My mother would get mad whenever I slipped up and used the words “good hair” or “bad hair” around her. But as I strode into the schoolyard of PS 138 that Monday, head held high, there was no denying that it was my good hair making all the difference. I’d already earned compliments from a couple of the girls. And as Jean-Marie and I began untangling a jump rope for a game of Double Dutch, some of the boys threw me compliments too.
I was new to public school. I’d spent my first four years of elementary education at Our Lady of Victory on Throop
Avenue. But when my brother Dana came along, it put a strain on the household budget. So, PS 138 it was.
“There’s no such thing as good or bad hair!” mama would argue. “People just have different grades.”
But I could see the difference in the way people treated nappy-headed folk like me, and how they treated those with long, silky locks.
There were four of us in the game; Jean-Marie, Cynthia, Shirley, and me. All 5th-graders. We had become fast
friends in the schoolyard because the four of us loved Double Dutch and four is the perfect number of people to play it: two long jump ropes being turned in opposite directions by two girls, while another girl – or girls, depending on the game – jumped the ropes.
“Why do me and Shirley have to turn?” Cynthia complained through the wad of Bazooka she was chewing. She’d
been wearing the same braids for two weeks, I noticed. They looked like a thick nest sprouting from the top of her skull. One sad braid with a lavender bow attached to it flopped around on the top of her head when she ran, like a broken bird wing.
“It ain’t fair,” Shirley, her companion in crime chimed in.
We called her Beaver because of her bulging front teeth, and hair that resembled a pile of twigs, like a beaver’s
dam. Bad hair. The both of them.
“Well, since me and Dorian untangled the rope,” Jean shouted back, “it’s only fair that you two turn it.”
As usual, Jean’s hair was flawless; the braids parted with such precision it looked as if they’d been split with a
razor rather than a comb. Except for her darker skin, she reminded me of Sherry Alberoni, one of the Mouseketeers on the Mickey Mouse TV show. Jean never had to spend her money or beg for chips and treats at recess. Kids just gave them to her. And the white teachers never complained when they asked us to line up in alphabetical order and Jean maneuvered her way up to the front of the line. They never scolded her about it like they did when it was one of us. No sir, Jean-Marie Ingram got the real princess treatment at PS 138 because she had what most of us didn’t and that was GOOD HAIR.
I had envied and admired her since the day we met.
But now things had changed.
It had taken me weeks to convince my mother. I recited all my achievements; reminded her of all my good report cards, and pointed out that in another year I’d be in junior high school and certainly too old to be wearing the same old bows, braids and plastic clips I had worn my entire childhood. I begged. I argued. I even spilled a few tears, before Mama finally agreed to let me have my hair restyled.
Now, my dark brown locks were shiny twists, gathered into pig-tails with rubber bands, so that they hung down
like thick, straight strands; each adorned with beads of gold. I felt regal, like Princess Badroulbadour, the Duchess from the Far East who married Aladdin. She was my favorite fairy tale princess because, unlike Thumbelina, Rapunzel, Cinderella and the rest, Badroulbadour was brown like me. And now not only did my hair resemble hers, as I stepped up to the twin ropes that Shirley and Cynthia were now turning, my gold-studded hairdo put me right up there with Jean and her good-hair friends.
Into the sweep of the rotating ropes I leapt.
My eyes sharp…
My grin wide…
This was my time to shine!
I hopped on one foot for a few beats, then switched into a skip. GO DEE GO, GO! GO DEE, GO, the kids in the
schoolyard began to chant. I went into a hands-free jump, my arms crisscrossed behind my back.
…GO, DEE, GO! GO, DEE, GO!
I moved into a scissor jump, one leg forward, then the next; crouched down to my knees and jumped a fancy-foot- formation. Mirror, mirror on the wall, I told myself as I crouched down to my knees. …GO, DEE, GO! GO, DEE, GO! I’m the fairest of them all!
Next, I angled my body back towards the middle of the rope, closed my eyes, and held my breath. I planned to do
the toe-to-toe hop next, which had taken me most of the summer to master. I took my time, slowed my steps, and concentrated, wanting to make sure I’d pull it off. But at the last second, just as I was pointing my toes, the rope collapsed.
I whipped my head around to Shirley, holding the rope. Jean was there beside her, pursing her lips in my
direction, trying to indicate something. I took it for a kiss. This must REALLY be my shining moment! I thought.
Exasperated, Jean pulled the rope from Shirley’s hand, slapped it against my legs, and whispered, “Behind you.”
My eyes scanned the schoolyard, searching out those meddlesome boys who often got their jollies by ruining our fun, and proceeded to give them a piece of my mind. “You ass—” was as far as I got.
“—You the ass,” someone snarled.
There, not trying in the least to hide the fact that it was her who did it, with one end of the jump rope still in her mitts, was Dragon Della. We called her that because she was the only one in our fifth-grade class who could blow long streams of cigarette smoke without coughing or choking.
Her real name was Leanna, and she was the class bully. In the short time I’d been there, she had stolen erasers
and pencil cases, and had stuffed wads of trash into the obsolete ink bottle holes in our desks. She’d gone in the closet, when no one is watching, pulled all the nicest coats and hats from their hooks and left them on the floor. Just a week before, she rammed the lunch line, knocking me and a few other kids to our knees.
Now, here she was, standing right in front of me, jump rope in her hand, a sour look on her face. “You look like
Bozo the Clown, she said, “wit’ all them beads in yo’ head and them stupid red shoes.” Her light skin, combined with the slant of her eyes made her look Chinese. She would have been cute if it wasn’t for her hair. It was wooly and shorter than my pinky toe. And no matter how much she brushed, the shit stood on her head like fresh cut-grass.
“Let go of the rope Leanna,” I screamed.
“Make me, Bozo Head,” she yelled, giving me a shove.
Kids closed in around us. A moment before, it had been GO, DEE, GO! GO, DEE, GO! Now the chant was FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!
“NO!” I protested, “I’m not going to fight.”
“She pushed you Dorian,” Jean hollered, “push her back!”
The crowd murmured their agreement.
“No,” I repeated. Louder. “I can’t. Dr. King said not to fight and to love our enemies.” I had gotten this from Sister
Garret at Our Lady of Victory, and I had taken the words to heart. So, when I said it, it came out with such authority that mouths gaped, eyebrows arched, and the yard went silent. For a moment everyone just stared at me reverently as if I was the great Dr. King himself.
But Dragon Della quickly broke the spell.
“So,” she smirked, “if I step on your Bozo shoes right now you won’t hit me?” “No,” I uttered.
“What if I punch you in that Bozo nose? You ain’t gonna hit back?”
“No,” I repeated, a whispered croak this time.
“Ok.” She shrugged and then did the unthinkable.
She grabbed two hands full of my beads and twists and yanked them violently downward, as if she were slamming the lid on a coffin. In my pain and fury, I swung my arms like a windmill hoping to grab her hair. But I couldn’t get a grip on her mess because it was itty-bitty and greasy. I yanked at her clothing, as her punches landed hard on my gut and chest, but only managed to grab air.
I was able to protect my face from being punched or scratched by keeping my head down, but the Dragon had a
steely clutch on my locks. I screamed as she yanked my head left and then right, my tears blurring the beads into mere gold specks as they hit the ground.
Then, in the distance, I heard the sound of a whistle, followed by Dean Walzman’s familiar voice demanding Break
it up! Just as Dragon Della’s knuckles connected with my face. I was grateful to feel the arms of an adult as they pried us apart, Della kicking and hissing “Lemme go lemme go,” all the way.
“Enough, Smart-tard!” The Dean yelled in her direction.
Dragon Della, wilted.
Smart-tard was one of Ms. Walzman’s trademark expressions. We didn’t know if she was calling us smart or retarded when she used it. But we did know she scared the crap out of us. I cried all the way to the Dean’s office.
I cried the whole time I sat there.
“Leanna can’t hurt you now. She’s in the room down the hall,” Dean Walzman said, “so stop crying.” But I cried
when I went back to class and after school I cried the whole six blocks home. When I took out my key to open the door, I heard something drop and looked down. A single, gold-gilded pellet winked at me from the ground.
…Leanna can’t hurt you now.
Dean Walzman just didn’t get it.
Ms. Browne has attended the literary workshops of Michel Marriott's, Soul's Sojourn Memoir Writers Workshop; The International Woman's Writer's Guild; Gotham Writers Workshop; and The Yorkville Writing Circle. She is a long-time resident of Brooklyn New York. “Dragon Della” is an excerpt from Browne’s memoir, Hairalujah.