I learned one of life’s most valuable lessons from Pam Baker.
She wasn’t a teacher.
She was a classmate, and she sat behind me in 7th grade.
Pam wasn’t a close friend of mine. During the first months of junior high everybody was a bit strange, so many of us having converged from the various elementary schools in the area. I still missed my 6th grade teacher, and struggled to find each room in the building which had been designated for every subject being taught.
I was fairly tall for a 7th grader, as was Pam and, yet, we’d both either chosen or been assigned seats near the front of the room in the center row. Gone were the days when the tall girls ended up in the back, of each row, with the boys.
The scenic memory is vague. Perhaps we were doing seatwork, or the teacher had stepped out of the room for a moment. I felt a tap on my shoulder.
I turned around.
It was Pam.
“What race are you??” she said.
In those days, white people called those of color Negroes. None of the white people had a clue what Negroes called their white counterparts because, in those days, there was no dialogue between people of differing race. Pam was one of the Negro girls and, that year, I was the darkest skinned white girl in the entire school.
My father’s parents had both emigrated to New York on a ship just as the 19th century was flipping to the 20th. They were each of Southern Italian descent, though my grandfather would have born the darker shades of hair and skin. Appearing to be Sicilian, my grandmother had the light eyes and broad, full features marking Moorish ancestry. Dad had only met his mother once and his father never, providing the family only a bridal photograph, and I took after him almost entirely.
In early September, Pam’s skin was the color of coffee with milk, just like mine. Hers stayed that way, though, as the winter encroached, and mine faded just enough to make the subject less of a concern to anyone.
Clearly, Pam had never seen a white girl with skin the same color as her own. And, up until then, I had seen few African American people at all in my world, only those who came from Virginia to Grove City College to attend our Eastern Bible Conference every summer, among them the Hintons – Arthur being the thin, quiet boy who always smiled at me across every room.
What I learned in 7th grade was that there were those who weren’t sure what I was when they looked at me. I also learned how it felt to be the person nobody was sure about, unless they knew my family or attended the Bible Conference where people came to worship in spite of their skin color even if they did not sit together. Arthur Hinton could have been my boyfriend, and Pam Baker and I could have been sisters, but in those days nobody would have understood.
The bitter cold had lifted somewhat and there were about forty minutes for three belated returns, one a large postal shipment, before my private students would arrive. A full thirty of those had already passed before I realized that the Post Office would be closed. Today was a legal holiday, in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Pam Baker would have remembered.
© 1/15/18 Ruth Ann Scanzillo All rights those of the author, whose story it is, and whose name appears above this line. Leave prejudice at the door. Thanks.