anymore; at night, Gramps watched television while Toot sat in her room reading murder mysteries. Their principal excitement now came from new drapes or a stand-alone freezer. It was as if they had bypassed the satisfactions that should come with the middle years, the convergence of maturity with time left, energy with means, a recognition of accomplishment that frees the spirit. At some point in my absence, they had decided to cut their losses and settle for hanging on. They saw no more destinations to hope for.
As the summer drew to a close, I became increasingly restless to start school. My main concern was finding companions my own age; but for my grandparents, my admission into Punahou Academy heralded the start of something grand, an elevation in the family status that they took great pains to let everyone know. Started by missionaries in 1841, Punahou had grown into a prestigious prep school, an incubator for island elites. Its reputation had helped sway my mother in her decision to send me back to the States: It hadn’t been easy to get me in, my grandparents told her; there was a long waiting list, and I was considered only because of the intervention of Gramps’s boss, who was an alumnus (my first experience with affirmative action, it seems, had little to do with race).
I had gone for several interviews with Punahou’s admissions officer the previous summer. She was a brisk, efficient-looking woman who didn’t seem fazed that my feet barely reached the floor as she grilled me on my career goals. After the interview, the woman had sent Gramps and me on a tour of the campus, a complex that spread over several acres of lush green fields and shady trees, old masonry schoolhouses and modern structures of glass and steel. There were tennis courts, swimming pools, and photography studios. At one point, we fell behind the guide, and Gramps grabbed me by the arm.
“Hell, Bar,” he whispered, “this isn’t a school. This is heaven. You might just get me to go back to school with you.”
With my admission notice had come a thick packet of information that Toot set aside to pore over one Saturday afternoon. “Welcome to the Punahou family,” the letter announced. A locker had been assigned to me; I was enrolled in a meal plan unless a box was checked; there was a list of things to buy-a uniform for physical education, scissors, a ruler, number two pencils, a calculator (optional). Gramps spent the evening reading the entire school catalog, a thick book that listed my expected progression through the next seven years-the college prep courses, the extracurricular activities, the traditions of well-rounded excellence. With each new item, Gramps grew more and more animated; several times he got up, with his thumb saving his place, and headed toward the room where Toot was reading, his voice full of amazement: “Madelyn, get a load of this!”
So it was with a great rush of excitement that Gramps accompanied me on my first day of school. He had insisted that we arrive early, and Castle Hall, the building for the fifth and sixth graders, was not yet opened. A handful of children had already arrived, busy catching up on the summer’s news. We sat beside a slender Chinese boy who had a large dental retainer strapped around his neck.
“Hi there,” Gramps said to the boy. “This here’s Barry. I’m Barry’s grandfather. You can call me
Gramps.” He shook hands with the boy, whose name was Frederick. “Barry’s new.”
“Me too,” Frederick said, and the two of them launched into a lively conversation. I sat, embarrassed, until the doors finally opened and we went up the stairs to our classroom. At the door, Gramps slapped both of us on the back.
“Don’t do anything I would do,” he said with a grin.
“Your grandfather’s funny,” Frederick said as we watched Gramps introduce himself to Miss Hefty, our homeroom teacher. “Yeah. He is.”
We sat at a table with four other children, and Miss Hefty, an energetic middle-aged woman with short gray hair, took attendance. When she read my full name, I heard titters break across the room. Frederick leaned over to me.
“I thought your name was Barry.”
“Would you prefer if we called you Barry?” Miss Hefty asked. “Barack is such a beautiful name. Your grandfather tells me your father is Kenyan. I used to live in Kenya, you know. Teaching children just your age. It’s such a magnificent country. Do you know what tribe your father is from?”
Her question brought on more giggles, and I remained speechless for a moment. When I finally said “Luo,” a sandy-haired boy behind me repeated the word in a loud hoot, like the sound of a monkey. The children could no longer contain themselves, and it took a stern reprimand from Miss Hefty before the class would settle down and we could mercifully move on to the next person on the list.
I spent the rest of the day in a daze. A redheaded girl asked to touch my hair and seemed hurt when I refused. A ruddy-faced boy asked me if my father ate people. When I got home, Gramps was in the middle of preparing dinner.
“So how was it? Isn’t it terrific that Miss Hefty used to live in Kenya? Makes the first day a little easier,
I went into my room and closed the door.
The novelty of having me in the class quickly wore off for the other kids, although my sense that I didn’t belong continued to grow. The clothes that Gramps and I had chosen for me were too old-fashioned; the Indonesian sandals that had served me so well in Djakarta were dowdy. Most of my classmates had been together since kindergarten; they lived in the same neighborhoods, in split-level homes with swimming pools; their fathers coached the same Little League teams; their mothers sponsored the bake sales. Nobody played soccer or badminton or chess, and I had no idea how to throw a football in a spiral or balance on a skateboard.
A ten-year-old’s nightmare. Still, in my discomfort that first month, I was no worse off than the other children who were relegated to the category of misfits-the girls who were too tall or too shy, the boy who was mildly hyperactive, the kids whose asthma excused them from PE.
There was one other child in my class, though, who reminded me of a different sort of pain. Her name was Coretta, and before my arrival she had been the only black person in our grade. She was plump and dark and didn’t seem to have many friends. From the first day, we avoided each other but watched from a distance, as if direct contact would only remind us more keenly of our isolation.
Finally, during recess one hot, cloudless day, we found ourselves occupying the same corner of the playground. I don’t remember what we said to each other, but I remember that suddenly she was chasing me around the jungle gyms and swings. She was laughing brightly, and I teased her and dodged this way and that, until she finally caught me and we fell to the ground breathless. When I looked up, I saw a group of children, faceless before the glare of the sun, pointing down at us. “Coretta has a boyfriend! Coretta has a boyfriend!” The chants grew louder as a few more kids circled us.
“She’s not my g-girlfriend,” I stammered. I looked to Coretta for some assistance, but she just stood there looking down at the ground. “Coretta’s got a boyfriend! Why don’t you kiss her, mister boyfriend?”
“I’m not her boyfriend!” I shouted. I ran up to Coretta and gave her a slight shove; she staggered back and looked up at me, but still said nothing. “Leave me alone!” I shouted again. And suddenly Coretta was running, faster and faster, until she disappeared from sight. Appreciative laughs rose around me. Then the bell rang, and the teachers appeared to round us back into class.
For the rest of the afternoon, I was haunted by the look on Coretta’s face just before she had started to run: her disappointment, and the accusation. I wanted to explain to her somehow that it had been nothing personal; I’d just never had a girlfriend before and saw no particular need to have one now. But I didn’t even know if that was true. I knew only that it was too late for explanations, that somehow I’d been tested and found wanting; and whenever I snuck a glance at Coretta’s desk, I would see her with her head bent over her work, appearing as if nothing had happened, pulled into herself and asking no favors.My act of betrayal bought me some room from the other children, and like Coretta, I was mostly left alone. I made a few friends, learned to speak less often in class, and managed to toss a wobbly football around. But from that day forward, a part of me felt trampled on, crushed, and I took refuge in the life that my grandparents led. After school let out, I would walk the five blocks to our apartment; if I had any change in my pockets, I might stop off at a newsstand run by a blind man, who would let me know what new comics had come in. Gramps would be at home to let me into the apartment, and as he lay down for his afternoon nap, I would watch cartoons and sitcom reruns. At four-thirty, I would wake Gramps and we would drive downtown to pick up Toot. My homework would be done in time for dinner, which we ate in front of the television. There I would stay for the rest of the evening, negotiating with Gramps over which programs to watch, sharing the latest snack food he’d discovered at the supermarket. At ten o’clock, I went to my room ( Johnny Carson came on at that time, and there was no negotiating around that), and I would fall asleep to the sounds of Top 40 music on the radio.