***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2017 Tracy Chevalier
Dee noticed him before anyone else. She was glad of that, held on to it. It made her feel special to have him to herself for a few seconds, before the world around them skipped a beat and did not recover for the rest of the day.
The playground was busy before school. Enough children had arrived early that games of jacks and kickball and hopscotch had begun, to be abandoned when the bell rang. Dee herself had not been early—her mother had sent her upstairs to change her top for something looser, saying Dee had spilled egg on it, though Dee herself couldn’t see any yolk. She’d had to run part of the way to school, braids thumping against her back, until the stream of students heading the same direction reassured her she was not late. She had gotten to the playground with a minute to spare before the first bell rang.
There hadn’t been enough time to join her best friend Mimi jumping double dutch with the other girls, so instead Dee had headed to the playground entrance into the building, where Mr. Brabant was standing with other teachers, waiting for the class lines to form. Her teacher had a short, angled haircut that squared his head, and stood very straight. Someone told Dee he had fought in Vietnam. Dee was not the top student in class—that prize went to prim Patty—but she liked to please Mr. Brabant when she could, enough to make him notice her, though not enough to be called a teacher’s pet.
She took her place at the front of the line now, and looked around, her eyes on the double-dutch girls still jumping rope. Then she spotted him, a motionless presence by the merry-go-round. Four boys were spinning on it—Ian and Rod and two boys from fourth grade. They were going so fast that Dee was sure one of the teachers would stop them. Once a boy had been flung off and broken an arm. The two fourth graders looked scared, but could not control the merry-go-round, as Ian was expertly kicking the ground to keep up the speed.
The boy standing near the frenetic motion was not dressed like the other boys, casual in their jeans and T-shirts and sneakers. Instead he wore gray flared pants, a white short-sleeve shirt, and black shoes, like a uniform a private school student would wear. But it was his skin that stood out, its color reminding Dee of bears she’d seen at the zoo a few months before, on a school field trip. Though they were called black bears, their fur was actually deep brown, with a red- dish tint at the tips. They had mostly slept, or sniffed at the pile of grubs the keeper had dumped in the pen for them. Only when Rod threw a stick at the animals to impress Dee did one of the bears react, baring its yellow teeth and growling so that the children shrieked and laughed. Dee had not joined in, though; she had frowned at Rod and turned away.
The new boy was not watching the merry-go-round, but studying the L-shaped building. It was a typical suburban elementary school, built eight years before, and looked like two red-brick shoeboxes unimaginatively shoved together. When Dee had started kindergarten it still had a new building smell to it. Now, though, it was like a dress she had worn many times, with its tears and stains and marks where the hem had been let down. She knew every classroom, every stair- case, every handrail, every bathroom cubicle. She knew every foot of the playground too, as well as the younger students’ playground on the other side of the building. Dee had fallen off the swings, torn her tights on the slide, gotten stuck at the top of the jungle gym when she became too scared to climb down. Once she had declared one half of the playground Girl Town, and she and Mimi and Blanca and Jennifer had chased away any boy who dared to cross the line. She had hidden with others around the corner near the gym entrance, where teachers on duty couldn’t see them and they could try on lipstick and read comics and play spin the bottle. She had lived her life on the playground, laughed and cried and had crushes and formed friendships and made few enemies. It was her world, so familiar she took it for granted. In a month she would be leaving it for junior high.
Now someone new and different had entered the territory, and this made Dee look at the space anew and suddenly find it shabby, and herself an alien in it. Like him.
He was moving now. Not like a bear, with its bulky, lumbering gait. More like a wolf, or—Dee tried to think of dark animals—a panther, scaled up from house cats. Whatever he was thinking—probably about being the new boy in a playground full of strangers the opposite color from him—he padded toward the school doors where the teachers waited with the unconscious assuredness of someone who knows how his body works. Dee felt her chest tighten. She drew in a breath.
“Well, well,” Mr. Brabant remarked. “I think I hear drums.”
Miss Lode, the other sixth grade teacher standing next to him, tittered. “Where did Mrs. Duke say he’s from?”
“Guinea, I think. Or was it Nigeria? Africa, anyway.” “He’s yours, isn’t he? Better you than me.” Miss Lode smoothed her skirt and touched her earrings, per- haps to make sure they were still there. It was a nervous habit she repeated often. She kept her appearance neat, except for her short blond hair that puffed out in a curly bob. Today she wore a lime green skirt, a yellow blouse, and green disks clipped to her ears. Her shoes were also green, with low square heels. Dee and her friends loved discussing Miss Lode’s wardrobe. She was a young teacher but her clothes were nothing like her students’ pink and white T-shirts and bell-bottom jeans with flowers embroidered along the hems.
Mr. Brabant shrugged. “I don’t foresee problems.”
“No, of course not.” Miss Lode kept her wide blue eyes fixed on her colleague as if not wanting to miss any morsel of wisdom that might help her become a better teacher. “Do you think we should—well, say something to the students about him? About—I don’t know—about him being different? To encourage them to welcome him?”
Mr. Brabant snorted. “Take off your kid gloves, Diane. He doesn’t need special treatment just because he’s bl— a new boy.”
“No, but—No. Of course.” Miss Lode’s eyes turned watery. Mimi had told Dee that once or twice her teacher had actually cried in class. Behind her back her students called her Cry Baby Lody.
Mr. Brabant’s eyes came to rest on Dee waiting in front of him, and he cleared his throat. “Dee, go and round up the other girls.” He gestured at the double- dutch jumpers. “Tell them I’ll take away the ropes if they keep on skipping after the first bell rings.”
He was one of the few male teachers in the school, and though it shouldn’t have mattered, to Dee it made him the kind of teacher you always obeyed, the teacher you impressed if you could—the way she felt about her own father, whom she wanted to please when he came home from work.
She hurried over to the girls jumping double dutch; they were using two thick ropes that made a satisfying thwack on the concrete, and chanting as they turned. She hesitated a moment, for it was Blanca’s go. She was by far the best double-dutcher in school, jumping so nimbly as the ropes came around that she could go for minutes without getting tripped up. The other girls preferred chants that would require Blanca to call someone else into the ropes or send herself out. Blanca of course liked to stay in, and this morning had man- aged to get them to chant:
Ice cream soda, cherry on top
Tell me the name of your sweetheart!
Is it A, B, C, D . . .
If the jumper didn’t get caught on one of the letters, they went on to numbers up to twenty, then favorite colors. Blanca was going through the colors now, long black curls bouncing, feet nimble even though she was wearing platform sandals. Dee could never jump in such shoes; she preferred her white Converse sneakers, which she kept as clean as she could.
She went over to Mimi, who was turning the ropes. “This is the second set of colors she’s doing,” her friend muttered. “Show-off.”
“Mr. B said he’d take the ropes away if you don’t stop now,” Dee reported.
“Good.” Mimi let her hands drop and the ropes went slack at one end, while the other turner kept going for a few seconds. Blanca’s feet got caught in them.
“Why’d you stop?” she demanded, pouting. “I could’ve tripped! Besides, I had to get back to the alphabet so I could stop at C!”
Dee and Mimi rolled their eyes as they began coiling the ropes. Blanca was crazy about Casper, the most popular boy in the sixth grade. To be fair, he seemed crazy about her too, though they broke up on a regular basis.
Dee herself had always liked Casper. More than that: they shared an understanding that they had it easier than others, that they didn’t have to work so hard to keep friends or be respected. The year before, she had briefly wondered if she should have a crush on him, or even take it further and go with him. Casper had an appealing, open face and bright blue eyes that put you at ease. But, though it would have been natural to, she did not think of him in that way. He was more like a brother; they were engaged in similar activities, looking forward rather than at each other. It made more sense for Casper to be with someone messy and energetic like Blanca.
“Oh my God, who’s that?” Blanca cried. Though in class she said little, on the playground she was loud and unabashed.
Dee knew without looking that Blanca was referring to the new boy. “He’s from Nigeria,” she said casually, coiling the rope between her elbow and her hand.
“How do you know?” Mimi asked. “Teachers said.”
“A black boy at our school—I can’t believe it!”
“Shhh . . .” Dee tried to stifle Blanca, embarrassed that the boy might hear.
She and Mimi and Blanca headed toward the lines of children, the ropes under her arm. They were kept in Mr. Brabant’s room, and Dee was responsible for them—which she knew made Blanca jealous, as did her friendship with Mimi.
“Why do you like her so much when she’s so weird?” Blanca had said once.
“Mimi’s not weird,” Dee had defended her friend. “She’s . . . sensitive. She feels things.”
Blanca had shrugged and begun to sing “Crocodile Rock,” making clear the conversation was over. Three-somes were a tricky navigation: one person was always feeling left out.
A teacher must have told the new boy where to go, for he was now standing at the end of the line that had formed in front of Mr. Brabant. Blanca came to a dramatic halt, rocking back on her heels. “Now what do we do?” she cried.
Dee hesitated, then stepped up to stand behind him. Blanca joined her and whispered loudly, “Can you believe it? He’s in our class! I dare you to touch him.”
“Shut up!” Dee hissed, hoping he hadn’t heard. She studied his back. The new boy had the most beautifully shaped head, smooth and even and perfectly formed, like a clay pot turned on a potter’s wheel. Dee wanted to reach out and cup it in her hand. His hair was cut short, like a forest of trees dotted in tight clumps over the curves of a mountain—very different from the thick afros popular at the moment. Not that there were any afros around to look at. There were no black students at Dee’s school, or black residents in her neighborhood, though by 1974 Washington, DC had a large enough black population to be nicknamed Chocolate City. Sometimes when she went downtown with her family she saw black men and women with big afros; and on TV when she watched Soul Train at Mimi’s house, dancing to Earth, Wind and Fire or the Jackson Five. She didn’t ever see the show at home: her mother would never let her watch black people singing and dancing on T V. Dee had a crush on Jermaine Jackson, though it was his sly toothy smile she liked rather than his afro. All of her friends preferred little Michael, who seemed to Dee too obvious a choice. It would be like choosing the cutest boy in school to have a crush on, which was perhaps why she never thought of Casper that way—and why Blanca did. Blanca always went for the obvious.
“Dee, you will look after our new student today.” Mr. Brabant gestured at her from the head of the line. “Show him where the cafeteria is, the music room, the bathroom. Explain things when he doesn’t understand what is going on in class. All right?”
Blanca gasped and nudged Dee, who turned red and nodded. Why had Mr. Brabant chosen her? Was he punishing her for something? Dee never needed punishing. Her mother made sure of that.
Around her, classmates were giggling and whispering. “Where’d he come from?”
“Hoo-hoo-hoo . . . Ow, that hurt!” “Don’t be so immature.”
“Poor Dee, having to look after him!”
“Why’d Mr. B choose her? Usually a boy looks after a boy.”
“Maybe none of the boys would be willing to. I
“I wouldn’t either!”
“Yeah, but Dee’s Mr. B’s pet—he knows she won’t say no.”
“Wait a minute—does this mean that that boy is going to sit at our desks?”
“Ha ha! Poor Duncan, stuck with the new boy! Patty too.”
“Mr. B won’t let you.” “I will.”
“Dream on, buddy boy.”
The new boy glanced behind him. His face was not wary and guarded as Dee would have expected, but open and welcoming. His eyes were black, glistening coins that regarded her with curiosity. He raised his eyebrows, widening his eyes further, and Dee felt a jolt course through her, similar to what she experienced once when she touched an electric fence for a dare.
She did not speak to him, but nodded. He returned the nod, then turned back so that he was facing for- ward again. They stood in line, quiet, embarrassed. Dee looked around to see if anyone was still watching them. Everyone was watching them. She settled her eyes on a house across the street from the school—Casper’s house, in fact—hoping they would all assume she had her mind on important things out in the wider world rather than on the boy in front of her, who seemed to vibrate with electricity.
Then she noticed the black woman standing on the other side of the chain-link fence surrounding the play- ground, a hand entwined in the wire mesh. Though short, she was made taller by a red and yellow patterned scarf wrapped like a towering turban around her head. She had on a long dress made of the same bright fabric. Over it she wore a gray winter coat—even though it was early May and warm. She was watching them.
“My mother thinks that I do not know how to be the new boy.”
Dee turned, amazed that he had spoken. In his place she wouldn’t have said a word. “Have you been a new boy before?”
“Yes. Three times in six years. This will be my fourth school.”
Dee had always lived in the same house, gone to the same school and had the same friends, and was accustomed to a comfortable familiarity underpinning everything she did. She couldn’t imagine being a new girl and not knowing everyone else—though in a few months when she moved from elementary school to junior high, she would know only a quarter of the students in her grade. While in many ways Dee had out- grown her school and was ready to move on to a new one, the thought of being surrounded by strangers sometimes made her stomach ache.
Across from them in the line for the other sixth grade class, Mimi was watching this exchange, wide- eyed. Dee and Mimi had almost always been in the same class together, and it pained Dee that, this last year of elementary school, they had been assigned different teachers, so she couldn’t be with her best friend all day but had to settle for playground time. It also meant Blanca, who was in Dee’s class, could try to get closer—as she was now, literally hanging on Dee, a hand on her shoulder, staring at the new boy. Blanca was always physical, throwing her arms around people, playing with friends’ hair, rubbing up against boys she liked.
Dee shook her off now to focus on the boy. “Are you from Nigeria?” she asked, eager to show off her prior knowledge of him. You may be a different color, she thought, but I know you.
The boy shook his head. “I am from Ghana.”
“Oh.” Dee had no idea where Ghana was except that it must be in Africa. He still seemed friendly, but the expression had frozen onto his face and was becoming less sincere. Dee was determined to demonstrate that she did know something about African culture. She nodded at the woman by the fence. “Is your mom wear- ing a dashiki?” She knew the word because for Christ- mas her hippie aunt had given her pants with a dashiki pattern on them. To please her, Dee had worn them at Christmas dinner, and had to endure frowns from her mother and teasing from her older brother about wearing a tablecloth when they already had one on the table. Afterward she had shoved the pants to the back of her closet and not touched them since.
“Dashikis are shirts that African men wear,” the boy said. He could have been scornful or made fun of her, but instead he was matter-of-fact. “Or black Americans sometimes when they want to make a point.”
Dee nodded, though she wondered what that point was. “I think the Jackson Five wore them on Soul Train.” The boy smiled. “I was thinking of Malcolm X—he wore a dashiki once.” Now it seemed he was teasing her a little. Dee found she didn’t mind if it meant the stiff, frozen look disappeared.
“My mother is wearing a dress made from kente cloth,” he continued. “It is fabric from my country.”
“Why is she wearing a winter coat?”
“Unless we are in Ghana, she feels the cold even when it is warm outside.”
“Are you cold too?”
“No, I am not cold.” The boy answered in full, formal sentences, the way Dee and her classmates did during French lessons once a week. His accent wasn’t American, though it contained some American phrases. There was a hint of English in it. Dee’s mother liked to watch Upstairs, Downstairs on TV; he sounded a bit like that, though not as clipped and expensive, and with more of a singsong cadence that must come from Africa. His full sentences and lack of contractions, the lilt in his speech, the rich exaggeration of his vowels, all made Dee want to smile, but she didn’t want to be impolite.
“Is she going to pick you up after school too?” she asked. Her own mother never came to school except for parent–teacher meetings. She didn’t like to leave the house.
The boy smiled again. “I have made her promise not to come. I know the way home.”
Dee smiled back. “Probably better. Only the kids on the younger playground have their parents bring them to school and pick them up.”
The second bell rang. The fourth grade teachers turned and led their lines of children through the entrance from the playground into school. Then fifth graders would go, and finally the sixth grade classes.
“Would you like me to carry the ropes for you?” the boy asked.
“Oh! No, thanks—they’re not heavy.” They were kind of heavy. No boy had ever offered to carry them for her. “Please.” The boy held out his arms and she handed
them to him.
“What’s your name?” she asked as their line began to move.
“O . . .” The name was so foreign that Dee could not find a hook in it to hang on to. It was like trying to climb a smooth boulder.
He smiled at her confusion, clearly used to it. “It is easier to call me O,” he said, bringing his name into the familiar arena of letters. “I don’t mind. Even my sister calls me O sometimes.”
“No, I can say it. O-say-ee. Is it in your language?” “Yes. It means ‘noble.’ What is your name, please?” “Dee. Short for Daniela, but everybody calls me Dee.” “Dee? Like the letter D?”
She nodded. They looked at each other, and this simple link of letters standing in for their names made them burst out laughing. O had beautiful straight teeth, a flash of light in his dark face that sparked something inside her.