This I Believe

Rendell - Yellow Springs, Ohio
Entered on February 26, 2007

The Best Dancer

On a day when white sun seered pollution from Spring breezes–I had an idea on the asphalt. All year we’d been contending with the strictest teacher we’d ever had. With Churchill like demeanor she barked orders, issued discipline, and set minute rules. “Her birthday’s coming up” I said, my eyes wandering across blue sky fused to plexiglass, ” we should do a surprise party” . My schoolyard buddies went still.

“Look” I said, “I had this real strict teacher at my last school and we had this party for her and she was all nice the rest of the year.” I talked about how my old teacher had wielded a yardstick worn by time and knuckles– about how after the surprise party the yard stick disappeared. They softened. “Fine, we’ll do it if the other guys do.” Next recess I took my idea to the rest of the class. Just like that my little Machiavellian plan was in motion.

I made a list of who was to bring what. I recruited another teacher to distract our teacher while we got ready. With money I earned from helping people with their bags at the local Acme, I bought two Entenmann’s apple pies. The celebration was on.

When she came through the door and we yelled surprise the tough veneer of our sixth grade teacher left soundlessly and in an odorless vapor. She smiled at us. She hugged us. She laughed. My shoulders bent into a bow of awkward emotion as I thought about the weight of what I’d done.The party was going to be more than a political maneuver orchestrated to curry favor, it was going to be something that pulverized the borders of power. She had become human. We had become human. The sixth grade had been humanized.

The music started. Eric B and Rakim. The Fat Boys. M.C. Lyte. I was wearing my favorite white wind breaker. The noise of my swishing arms blended with the rhythm. I kicked the Smurf, the Moonwalk, the Wave, the Alf, the Cabbage Patch, and some other smooth dances. It was a good day and it got even better the when I noticed no one had bothered breaking open the pies I’d contributed. I sat down, opened one, and with a plastic fork ate it straight out of the box. A couple of people noticed my boldness. They chuckled and cheered me on.

It wasn’t just that I’d pulled off a spectacular party. I’d proven myself among my almost all-white schoolmates. Even though I was a late comer, transferring in from a school in West Philly, my identity and importance as a member of the group was solidifying. I felt good. I felt I could fit in, and like a character in one of Terry Mcmillan’s most successful but somewhat overrated novels–I exhaled.

Somebody turned the music down. “This is a wonderful thing you children have done,” our teacher spoke and her eyes shone like two new shooter marbles “who thought this up?” Mouth full of pie I waited for the flurry of praise I knew was coming. But it wasn’t my name. “Michael E—-” I heard people agreeing.

His favorite book was “Lord of the Flies. He was the smartest kid in the class. A one-hundred on every test. He was the kid the teachers said read with feeling. His mom came on all our field trips. She baked vanilla cupcakes with heavy frosting. “Michael E— did a great job” they said. Everyone addressed him like that, with both first and last name included, as if it were some kind of title.

I almost threw up. The earth shifted on its axis, left became right and right backwards. I was suddenly inside a mirror. Opposition was truth, sweetness was sour and apple pie was raw chicken left out on the counter. I tried to stand up for myself but I was shouted down. To push it any further would have been too embarrassing, so I left.

That same day everyone declared me the best dancer in the sixth grade.

This I believe, that prejudice is stronger than truth, and that perception stands above reality. I believe in what the conservatives say, that Affirmative Action doesn’t work, but not because its mehanisms are faulty or its intentions malicious–but because it takes a very small effort to believe so. I believe that Barack Obama won’t be President, not because he’s too young, or inexperienced, or head strong, but because to assess him as such will be part of the placating narrative America tells itself in order to avoid the discomfort of self-examination. I believe somewhere, in the cloudy minds of my classmates, Michael E. was really responsible for that party, and that no soul could have freed them from that deception but themselves. I believe that the end of racism and bigotry will take more than policy changes and good intentions. It will take a philosophical and spiritual awakening to the truth, and I believe in this awakening