Taneesha Never Disparaging - Selections

CHAPTER 1
Guaranteed Public Humiliation

There I was, scribbling Taneesha Bey-Ross, Monday, January 7, 2008, across the top of a fresh page in my writing notebook, without a clue that chaos was just minutes away. I looked through a classroom window at the freezing outside—cloudy, like it was all the time lately, with snow on the ground and everything. But you’d never have known it in Room 509 of North Cleveland’s Jane Hunter Elementary School. Toasty. Just the way I like it. So toasty that even though I’d forgotten to wear a sweater, I stayed warm in my “dress-code” get-up—white blouse, navy blue pants, black shoes.

I looked around at the astronomy sculptures, geometry mobiles, and A and B+ papers that decorated the walls, shelves, and ceiling. With a leg stretched out, I silently bounced a rubber heel on the blue-grey carpet, the kind for inside and outside, and breathed in its new-car smell. Glad to be back in 509.

It was the first day of school after Winter Break and I’d actually wanted to get back to Hunter. The break had been getting boring. Nothing to do.

So there I sat, scribbling with one hand and tangling the fingers of the other in the nappy tip of one of my twisty African locks.

“And so, fifth graders—” Trim Mr. Alvarez, who had the exact same tan as the oat flakes I’d had for breakfast over three hours ago, pointed to the list of words he’d written on the chalkboard:

Gratitude, Compassion, Perseverance, Courage, Wisdom, Cheerfulness.

“These are just some character traits that good leaders possess. Keep them in mind when you consider who to nominate for class officers in our coming election.”

I couldn’t help thinking how Mr. Alvarez was always so sharp. Today his short, coal-black hair looked especially shiny. Like he’d Vaselined it up or something. Neatly combed, of course. He had on this crisp, beige shirt, a dark blue necktie and matching suit pants. The crease in his pants could have sliced a hunk of cold cheddar cheese.

For some reason, the more I stared at Mr. Alvarez’s crisp, beige shirt, the more I thought of whole grain wafers.

My stomach gave a long growl. I quickly swept my eyes around the room and saw Rayshaun Parker, a hefty kid, look at me and then look away, bored. Good. That would have been all I needed—Rayshaun catching me growling. It seemed like he hadn’t heard my stomach. Nobody else seemed to either. Thank goodness.

Now that Rayshaun was in my head, he parked his irritating self there. Great. Mainly, that boy and I only talked to each other when we had to. You would have never known we used to be best friends back in the day, in kindergarten.

See, one time, back then, Rayshaun and I were playing House together in the little kitchen area in our classroom. He was the daddy and I was the mommy. Rayshaun was clobbering a baby doll’s back over his shoulder, “burping” it. It was one of those dolls whose hair is really just molded plastic.

He picked that particular doll for our “daughter” because he said her skin looked like the chocolate outside of an ice-cream sandwich just like mine. He said that since she was just a baby it didn’t matter that she didn’t have cornrow braids or lips like me (she basically had no lips; I have plenty). Our “son” was always this little white doll that looked more like Rayshaun—just without his nappy hair.

The whole “family” thing was all Rayshaun’s idea, not mine, since he wanted to marry me and I wasn’t sure I felt the same way about him. But I liked to play House though.

So there he was, pounding our poor daughter’s back, while I stood at the ironing board ironing a red-and-white cotton bandana—the kind farmers and gang members wear. The iron wasn’t hot or anything, of course. It didn’t even have a plug.

All of a sudden, Rayshaun stopped whopping that doll, looked straight at me, and said, “Taneesha Bey-Ross, my mother says you going to hell because you ain’t Christian.”

Rayshaun’s hair wasn’t black like most kids’. It was this dusty brown like somebody had dumped a bucket of sand over it and he’d shook it off— only some stayed.

When he told me I was going to hell, I’d felt like he’d dumped dirt all over me. But I couldn’t shake it off. I didn’t let him know I felt that way, though. After school that day, I stood in my kitchen and cried, “Mama, why’d you tell?!”

The week before, my mother had come to my class for Cultural Traditions Day. She brought food like other parents did—collard greens. She talked about how African American slaves ate them back in the day and how collards were healthy because they had a lot of fiber and more calcium than a cup of milk. All the kids kept saying her greens tasted good and that we looked just alike, except I was a pretzel stick and she had a shape.

But Alima Ross couldn’t leave it at that. Oh, no, not my mother. True to form, she had to go all extreme and tell everybody about our family’s unique little tradition.

“Mama, why’d you tell we’re Buddhist?!” I’d screamed in the kitchen. “Rayshaun said his mother says I’m going to hell!”

Mama had had on a nurse’s uniform—a scrub top and pants—that was pinkish red like grapes. She stooped down and made her dark brown face even with mine. I smelled apples in the grayish afro puff on her head. With a white ball of Kleenex in her hand, she started wiping away the tears and snot that ran down my face.

“Taneesha,” she said, “I’m so sorry Rayshaun said that to you. But sweetie, hell and heaven aren’t places. They’re right in here.” She patted my chest. “Buddhahood is too. Do you know what that is?”

I sniffed and shook my head. I thought Mama might have told me what Buddhahood was before but I couldn’t remember.

“It’s happiness that’s as big as the whole universe. And when you chant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, you make it come out.”

She told me to chant for Rayshaun and his mother to be happy.

Mama and I chanted together at the altar in our living room and that made me feel okay. Oh, the simple mind of a kindergartner. I’d actually thought that would be it. Chant and the world would go back to normal.

But what really happened was this: For a long time—on the school playground, in the lunchroom, standing in line, whenever and wherever he could—Rayshaun, who was chubby back then, not solid like he is now, kept following behind me, saying “You going to hell, Taneesha. You better get saved.”

I never told our teacher. I was afraid if the other kids found out what Rayshaun said, they’d agree with him.

And I didn’t say anything more to Mama about it either. Even when she asked. I just acted like it was all over.

Why’d I do that? For one thing, her chanting idea had obviously been a big fat dud. For another, I didn’t want her coming up to Hunter to talk to Rayshaun because then my whole class would have definitely found out about the whole situation.

So I’d just whisper back at that boy, “No I’m not going to hell, Rayshaun Parker. Hell’s not a place, it’s inside.”

After a while, he stopped bugging me. But we never went back to being friends like before. Far from it. Whenever Rayshaun got the chance, he’d laugh at something dumb I did.

Guaranteed public humiliation: one more reason why what was coming next in Room 509 was totally out of the question.

I glanced at the clock. I wondered how long we had ’til lunch. I imagined chowing down on a cool slice of cheese laid out on a piece of Mr. Alvarez’s crunchy shirt.

“Now, let’s get started on the task at hand,” he said, looking mighty cheesy. “Are there any nominations for class president?”

CARLI FLANAGAN, YOU STOP THAT RIGHT NOW!

A terrifying sight ripped me from my cheddary daydream—Carli’s hand shooting up into the air. I wanted to scream at that girl flat out, instead of only in my suddenly splittingheadachy head.

I would have screamed, too, if it weren’t for the fact that I’d have looked crazy.

I had a sick feeling about that puny, pale hand, all dotted with brown freckles. It was my best friend Carli’s hand, a hand that was eleven years old—just like mine. That hand flapped wildly over Carli’s wavy, red hair. With each flap, she wriggled in her seat so much that the metal brace on her left leg clunked against the metal of her desk’s leg. But she didn’t even notice the clunking. She was too busy flapping.

Psssst!” I whispered, “Carli! Carli!” as loudly as I could without drawing Mr. Alvarez’s attention. I hoped with everything I had that Carli wouldn’t do what I thought she would if I didn’t stop her in time.

Desperate, I started going: “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo! Nam Myoho Renge Kyo! Nam Myoho Renge Kyo!...” like a chanting machine. I bet my parents would have loved knowing I was doing that—even if it was just silently.

Hmmph. As if I’d sit up in class chanting out loud.

But maybe I should have. Because my way didn’t work.

Next thing I knew, I heard Carli saying, “I nominate Taneesha Bey-Ross for president!” Pudgy, caramel-brown Kendra Adams seconded the nomination. And that was that.

Once the whole class saw me get nominated, I was too embarrassed to say I wouldn’t run.

Don’ t worry. You won’ t win anyway. Losers never do. For once, I actually hoped Evella was right. She’s my evil twin—totally imaginary but a major butt-pain anyway. I nicknamed her Evella a while back. Anyway, I hoped she was right—not about me being a loser, of course, but about me not winning. I didn’t want to be class president. It was hard enough just being me.

Trapped in my seat, all I could do was tangle my fingers in the tip of one of my locks. And cook up an escape plan.

 

How to cite this document:
© M. LaVora Perry, Taneesha Never Disparaging (Wisdom Publications, 2008)

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