I overhear them as I sit at the corner desk, not getting involved with Zadie’s conversation with Stevens.
“I don’t get the big deal with all these protests,” says Stevens as she sits behind her desk of knick-knacks from past students, half-graded papers, and a framed photograph of Ronald Reagan. Stevens is this 60-year-old white woman whose face is plastered with wrinkles and has brownish-blonde hair sitting like a dormant shag rug. “He should’ve been respectful to the officer.”
Zadie, who has the drapes of black braids that fit her teenage visage, adjusts her hair backward toward her head. “Mrs. Stevens, it doesn’t matter what he’s doing, the cop shouldn’t have killed him. This is just another case of police killing an unarmed Black man.”
“Oh, please. The police kill more whites than blacks.”
Not a good justification for the acceptance of homicide, but okay. As the rest of the class ignores the two’s argument of the day, I stay engaged and watch this debate.
“Mrs. Stevens, the police have too much authority when it comes to murdering Black people. This has been going on forever, ever since the first slave…” Zadie kept mouthing, and right beside Stevens is a remote control. She put Zadie on mute.
“Ah, that’s better,” Stevens puts on her glasses and starts to grade papers from her stack.
Zadie keeps talking even though she knows that Stevens is not listening.
“You know at this point, I’m the only one who can hear you, right?”I say to Zadie.
Zadie quits her speech and turns toward me.
“You know, one of these days, she’s actually going to have to listen.”
“Please, she’s the same woman who said women can’t harass men. You’re dealing with Archie Bunker, here. Listen, don’t engage, don’t get shut down. Makes life so much easier.”
Zadie gets up from her desk and sits down next to me. We’re inside a conservative classroom resting in a conservative school residing in a conservative town. We’re taught and brought up in a school where a #BlackLivesMatter t-shirt gets you sent to the office, but you’re free to wear a MAGA hat on your head. Although, it should not be shocking seeing as the requirement to be a teacher here is to sunburn easily and look like you personally called Dr. King the N-word to his face.
“I can’t wait for graduation to come, and we’re finally out of this hellhole,” Zadie says.
“Speaking of, did you hear back from Howard?”
“Yea, I got in and I also got into Alcorn, too.”
“What about you?”
“No doubt about going to Boston U, but I also got into Berkeley and NYU. But just as long as it’s a hell away from this place.”
I go to lunch. Lunch at the high school is a free-for-all. Everybody all had the same lunch period. Students and teachers all have lunch simultaneously for efficiency (I don’t know, some BS reason that no one has ever explained to me). Because of this, teachers’ classrooms are open. And like always, I go to Mrs. Lawrence’s room.
Once one enters the room, one is inundated with posters of Toni Morrison, William Shakespeare, and James Baldwin. Amidst the chairs and tables where students park for an hour out of the day, sits at the corner, the teacher’s desk. That desk belongs to Mrs. Lawrence, a small white woman with jet black hair, wrinkles on her forehead, and always in a knit sweater. On her backdrop are fictional characters from her favorite novels and covers from her favorite books like To Kill a Mockingbird and stickers that say, “I’m With Her,” and a small Obama Hope sticker.
I sit down at her desk, per usual, as she is my confidant about everything. We’ve had agreeable discussions about the state of the country, progressive politics, how uber-conservative our school is, and, of course, Stevens, who Mrs. Lawrence hates.
“Do you want to know what Stevens said today?”
Lawrence rolls her eyes as she clicks away at a thinkpiece on her computer. “What did she do now?”
I put my lunch of baby carrots and a protein bar on the counter. “She basically said that James Savio should’ve been more respectful to the cop.” She lets out a sigh. “And that Black people shouldn’t complain because white people get killed by the police more.”
She places her head on her desk. “She knows about proportionality, right?”
“She knows if you have 60 oranges and 15 apples and you throw away 20 oranges and 11 apples, there’s still a lot of oranges, but a vanishing amount of apples., right?”
“Trust me, I know. But she is the same person who said that Black Lives Matter is a terrorist group.”
“I mean…” She wobbles her head. “Look, I think Black Lives Matter is doing such a good job, but they can tone it down a bit.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, it’s not that all police are bad. I mean it’s just a few bad guys that are the problem. Like, look with where we live for instance. You’ve never had a problem with the police officer here, right? Officer Smith is not a racist, so it’s not all cops.”
“We’re not saying that all cops are racists. We’re saying that the system is racist.”
“I understand,” she says, avoiding eye contact. “But they don’t have to be so angry about it.”
“With all due respect Mrs. Lawrence. We’re being genocided and our killers are walking free.”
“Don’t you think you’re reaching a bit? I mean this isn’t the Holocaust.”
“Come on, Mrs. Lawrence, this has been going on as far back as 1619, the dehumanization and destruction of the Black bod…” I keep going into my history lesson about the devaluation of the Black body in America. I realize that she has gone on her computer and kept reading her article. She nods along but is so painfully obviously distracted. I see it by her hand, the remote. She had pressed the button. She put me on mute.
I am still shaken by it. I couldn’t get it out of my head how Lawrence silenced me. How can she do that to me? The woman who comforted me on 11/9; the woman who taught Toni Morrison while other were teaching about the same old dead white men; the woman who called Beyonce the greatest, ignored me. The woman who shared my beliefs about the racism in our school and progressive politics refused to hear, at that time, the threat to my existence.
I try not to let it control me. I must move forward and try to forget it. I go to work after school. I work at the coffee shop that is just near the school. The location is helpful as the nearest Starbucks is 15 miles away. I walk in and see Zadie and Mrs. Wright at the cash register.
“Hey, Zadie. Hello, Mrs. Wright.”
“Hi,” says Mrs. Wright. Mrs. Wright is our manager at Caff Shop. A frantic middle-aged pale graying woman with a black apron.
“I’m so glad you’re here. It’s been kinda slow and boring,” says Zadie.
“Yea,” says Mrs. Wright.
“Okay, since it’s kinda slow and I didn’t finish my lunch today, could I sit down and eat the rest of it?”
“Sure, just sit at the far end, so you’re not in the customer’s way.”
I sit down and pull out a protein bar from my jacket pocket. At the same time, Zadie stands at the cash register, leaning in and out, bored.
I hear the door open, and in walks in Mitchell Kerr. Kerr is a classmate of ours who’s on track to be valedictorian. With blonde hair and light stubble, he looks as though he had been an extra on some 90’s teen drama that was not canceled soon enough. He walks to the cash register and has the obligatory small talk with Zadie. He sees me chomping on my pathetic lunch and walks up to me with his coffee.
“Hey, Mitchell,” I say with a mouth full.
“Hey. You’re not on shift?” he asks me. He sees my hat and apron with the store’s logo.
“I came in a bit early.”
“You mind if I …” he gestures to the chair sitting across from me.
“Go right ahead.”
He sits down and takes a sip of his coffee. “So, did you hear what happened to Principal Richards?
“He’s getting fired for liking a racist tweet, and there’s a recording of him saying the N-word.”
I lean back in my chair and shake my head. “I mean, he did have it coming. This is the same guy who told a kid to take off a BLM shirt but let another keep his MAGA hat on. Also, he said that the upside of slavery was that white people helped civilize Africans.”
“Yea, that’s bad. But he’s not a bad guy.”
“He’s a bigot.”
Then a coworker of mine, Madison, joins in.
“Y’all talking about Richards? Poor guy.”
“He’s an old man. He’s from a different time,” says Mitchell.
“We’re not in a different time. We’re in the now.”
“Oh, please you’re being ridiculous. He is a perfectly nice guy who made a mistake,” says Madison.
“A mistake that’s consistent with who he is.”
“Yea, but it’s not like he’s in the Klan,” Madison says.
I sat my wrapper down. “As a Black person, to hear what he says and nobody doing anything about it is completely hurtful, and it makes it seem that his status is more important…”
Mitchell pulls a remote out of his coat pockets and presses the mute button.
The worst part is that he and Madison continue the conversation about Richards and completely ignore me. I look to Zadie, who was watching this whole ordeal. She smiles at me and acknowledges that we are the only ones to hear each other.
My eyes water, and my fist clench. My lungs go in and out with air. Fury takes hold of me. Twice someone silenced me. Those who I thought wouldn’t and couldn’t have, silenced me. So they want me to not talk? Okay, fine I won’t talk.
I get out of my chair while Madison and Mitchell barely noticed. I walk to the next table, grab a chair, and smash it on the floor. It breaks into little pieces of wood. Parts of it fly across the store. Madison and Mitchell back away with fear that took over their faces. Zadie’s in shock, and at the same time, she crosses her arms, smiles, and shakes her head. Mrs. Wright comes out of the backroom, looking at me with anger and surprise. I walk up to and look at Mitchell and Madison. Mitchell unmutes me.
“Now, can I talk?”
K.G. Frempah is originally from North Texas. Frempah discovered his love for writing when he first picked up The Hobbit at the age of 12. He decided thereafter, writing is what he’s going to do for the rest of his life. Frempah is influenced by the works of James Baldwin, Joan Didion, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and the lyricism of hip-hop.