“It won’t be easy, you know,” said Cousin Gwen. “They won’t take any foolishness up there. Especially from a colored boy.” She was standing on the sidewalk in front of her apartment building in a wrinkled pink housecoat and worn bedroom slippers, giving me some last-minute advice. Her face was the texture and color of a raisin. Her eyes were penetrating.
My parents and I had driven up from Virginia the night before on our way to Draper, the boarding school in Connecticut to which I had been admitted. We had spent the night at Gwen’s apartment in Harlem, and now my parents were sitting in the big Buick Roadmaster, waiting for me to climb in. “This is quite an opportunity you have,” said Gwen. “It’s so rare that any of our boys have a chance to go to these schools.” “I’m looking forward to it,” I said, doing my best to sound confident. Until she retired, Cousin Gwen had been a schoolteacher in Harlem for forty years, and as I listened to her, I felt like one of her pupils. It occurred to me that forty years of teaching members of the race had left her with an unerring ability to detect imposters.
“You’d do well to keep to yourself at first,” she said, “until you know who you’re dealing with.” Looking back, I’d say it was the best advice I’d ever been given by any adult, including my parents, although I didn’t pay much attention to it at the time. I was eager to get going and she must have recognized it. “Well,” she said with a resigned sigh. “Just remember when you’re up there, they’ll need you back home when you’re finished. Don’t end up like Joe Louis.”
In those days, the life of Joe Louis was a cautionary tale for every colored boy from a comfortable home. A big, yaller nigger, as my father would say, Louis was the son of an Alabama sharecropper who became the heavyweight boxing champion of the world. He would make the white folks jittery just by climbing into the ring. In the photographs I saw of him as a child, he was always pokerfaced, the kinks in his hair greased to perfection. He was the most famous Negro of his day, and he made millions of dollars. And lost every cent. He could knock you out with a six-inch punch, but he didn't know what to do with his money; so he trusted the wrong people. They would come to him like courtiers, with a promise of something for nothing. “just sign here, champ,” they would say, and he would sign, lending his name to a candy bar, a milk company, a restaurant, a toy doll, a saloon, assuming all of the liability for a fraction of the assets. By the end of his career, he was penniless, reduced to greeting guests at the doors of nightclubs and working as a referee at wrestling matches to pay off a tax debt too huge to comprehend. Through ignorance and carelessness, he had allowed his chance at independence to slip through his fingers, and had been returned to slavery by the government.
We reached the school just before lunch. I reported to the headmaster's office with my parents, and the secretary, a tall, dignified woman with short, iron gray hair, directed us to the dining room. “We've been expecting you,” she said with a soft smile. “Mr. Spencer would like you to join him for lunch at the headmaster's table.” The dining room was bustling when we entered. Four hundred pink-faced boys in jackets and ties, more white people than I had ever seen in one place in my life, were seated at long wooden tables noisily comparing notes about summer vacations, summer romances, course assignments, and teachers. And just as the school's catalogue had described, at the head of each table sat a member of the faculty "to insure civility and to promote appropriate discourse." At the opposite end of the table sat a student in a white cotton jacket who was assigned to wait on the table for two weeks.
Tall, pale, and slender, in a brown tweed jacket and a bright red bow tie, the headmaster, Oliver Spencer, stood when he saw us entering the room and walked over to greet us.
"Well, this must be the Garrett family," he said. "I'm Ollie Spencer." His wide smile exposed a mouthful of crooked, tobacco-stained teeth. I could imagine my father, who was a dentist, cringing at the sight. Mr. Spencer extended his hand, which my mother accepted without removing her glove. She was still conducting a final inspection, before deciding, once and for all, whether to leave her only child in this place.
"Did you have a good trip?" said Mr. Spencer, making what I came to recognize as headmaster small talk. He pumped my father's hand and then mine with an excess of enthusiasm, not even waiting for a reply. "Come and join us for lunch. We've saved three places for you." We began a brief but conspicuous journey to the headmaster's table, observed by everyonne else in the dining room. For several seconds, amid the din of voices and the clatter of tableware, a hush fell over the room and ccccconversation stopped while everyone took a good look. I was the first, you see, the first colored student in the eighty-seven year history of the place, and I suppose they could be forgiven, at that point, for gawking.
My parents and I were seated next to each other, at the head of the table, and introductions were made all around. Across from us sat Mrs. Spencer, plump and hearty, with rosy cheeks and long blond hair piled loosely on top of her head. She was wearing a white cotton blouse and a pale blue seersucker jacket. For some reason, she reminded me of a teller in a bank. Seated next to her was Mr. Wilcox, a mathematics teacher and a dour man with a bald head, a bristling mustache, and heavy, tortoiseshell glasses that he preferred to look over rather than through. And next to Mr. Wilcox was Peter Dillard, president of the sophomore class, the class I was entering, who was wearing a navy blue blazer and who looked as though he had recently stepped out of the shower. Of the three, Mrs. Spencer seemed most curious.
"Well, how are things in Virginia?” she asked. Her eyes were gleaming. I was uncertain if she was asking about the weather or if she wanted to know the truth, but my father intervened.
"Hot," he said. "It's always hot this time of year." "Well, it's been pretty warm up here, too," she said. "We've had very little rain. My garden is just parched." My mother had been silent up to that point, and I was wondering what she was thinking. I had been looking at dried-up gardens in our neighborhood all my life, and I had never heard one described as "parched." I wondered if mother had, and what she made of the headmaster's wife.
"Very fine school you have down there in Charlottesville," said Mr. Wilcox, biting off his words like pieces of raw carrot. We let the comment twist slowly in the wind, hoping no one would catch its scent. Of course, Mrs. Spencer did.
"Oh my, yes!" she squealed. "The university! Tell me, how is Charlottesville? I haven't been there in ages. Such a lovely town, don't you think?" “We sent three seniors there this year," chimed in an aroused Dillard, the class president, as lunch arrived, lugged on a large metal tray by a student waiter.
All three seemed oblivious to the fact that until very recently I could not attend the University of Virginia, under any circumstances. I wondered how widespread was this ignorance among the rest of the school population. I was certain my parents were uncomfortable with the implications of this discussion. They had tried to shield me from the indignity of segregation whenever possible — arranging to take me wherever I needed to go so that I didn't have to sit in the back of a segregated bus or streetcar, refusing to patronize any shop or restaurant or theater that maintained a COLORED ONLY section — but they never pretended that it didn't exist. I could imagine my mother giving the three across the table a withering look, dabbing the corners of her mouth with the end of her napkin, and rising from the table to say to Mr. Spencer, "We have obviously made a mistake. We have no intention of leaving our son in a school like this. Thank you for your time." Instead, Mr. Spencer put a baked chicken breast on each plate and passed the plates around, together with stainless steel serving bowls of peas and mashed potatoes, and the subject was not pursued, to my great relief.
It had become clear, before the end of the first hour of my first day, that the world I had just entered was utterly different from anything I had previously encountered. I was on my own. I would have to fend for myself, and I was thrilled by the prospect.
"There will be a meeting of all new boys in the auditorium this afternoon at four o'clock," said Mr. Spencer, toward the end of the meal. "Between now and then, you can get your class assignments and your books and find your dormitory room. Dillard will give you a hand." I had finished lunch and was eager to get started, but first, I had to say goodbye to my parents. They were still eating, however, and the headmaster's table in the dining room seemed hardly the place for such a parting.
"Do you play any sports?" asked Dillard from across the table. In truth, I hadn't played any organized sports in Virginia because there were none, other than in high school, which I hadattended only for one year. We were not allowed to play on the Little League baseball or football teams, and the only way we could walk onto a golf course was as a caddy, which my parents refused to allow me to do. I played a respectable game of playground basketball, and could hold my own in football and baseball, but I had never been coached in anything.
"A little basketball, a little football," I said, hoping my vagueness would cause him to drop the subject. Instead, he seemed to take it for false modesty, and his eyes widened.
Really?" he exclaimed. "Boy, can we ever use you. Football practice starts this afternoon. Why don't you come over to the field?" Everyone at the table was looking at me, waiting for my answer. Although I didn't realize it at the time, I was about to define myself.
"Not this afternoon," I said. "I need to unpack and get my books. Maybe some other time." Dillard gave me a long look of disappointment. My parents, on the other hand, seemed to heave a joint sigh of relief.
The lunch dishes were cleared away, and my parents stood up and shook hands with everyone. I told Dillard I would meet him at the dormitory in a few minutes, and I got up to leave.
“Would you like to be excused?" said the headmaster. I gave him a puzzled look, and he gave me a good-natured smile in return. "At Draper, boys are expected to excuse themselves from the table before leaving," he said, smiling again, with a kind of low-wattage, paternal grin.
"Excuse me, sir. May I be excused, sir?" I said. Everyone at the table beamed, including my parents.
"Catches on fast," said my father with a smile. "That's a good sign." I had passed my first rite of initiation into life at the Draper School, but it was certain not to be my last.
"We're very glad to have you with us, and I hope you'll feel free to come and see me whenever you have a problem," said Mr. Spencer, still flashing his benign, all-purpose smile. "And, yes, you may be excused." I walked out to the car with my parents, observing that we were still the object of curiosity on the part of everyone around us. Not only the students, but the adults, from the teachers to the groundskeepers, gave us long looks, though it was not easy to tell what they were thinking. A few seemed friendly and some seemed cool, but most of the expressions were blank as a piece of paper that had not been written on.
The drive over to the dormitory with my parents gave us our first and last opportunity that day to exchange in private our impressions of the school. I was about to be left alone, truly alone, for the first time in my life. The two great pillars that had supported me up to that point were about to be removed.
"Well, you're on your way, son," said my father. "They certainly keep the place looking nice," he mused, steering the Buick past manicured lawns and the graceful, towering elms that covered the campus. He was fond of bromides, and maintained a barrel of them for use in every situation. Later, after much thought, I realized that they were one of the tools of his trade. Patients came to him expecting the worst, and his first task was to put them at ease by talking, but only about little of consequence.
Mother, on the other hand, was a schoolteacher like Cousin Gwen. She was used to having only fifty minutes to work with, so she got right to the point. "You're going to be under a microscope while you're here and don't you ever forget it. Not for one minute. Just when you think you've been accepted and they're treating you just like everyone else, that's when something will happen that will cause you to remember that you're a Negro. The only contact these people have had with our people has been with maids and shoeshine boys, and you can imagine what that's been like. I didn't see another colored face in that dining room, not even back in the kitchen. So you're it. You're going to represent the race, and from what I've seen and heard, they've got a lot to learn." She leaned over the back of the front seat toward me so that I could kiss her cheek, and as I did, I realized that it was wet with tears. "Make us proud of you, son," she said.
As we were unpacking the car, Dillard arrived to help me take my things to my room in the sophomore dormitory. It was a long, three-story brick building, with an entrance set off by four tall white columns. My room was on the third floor, with a dormer window that looked out on the campus, the surrounding hills, and a part of the golf course. There was a bed, a desk and chair, and a built-in dressing cabinet. It was not as large as my room at home, but it was comfortable enough. My parents, who had accompanied us up to the room to take a look, approved.
"Is there an adult in charge of the dormitory?" my mother asked Dillard as we were all walking back down to the car. Dillard pointed to the far end of the long corridor and a door with a brass knocker facing us. The door was shut.
"There's a master living on every floor," he said. "You don't see them that often, but they'll have you in for punch and cookies once in a while. They're mainly here to make sure things don't get out of hand." The three of us chuckled at Dillard's remark, and strolled out to the car. Everything about the school seemed to be in such perfect order, the graceful elms, the manicured lawns, the handsome buildings, constructed with red brick that had aged beautifully, and the pristine white columns. The footpaths had been paved with the finest gray slate and did not contain a scrap of litter. Even the birds seemed to have been trained to fly away to deposit their leavings elsewhere. It was hard for me to imagine things getting out of hand in such a place.
All of the schools I had attended before had been hand-me-downs, schools used by the whites until they were falling apart, when they were ready to be abandoned to the Negro hordes. At least, I thought, I wouldn't have to worry about a leaky roof in my algebra class at Draper. We were downstairs at the car, and my parents were preparing to leave. Dillard handed me a sheet of paper.
"I picked up your course assignments for you," he said. "You still need to get your books from the bookstore, which is behind the main building. I've gotta head over to the field for football practice. You sure you don't want to come?" "I'm sure," I said. I knew I was fortunate to have a choice. Draper had awarded me a small academic scholarship, but most of my tuition was being paid by my parents, which meant that there was no expectation, when I arrived, that I would have to earn my keep by wearing the green and gold of the Draper Dragons.
Dillard said goodbye to my parents, shook their hands, and headed off to the football field.
"Seems like a nice young fellow," said my father in his blue serge suit, his hands clasped behind his back, surveying the campus again.
"Are you sure you packed that extra pair of pajamas I left out for you?" said my mother. I assured her I had. "What about underwear? Are you sure you've got enough underwear? What about your gloves? Remember, it gets cold up here." She was having trouble leaving, and it should not have surprised me, for I was the embodiment of her dreams, the life she had nurtured from her womb and then tended in the hoary, weed-choked garden of the South, until the decision was made to send me away to firmer, richer soil. Nevertheless, I was absolutely desperate for them to go. This was supposed to be my experience, and I wanted to have it on my own. I was too young to understand that it was also their experience, indeed, their adventure, in a world they had dreamed about and read about but never inhabited. Now they were going to live in that world through me, but the price of the ticket was steep. When they returned home, my bedroom would be empty. At dinnertime, the table would only be set for two. And they would no longer have to transport me from place to place so that I wouldn’t have to ride in the back of the bus.
We exchanged brief hugs and kisses, and both of them seemed to be fighting back tears as they climbed into the Roadmaster. I felt, at that moment, looking at them seated behind the windshield of the huge black sedan, that in the brief trip north, they had somehow aged; that without their realizing it, time had caught up with them and was passing them by, and now, having brought me as far as they could, they were about to return to the past. Dad turned over the big Buick engine and it rumbled to life. From the interior of the sedan, he looked at me standing alone at the edge of the driveway and gave me a big wink, which I pretended not to notice. With the edge of a handkerchief wrapped around her index finger, Mother dried the corners of her eyes and managed a faint smile and a wave. Dad eased the car forward, rolling it slowly down the driveway, until it reached the main road and disappeared.
Copyright © 2005 by Julian Houston. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.