I remember the moment I crossed over from being a child to a teenage girl, and no, it wasn’t when I got my period. I wasn’t quite a teen, only twelve years old. I had missed so much school my sixth grade year that I had to go to truancy court. You know, since Bud wasn't too keen on enforcing trivial rules like bathing or going to school. The notice for us to appear in truancy court was unnerving. It sounded so serious, so scary. Are they gonna arrest me? Send me to juvenile detention? I had a knot in my stomach all week thinking about court. It gnawed at me for days and as we, Bud and I, waited together on a wooden bench in the hallway for the clerk to call us back, I was pretty sure I was going to faint. When the clerk finally motioned for us to follow him, I walked as slowly as possible down a brightly lit sterile looking hallway lined with oil portraits of elderly men in long black robes. They were staring at me all judgingly like.
We finally came to a door and the clerk stepped aside and gestured for us to go in. Bud knocked timidly on the open door and the judge did a half-rise from his seat behind the desk as he held his tie to his chest. "Come in, Mr. Wyatt. Have a seat." His voice was firm, but not stern. We sat down in two soft leather chairs across from the judge's desk. The man who greeted us was not who I had pictured. His face was clean-shaven with tiny glasses that framed his young face. He really didn’t look any older than Bud. His chamber was small (not at all like what you see on TV) and his robe was hung on a hook in the corner of the room. Two entire walls were lined with shelves of large, smart-people books. His desktop was covered in neatly stacked files and folders, and behind him a typewriter was poised mid-thought. He had a little faux inkwell and brass nameplate. Classy. He grabbed a folder from the stack that presumably held my information. I braced myself for a year of making license plates and eating bologna sandwiches in county jail.
This judge was no chump. He didn’t waste any time chewing the fat, but got straight to business.
“Mr. Wyatt, why can’t you make this young lady go to school?” He peered over his glasses at Bud and I watched my father squirm. No one had ever called him out like this before.
“Well, I… Sir, it’s hard to make them kids get to school and all.” Bud looked nervous. His feet were dancing under his chair as fast as a clogger in a small town parade, and he twiddled his thumbs in his lap.
“I make my kids get off to school every morning. You can’t make ‘em get on the bus on time?”
“Well, yes sir, I can. You know, I’m by myself and it’s hard to do it all on my own.”
“It says here that your daughter has missed over fifty days of school. If you can’t take care of your children, maybe someone else needs to take care of ‘em. Is that what you’re telling me? Making your daughter go to school is not an option – it’s the law.”
Bud cut me a glance that let me know he was in way over his head, but I didn’t know what to say. I was terrified. I think the judge sensed he was kicking a dead horse, so he turned his attention to me.
“Well, you tell me why you can’t go to school.”
Gulp. “I can go to school, sir.”
“You haven’t been going. Why don’t you go? You don’t like school?” The judge didn’t break eye contact. He was staring at my adolescent soul. I could tell he wasn’t asking rhetorical questions. He wanted an answer.
“I like school. I don’t know why I don’t go.” I lied. I hated school. Hated it.
I could tell that the judge was not going to let up on me. He stared at me for a while as if he was trying to figure out the real reason for my truancy. He leaned back in his chair and tapped his finger on my file.”If you like school, then you should go. Do you know you could get in some serious trouble for not going to school? Your daddy could get in serious trouble too.”
I stared at my feet. I was embarrassed to be there, and I felt guilty that Bud was getting fussed at.
“Listen to me. Mr. Wyatt, you listen too. Crystal, you are going to go to school. I can tell you’re a smart girl, and you need to be in school. You need an education. Mr. Wyatt, if she has to come back here, you’re going to be in some serious hot water. Understand?”
We said yes, we understood. We both looked like scolded children.
“Crystal, you’ve missed too much school to pass your grade. You’re going to have to go to summer school.”
WHAT! I didn’t want to go to summer school, but I was afraid to protest so I just mumbled okay. There goes the summer.
There have been only two terrible last days of school in my life. The first was at the end of first grade. My teacher Mrs. Lee was a real witch. It was a rough year for me – Frances had been in and out so much my head was spinning. Most nights I didn’t sleep for fear that when I woke up she would be gone, and many nights I lay in bed and listened for the opening of the back door, willing myself to stay awake as long as possible as if it might somehow keep her from leaving. It was a hard to go to school and focus when many times I didn’t know where my mother was and my skin was itchy from being so dirty and all I had in my tummy from breakfast was two Oreos and a glass of Mountain Dew. And during the times when Frances was home there was always some type of altercation between her and Bud – the screaming, the fighting, the crying, the shoving... it was too much. My mind was constantly full of a million terrible worries, so as it turns out I wasn’t the most organized kid in the class. Sue me.
The last day of school, Mrs. Lee instructed us to clean out our desks. Most kids cleaned out a few crumpled papers and a handful of broken crayons or dull pencils. I cleaned out a truck load – a LOAD – of papers. Artwork from the beginning of the year, tests I was supposed to take home and get signed but never did… the stack was easily two feet high. I was embarrassed. It wouldn’t all fit in my backpack but Mrs. Lee wouldn’t let me throw it away. She wanted to punish me for being so “unorganized,” and made me hand-carry all of my papers and things to the bus. She humiliated me the entire way in front of my friends by pointing out to everyone how sloppy I was. I just walked ahead of her and told myself that once I got on the bus she’d leave me alone. As I approached my bus, Mrs. Lee said loudly, “You look ridiculous carrying all those papers,’ and she whacked me hard with her open hand across my butt. I stumbled and all of the papers fell out of my hands and scattered all over the dirt. “You pick those up!” she screamed. I could feel my eyes stinging from angry, hot tears but I willed myself not to cry in front of her. I hated her.
The second worst last day of school was the end of sixth grade because for me it wasn’t the last day of school. Summer school was looming over my head like a bad rain cloud. A week or two of vacation soon came to an end, and then it was back to the daily grind. At least summer school had a degree of novelty with new teachers, a new location (I had to go to another school in the county) and new students as all of the kids from the surrounding area attended the same summer school program. The days were long and hot. The work was dull and monotonous. And the teachers didn’t want to be there anymore than we did.
One afternoon an especially generous teacher gave my class some ‘free time’ to sit and talk for a while. We quickly huddled around our desks sharing juicy middle school gossip. A few girls took turns singing Mariah Carey’s 'Dream Lover.' A few introverts read quietly at their desks. I found myself chatting in a small group of boys. After only a few minutes one of the boys turned to me and asked suspiciously, “Why don’t you wear makeup like the other girls?” Huh. His question caught me off guard. It had never occurred to me to wear makeup. For one thing, since Frances was so seldom around, I didn’t have a woman to emulate so just the idea of makeup was foreign to me. How would I put it on? What kind of makeup do I need? Plus I was under the impression that makeup was for pretty girls. I was hideous.
It took me a moment or two to muster a reply. I lied. “I wear it sometimes. You just never noticed,” I said. Should I start wearing makeup? Maybe he had a point. And if this boy noticed after only knowing me for a few weeks, what did the other boys at school think of me? I had a million questions about this new venture and no one to ask. When I came home that evening from school I told Bud I needed some makeup. He protested but I was not taking no for an answer. So we hopped in the car and headed to the Family Dollar store where I purchased ten dollars worth of Wet-n-Wild lip gloss, blush and eye shadow in bright hooker-ish colors. I spent the weekend practicing my makeup techniques and making googly eyes in the bathroom mirror. By Sunday evening I was confident that I had mastered the feminine art of face painting and dashed off for bed excited to show off my new skills at school the next day.