“Still a Nigger”

By: Stanley C. Trent

I


It’s mid-August, 1978. Matoaca Elementary School. Chesterfield County, Virginia. My first day as a teacher. I see him from a distance, pushing through clusters of teachers, parents, students — a lost soul. He’s one of the kids my principal told us to look out for. The way he swivels his head lets me know he’s searching for the bus bearing lines and squiggles that match the ones on the laminated name tag pinned to his shirt. My mind plunges into crisis intervention mode, ready to put into practice what Professor Madison taught in Behavior Management 101. I want to be the first one to get to him, rescue him, show my more seasoned colleagues that Stan the Man has some skills. I rehearse the steps in my head and plow through the crowd. OK, slow down, I think. I smile, drop a knee, rest a hand on his shoulder. Our eyes meet. His name tag reveals that, at school, he will be called Jason, not Butch or Bubba or Buster — common nicknames in this neck of the woods.


Just above a whisper, I ask, “Hey, Jason, how ya doing?”


Tears stream down his face. His head drops, shoulders slump.


“Aw, don’t cry. What’s the problem?”


“I can’t find my bus.” His body hiccups between words.


“Oh, is that all? Well, you’re not the only one. I saw you trying to find numbers on a bus like on your name tag, right?”


“Yeah.”


“Good job, Jason! I bet that’s one of the things your teacher told you to do if you got lost.


“Uh-huh.”


“Now, I want you to try again, but this time I’m going to help you. OK?”


“OK.” His body spasms begin to subside.


After a few failed attempts, we spot the bus with the digits that jibe with the ones on his name tag. He releases a long sigh, musters a smile, and says, “Thanks.” Ah, a sign of a well-mannered kid. His parents must be raising him well. Once on the bus, he plops down beside another kid whose laminated name tag lets me know that he, too, is a kindergartener. I take a few steps toward the building, then turn as the yellow caravan moves forward. His bus draws near. I catch sight of him peering out the open window. Our eyes meet. I wave. He waves back. Simpatico. I see him nudge his bud and point in my direction, and assume he will exclaim, “Hey, that’s the man who helped me find my bus!” Instead, this blond, blue-eyed five-year old utters, loud enough for me to hear, “Look, a nigger teacher.”


II


Fall. 1965. Chesterfield County, Virginia. Bus driver Hattie Mae Brown transports my classmates and me down River Road past Matoaca Elementary, only five miles from my house. Our final destination is the all-colored Dupuy Elementary School about 15 miles away. Our bodies jerk backwards and forwards, side to side, as she shifts gears to ascend the steep hills.


As our bottoms bounce, my seatmates and I face each other, competing to be first to create a Jacob’s ladder from neon colored knitting yarn. Other kids play origami-style fortune teller games to see who loves whom. “Yes. No. Maybe so.” Girls chatter about The Supremes and sing, “Stop in the Name of Love.” Without standing, they rock their shoulders from side to side and cross their arms over their chests, mimicking the moves they’d memorized after watching the divas perform on The Ed Sullivan Show.


They admire each other’s Twiggy attire.


“Paula, girl, I like them fishnets, where you get them from?”


“Woolworth’s.”


“I’m gonna get me some of those.”


“Vanessa, that mini goes good with those go-go boots.”


“Thanks, I like yours, too.” Boys rib each other about who or what was the best or worst: “A Corvette will smoke a Mustang in the dust any day of the week,” says Harold.


“Nuh-uh, man. Tell that to somebody who don’t know.”


“The ABA is better than the NBA,” says Jerome.


“No way, José. Keep on dreamin’.”


We pass a group of white kids waiting for the bus that will take them to Matoaca Elementary. We pay them no mind, and usually they ignore us as well. I suspect they think exactly the same of us. But something is different today. From open windows, as our bus passes through the 25-mph school zone, we hear:


“Look, a bunch o’ niggers!”


“Yeah, niggers, why don’t y’all go back to Africa!” A few of them shriek like apes.


Clink! Clank! Pit-a-pat! Pebbles and gravel ricochet off metal and glass like sleet.


Older schoolmates sitting in the back row turn, prop themselves up on their knees, press middle fingers against the rear window, and call out insults of their own.


“Honkies!”