About Me

My photo
MCG, a Chicana feminist, for sure, teaches community college English

Monday, July 30, 2012

Secret Rivalries

           Being in a class with another kid who has the same name was a drag. It made extra work for everyone, and there is always some kind of confusion or rivalry. Michelle Brewer and I were both in Mrs. Plescia's second grade class; we were known as Michelle G. and Michelle B. We were both petite, but Michelle B. was blonde with dainty English features, and I looked her opposite: dark-haired and indigenous. Our moms were friends, sort of -- they both hung out at the Logger's Club, one of the three bars in the one block radius that made up downtown Tuolumne. My mom and Maureen were both interested in the same guy, so by extension Michelle B. and I became rivals too. Robert Mason was a tall, rugged, blond haired guy, who sometimes wore Indian leather and who all women loved. They would both eventually date him but at different times.
         Michelle and I we just went to school and pretended we were normal. I wore dresses with tights and kept my hair neatly braided. I was polite, respectful, and easy going with the teachers. Michelle kept her unusually long fingernails clean, smiled when she was in trouble or spoke in a cutesy voice. But as extensions of our single, beer-drinking, pot-smoking, bar-carousing mothers, we were at risk of being exposed. 
         We should have been friends, but mostly we tried to pretend we didn't know the other, hadn't both stood around in front of the bar, closer to the little store as cover, waiting for our moms to finish their beers and come home. Michelle's mom, Maureen, also a pretty, petite blond, had a son and a daughter, and was on welfare just like my mom. Just like mine, she had to fill out a monthly income report, meet with the family's social worker in Sonora in the hospital building, and buy food with brightly colored food stamps -- the mark of poverty. The monthly income report had to be filled out every month and sent in or hand delivered by a set date in order for a family to receive its benefits: a check for cash, food stamps, and those green medi-cal stickers that my brother and I used to stick all over each other once we received a fresh batch to be used in the new month. My mom complained about those income reports each month as she was filling them out, usually at the last minute and in need of a ride to Sonora to get them there on time. 
         "The same fucking thing every God damn month," she'd say, rummaging through her purse for the envelope sent by the welfare office. "Every god damn month."
         I had heard this tirade before. I knew that they always asked about how many people lived in the house, if the recipient has made any money, or received any cash gifts, and on and on. And most of the time, the information that she put on those forms was the same information that she had included the month before that and that and that, but sometimes she did lie -- usually about whether or not she was "co-habitating," or not. It seems the welfare system liked knowing if they're single parent recipients were getting laid or not and/or whether parties responsible for making sexual contributions to the head of household were also contributing financially. If that were the case the recipients’ benefits would need to be "adjusted." Michelle B.'s mom, Maureen had to fill out the same forms, and decide whether or not to report the short-term live-in boyfriend whom she had hoped would have lasted longer than he did, not necessarily expecting him to begin providing for her children of her former husband, or as it turned out, to stick around.
         For these reasons, Michelle B. and I were sort of friends; we sometimes played together on the weekends when our mothers took us with them to visit their mutual friends. When our mothers weren't getting along or were competing for the same man, or accusing the other of being bad mothers, we'd argue and Michelle would pinch me on the underside of my upper arm with her long fingernails. At school, we kept our distance, always still aware of what the other was doing, or saying, and to whom.
         We made an unspoken effort not to be associated with the other for several years.  We probably weren't the only welfare kids who worked hard to not look shabby and to blend in. Michelle used her petite femininity, and I just tried to stay out of trouble. As I got older, the biggest complaint from my teachers was that I talked too much in class, but not in second and third grade. In those early grades, I kept to myself and spent a lot of time observing the other students act up and the teachers' reactions. 
         In Ms. Plescia's second grade class, it was Jimbo Dry who had become known for getting into trouble. Jimbo was stout and muscular in the second grade. I suppose his stature, his dark skin, and his often serious face intimidated some teachers; it seemed to make our second grade teacher, Mrs. Plescia angry. Jimbo had what I recognize now as a great deal of difficulty with authority figures and anger issues. And maybe this was the case because his most important authority figures weren't meeting his needs, or because being male and Me-wuk, he was expected to act up and probably to fail, or some combination of the two. Our teacher, Mrs. Plescia, also had anger issues. She was widowed and lived with her sisters in a mansion that bordered the school grounds. One of her sisters, Mrs. Robinson, also taught at Summerville Elementary school; I had her in first grade. Mrs. Plescia was what kids called a strict teacher. She often warned our second grade class to behave, threatening to turn into a "grumble snort" if we didn't
         "Class, you know what happens when you don't listen when I'm talking," she'd warn. "I turn into a grumble snort. You don't want me turning into a grumble snort do you?"
         Frankly, I never saw much of difference between the real Ms. Plescia and her grumble snort, but I did see her very very angry one time, and it was at Jimbo.
         The class had been particularly rambunctious that day and Mrs. Plescia had already threatened us with the grumble snort several times and asked Jimbo several times to do as he had been told. While transitioning from working at our desks to the next activity, there was lots of talking, the sounds of desks opening and closing, chairs scraping the floor, and children milling about. But a much louder commotion brewing between Jimbo and Mrs. Plescia stopped time, freezing each kid in place.
         "I said, sit down," Mrs. Plescia shouted at Jimbo, her face in his.
         Jimbo just stood still, his arms crossed in front of him.
         "Sit at your desk. I said, sit down" Mrs. Plescia repeated, this time leaning in and grabbing Jimbo by the elbow.  
         With that, his face suddenly a dark, dark red, Jimbo, went toward his desk. Half growling, half shouting, he threw the desk over, going immediately to the empty desk in front of him. Mrs. Plescia who had jumped out of the way of the first desk, was now lunging for Jimbo, who was lunging for another desk. Just as he grabbed a corner, Mrs. Plescia grabbed one of his arms, put him in a kind of bear hug, and dragged him writhing and half growling, half screaming out of the room, crashing into empty chairs and desks with kids sitting in them, their mouths agape, along the way. Stunned into complete blind obedience, each second grader went to his or her seat if not already there and sat quietly until a teacher from another classroom came and told us to read quietly to ourselves. We remained in a silent shock until Mrs. Plescia returned alone to the classroom a few minutes later, still breathing hard. We were quiet and on our best behavior for the rest of the afternoon.       
         Though no one mentioned his name for the rest of the day or the incident ever again, I couldn't help thinking about Jimbo. Why couldn't he listen to the teacher? Why did Mrs. Plescia get so angry? Didn’t Jimbo know what he did meant? How what he did was now always going to be associated with who he was? It was the kind of attention I avoided, the reason Michelle B. and I pretended we didn't know each other, or that our lives were any different from any of the other kids in our class -- except Jimbo. We certainly were not like Jimb; that much had been made clear. 
         I managed to lay low for a month or so after the Jimbo incident which was still fresh in my mind. I managed not to bring any unwanted attention to myself, my image still intact. I couldn't say the same for Mrs. Plescia who had taken to reading to us often from her favorite Mrs. Piggle Wiggle chapter books, but who we were all still afraid of. One morning after reading a chapter or more, the class was getting restless, and Michelle spoke out of turn.  
         "My mom saw Michelle G's mom at the Logger's Club on Tuesday night. She was dancing and she wasn't wearing any underwear."
         Stunned, I turned my head with a quick jerk in Michelle's direction. Waiting for an audible reaction from the class, she looked smug, her pointy nose in the air. But the room was mostly quiet, probably waiting for my reaction. 

         And I hadn't been there, but I could see it. The Loggers Club. The juke box playing "The Boys are Back in Town" by Thin Lizzy. My mom dancing with some guy, the only lights coming from the juke box display, the lamp over the pool table in the back of the room, and the low lights at the bar. Hazy lines of cigarette smoke and mom dancing in circles, her hands over head, her cotton prairie skirt lifting, lifting, floating higher and higher on a naked gust of wind.
         I didn't say a word.
         And I didn't look at Mrs. Plescia either, but I knew that she was looking at me.

1 comment:

  1. I'm amazed with your memory! I was there in that class with you, and while I remember this particular day (it was a memorable one), I have to say that you got a lot more out of school than I did!