Staring at my reflection in the mirror, I realize I’m comfortable with who I am and, more importantly, where I came from. I didn’t always feel this way. At the age of nine, to quote C.K. Williams, “Weightfully upon me was the world.” I had just started to accept that my father, who had left a few years prior, was not coming back. My mother, burdened with the task of raising four kids, did her best to provide for us. School had become my sanctuary, the one constant that I grew to love.
Over the previous four years I had built up a cadre of trusted friends, and, when needed, I discovered that I could pick up a book and be transported to places that I knew I would never see in person. That changed in 1974 when, in the fourth grade, I was accepted to attend the school on the hill. Not knowing how I would fit in with the privileged few, I tried my best to remain invisible, pretending to belong.
I screwed up. I knew it the moment I heard the crack and felt the snap in my pocket. I kept my anger in check and remained seated, not wanting to draw attention. I slowly lifted my white shirt away from my waist, hoping no one would notice my movement. The dark blue dot stared back at me and began to spread on my khaki pants. A wave of shame started in my gut and slowly crept toward my chest. I reached into my pocket and with two fingers gingerly extracted the broken pen. The tip had snapped and was barely attached by a sliver of sharp plastic. Thick blue ink coated the barrel. I ripped out a piece of folder paper to hide the evidence. The stain on my khakis had grown to the size of a quarter.
I excused myself and slowly retreated to the boys’ room where I could analyze the situation. In the safety of a stall I unzipped, carefully revealing the once white inner pocket. Grabbing a handful of toilet paper, I dabbed at the blue wetness until ink no longer transferred. Satisfied that it wouldn’t make matters worse, my attention turned to the visible stain. I dabbed it lightly, worried that rubbing it would only cause it to smear against the khaki material. The toilet paper came away clean. It had dried. I took a deep breath, straightened my clothes, and exited the stall. I walked to the mirror and leaned closer for a better angle, but the porcelain sink blocked my reflection. I stepped back and looked down. It seemed okay, just a thin blue line peeking from below my shirt hem.
A month ago I watched my mom open and read the acceptance letter. I smiled a fake smile as she beamed with pride. Instead of celebrating the moment I worried about how I would fit in. I knew nothing about the school, and less what the students would be like. High on the hill, children watched the city below and smiled to themselves, happy to be above the grit and grime. It was only the fourth grade, but I already understood that people, especially kids, can be cruel. I didn’t want to be the butt of someone’s joke.
Mom, always the optimist, laid out plans for an excursion to purchase uniforms. It was a relief to both of us, not having to worry about keeping up with the latest fashion. On Saturday while walking to the bus stop, she started prepping me for the inevitable letdown. “We’ll have to see how much the pants cost,” she said, “and then we can figure out what we can get.” I nodded and tried to look understanding, knowing that this simple purchase would alter our dinner menu for a couple of weeks. I had been with her grocery shopping and saw the difficulty she faced in feeding a family of five on a limited budget.
I would follow as she walked purposefully through the store with her list of needed staples, pausing briefly at the meat section to calculate whether she had enough food stamps to purchase a tray of hamburger. She did her best to shield us from her struggles, but we always knew. That weighed on me as she selected the stiff khaki pants for me to try on. We were able to buy three pants and four shirts. Instinctively I started to work out a schedule in my head; if I washed my uniforms on Tuesday, right after school, I would have a clean set for the remainder of the week. If I managed this routine, kept my uniforms clean and pressed, no one would be the wiser.
Over the last two weeks, every morning, I watched as kids were dropped off, climbing out of fancy cars. They all seemed so happy, smiling and saying their goodbyes to mom or dad. No one needed to brag about money, though some did. It only made me wonder where they learned that it was an admirable trait. I never found them interesting. I gravitated toward the humorous kids, the class clowns, but even then I remained guarded. I did consider them friends, but kids talk, and eventually they talk about family. That’s when I grew quiet.
I had nothing to offer. My dad left a few years earlier, and I was still trying to understand what it meant to be from a broken home. It’s funny calling it “broken.” It gives you the false hope that it can be mended. In the afternoon I would try to sneak away. Once or twice someone asked if I wanted to grab a snack from the lunchwagon. I politely declined and lied that I had to be somewhere else.
Now, this blue stain threatens to expose me. It would start with a question, “Why are you wearing the same pants?”, and end with my shame in explaining that I couldn’t afford another. I didn’t need reminders as to why I didn’t belong here. I just wanted to fit in without being judged. To belong. I could only imagine what the rest of the school year would be like. I looked for answers in my reflection. Finding none, I sighed deeply and headed back to class.
Williams, C.K. “‘Poetry of Youth and Age,’ This Happened” Transcript. Electronic Poems. PoetryGrrrl, 23 Nov. 2013. Web. 28 Jan. 2016.