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It was a little after lunch and I had been pulled out of class by my third-grade teacher.
Her name was Ms. Minkus and she was a chubby 20-something white lady from the suburbs of north New Jersey. This was her first year teaching. And her first time in Philadelphia, let alone an inner city school. In the beginning of the school year, she was bright eyed, rosy cheeked and brimming full of hope. But as the seasons changed and the school year progressed on, her skin looked duller and her eyes spoke of weariness.
She had that same tired look in her eyes the day she she told me that she was tired of my talking in class. She said my socializing was disrupting everyone and I needed to pay attention.
“You’re a smart girl, Charline. If only you could just focus,” she said in an exasperated tone.
I told her that I was tired of being disrespected. “My name is Charing. Not Charline or whatever you just called me…,” I said as a matter of fact.
I did not understand how a person who had to call my name every single day for roll call, still had trouble with its pronunciation. I mean, she was an educator. It was her job to set a good scholastic example.
“Well, ChaRING,” she said with added emphasis. “I can’t teach you if you insist on holding side conversations with everyone in the classroom,” Ms. Minkus said in the whiny, high pitched tones white girls from the suburbs were known to use when they were upset. She sighed and soften her tone, “You have lots of potential, but you have to learn first how to act.”
There were many white suburban women teachers at John B. Kelly Elementary and most of them saw me as a problem. I didn’t understand it; I did my assignments, got pretty decent grades and I was always amongst the first to volunteer to read aloud or answer a question. But many of these instructors treated me – and others like me – like I had a behavioral problem.
I was certain they were the problems. They came to the Philadelphia Public School District in droves with big ideas about empowering and saving us poor, disenfranchised kids. But they had no extra books, pencils and chalk for us, nor could they solve the problem of overcrowding in our classrooms. They wanted to teach us; they wanted to inspire us and show us that we didn’t have to settle. But some of us kids came to school with empty bellies. And the pains in our heads and stomachs made it impossible to concentrate on anything but the hunger. In spite of their good intentions, I could tell they didn’t understand nor respect our struggles. Even with their self-professed good intentions, there was something in their paternalism that let me know they only saw us as the wretched spawns from a long line of hopeless people. But that afternoon, I was determined to show them we were more than that – at leas some of us were.
With my hands on my hips, I moved my entire body in a snake-like formation. “So? I don’t care. I ain’t learning shit from you anyway,” I barked. The odds of actually winning against the teacher weren’t in my favor. But the door to the classroom was half opened and my fellow classmates who were suppose to be working out the math problems on the chalkboard, were focused on what was going down in the hallway. I was in too deep. And despite the odds, I needed to commit.
“And you can tell whoever the hell you want to tell,” I added.
I could hear a few snickers and a chorus of “ooooh, she cursed” coming from behind the half-opened door. I could tell I had made a big impression on my classmates. Mrs. Minkus, on the other hand, was not impressed. She leaned her head inside the door and chastised them for not working on the math problem on the big board. Then she glared at me until her cheeks flushed with red.
Unfazed, I glared at her right back.
This wasn’t the first time she had pulled me out of class for talking during lessons. I didn’t understand it considering there were others in our class who held disruptive side-conversations all the time. Like Shameka with the long bangs who not only talked a bunch, but also liked to crack her gum loudly between sentences. And Jamil with the high-top fade who used to bust out into freestyle raps during our history lessons. Ms. Minkus never said anything to them. It was like she was scared of them. In some ways I understood. Shameka was the type to curse a person clean out, even if that person was a teacher. And while Jamil never cursed, his mom didn’t have a problem letting a teacher know where they can stick their complaint about her only son.
But it felt like Ms. Minkus liked to pick on me. I think it had a lot to do with how responsive my mom was to her complaints. In fact, they got along just fine. “Well, we will see about that when I call home tonight and tell your mother just how little you care about your education,” she said.
Game. Set. And matched.
I looked through the partially opened door at my classmates for sympathy. Some snickered. Other whispered. But no one made eye contact. Knowing when it was time to concede to a worthy opponent, I deflated my chest, released my hands from my hips and mumbled, “I’m sorry.” My eyes desperately pleaded with Ms. Minkus to not follow through with her threat. But she just stood stoutly by and said, “It’s too late for apologies. I’m tired of telling you to be quiet. And I’m sure your mom would like to hear about how your behaving.”
She then put her hand on my back and pushed me through the door and into the classroom. Everyone watched silently as I took my seat behind my desk-chair combo. Shameka, who was sitting two desks-chair combos in front of me, turned around and glared at me suspiciously. “Girl, you stupid,” she said before cracking her gum and returning to her side conversation. I spent the rest of my school day crying with my head on my desk.
I wonder if Shameka had a mom like mines? Mom was beyond no nonsense. If she thought you were thinking up some shenanigans, you had an ass-whopping coming. Even if you weren’t thinking anything, you still had an ass whopping coming based solely on what Mom thought you were thinking. I once got a beating with an extension cord because she thought I had intentionally misspelled a word in a letter to my dad. She thought I did it just to spite her. The truth was I really didn’t know how to spell that word.
But none of that matter as mom. If she had even a thought you were trying to get over, you were going to get your ass beat.
The final school bell rang a little after 2:45 p.m. I reluctantly gathered all my belongings and headed through the exit. There were kids playfully screaming and jumping through the school yard, totally oblivious to the fate that awaited me at home. I felt like John Coffy in the Green Mile before I even knew who he was. And as I walked down Wayne Avenue, I kept hearing phantom voices whispering in my ear, “Charing Ball, you have been condemned to die by a juror of your peers…You have anything to say before this sentence is carried out.” With trembling lips, I mouth, “I’m sorry for what I am.”
I stop in front of the high rises on Queen Lane and mulled over my fate one last time. My ass whopping was less than a hard left turn at the corner from it happening. I thought about it for a few seconds and decided it was time for me to be brave. I was gonna handle things like the noble woman I was destined to become. So, I made a hard right turn and kept walking past our apartment building on King Street. I had no idea where I was going, but I knew that home was not it.
An hour later, I was panhandling for nickels and dimes on Germantown Avenue. I should have been scared about the prospects of surviving alone in the world, but I wasn’t. People always told me I was a smart kid and good at figuring things out on my own. I certainly could figure out homelessness. I mean, how bad could it be sleeping on the streets? The bums do it.
In the span of twenty minutes, I managed to accumulate 50 cents. Most of that came from an older Puerto Rican man who chastised me in broken English for panhandling for money. I thanked him for his money, ignored his advice and went to the nearest Papi store, where I purchased a small paper bag worth of penny candy. I rationed them: ten for dinner; ten for breakfast and the rest for lunch. This would be how I survived. But after 30 minutes, I had eaten my entire meal supply. So I headed to the Rite Aids on Chelten Avenue and while the cashiers were busy, I swiped two bars of expensive German chocolate bars with the real nuts and fruit inside.
With my food supply secured, it was time for me to find shelter. That tidbit of crucial planning had escaped me. I was getting tired and the sun was starting to fade. My little fat legs were beginning to burn from walking aimlessly around Germantown. For a brief moment, I thought about returning home. But the fear of what Mom was going to do to me, outweighed what fatigue I was feeling. I just figured that once I found someplace safe and warm, I would be okay. Then it hit me: in the movies and cartoons, the hobos always shielded themselves from the elements inside cardboard boxes. Maybe I could build my own shelter? I could even use my book bag as a pillow case. And if I panhandled long enough, I could save up enough money to buy me an official hobo blanket from one of the discount stores. This was my plan. And I thought the scheme was brilliant. I figure I could set-up camp under a tree somewhere in Vernon Park. All I needed was supplies. That’s when I remembered the dumpsters besides the Papi store.
Since the corner store dumpsters was where most of the dudes in the neighborhood went to get cardboard for their makeshift break-dancing floors, I was almost positive that I could find a cardboard box big enough for me to sleep in. But after careful digging, the only thing I could scavenge were wet and putrid fruit flats. Frustrated, I started to whimper. This whole running away scheme was harder than I had thought.
“Hey Charaine, whatcha’ doin’ around here?”
I turned around slightly and saw a small brown-skinned figure with long braids standing at the end of the driveway. After a couple of blinks, I recognized the mysterious figure: It was Nicole, most affectionately known around school as the Pee-Pee Girl. She was given the name ‘Pee-Pee Girl’ for the most obvious reasons: she reeked of piss. And I’m not talking about, “hey teacher, I just peed myself. May I be excused to the nurse’s office to get a change of pants?” I mean she possessed a smell, which can only be rivaled by the Girard Avenue subway station platform on a hot August day. It was baked-in smell; the kind that had been sitting with a person for days, if not weeks. The smell was so prominent that it got stuck in your nostrils and lingered around long after she had left your presence. Needless to say Nicole was picked on a lot – way more than I had ever been. But I had always been nice to her. And I didn’t tease her as much as the other kids.
After exchanging pleasantries, I filled her in on why I was in the Papi store’s driveway, digging around in the dumpsters.
“Well I can ask my mom if you can spend the night,” she said enthusiastically.
My face lit up too. I wrapped my arms around her and gave her a huge hug of appreciation, totally forgetting that she smelled like hot pee.
Nicole unpeeled my arms from around her neck. “Don’t get too happy. We still have to ask my mom,” she warned. I nodded like I understood, but fully expected her to say yes.
Her house was only a half a block away from the corner store. I followed her up the steps, weaving my way through several small half-dressed children sitting in front of the house. Once on the porch, I looked up and saw what appeared to be an abandoned property. The downstairs space where the windows normally were, was boarded-up. And the door, while open, had no noticeable lock. Instead there was a chain that ran through the hole where a normal deadbolt would go. I shook my head in disbelief. No way Nicole could live there?
But she unwrapped the chain and pushed the door open, confirming my worst fear. “Wait here, while I go talk to my mom,” she said before walking through the door. I followed her to the doorway, hoping to get a better look inside. I was praying that the boarded up window was a just a front. That inside was a comfortable living space, full of nice furniture, electricity and some semblance of a dignified humanity. But what I saw smacked in the face like the same old-piss fragrance Nicole was known to sport.
I stood, leaning against the door frame, halfway between the outside world and Nicole’s dark and dank living room. It was hard to describe what I was seeing. But I will try: For as long as I could remember, Philadelphia has always had the notorious distinction as a filthy city. And in some respects, it was well-earned. When the wind blows hard here, you could easily find yourself engulf in a funnel of old paper bags, newspapers, dried leaves, paper plates and other debris. That’s how her house was. It was like I was standing outside in the midst of a Philadelphia trash wind storm. Also conspicuously absent were creature comforts like furniture and electricity. For a second, I thought the smelly fruit boxes I had plucked from the dumpsters weren’t a bad option after all.
Nicole carefully guided herself between and over the heaps of old newspapers and empty bottles and towards a sheet-less mattress, which laid dead smack in the middle of the living floor. From what I could see from my viewpoint in the doorway, there were two lumpy people laying on it. For a second there, I thought they were dead until I saw Nicole leaned in and whispered something in one of their ears. Slowly one of the bodies rolled over and pulled itself from the mattress. It was Nicole’s mom.
I seen crackheads before. There were a couple who lived on my block. However Nicole’s mom was the biggest one I had seen in my life. She didn’t even bother the same careful guide around the trash; instead she just plowed through, lashing out with her feet at whatever was in her path. There were two things I noticed about this woman; the first being her huge tiddies. It was like she was hiding two more toddlers underneath her triple XXL t-shirt. The second was the disheveled half-permed, half kinked hair, which looked like it hadn’t been combed in a few days. As she treads heavily in my direction, I moved out of the doorway, down the stair and onto the pavement. She stood on her porch with her hands on her hips and peered down suspiciously.
“What is your name?” Her voice was just as menacing as her appearance.
I stuttered a few times through the pronunciation of my name, but I managed to spit it out. “Well Shareaka, you need to go home. We don’t have no room for you here. You are not my child and I ain’t runnin’ no shelter,” she barked.
I was scared more than I was disappointed. The fear must have been strong on my face as it caused Nicole’s mom to soften her own tone a bit, “Listen, these streets are no place for no kids. You should go home. I’m sure your mother misses you,” she paused for a second to command the two small children on the steps to get into the house. “You promise that you will go right home, right?”
I nodded accordingly. “Good. Nicole say goodbye to your friend.” But Nicole wasn’t ready to say goodbye. I was probably the only friend from school she had. She leaned in close to her mom and asked her if she could walk me home. Nicole’s mom responded to her request by smacking her in the head and dragging her by her arm towards the open door. “NO! And I told you about bringing people to the house I don’t know…”
Two hours later after my visit with Nicole, I was walking alone down a block I had never seen before. Despite my vow to Nicole’s mom to go home, I decided to take my chances with the street. I was certain that whatever punishment originally awaited me, had been amplified by 1000 percent for not coming straight home. And it’s not that I could go home, even if I wanted too. The skies had completely darkened and I had no idea where I was. My plan of living off the land and kindness of strangers, wasn’t working out as I had anticipated. I was also tired from walking and from the weight on my backpack, which was grinding into my shoulders. The cool night air didn’t help matters much. I just wanted to lie down and have a quick rest. Plus I had to pee. My grand runaway plan never accounted for bathroom breaks. I turned down another block, hoping to find some salvation. I did. The street was clean and quiet and pretty much empty of pedestrian traffic. A perfect place to pee. That’s when I saw him.
The street light illuminated his presence, but he was too far away to make out his face. However I knew it was him even through the fog and mist, which began to accumulate around him. I could tell by his trademark fedora. The one I recalled him wearing in the movie, which Mom let me watch with her only a few nights before. And now here he was, in real life, standing on the opposite end of me on this quiet tree-lined block in all of his terrifying child-murdering splendor. He wasn’t moving, but I could tell that he spotted me. He stumbled a bit, swaying side to side, almost as if he was having trouble standing. If I hadn’t known better, I would have sworn Freddy was drunk. But that never happened in the movies.
He slightly regained his balance and slowly started walking in my direction. I swore I heard what sounded like cracking bones. And, I swore I saw him waving his razor-like fingers at me. “Ay you, come here,” he said in a slow slur. I froze. Part of me wanted to run away while the other half wanted to relieve my bladder right where I stood. I decided to split the difference. The pee was warm against my leg, but quickly turned cool from the breeze generated by my running. I turned the corner down a small cobblestoned street when I heard a faint call. It said, “Sharing. Sharing.” Oh shit, I thought, Freddy kind of knows my name. I could hear footsteps behind me. He grabbed me by bookbag and spun me around.
It wasn’t Freddy. It was Tony who was a good friend of my mom’s new boyfriend. I remember him because he yelled at me once for putting finger prints on his white Cadillac. “Girl, get in this car. Your mom is looking for you.” Tony pulled me towards the car, pushed me in the passenger seat and slammed the door. As we drove off, I looked out the window and down the block. Krueger was gone. I was relieved, but I also feared that we would be waiting for me in my sleep.
I wasn’t a two feet inside of our King Street apartment before Mom charged at me from across the living room.She pushed aside two police officers who blocked her path. I cowered, raising my hands above my head in a cross formation to shield myself from the incoming thump I knew I was going to get. Instead she wrapped her arms around me and squeezed so tightly I could barely breathe. “Where were you at?” she wailed. She had real tears in her eyes. I was confused about what was going on. Mom rarely, if ever, touched me unless it was to pop me for something. But when she started crying, I knew she was serious. And this made me feel awful about what I had put her through. I started to cry to, but oddly enough, it was out of happiness.
I was safe, wanted and my nightmare was finally over.
Freddy never showed up in my dreams. And I never did get that beating for cursing at the teacher. However Mom did put me on punishment for scaring her half-to-death. Many of Mom’s friends stopped by the apartment several days after my attempted runaway to check-in and bring me gifts. The following day at school, Ms. Minkus pulled me aside and apologized profusely. “I will never call your house again. And if you ever need to talk to someone, you can talk to me. Okay Charline.”
I nodded, “Okay, but my name is Charing.” She really looked sincere. However, I didn’t buy it nor did I trust her.
A couple of days after my failed escape, Ms. Minkus interrupted our studies to tell us that Nicole probably would not be back at school for a while. For some odd reason, she also told us about visiting Nicole at home and buying soap and clothing for her entire family. She then sat silently as Shameka and others made pee-pee girl jokes. Everyone laughed including Ms. Minkus. I didn’t find anything funny.
Nicole may have smelled like piss and lived in a crackhouse but in my time of need, she showed me kindness. More kindness than I had ever shown her. More kindness than I – or anyone else – probably deserved.
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