he hallways at spence were blue and narrow. They wound one into another, and I couldn’t tell how many times I had turned the corner. I followed the tour guide, peeking into classrooms where the chairs were arranged in circles or squares instead of rows. Inside, girls in navy blue skirts and white blouses were learning, and I could imagine myself sitting among them—lighting Bunsen burners and wearing goggles, reading aloud from A Midsummer Night’s Dream , figuring out algebraic equations with mechanical pencils. I could see myself
among the girls in the hallways too. They sat on the floor with their backs against the lockers, talking loudly, even as we passed. I waded through the web of their bare legs, strips of their inscrutable conversations. P.S. 11, my elementary school, was official and plain: a brick building, a few stories high, in the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn. We lined up in straight lines when we moved through the hallways, and our classrooms were bright and orderly. My parents had wrangled me into the school, the best in the district, even though I had been zoned to another. I liked my school, and I had no complaints. I liked the tire swing in the playground and the bodega where I bought potato chips and quarter waters. I liked the library down the street where I could use the massive computers and read magazines while I waited for my father to pick me up. I was a favorite of my teachers and selected most mornings to recite the Pledge of It was nothing more to me than a mantra, and I didn’t see then that the motto was the invention of a school run nearly entirely by black women—teachers, school safety officers, the principal and assistant principal—designed to help us, we hundreds of black and brown children, to affirm our own dignity, while we were young, while school still served as a kind of shield, however insufficient, from the rest of the city, its hard facts and violence. P.S. 11 was a place I had mastered, where I understood how things worked. The Spence School was a secret with its dim blue hallways and classrooms I peered into from the outside. It was across a bridge and over water, less than ten miles from Brooklyn, but farther than I knew to expect. My interview was with the Head of the Middle School, Mrs. Eston. She had short blond hair, cropped close to her head, droopy eyes, and a pleasant, clear complexion. I must have told her that my favorite subject was Language Arts, and I had composition notebooks filled with the beginnings of novels. I probably mentioned that I spoke Spanish, my parents were teachers, and I had a grandmother in Bushwick, a grandfather in the Dominican Republic. I might have said I had been working toward a school like Spence my whole life, without ever knowing that Spence existed. Every spelling bee, citywide test, book report, and worksheet had been so that I could land here, across a desk from a dignified white woman like her, who was interested in me, and who had the authority to verify that I was good enough, smart enough to belong here . Mrs. Eston seemed amused by me, and I remember being moved by how much she seemed to like me. The proof that I might be worthy of becoming a Spence girl started to accumulate. We sat together in her office for what, in my memory, seems the better part of a day. It was likely twenty minutes, half an hour. When I left her office, I had to wait for my parents to collect me. I didn’t venture beyond the corner where a pizzeria sold slices that were cracker-thin and floppy, Allegiance over the loudspeakers and then the school motto. We are proud to be learning and learning to be proud at P.S. 11.
by Naima Coster
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