Monday, October 23, 2006

Scarface


It’s funny what time and the social graces of adulthood will make you forget. Adults never ask; they’ve been conditioned to believe it’s impolite, so, instead, they stare at my face a second too long, avert their eyes, and continue to force the course of the conversation.

But children are another story. My first year teaching, I assigned my sixth-graders to write about a time they had been teased. As I read the essays, I gasped when I came across one, written by a very quiet girl in my class named Maria, so quiet that I could count the times on my finger I’d actually heard Maria speak. I hadn’t noticed, but she had a scar on her face, and she wrote about how the other kids teased her, and called her “scarface.”

It didn’t take a teaching job for me to understand that kids can be assholes – I knew that. What surprised me was the fact that I had always believed I was the only one against whom this word had been directed. You see, I, too, was called “scarface” as a child, and it caused me a considerable amount of shame growing up; so much shame, in fact, that I never told anyone, not my parents, family, friends, nor the men I would grow to love. Not even the one I followed to New York after he told me my scar was sexy. It was the one thing I had always kept to myself, until I read Maria’s essay.

I was 8 years old when it happened. I was playing at my friend David’s house one afternoon that summer, and I heard my older sister calling me from across the canyon to come home. I ran upstairs towards the deck, worried I would be in trouble with my mother for staying out too late, and crashed through the plate glass door. I have no memory of actually hitting the door. One minute I was running toward the door; the next, I was on my knees on the deck, blood gushing from my knee, down my leg. My upper arm was split to the bone, and when I saw it, I became hysterical, and began running toward the edge of the deck. David’s older brother rushed from the house and grabbed me before I tumbled over the edge.

David’s brother put me, swathed like a baby in a blanket, in the car and drove me to Children’s Hospital in Oakland. There, the nurse bandaged me, and I was placed in an ambulance, and sent to Kaiser Hospital. When the ambulance doors swung open, my father was standing at the emergency room door, and I burst into tears. He held my hand as they wheeled me into the operating room, and continued holding it while doctors, wielding needles the size of ballpoint pens, descended to anesthetize and sew me closed. Every time a needle pierced my flesh, I screamed, and my mother screamed louder from the waiting room.

Looks are pretty important in my family. Add to that black folks’ neuroses about skin color and hair texture and you can fuck up a child damn good. My grandmother pronounced me acceptable — or halfway, at least: Upon first seeing me as a baby, she declared, “She’ll have nappy hair, but she’s light.” It was the opposite with my older sister: “She’s dark, but she has straight hair.” During my weekly call home from college, instead of inquiring about my grades, as I imagine most mothers would, mine would ask, “So how’s your weight?” ... click to read more

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