We were all sitting quietly in our 5th grade classroom when the teacher introduced a new student who was joining our class. “This is Janie,” Mrs. Bricken said, “and I want everyone to make her feel welcome.” She raised her arms and fluttered her fingers like a waving flag, which was our cue. “Hi Janie,” we said in unison. Our teacher told Janie where to sit, which was right next to me. I smiled my shy smile at her, and she smiled back.
During recess, she was standing alone by the fence, and my child self recognized that feeling of not fitting in. For me, it started when I was in 2nd grade and had to wear glasses when no one else did. It made me feel like a freak, and I was sure no one would like me. I walked tentatively toward Janie, and when I got close, I smiled and said, “Hi.” She responded in kind. I asked her if she wanted to climb the monkey bars, and she nodded. It made me happy that I recognized her shyness or whatever it was that made her stand out in a way she may not have wanted.
After that, we were always friendly at school, and one day she asked me if I wanted to come home with her. “Okay, but I’ll have to ask my mother.”
“Well, maybe you can ask her today and I’ll ask my mother, and then maybe come home with me tomorrow,” she suggested.
When the bell rang, I practically ran all the way home (well it was just six houses from the playground) and rushed in the house. “Mother!” I yelled, can I go to Janie’s house tomorrow?”
“I’m right here, Linda. You don’t have to shout. Who’s Janie?”
“She’s a new girl in school, and I really like her and we’re friends so can I go? Can I?”
“Where does she live?”
Here, I was stumped. I had no idea because I didn’t think to ask her. I hated to admit this, but what choice did I have? “Um, I forgot to ask her.”
“Well, tomorrow, find out her address and phone number, and then we’ll see.”
“But, I was going to go there tomorrow,” I whined.
“Linda, what difference does it make when you go? She’s your new friend. Maybe Friday would be a better day anyway since there’s no school the next day, and you could stay a little longer if you’re having a good time.”
This made sense to me. Friday was way better than Wednesday or Thursday. Appeased, I looked forward to tomorrow, telling Janie the good news.
I lived on Cuthbert Avenue and Janie lived on Hayward Avenue which was where Cuthbert dead-ended. Cuthbert was about three blocks long (I lived at the top), and Janie lived about two blocks down Hayward, a total of about five blocks. I gave my mother the address and phone number, and on Friday afternoon, Janie and I walked to her house. As we were chatting and giggling the whole way to her home, I was paying zero attention to where we were walking, when and which way we turned, or anything else about that walk. I remember only how exciting it was to have a new friend.
Her mom greeted us at the door, welcomed me and said how happy she was that Janie and I had become friends. She gave us milk and cookies she had made and then we were off to Janie’s room and started playing with her dolls.
At some point, Janie’s mom told me it was four o’clock, and I should be getting home. I gathered my things, said good-by to Janie and “thank you” to her mom, and left. I walked down the steps from her porch and was unsure which way to go, so I guessed and turned right and walked a few blocks not recognizing anything or finding my street. Hmmm, I thought Guess I’ll turn around and go the other way. Unfortunately, it had started to rain, and I had no rain gear. I walked in the other direction and considered maybe going back to Janie’s to ask her how to get home, but all the row houses looked alike, and I didn’t know which one was hers.
By this time, it was raining really hard. I was crying and didn’t know what to do, so I went up to the porch of a random house thinking I would wait ’til it slowed up. A woman in the house must have seen me and came to the door. “Are you okay?” she asked. “Do you need some help?”
I was so relieved. “I’m lo ‘hic’ lost and caaan’t find my street,” I cried.
“Where do you live, Honey?” I told her and she gave me exact directions. I was home in about seven minutes! I never told my parents what happened. My mother was a bit upset that I had to walk in the rain, but nothing serious.
This was the beginning of the many times I would get lost in my lifetime.
But wait that’s not quite the end of the story. A week or so later, I asked if Janie could come to our house. Of course, my mother said “Yes.” She also served us cookies and milk and talked to Janie and was very nice. We played all afternoon until it was time for her to go home.
That night, when I went to bed, I heard my parents talking. “Isn’t it just like Linda to bring home a schvartze?” The only time I’d ever heard that word was when my mother referred to our maid, Anita, as the schvartze. I couldn’t figure out why she was using that reference with Janie who certainly was not a maid. The next day, I asked my older sister why our mother would say this and she told me “because they’re both colored.” Of course, I knew what “colored” meant and I realize now that’s what drew me to her. She was different in her color as I was in my glasses.
Many years later, when I reflected on this event, I felt anger at my parents for their prejudice. But then I remembered that times were different then. I’m no longer sure that it was prejudice as much as difference. In any case, Janie and I remained friends and we often visited in each others’ homes.
Read more by Linda Miller.