“Sweetness, is you ready for school, honey?”
I was as ready as I would ever be. The butterflies in my stomach, more like giant moths, flapped desperately and painfully against my insides.
I pulled at my dress one last time. Months ago it had fitted well, but now the armholes were a little tight and the hem was well above my knees. It was my best dress, the only one that was hung up on a coat hanger in my mother’s wardrobe. It had seen me through numerous Sunday meetings in the church as well as a few weddings and too many funerals.
“Oh my, you look pretty. Only wishin’ your mama an’ papa were here. This is some day. Some day when we is makin’ history!”
A number of families were milling around, waiting patiently like sheep looking for a shepherd. There was a collective sigh as my grandmother and I joined the crowd.
“Well, let’s us go an’ storm them gates! Just like them Gates of Hades. Them gates are for fallin’ this day.”
The quickest route to the school was passing by some sugar cane fields. The crops had been burnt, leaving behind blackened stubble and a sweet cloying smell in the air. As we walked my grandmother began singing a hymn, loud and joyfully, waving her hand like a baton, encouraging the others to join in.
As we neared the school, the singing gradually quietened to a nervous whisper. Silence settled over us like a blanket of fog. The school stood at the top of a hill. Even from this distance we could see the crowd that had gathered around the gate. A clutch of mothers, in simple pastel dresses, with their barrier of prams and pushchairs, stood silent and hostile. They eyes narrowed, their lips pursed and their delicate hands bunched up into tight fists. They moved together as if drawn by a magnet, united shoulder to shoulder in protest. Even the babies, bounced on hips, were quiet, eyes deep and brooding.
As we reached the school, a single police car pulled up just outside the gates. I held on to my grandmother’s hand and felt her reassuring grip tighten for a moment.
“You can’t come in.” A woman shouldered her way to the front of the crowd. She folded her arms across her chest, her whole body punctuating her words like a full stop.
“Now, Alice,” remonstrated the police officer, “You know that is not true. These ladies have every right to bring their children here. It’s the nearest school to their homes, and you know the law. I’d hate to have to arrest anyone.” He trailed off, allowing his words to sink in.
“If those children come through these gates, I will remove my children from the school immediately,” Alice snarled. “You know how much work I have put into the school. I have fought for money, for resources, for improvements. I have done a good job as a school governor and now you are asking me to hand it over to them.” The last word was spat viciously, a pointed finger stabbing the air in front of her.
“Whether you take your kids out of the school or not is your business,” soothed the police officer. “I am just here to do my job, to see these children through the gates.”
The mob of women solidified themselves in the space in front of the gates. Unmoving, they gathered their hostility around themselves like a shield.
“I guess, maybe we can come back tomorrow.” The voice was gentle, caressing and cooling the heated emotions. My grandmother’s words, like a stone thrown into water, caused ripples of protest among our company. She lifted her hand and the ripples subsided.
“I’ve waited fifty years or more for this. There ain’t no harm in waiting another day.” She turned and began to walk back along the road we had come. She cast a gentle, smiling glance backward.
“We sure brought them Gates of Hades down, hmm?” I murmured.
“Sweetness, there’s gates and there’s gates! Them school gates – they ain’t really closed. Now people’s minds – they is all locked up. Locked up with how things used to be. Ain’t easy for them. It’s only God can open them gates.”
With the end of apartheid, my first day at school was no different from that of any other black child in South Africa.