{August 29, 2012}   Birthday Party

I started first grade when I was five years old. My teacher’s name was Mrs. Oliver. The first day of school, Mrs. Oliver handed out red paper cut-outs that looked like apples. She gave us fat pencils and told us to write our names on the apples. “If anybody needs help, raise your hand,” she said. After we wrote our names on the apple, we were called   to the front of the class. We pasted our apple on the branches of a green and brown paper tree that was stapled to the bulletin board. Our names hung like apples on the tree. I liked Mrs. Oliver, but not as much as my kindergarten teacher. Mrs. Oliver made us work too much. In first grade, had to stay the whole day at school. In kindergarten, I got out early. In first grade, we didn’t get to nap on the floor on a towel after lunch like we did in kindergarten.  We only had one fan in our classroom and it was hot. All I could think about was my birthday. My birthday is in October, one week before Halloween. This year I was having a birthday party. Mother said I could invite my whole class. It was going to be in the backyard.  We would play games, sing, swing on monkey bars, eat ice cream, potato chips and birthday cake. I couldn’t wait. I had trouble falling asleep at bedtime because I was thinking about the pile of birthday presents waiting for me to unwrap. Mother already bought the invitations.  She told me that I could hand them out at school.

In first grade, we had assigned seats. My desk sat in a row beside dark skinned children. The teacher put their desks together in a row. I thought they were seated in the same row was because they were friends. They spoke to each other in soft whispers. They never talked to anybody else, just each other.  When the teacher called their names, they would say, “Here.” That was the only way I knew their names.

During recess, the dark skinned children only played with each other. We usually played Red Rover. That was my favorite game. If I didn’t play Red Rover, I worked on my cartwheels and handstands. If I didn’t work on my cartwheels or handstands, I picked clover with other girls. We would tie clover together to make clover chain necklaces and headbands. We wore the necklaces to lunch. The lunchroom always smelled like spoiled milk.

It was a week before my birthday. Mother sent a note to school with me to give to my teacher. The note asked for names of everyone in my class. Mother needed it to fill out invitations for my party. At the end of the day, Mrs. Oliver gave me an envelope to give my mother. Mother said she was filling out invitations that night. I would hand out the invitations tomorrow.

After dinner, Mother sat at the dining room table to write the invitations. She counted twenty five children in my class. My job was to put the invitation in the envelope, lick it and close the envelope. Mother would write a name on the envelope. After Mother finished writing on the invitations, she stopped. “Are any of these kids in your class negroes?” she asked. I didn’t know. I didn’t know what negroes meant. She asked me again. “Do any children in your class have dark skin?” So that’s what negroes meant! “Yes” I said. “Do you know their names?” I said, “Yes, I think so.” “If I say their names, will you know?” Mother asked. “I think so” I said. Mother started saying names. “Christie? David? Laura?…” When I heard a name that a dark skinned child said “Here” to when the teacher called the roll, I said, “I think that one.” “Okay” Mother said. She said every name on the list. “We didn’t need this many invitations.” Mother said. I got a twisted feeling in my stomach. “Why?” I asked. But I knew the answer. Mother wasn’t going to write an invitation for them.  “Because you can’t invite negroes to your party,” Mother said. What? This was not right. “But, you said I could invite the whole class!  I have to invite them!” I protested. “I can’t give invitations to everybody but them! They’re in my class!” “Listen here,” Mother said.  “You are never allowed to play with a negro. And you certainly can not bring one home.” My face felt red hot. “But why not?” I asked. Mother looked me in the eye. “Because negroes have bugs, that’s why. And if you play with one, you’ll have bugs, too.” I didn’t believe her. I sat next to negro children at school. I never saw a bug on them. Mother was lying. She is supposed to tell the truth. But I didn’t say that to her. I was scared that if I said the truth, she would whip me. She might say I can’t have my party. I bowed my head. I put an invitation in an envelope and licked. My mouth was sticky from glue.

The next day, I didn’t want to hand out invitations because I didn’t have one for the negro children. I didn’t want them to think I didn’t like them. So I put the invitations in my desk under my seat.  After lunch, I gave the invitations to Mrs. Oliver. She counted them. She said she would hand them out after the bell rang for us to go home.

My party was on Saturday.  Mother baked devil’s food cupcakes. I told her I didn’t want a white birthday cake. I wanted devil’s food. I blew out six candles on cupcakes. Everybody sang “Happy Birthday.” Then, I opened presents. At the end of the party we played, “Row Your Boat”. We chose a partner and sat on the grass facing each other, feet touching. We clasped hands and pulled back and forth as we sang,  “Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream…merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.”


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