#ThrowbackThursday: Coming-of-age poor and black in the South

Standing with my first grade teacher
Standing with my first grade teacher

Beige brick buildings. Suburban trucks filled with carpooling moms. Parents walking their children to school. I stared out of the car window as my mother pulled up to Pine Street Elementary School. Within a ten-minute drive across town, the wailing sirens, drunkards loitering around the neighborhood liquor store, and lingering smell of Beacon fast food dissipated. The air was crisp and silent. This place was perfect. My mother and I were now in Spartanburg’s most prestigious neighborhood, and I, little eight-year-old me was attending their prized public elementary school. Pine Street Elementary would be my academic home for the next four years.

When I think of most coming-of-age stories, tales of first kisses, first dances or after prom activities come to mind. For me, however, I became an adult much sooner than the chronological end of my childhood. On August 15th, 1996 during my first day of third grade, I realized that I was poor and black in the South.

Before that day, I lived a relatively sheltered life. My single mother raised me on a strict diet of church, private school, and family. We attended a small predominately African-American non-denominational congregation. I went to school at a small private Presbyterian school near our neighborhood. Though I was one of three black students at the school, color and class were not conscious parts of my life. I played with my classmates at school, I went to their birthday parties, and I laughed at their jokes. We were friends who happened to have different skin tones and hair. At home, I lived with my mother most days and spent weekends with my dad, step-mom, and little sister. I was a content, happy, and confident little girl.

Transferring from a private school to a public school with an elite, majority white student body quickly eroded my childhood confidence and puerile naiveté. Because of the rising cost of private school, my mother could no longer afford to fund my education, resulting in my transferal to the public school system in our town. To maintain my level of education, my mother petitioned school district officials to allow me to attend the best elementary school in the district instead of the school in our black, working class neighborhood. Permission was granted, and I was officially a student a Pine Street Elementary.

My first days at Pine Street were magical. Every morning, I woke up excited to don normal clothes  in place of my plaid private school uniform (pictured above). No longer could I name my future teachers or recognize my school mates because my new school was so big. Plus, we did not have to memorize bible verses or attend chapel every morning. I was in public school heaven.

Little did I know that the doors of this heaven would soon be restricted for me. Weeks and months passed and I never received a birthday party invitation or play date invite to my white classmates’ events. Though we were friends, our friendships ended daily at 2:30pm when the closing bell for classes rang. I was not one of them. I was an outsider. Their parents were college professors (at my future alma mater), doctors, lawyers, and businessmen who ran our Southern town. My parents were a contractor and a secretary. Their mothers worked full-time at being-a-mom[dot]com and being the first car in the carpool line at our school. My mother struggled to balance night shifts at the hospital and picking me up on time daily. The economic differences between my classmates and I were stark. I came to the conclusion that I was different. They were the sons and daughters of the affluent. I was the daughter of “the help”.

Quickly my external comparisons turned inward. My normal clothes no longer excited me because they Fourth grade at Pine Streetwere not name brand. My pressed hair irritated me because it could not maintain its straightness in the rain like my classmates’ blonde and brunette hair could. My lips were too big, and I hated them. Nightly I would stare in the mirror and cover my teeth with my lips and smile to create the illusion of smaller lips. My nascent hips, a cursed gift from my mother, effaced all hopes I had of being a skinny size zero. Thanks to my nappy hair, big lips, and big hips, I was hopelessly black and ugly.

Today, as I sift through a box of childhood pictures as I pack for my upcoming departure to Brazil, my fingers pound my MacBook keyboard as I battle the volcano of emotions and memories erupting inside of me. I am angry that Pine Street robbed me of a sweeter coming-of-age story. I am sad that little Regina could not see her beauty and worth until college. I am confident in the woman I have become and am becoming daily. Thanks to college and two years of living in Ghana, West Africa, I have been reborn again. I am now hopefully: Southern. Black. Beautiful. I belong here.

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2 thoughts on “#ThrowbackThursday: Coming-of-age poor and black in the South

  1. A well written and poignant piece. Well done Regina. Your metamorphosis, of which I directly witnessed a part, has been nothing short of wondrous. I am so very proud of you. Dr Juliette

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