February filled every classroom and hallway at Norman Avenue Elementary School with red, black, and green. As the month’s end approached, the colors blossomed in the school auditorium in preparation of the annual Black History Month Dance. Parent volunteers filled red, black, and green balloons with helium and tied similarly colored streamers to their tails. A few adults grumbled as some balloons escaped their handlers and floated high up to the vaulted ceiling, where they danced The Bump in the breezes supplied by open doors and the half-working ventilation system. The more obedient balloons remained firmly in hand to be guided to their final decorative destination.
After a month of programs, essays, and speeches by distinguished visitors, the students looked forward to strutting their stuff at the dance, drinking punch, and eating cake and cookies. The schoolyard reflected anticipation with the usual gender cliques huddled in discreet corners far apart from each other, each hatching plots. The girls discussed dress colors and hairstyles and which boy was cutest. The boys one upped each other by showing off their dance prowess and smooth talking skills.
Spencer fretted. He observed the cliques from his 5th grade teacher’s second floor classroom, a momentary distraction as he awaited his doom. The girls sashayed and the boys moved in struts. Circles and sticks. Spencer felt at home in neither camp.
Doom arrived by escort. Vice Principal Kennedy opened the door for Anthony, who slinked into the room at a snail’s pace. A grimace lurked under his curly hair. Mrs. Kennedy watched as he sat next to Spencer. She stood by the door, arms folded. Spencer felt heartened. Mrs. Kennedy had a strong presence. If she stayed, then he knew nothing bad would happen.
“He scares me, Momma!”
“Leadership is a necessary attribute, Spencer,” his mother replied.
Each student had to write at least one essay about an important African-American in order to attend the dance. The best essays received top billing in the Administration Building’s big display. Spencer wrote three, and all were included in the display. His subjects were Carter Woodson, W.E.B. DuBois, and Mary McLeon Bethune, after whom the local library was named. Spencer’s “reward” was to help Anthony with his essay.
“So who do you want to write about?” Spencer asked tentatively.
“I don’t know.”
“I believe Mrs. Hamilton assigned you to write about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Anthony,” Mrs. Kennedy’s Wagnerian voice boomed.
“Everybody wrote about him,” he complained.
“Well, if you cannot chose your own subject, then you must write about Dr. King.”
Spencer tried to get Anthony focussed by laying out the who/when/what questions Mrs. Hamilton gave to jumpstart the essay. Then a commotion from outside distracted them. Mrs. Kennedy walked towards the window and saw the usual pattern below on the basketball court, a growing maelstrom of bodies circling two engaged in mortal combat. She rushed out of the room. “Continue working on the essay,” she boomed as the door closed behind her.
Now Spencer was nervous again. It wasn’t that Anthony had ever done anything to him, but he had a rough reputation. His face, though as young as Spencer’s, looked hardened, chiseled like the bad guy from a B-movie. In third grade Anthony once gave Spencer the mean look and everyone thought that he was going to beat him up after school. But nothing happened.
They looked out the window. The fight had migrated away from the basketball court towards baseball diamond. Mrs. Kennedy rushed to join a couple of teachers who were trying to break it up. The plexiglass window muffled her booming voice.
“Wonder what started it,” Spencer said.
“Probably Blake, showing off. He’s a punk,” Anthony said. “He always thinks he’s something.”
“He does?” Spencer muttered. He figured that his standing as the “teacher’s pet” probably condemned him to punk status, too, and probably Blake’s fate, eventually.
“You ain’t no punk,” Anthony said after a while.
“I’m not?” Spencer said, startled.
“You mind your own business.”
Spencer felt a little less on edge. He turned back to the table. “We should probably get back to the paper,” he said.
“Write it for me.”
“You heard me. Write it for me.”
“I can’t do that,” he said, fearing the consequence of disobedience, either from Anthony if he didn’t or from the teacher if he did. “Dr. King is easy. Everybody knows about him.”
“I don’t want to write about Dr. King.”
“‘Cause I don’t,” he said. “Who wants to go to the dumb dance, anyway.” He stared out the window. “Looks like Mrs. Crooked-Titty stopped the fight.” He glared at Spencer. “Why you look like that? You know that’s how she look.”
Spencer’s face loosened, revealing a smirk. He didn’t suppress giggles well.
“See, they are crooked, aren’t they?” Anthony said.
They shared a smirking giggle. Mrs. Kennedy took both boys to the Administration Building. Mr. Hall got the boys to start playing basketball again. Spencer thought about the one time he made a three point basket. Thank God he had a witness otherwise no one would have believed it.
“Write about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar,” he said suddenly.
“How do you know about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar?”
“Everybody knows about him. My brother really likes him.”
“For real? Your brother play basketball?”
“So, what do I say about him?”
“Just say who he is and why he’s important. How tall is he?”
“Seven feet, two inches.”
“OK,” Spencer said. “Write that down.”
They continued with the stats. Anthony could rattle them off without blinking. He wrote slowly and in big letters.
“How come you don’t want to go to the dance?” Spencer asked.
“I just said that. I don’t know.”
“I don’t like going, either.”
“I can’t dance.”
Anthony sucked his teeth. “Everybody can dance. You don’t have to think to dance. You just do it.”
“I don’t know how.”
Anthony looked at him and couldn’t believe it. The smartest kid in school, and he couldn’t dance. “Maybe you think too much,” he said.
“Maybe,” Spencer said.
“Come to my house after school. I’ll show you how to dance.”
“Yeah, really. But help me finish this paper. What else I gotta write?”
Anthony lived at the end of 47th Street that Spencer’s mother told him to avoid while walking home from school. Bad actors lived there, she said. He didn’t know why he agreed to meet Anthony at his house, still wondering if he was gonna beat him up like he promised two years ago. But he told his mother that he was going to help him with his essay. Not a total lie, but not the full story, either. She was proud that he overcame his fears to help a fellow student.
They met in the garage in the back. Anthony said his mother was inside sleeping. “She sleeps a lot,” he said.
The garage had all sorts of stuff in it, but in the middle was enough space for them to dance in. Anthony put on the radio.
The Jackson Five came on. Anthony’s body went loose. He spun around on the ball of one foot. He shuffled and slid. His hands waved in front, then on the sides, then over his head, and he spun around again. He saw Spencer staring at him, motionless. He put his hand on his hips and cocked his head.
“No girl’s gonna wanna dance with you looking like that. Come on. Stand next to me.”
Anthony did a step with one foot to the side. Spencer copied him.
“Good. Now do this.” Anthony moved his hand in and out. “Be like the folks on Soul Train. You ever watch Soul Train?”
Feet shuffled against the floor, moonwalking. Bodies moved robotically, locking. Hands shuffled against pants legs rhythmically. They did the whole dance line in an hour, until they both got tired.
“See, I knew you could do it. Everyone can dance.”
“I didn’t think I could. I don’t know. I still don’t feel like I’m doing it right.”
“You’re fine. You’re good. You just have to do it, and don’t think it.”
“I don’t have an Afro,” Spencer said.
“All the boys have Afros. I don’t have one. My hair doesn’t grow like that. It stays short or it’s uneven. I don’t look like the other boys. I don’t feel like them, either. That’s why I don’t want to go to the dance.”
Anthony looked at him for a moment, taking in what he just said.
“Just a minute.”
He got up and went into the house. Spencer sat alone in the garage, listening to the music. He didn’t even know the names of the songs or who sang them, though he could hum the music note for note. He felt so different, like he didn’t belong. Anthony came back with a wig, an Afro in multiple colors.
“Put this on.”
“A technicolor Afro? It’s funny looking.”
“You sure know a lot of big words. It’s just a clown Afro. Put it on! You can be the Dancing Clown. Put on these glasses.” He gave him some dark sunglasses. “See? You look cool.”
“Yeah. Just pretend like you’re someone else. Then you can dance.”
Spencer felt a bit silly at first. But then he really got into it. TSOP, Soul Train’s theme, came on and he began to groove with it. Anthony began to laugh.
“See?” he said.
“Boogie Bozo!” Spencer said, spinning on his heels.
“You ready, Cuz!”
The same cliques that filled the schoolyard now inhabited the auditorium. Girls on one side, boys on the other. A few dared to commingle, eating their cake and ice cream in close proximity. They were the first on their feet when a slow piece came on.
And they call this puppy looooove…
Spencer sat in a corner next to a group of boys making fun of the slow dancing. Like them, he wasn’t ready for that, so he felt comfortable with them. But otherwise he was a bundle of nerves. He wore some nice gray pants and a white, long-sleeved shirt. But in a bag in his locker hid his secret identity. As the slow pieces dragged on, he slipped out the back of the auditorium, unnoticed. He went to his locker. Fumbling fingers could barely remember the combination. After a few tries, he got it opened. Then Anthony appeared.
“Where’s the wig?”
“Right here. I was gonna put it on.”
“Well hurry up. They’re about to do the line dance, like on Soul Train.”
“I don’t know. All those people watching?”
“Pretend like they paid money to see you. You have to give them a show. Give them their money’s worth, right? Go on!”
“OK. I’ll be inside in a minute.”
Somehow, the warning tone in Anthony’s voice didn’t bother Spencer. In fact, it sort of jelled him to go through with it. He put on a grey jacket that went with the pants and buttoned it up. Then he slipped the wig inside the jacket, making him look fat, and he put the sunglasses in his back pocket. He closed his locker and went back to the auditorium.
Just as he reached the door, the kids were lining up on the dance floor to begin. TSOP began. Spencer donned his technicolor Afro and whipped out his sunglasses. He then sashayed down the stairs, twisting his little hips and snapping his fingers. By the time he reached the dance floor, everyone was looking at the kid in the clown wig. His moves were wild, erratic, but he didn’t stop. His feet slid here, his shoes shuffled there. His arms did waves with fingers locked, and stretched out on either side. Then he spun around on his heels, and the everyone went wild.
“GO GO GO GO GO GO!” they chanted.
Anthony laughed and clapped. He didn’t think Spencer would do it. But he did, and Anthony was impressed.
Mrs. Kennedy liked it, too. She clapped along with everyone else. But Mrs. Waggoner, Spencer’s old first grade teacher had had enough. She marched her squat body to the floor and grabbed Spencer by the outstretched arm.
“Come on! That’s no way to look for Black History Month! You look like a clown!” She marched him off the dance floor, to the cheers and laughter of the crowd.
She took him to a corner and bawled him out. “This is a disgrace, Spencer! Look at you! Who told you to dress like that?” She told him to stand in the corner, snatching off the wig and the glasses. He stood there, while everyone else danced behind him, squeezing his eyes shut as tears formed in them. He didn’t want anyone else to see him cry. “I was having fun!” he muttered through his choked up throat.
Eventually, Mrs. Kennedy walked over and patted him on the shoulder.
“I talked to Mrs. Waggoner,” she said, “I told her that it’s alright. Everyone should get to cut loose once in a while. But let’s leave the wig and glasses for another time, alright Spencer?”
“Go on now and have a good time. I’ll give you your things after the dance.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Kennedy.”
Spencer shuffled back to the dance floor, relieved that he no longer had to stand in the corner. He gave Mrs. Waggoner a look, which she returned in kind. He still felt like he got the last laugh, having been freed from the corner. He walked to the punch bowl where Mrs. Rubinstein gave him a glass.
“Nice moves, Spence,” she said.
“Thank you, Mrs. Rubinstein,” he said, smiling. He liked Mrs. Rubinstein.
He went to a table and watched the others boogie away. Eventually Anthony joined him.
“Want some cake?” Anthony cut his piece in half and gave part to Spencer.
“Thanks.” He took a bite. “I did it.”
“Yeah, you sure did. Everyone’s talking about it.”
“Really? I got in trouble for it.”
“That’s why they’re talking about it. You should hear them. ‘Ooo! Spencer never gets in trouble!’ You got creds now, Cuz.”
Spencer smiled and took another bite of cake, a big hunking bite, and savored its flavor as he leaned back against the table with his legs stretched in front of him, as Anthony sat at his side. For the first time in his life, he felt macho.
© 2012, gar. All rights reserved.