After moving to an affluent suburb of Denver in 1975, ninth-grader Tiphanie, the only Black girl in her new high school, feels out of place until she befriends another outsider--Jackie Sue, whose "trailer trash" home life makes Tiphanie's problems seem like a walk in the park.
In October 1975, while most teens are worried about their Happy Days Halloween costumes, Tiphanie Jayne Baker has bigger problems. Her parents have just decided to uproot the family to the ritzy suburb of Brent Hills, Colorado, and now she's the only Black girl at a high school full of Barbies. But the longer Tiphanie stays in her new neighborhood, the more her ties to her old community start to fray. Now that nowhere feels like home, exactly where does she belong?
About the Author
TRACI L. JONES was awarded the Coretta Scott King / John Steptoe New Talent Award for her first novel, STANDING AGAINST THE WIND. She lives in Denver, Colorado.
TRACI L. JONES's first novel, Standing Against the Wind, was met with critical acclaim, won the Coretta Scott King-John Steptoe New Talent Award, and was named to five state reading lists. Her subsequent novels include Finding My Place and Silhouetted by the Blue. Jones lives with her husband and children in Denver, Colorado.
Read an Excerpt
Finding My Place
By Traci L. Jones
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2010 Traci L. Jones
All rights reserved.
For most people, the big news during the fall of 1975 was the second assassination attempt on President Ford. Not for me. For me, that October was the month my father, Morris Ray Baker, and my mother, Annie Louise Baker, decided to completely ruin my life. Oh, they claimed it was not only a good move for our family, but a step forward for our race as a whole. My parents were big on doing their part to uplift the race, which meant I was expected to do my part as well. And I didn't usually mind, because most of the time it was easy stuff, like making good grades and not getting in trouble at school. Sometimes, not often, but sometimes, it was even fun, like going out of town to Afro-American arts festivals.
But this time my parents went too far — they made us move. To the suburbs of all places! As if living in Denver, Colorado, wasn't bad enough. Being from Colorado got you no clout from other Blacks — especially the ones from D.C., Atlanta, or Chicago. But at least before we moved I was in the Blackest part of Colorado there was — the neighborhood just northeast of downtown.
Then my father got a promotion which came with a huge raise. While I was happy for my father in a vague I love my daddy sort of way, I didn't see how his new job would affect me personally. After all, even though Daddy was the first Black vice president at Colorado National Bank of Denver, I was still expected to clean my room. And when my housewife mother announced a few weeks later that she had gotten a job as a real estate broker, I thought, "Cool! Go on with your bad self, Mom!" But I knew I'd still have to listen to my parents' endless lectures. As far as I was concerned, unless the promotion and the new job came with a maid and a pair of earplugs, nothing much would change in my life.
I was wrong. With my parents' new incomes we suddenly had enough money to move out of our small but comfortable house. This meant that instead of going to high school with the kids — the Black kids — I'd known all my life, I'd be one of two Blacks going to Brent Hills High in Brent Hills, Colorado. I hadn't even had much time to settle into high school in Parkside yet. Five measly weeks. I'd barely learned my locker combination when we up and moved.
The new house was only thirty minutes from our old neighborhood, but it was light-years away from my former life. Oh, my parents told me I'd still see my old friends. They said we'd still go to the same church we'd always gone to, and we would invite my friends from school and church over to the house for slumber parties and stuff. But even at fourteen-and-a-half, I knew that seeing someone once or twice a month, or even every Sunday for a couple of hours, wasn't enough to make a friendship last.
When my mother took me to register for ninth grade at my new high school I was a little stunned by how different my old and new schools were from each other. Brent Hills High looked like a big office building. It was only five or six years old, so it looked shiny and new — in a plastic, fake way. My old school, Grove High, was built way back in the late 1800s and it looked well used but sturdy.
"We are so pleased to have Tip-han-ni here," said the school secretary as she carefully reviewed the stack of forms my mother handed her.
"It's pronounced 'Tiffany,'" replied my mother. "Spelled like Stephanie, except with a Ti instead of an Ste."
Tiphanie Jayne Baker. My parents were generally conservative and old-fashioned, but they were on the cutting edge of at least one Black cultural idiosyncrasy — they were the first in the growing wave of Black mothers and fathers to be overly creative in the choosing and spelling of their children's names. I mean, they had normal names, Morris and Annie, both of which, I liked to point out, were extremely easy to spell and never got mispronounced.
"Well, isn't that a unique way to spell it?" simpered the secretary, whose name according to her nameplate was Minny Tingle. And my name was odd? "It will be so nice to have a diverse student body. You know, while Denver has the population to make busing work, poor little Brent Hills just can't find any Neg ...umm ...different people to bring in."
My mother's eyebrows shot up at the secretary's poor choice of words, but she chose to be polite.
"So exactly how many other Blacks attend Brent Hills?" asked my mother, overemphasizing the word Black for the secretary's cultural education.
"Well, let's see," Miss Tingle answered. "There's Bradley Jepperson. He's in the ninth grade too. That will give Tiphand ... er, um, Tifhan ... your daughter a ready-made friend."
"Tiphanie, it's Tiphanie. The ph makes an f sound," I interrupted. I didn't want my teachers and my classmates to call me "Tip Hand Nie." Just the thought of that happening annoyed me. As did the assumption that Bradley would be my "ready-made friend." I didn't like all the Blacks in my last school, so what made her think I'd like Bradley? Did she like all the white people she knew?
"Oh, yes, dear, sorry about that. Well, Bradley is the only Neg ... Black boy here. But we do have several Mexicans, and one little Japanese boy. Or maybe he's Chinese. I can never tell with them."
"I see," my mother said, with more than a tinge of irritation to her voice.
At that moment, I didn't care about the progress of the race or being an upstanding Afro-American citizen. I wanted to be back in Denver, with people who looked like me and understood me and knew how to pronounce my name. And where would I buy stuff to fix my hair way out here? I was miserable before I'd even gone to school one day.
"So exactly how many is 'several Mexicans'?" I asked, as politely as I could. I figured if there weren't any Blacks around, then hanging out with browns would have to do. I had never had a white friend in my whole life and I was certain that I wouldn't find any here in the 'burbs. And what if this Bradley boy turned out to be an Uncle Tom?
"Why, I believe we have eight," Miss Tingle answered cheerfully. "There are at least five Garcias here. I think they're from the same family." As it turned out, only two of them were related. You'd think that Miss Tingle, working in the school office, would know that.
"So in a school this size, you only have ten students who aren't white?" my mother asked. I saw her glance over at me with a bit of concern. She knew how I was about having friends, and lots of them.
"Oh, no," replied Miss Tingle earnestly. "We have that little Oriental boy."
"Oh, that's right," my mother snapped. "You've almost a full dozen. You're quite the model of a diverse American school."
Miss Tingle beamed up at my mother and said, "Yes, yes we are. Why, I believe that's one percent colored."CHAPTER 2
The night before my first day of school I was in a nervous frenzy. I had several outfits lying on my bed, ranging from ultra casual to church dressy. I'd packed and repacked my backpack about a half dozen times and I couldn't figure out what to do with my hair. Afro or two Afro puffs? Afro bun? I needed help, so I called my best friend, Renee, to debate the virtues of a miniskirt versus hip-huggers, platforms versus clogs.
Renee was silent for a moment. Then she said something that put it all in perspective for me. "It doesn't matter what you wear, or how you do your hair, Tif. You're the only Black girl in the entire school. At best, you can hope for curiosity, at worst, outright hostility. I'd suggest you choose something old and comfortable — you know, something that you won't mind getting ruined, in case of flying food. Then go to sleep. You'll need to be fully rested and on your toes."
"Flying food?" I asked. "What do you mean?"
"You know," Renee said with a don't-be-so-stupid tone to her voice. "Food flying at you. Like your mom and dad at the Woolworth counters down south."
Renee knew all my parents' stories about being a part of the civil rights movement. They'd gone to Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee, in the sixties and they were part of the Woolworth lunch counter sit-ins. After their classes, they would change into their best clothes and go sit at the lunch counter for hours, never being served so much as a glass of water. They talked about how people would accidentally-on-purpose bump into them or spill entire plates of food onto their heads. My parents also told Renee and me about all the rules that had been created for the sit-ins. "Wear your Sunday clothes. No laughing. No talking. Be polite. Don't block the entrances. And don't strike back." That's the one that always gave me chills, thinking how hard it would have been to just sit there while you were yelled and cursed at. To have to walk through groups of mean, angry white people shouting awful things at you, and say nothing back. To have food thrown on your best clothes and sit there pretending that nothing happened. My mother has a small scar from when someone threw a lit cigar at her. That burn is her badge of honor.
All those students who were pelted with food as they sat peacefully at the lunch counters, or the girls and boys who were attacked by police dogs as they marched — it wasn't only very recent history, it was my family's personal legacy. And I was expected to live up to it every day of my life. But while I greatly admired their inner strength, their sense of purpose, and their bravery, I seriously doubted that I possessed any of those things myself. I was scared.
That night I dreamed I was surrounded by jeering white faces and pelted with cocktail weenies — my favorite party food used as a weapon against me. Just as I was getting ready to throw the mini hot dogs back at my attackers, my parents appeared and told me that the proper way to respond was not to respond at all.
In the morning I expected a little coddling from my parents, but my father gave me the usual goodbye kiss on the cheek and headed off to work as if it was a normal day. My mother drove me to school but just pulled up in front, saying something about wanting to be early on her first day of work. She could have at least offered to walk me up to the door.
"Have a wonderful day, honey," she said.
"Shouldn't you come in with me, maybe, Mom?" I asked, trying not to sound afraid, but hoping she'd notice my fear anyway.
"I wish I had time, sweetie, but I want to be sure to be early today. I need to make a good first impression too, you know. I'm the only Black commercial property salesperson they have. Besides, you're a big girl now, a high schooler. You have your class list right there. And of course, that wonderful brain of yours. Hurry along now. Make us proud."
My mother flashed me a quick smile, then leaned over and gave me a hearty pat on my leg. "Go on. You don't want to be late to your first class, or any of them for that matter. That is a stereotype you are not to reinforce. Love you, sweetie."
As I got out of the car, a picture suddenly popped into my head of the Little Rock Nine walking into that all-white high school in Arkansas. They had all looked so brave, staring straight ahead, heads held high, clutching their books to their chests. They had also been protected by national guardsmen. As for me, I was all by myself. That had me pretty scared until I realized that no one was paying any attention to me. So I held my head up and marched toward the front door. No one I passed said a word to me.
My first class was English, which was not my favorite subject — too boring, too wordy, too abstract — but at least I'd get it over with right away. I found my classroom easily and walked inside.
"Hello," the teacher greeted me. "I'm Mrs. Deasy. You must be my new student."
"Yes, ma'am. Tiphanie Baker."
"Well, Miss Tiphanie Baker, pick a seat. We have no assigned seating so anywhere is fine."
I chose the middle row, second seat in. At the warning bell streams of students began to pour in. At first I watched them, but stopped after I got a nasty look from one of them. After that I stared down at my desk instead, wishing I was back at my old school, where at least I would have had desk carvings to read. At Brent Hills all the desks were squeaky clean.
When I glanced up again I noticed that I was in a sea of empty seats. No one was sitting to my left or my right, behind or in front of me. Looking back down at my desk would let them know I cared how they acted, so I held my head up and stared at the blackboard. As the last bell rang, a white guy with curly brown hair and big brown eyes sat in the empty seat behind me. He gave me a friendly look, but he didn't speak, so neither did I.
I was so busy thinking about the look he'd given me that I almost didn't realize Mrs. Deasy was speaking.
"Tiphanie, do you need supplies?" she asked me.
"Excuse me, ma'am?" My voice sounded timid and meek, not at all normal.
"Pencil and papers," she said gently, as if she were scared of hurting my feelings. "I just asked the class to get them out. Were you able to buy supplies? Do you need some? I always bring a little extra for students who need them."
There was a smattering of titters around the class. Mrs. Deasy gave everyone what she must have believed was a stern look, but it just made her appear startled and frightened.
"Oh, no, ma'am, I've got plenty right here, thank you," I said, a little louder than I meant to. I pulled out my supplies and dropped them on my desk with a loud plop.
In the hallway after English ended, I checked my schedule and saw that my next class was algebra. I loved math. Math was solid and predictable. Plus it came easily for me, very easily — but that wasn't why I liked it. I liked it because it was something I could count on — 1 + 1 would always equal 2, just like x in the equation 12x -10 = 2x + 10 would always equal 2. How could you not appreciate that? I headed to my locker to dig out my math book.
The Brent Hills hallways were as chaotic as the ones at my old school, so dodging the crowds of loud, laughing kids should have felt normal for me. But that first day it felt anything but normal. I had never felt so Black — and so friendless — in my entire life. Where were those Mexican kids anyway? And that Black guy?
As I was trying to find my classroom, this boy with a big, square head and a blond crew cut bumped right into me and knocked my books out of my hands. He didn't even say "Excuse me." My things landed right in front of another kid who looked at the mess, looked at me, and then stepped over it.
I got to class and instead of plopping down in any random chair I gave my desk selection a little more thought — hoping to avoid the same sea of empty seats. This time I picked the first chair in the last row, but before I knew it I found myself in a sea of blond girls who talked around me as if I wasn't there. A little black speck in an ocean of yellow.
My math teacher, Mr. Ash, was young, and had hair so long I was surprised Brent Hills had even hired him. It almost touched his collar! He looked just like that Warren Beatty guy from the movie Shampoo, which my parents hadn't let me see because it was R-rated.
We started class by doing a few quadratic equations at our seats. Piece of cake. When Mr. Ash asked for volunteers to solve some problems on the chalkboard, my hand went up as if it had a mind of its own. Math did that to me. When it turned out I was the only one who had gotten my problem right, Mr. Ash asked me if I could explain to the class why the other problems were wrong. Sho 'nuff I could.
Any subject after math had to be a letdown. U.S. history, French 1A, blah, blah, blah. The only highlight during those two hours was that I finally saw a couple of Mexican guys on my way to French class. They looked at me with friendly smiles but continued talking to each other in Spanish. Just as I was wishing I'd signed up for Spanish instead of French, the blockhead guy who'd run into me that morning plowed into me again, and this time I was sure it was on purpose. He even looked back and snickered at me before walking away. I didn't know who he was, but I hated him already.
Excerpted from Finding My Place by Traci L. Jones. Copyright © 2010 Traci L. Jones. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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