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TITLE: Hart & Soul, Part XII: Sweet 16 and Ain't Never Been

This is the true beginning...
On my sixteenth birthday, I dropped out of high school. With my mother's blessing, of course. The same person who never made it to a PTA meeting, wouldn't sign for me to be upped a grade when my teachers felt I was too "advanced" for my grade, and laughed at me when I showed her my straight-A's "across" the report card ... showed up in full dress and fanfare to give her permission for me to drop out of high school. Her last words to me were, "You're on your own."

I had been on my own since I was seven or eight, to my recollection. This was no news. I went to my locker to get my books out, delivering them to each teacher and not so much as saying goodbye. All the white teachers, which was all of them with the exception of my English teacher, took my books and watched me walk out of the classrooms. I made my last stop at Ms Howard's class--dropping the English book on her desk and pretty much expecting the same reaction as the other teachers.

She told me to wait out in the hallway for her; but I figured what was the point in waiting. The deed was done, and I had to get out and figure out what to do with myself as quickly as possible. I waited for a few moments outside her classroom door, hoping...praying...someone was going to talk me out of it. Tell me they weren't going to let me just drop out school like that. But it didn't happen.

I started walking toward the empty hallway -- all the other kids were in class and I wasn't. I no longer "belonged" to JVHS, or anyplace else -- except the streets. But I didn't know anyone out there. The more I allowed myself to think, the longer the hallway became. It just kept getting longer and longer, it seemed the steps I took didn't get me to the door as fast as I would have liked, Time suddenly decided to roll in slow-mo. Then, the film tape snapped and reality sank in.

Before I knew what hit, Ms Howard rolled up behind me and pinned me to a locker. "What do you think you're doing?" I was more shocked than dazed that she had accosted me that way. The shock was definitely coming from the fact that she seemed to give a shit that a 16-year old was about to do one of the most stupid things she could have done in a lifetime. I hung my head down and nearly cried, but found enough "tough" in me to keep the sting of tears from irritating my eyes. I wasn't about to let anyone see me cry--or give in. It was my decision, and I planned to stick with it. I shrugged and bit my bottom lip.

No. I didn't know what I was doing, and I had no one to even so much as point me in theright direction. It seemed like the right direction was already laid out for me. She cupped my tiny ears in her hands, and looked into eyes that didn't dare look back into hers, "Are you pregnant?," she asked.

I was ashamed, yet defiant, "Why is she asking me this? Why is she even wasting her time?, What if I was? Would it make a difference?" I asked the internal questions in lightning fast momentum. My own mother didn't give a damn, why should she? I shook my head no. She stepped back, then forward; then looked at me again, apparently trying to force me to look at her.

Then finally, "Look at me and answer that."

I looked into her eyes only because she demanded it, "No," I repeated, with attitude. I wasn't pregnant, I engaged in self talk. I was just a nigger--according to a white guy and three white girls from the newly-integrated elementary school I attended after they closed Claflin for good--, and a whore according to my mother, and an unwanted abandoned child that nobody gave a damn about by the disappearance of a father I used to cry over but no longer cared about. But what did she care to hear all my little whiney sob stories? Who cares? All I'd ever heard from childhood was "Who cares?" and "Tell it to somebody who gives a fuck," and as a result, it had become my self-embedded mantra.

The insinuation, however, that I was pregnant was even more insulting than any of the other insults I had heaped upon myself. I wasn't about to let any boy get within two feet of me if I could possibly help it. Thanks to my mother, I hated them all. I literally wished them all dead, including that filthbag of a younger brother of mine.

She stepped back again, as if she could read my mind, "I know she's your mother and I intend no disrespect by saying this, but if I keep this in, I am going to die of a stroke and I can't have that.," she paused and proceeded with caution. "I don't give a damn what your mother says or does ... there's only one way for you to show her you're better than that." I hung my head again--the eye contact was brief and overwith. I knew she was right, but there was no way I was about to admit it.

"Look!," she banged her fist against the locker, barely missing my head. "It's hard enough out here for a black woman with an education! I have a degree and every damn day I have to fight for my life, for my honor, for my own right to stand up and be counted for what I earn in this world. What in the world do you think you're going to do without an education!? What! Where are you going!? What will you do!? How are you going to make it!!!," her voice elevated to a high-pitched squeal at my seeming lack of emotional response to her opposing rage. I shrugged again. I couldn't answer because there wasn't anything else to say.

She let go of my dress collar and unrolled her fists, then heaved a heavy sigh, like she had done all she could do. She stared for a few seconds, then spoke her final peace, "I want you to go home and think about what you're doing. I expect to see you back here on Monday morning. I will be in my classroom waiting for you. Somehow, I don't know how, but some kind of way--you and me--we're going to work this thing out together." Silence. Then, "I want you to promise me you will come back here on Monday and talk to me. I stay in my classroom until 4 o'clock and I want you here before I leave for the day. Understand?"

Yeah, I understood. I looked up for a second, smiled, nodded my head in agreement and turned to the door that I thought was so far away only a few moments before. It was right there, close enough for me to reach my hand, and push. When I turned to look back, Mrs. Howard had already disappeared around the corner. She was gone. Just like that.
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