayer for God to forgive me for thinking disrespectfully. This time, it does make me feel a little better.
Mrs. Mullins’s blouse comes close enough to fitting me. I do up the buttons on the sleeves while Ruth finishes picking the biggest white flakes out of my hair.
“Remember what I said,” I whisper to her when we’re leaving the house an hour later. “The white people aren’t like us. They’ll turn on you without any warning. You have to be careful, Ruthie. You can’t trust them.”
“I’ll remember.” She huffs, the same way she does when I tell her not to mess with the stuff on my desk at home.
I pray she takes this seriously. I pray she really will remember.
Not one of us can afford to forget.
Lie #7 (#ulink_05293e79-18f9-571e-b308-048f28a1234e)
“THIS IS DUMB.” Ruth yanks a needle through the old brown skirt she’s sewing a patch onto and bites down on a piece of bacon at the same time. “You can’t follow me around all day.”
“I won’t be following you.” I’m hunting through Mama’s sewing box for gray thread. All I can find is garish pinks and blues. “And stop chewing with your mouth open.”
“I’m not a little kid. It’s not your job to tell me what to do.” Ruth puts down her sewing and grabs the biggest piece of bacon on the plate. She takes a huge bite, chewing with her mouth open so wide pieces of bacon fall out.
“Girls, hush,” Mama says. “Your father needs to concentrate.”
“Sorry, Daddy,” Ruth and I murmur toward where our father is perched on the ledge of the living room window.
There’s a loud bang. “Dang it,” Daddy says. He hammered his finger again.
“We still need to close the gap on this end, Bob.” Mr. Mullins hefts up the other end of the last piece of plywood. It’s barely light out yet, but already they’ve nearly finished covering all the first-floor windows on the front of the house. For the first ten minutes they were working Bobby kept wandering around asking why they were making so much noise, and could he help Daddy play workshop. Mama finally told him to go to his room until it was time for school.
Ruth and I didn’t ask why they were putting the boards up. We didn’t ask why Mama brought down the basket of old clothes from the attic and told us to mend them, either. We knew we’d be wearing our old clothes to school from now on in case they get ruined. We knew Daddy and Mr. Mullins were putting boards on the windows in case the white people threw rocks when they drove by the house.
There’s no use talking about these things. These things just are.
Mama snips a piece of thread, then looks at the map I’ve laid out on the breakfast table next to our sewing. “You’re sure this is necessary, Sarah?” she says.
I look at her. She looks back, then lowers her eyes.
I don’t know if this will work, but I’ve got to try.
School is worse than I thought it would be, but I can survive this. And I’m going to make sure Ruth survives it, too.
As long as I have my dignity, I can do anything.
Last night I took Ennis’s sketch of the school and Ruth’s class schedule and I drew a map to follow through the day. I’ve already figured out how I can check in on Ruth after Homeroom and before third period, but our lunch periods are staggered, and I’m having trouble figuring out a way to get from the basement to the second floor and back without being late for Home Ec.
I can’t be late to class again. I’ve already got detention after school today, thanks to Mrs. Gruber. Ruth will have to leave school without me. That’s not a risk I ever want to take again.
I barely slept last night. Instead I lay there for hours, listening to Ruth tossing and turning in the next bed, murmuring in her sleep. High-pitched cries, the kind she used to make when we were little and Mama tried to make her take her stomach medicine.
I must’ve fallen asleep sometime. Because I remember dreaming.
In the dream it was still yesterday morning. I was trying to get across the school parking lot, holding Ruth by her arm, but instead of walking, we were running. A monster as big as a city bus was chasing us. It had deep red scales, a thumping, clubbed tail and glistening huge white eyes. Ruth and I were trying to get inside the school, where we’d be safe, but once we’d finished the sprint across the lot and made it through the front doors, the monster kept coming. Then there were more monsters, and more. Soon a whole herd of them was thundering down the hallway behind us. We kept looking for a way out, but every time we turned a corner it led to another hallway, endless rows of gleaming lockers and polished floors.
Ruth was pulled from my grip. I screamed. When I turned to look for her, Linda Hairston was standing in Ruth’s place. She smiled at me, her pretty red hair glistening under the fluorescent lights, just like the monsters’ scales. Linda threw back her head and howled. Her laughter was so loud and fierce the monsters stopped chasing us and started laughing with her.
“You be careful today,” Mama says after we’ve changed into our mended clothes and gathered our things to meet the carpool. “Even with the new rule, you make sure and keep a watch out.”
“We know, Mama,” Ruth says, wiping off her cheek after Mama kisses her.
Mrs. Mullins called us late last night to tell us about the new rule. The principal had just announced it. When the gray-haired teacher reported what happened to Yvonne, the principal decided no one could be punished because no adult saw who’d instigated it. So from now on anyone who got caught fighting—no matter who started the fight—would be expelled.
Ruth whooped when Mama told us the news. Mama and I just frowned at each other. Somehow we didn’t think it would be as simple as that.
Mama puts her hand on my shoulder as I’m going to the door.
“Remember what to do when it gets hard,” she says. “Take your worries to the Lord. Have faith. He’s watching over all of you.”
I nod. Mama’s right, of course.
But I can’t help wondering why the Lord has to watch over us from so far away.
* * *
New rule or not, today is no better than yesterday.
We go in the side door this time, like Ennis planned, but there are just as many white people waiting for us there. The police aren’t here today, but that doesn’t seem to make a difference. The white people throw sticks past our heads and shout as loud as ever. That must not count as fighting, because no one gets expelled that I hear about.
I’m still not used to being called “nigger,” but I’ve stopped keeping track of how many times I hear it. Instead I count the minutes left in the school day. I watch the hands of the classroom clocks wind their way around until I’m free of this place and the people in it.
In Math someone’s brought in extra desks for the back of the room. Now everyone has a seat without having to get anywhere near Chuck and me. Chuck draws a picture in his notebook of Mrs. Gruber standing in front of a classroom full of tanks and soldiers firing on each other. The Mrs. Gruber in the picture, who’s twice as fat and three times as ugly as the real Mrs. Gruber, has her eyes squeezed shut and fingers stuck in her ears. A comic-book speech balloon has her singing, “LA LA LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU!!!” When Chuck shows it to me I almost smile.
Adults always tell us education is the most important thing in life, but I’m not learning anything at Jefferson. It’s supposed to be the best school for miles around, with the best facilities and the best teachers, but none of that is doing me any good. Our science labs at Johns weren’t as nice as the ones here, but when I was at Johns I could focus on my schoolwork. I didn’t have to spend every moment looking over my shoulder to see what would be thrown at me next.
In History I overhear two girls gossiping about something they heard from their friends. According to their story, one of the Negro girls (only the girl telling the story calls her a “nigger girl,” in the giggly whisper of a child who’s trying out a naughty word for the first time), went up to a white girl in the locker room this morning and told her she smelled like cow shit and looked worse. The white girl told her boyfriend, and he told his friends. Now the boys are saying they’ll “get that nigger back” later today.
The gossip can’t be true. None of the Negro girls in our group would ever do such a thing. None of them would use that kind of foul language. Besides, Mrs. Mullins has told us a thousand times not to talk back to the white students. I can’t stop remembering what Yvonne looked like yesterday, though, huddled in a pile in the hall. When school lets out today, I’ll make sure to keep every single one of these girls someplace I can see them until we get safely home.
When I get to Typing, the teacher points out a typewriter she’s set aside in the far corner for me and the Negro girls who take Typing in other periods. The teacher smiles, like she’s waiting for me to thank her. And I do it. I grit my teeth, but I still say, “Thank you, ma’am,” sweet as sugar.
As I drop my purse on the desk I see something tucked under my typewriter. One of the white girls must have left it there. It’s a clipping from the Davisburg Gazette. I didn’t see the paper this morning—Mama had already put it away somewhere—but this front-page story is headlined Negroes Integrate Jefferson High. Two School Board Members Resign in Protest. Under the headline is a photo of the ten of us. Someone has drawn a circle on the photo in lipstick, right around my face, and put a big red X over it. Scrawled black ink in the margins says “DIE UGLY NIGGER.”
I swallow, glad I have my back to the rest of the room so the girls can’t see my face. I start to crumple up the paper when I see a sidebar with the headline Jefferson Students Speak Out. One of the reporters who blinded me with his flashbulbs yesterday must’ve talked to some of the white students afterward. The first quote in the story is from Linda Hairston.
“‘What about our right to an education?’” Linda’s quote reads. “‘No one talks about that. The colored people aren’t the only ones who should have rights.’”
Yesterday I’d thought Linda Hairston was smart.
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