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Allan had only just sat down at his desk, but already he could feel the prickly heat radiating off his chest. Appreciatively, gratefully, he looked left out the classroom windows – always kept so clean, so clear – at the growing, darkening foliage of the trees. Swaying shadows of the wind-brushed leaves offered to him a prospect of cool restfulness, of sanctuary (Oh, if only I could, if only…). The sparkling sun – high, radiant – touched everything in the lawns across the street – the trees; the green, thickening grass; the yellow, white, red, and pink flowers (he knew for sure that some were tulips, but he didn’t know the name of the yellow, trumpet-like flowers) – every sunlit living thing seemed charged with unnamed, unknown, but unlimited possibilities, and this same fiery, glowing, pulsating sun seemed – in fevered, unbidden, uncontrollable moments – as if surging all through and around him. He was groping for words, he didn’t fully understand, he couldn’t explain, but throughout all these final fragrant days of April, he was urgently aware of, he teemed with, a nearly irrepressible, bursting joy that each day had framed all he saw of Broadway from his seat in this second-story classroom. Except for today. Slavery today. Today in history class they would be discussing slavery.
To a few of his friends he gave a quick, perfunctory nod, but as the seats filled, he lowered his head and pretended to be concentrating on his textbook. Mr. Havens walked into the room and closed the door, shutting off all the hubbub and the shouting of the many students scrambling through the halls, making their last-minute rush to get to their classes on time. Now it was just the twenty-six or twenty-seven of them, and a close, warm, oppressive silence filled the classroom.
Mr. Havens didn’t this day drop his teacher’s book on the desk the way he often did, as if to say, wake up, wake up, you students. Instead, in a subdued tone, he said, very deliberately opening his book, “My young and budding men and women, you will please turn in your textbooks to page three hundred fifty-seven.”
Allan had his book open, but not to that page. He’d already seen it the night before. It was virtually the same as his junior year: More than half the page filled with a full-color drawing of Abraham Lincoln sitting on the upper deck of a riverboat. Thick, gooey, oblong, lugubrious, hot tears were running down Lincoln’s troubled cheeks as he watched slave women with brightly colored head rags and slave men in tattered shirts being chained up on the lower deck of the boat. “Young Lincoln,” the textbook said, “was filled with a great sadness as he witnessed firsthand this practice of slavery, and on that riverboat he swore that one day he would do something to put an end to the enslavement of the colored race.”
“When black folks was in sla-a-bber-ree—” Of a sudden, crazily, Bing Crosby flashed into Allan’s head – and there Bing was in that movie (he forgot the name of it – Hotel?), his eyes bugged out, his lips slamming down hard on every b.
When b-black folks was in sla-a-bber-ree, who was it set the darky free? Abbbraham A-a-bbbra-ham-m-m.
Oh, how humiliating.
Allan kept his eyes trained on whatever page he’d turned to in the textbook. No eye contact with any of the other colored students, not even with Alma, who sat right next to him and whom on every other single day of school he delightedly looked forward to exchanging one or another kind of flirtatious pleasantry with. But not so today. Without even looking, he knew with near certainty that Alma, too, had her head down. Why? Maybe acknowledging this sense of shame with the other colored students made it worse? He didn’t know, and he didn’t want to think about it. He didn’t want to look into anybody’s eyes, most definitely not look at any of the white people in the class, not even some of the ones he knew were his friends – no, especially not them.
From what seemed some far-off distance, Allan heard Mr. Havens tell the class, “There were four million Negroes held as slaves in…”
Four million. Slaves.
This year, junior year, sophomore, freshman, every spring, this was the one and only time colored people were ever mentioned in the history class. Sla-beree. Four million. Slaves!
A panicked thought rose to his mind, but just as quickly it was eased by the grateful realization that he hadn’t worn one of his dark shirts today. He didn’t remember having even thought about school when he was getting dressed this morning, but what relief he now felt in the choice he’d made. True, true, normally he actively participated in and looked forward to history class, but there was not even the slightest chance today – not the remotest – he’d be raising his hand. But still he was conscious of, he could feel, the tricklings from his underarm dampening his shirt, but, oh, thank goodness, with this light-colored check shirt, he didn’t think the perspiration, this crescent of shame, would show. Oh, I hope not. He so hoped not. And, man, hadn’t this room all of a sudden become uncomfortably warm. He lifted his head and took a quick look, and, yes, the sun had risen higher, and was now piercing through the windows.
“We cannot avoid the conclusion,” Mr. Havens said, “that the practice of slavery, the holding in bondage of millions of human beings, represented a palpable contradiction, a sharp polarity, as it were, with all the ideals expressed by the Founding Fathers in our Declaration of Independence and further sanctioned in our Constitution. Yes,” Mr. Havens said, acknowledging a raised hand.
“But to me, I mean, I think we have to realize, you know, that this was a very, very, very different time, and I don’t think, really, I mean, I would say it’s not fair at all to judge the ideas and the people back then based on today’s standards, because—”
No surprise here. That old prejudiced Phillip was one of that group of pro-South defenders in the school. It was hardly a secret, just about everybody in class (in the school) knew that he and some of his buddies had started up some kind of Robert E. Lee admiration society.
“I don’t agree with that at all. Not at all!”
“Right is right, and wrong is wrong, and I say slavery was totally wrong!”
“Exactly. This is America!”
“And no matter what they may have thought back then, here in the twentieth century, we have to say that slavery was wrong!”
One after another, Harry, Janet, Cathy, and John were quick to make clear their marked opposition to Phillip.
“Yes, Allan,” Mr. Havens said, and now a searing wave of heat flushed through Allan’s whole frame, but then immediately, with a relief that left him nearly limp, he realized that Mr. Havens had pointed to the raised hand of the other Alan in class, the white one.
Thank you, Mr. Havens. Thank you, thank you, oh, thank you so much.
And now comes a winding, fact-filled response. The white Alan was one of the true eggheads of the class, of the entire school. But Allan actually liked him, even admired this other Alan. He felt sorry for him, too – all those flaming splotches of red acne on his face and down his neck. And then the warts, too, on his right hand. Allan took a brief look up and to his right as Alan was speaking, and in the next row over he noticed Dawn, who’d again come into class with her eyes glistening. A couple of weeks ago, Mr. Havens had had to escort her out of the classroom and try to console her. But Allan and all the class could still hear her out in the hall, sobbing in wave after wave. Word had slowly circulated that her father had apparently moved out on the family. And even in these following days, all out of nowhere the classroom discussion might be interrupted by a half-stifled, shuddering sigh from Dawn. “Should you be excused for a moment?” Mr. Havens had asked on one of these occasions. “No, thank you,” Dawn had said, the slightest tremor in her voice, her head bowed low towards her desk.
And look at those clothes Monty has to wear to school. That oversized blue? green? beige? that shirt so faded you can’t even tell what its true color is, or was. And then those rumpled-up pants he wears, just about every day. And then look at me, with my multi-colored, long-sleeve knit shirts, with their long pointed collars, my short-sleeve Banlons, my double- and triple-pleated pants (two of them iridescent – straight from Maxwell Street), my old-man comforts, all shined up like in that poem about Ulysses, “burnished,” or as the fellas would say, with a “boss gloss on my kicks.” And this is not even including my letter sweater, with those three huge purple T’s stitched diagonally across my chest like some gigantic lightning bolt! And then on top of that I have my loving, gorgeous girlfriend, Norma!
And confirmation was hardly needed, but only a few issues back the survey of students by the Thorntonite had shown a nearly unanimous vote for Allan as one of the school’s best-dressed seniors. And this past fall – the amazement had gradually diminished, but Allan still found himself in wonderment as to how it had happened – he’d come in second in the voting for Homecoming King. And Thornton has at least four thousand-plus students, and is at least (what?) sixty/sixty-five percent white. Sure, sure, all, or practically all, the colored students had voted for him. And he was all but certain that Chris had voted for him, too, and probably Joe, Ray, Fletcher, and Soderquist, and very likely, too, Virginia and Carl, and Linda and Big Al, and very surely as well, the twins, Jean and Jane. And he felt confident he’d gotten the vote from some of his other white classmates, including Wayne, Mary, and from Jacki, Candy, Sue (and Sue), Dean, Peggy, and Bob. But still, sixty/sixty-five (maybe even seventy) percent white – and he’d come in second! So wasn’t he just as good as any of his white classmates? Yes, I am. Yes! I! Am! But despite all the force of his Yes, Allan was acutely conscious of, felt keenly aware of, an undertow of doubt, a wavering in his assertions, a lack of an unshakeable conviction. Yes, I am, yes, I am, I am, I am, but then, see, they don’t have to sit up here in the classroom and listen all day to their whole race being talked about in head rags and chains.
When would this class be over! When! And no, he couldn’t, those days were long past now. No, he wasn’t back at Warren Palm in grade school. So no, he couldn’t raise his hand and ask for permission to lay his head on his desk. No, he couldn’t fold his arms and cradle his head and shut out this world, shut out this classroom. No, he had to endure this discussion, this history until the bell rang, until class would be dismissed, when he then would dismiss this class and all this history from his mind. But when would it be over!
Seeking relief he looked again to the window, but the day had now grown intolerably hot. The sun was glistening and glaring sharply off the windows and the bordering chrome of the cars parked just up the street left in the drivers’-ed. parking lot. A sharper wind was kicking up dust and jumbling and tossing scraps of paper all along the curb on Broadway, and the “Resident-Only Parking” signs were reflecting the sun’s fierce light in pointed spears. And now this harsh, invasive light filled the classroom, charging everything with a nearly suffocating intensity and a feverish vividness: the white and pink and red of the white faces, the black, and yellow, and brown of the colored faces, the hot, scalding tears flowing down Abraham Lincoln’s cheeks, this river of tears now firing and burning red across Allan’s chest, the years, and years, and years, and years, and years of being somebody’s servant, somebody’s chattel, somebody’s prop—
“And so for tomorrow, my young fledglings—”
Oh, finally, relief! The class, it was over, it was over, it was done. Tomorrow the Civil War, tomorrow back to white history.
Allan got up from his desk – eyes lowered and fixed straight ahead – and fled the classroom as quickly as he could. None of that chit-chatting after class today. With a sigh, an exhalation of gratitude, of relief, he stepped into the hall, turned and walked to his left, and, strange as it seemed to him, he stopped – for the briefest moment (he felt the urge to raise his hands as if towards the sky, but he couldn’t do that – he knew he didn’t dare take such a pause and not be the target of all kinds of teasing for the rest of the school year) – and closed his eyes and let himself bask in the welcoming warmth of this sun-filled section of the corridor, with its great, nearly floor-to-ceiling, windows on both sides. Maybe the sun was just less intense now that he was standing here on the more easterly side of the hall? He didn’t know and no matter. It was on to his next class, English (“When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes…”), which was another of his favorites, and as he looked up ahead, his heart lifted at the immediate prospect of taking the short flight of stairs to the second floor of the older, darker, cooler part of the school building. And this was his last class for the day, and then baseball practice. He could already feel his fingers tightening, tightening around the small end of that bat, and then – Smash! He was going to knock the cover off that white ball, and watch it soar, soar, soar! high over the center field bleachers and keep soaring, and soaring right into and then out over Wrigley Field, all the way out onto Waveland Avenue – like Mr. Cub – and then he’d get that rousing “Hey! Hey!” from Jack Brickhouse!
As he approached his English classroom, Allan felt, and was aware of feeling, a sense almost of buoyancy. He knew they were going to be studying (“scanning”, Mrs. Goodwin had corrected him yesterday) this new poem he’d taken immediately to heart from that very first reading in class, “Ode to the West Wind”. “O, wind, if Winter comes,” he repeated, crossing the threshold into the classroom, “can Spring be far behind?”