The Lizard-faced Chatterbox vs. The AWOL Kid
I moved with my family to the new Army base and registered in Miss Barnes's sixth-grade class just in time to be thrown into the middle of an election campaign.
At recess during my first day in class I got to meet one of the candidates.
"This is about a perfect October day, isn't it?" asked Angie Chatfield.
"Uh-huh, nice and warm," I said. "And really bright compared to what I was used to back East."
"I know how rough it is to move after the school year has started. I had to do it a couple times already."
"At least it's toward the beginning of the year."
"I'm sure you won't have much trouble adjusting," she said. "The kids here are all pretty nice. And Miss Barnes is a trip, I mean really funny. The only bad thing is she sometimes uses big words when she talks. Says she wants to build our vocabulary."
Angie looked at me with sincere grey eyes. "Kwame, I know you just got here and this is your first day in Miss Barnes's class and all, but I'm running for class leader and I'd like you to consider voting for me."
"What exactly is a class leader?" I asked.
"It's something Miss Barnes set up for our class," she explained. "The class leader helps plan things, like the upcoming Halloween party, and field trips. The class leader speaks for the class and has to take charge of things. It's a real important post."
"Oh. And who are you running against?"
"Speak of the devil. Here he comes now. Just remember, Kwame, vote for me if you want to pick the best person running." Angie Chatfield's curly auburn hair flopped up and down as she skipped away.
Zeke Evans grabbed my shoulder. "Don't even listen to her!" he implored. "She's no more than a lizard-faced chatterbox. I saw her act, trying to win you over. But you're not voting for her, you're voting for me."
"Maybe I shouldn't vote at all," I said. "I mean, I don't know either one of you."
"I've got about thirteen solid votes lined up, and I know she's got about thirteen. So, Freeman, you could be the swing vote. Not that I'm trying to put any pressure on you or anything. Look, Freeman, it's important we have a boy as class leader. That way we get to do boy things instead of sissy things. If Chatfield wins we could go ahead and paint the classroom pink. So you must vote and vote the right way. And that way is for me."
"I don't know. Maybe it wouldn't be fair for me to vote, since I just got here."
"She shouldn't be class leader, anyhow. I mean, she's all distracted and everything 'cause her father's over in Iraq. We shouldn't have a class leader who's gonna spend half her time worrying over her father. Now should we?"
I shrugged. "Maybe if she was voted class leader, it would help take her mind off her father being over there."
Suddenly Evans' eyes grew icy. "Look, I can't force you vote for me. But I did happen to notice you're black."
"What? What has that got to do with anything?"
A twinkle of deceit flashed across Evans' steely eyes. "Freeman, did you know Chatfield's great-great-great-great-grandfather owned over a hundred slaves? She told us that earlier this year while giving a book report on Harriet Tubman. That's right, over a hundred slaves. Probably whipped 'em but good too. Just think about that before you vote. Okay?"
Evans dashed across the playground.
As soon as Evans left, Angie Chatfield stopped by on another campaign swing.
"Let me tell you about some of the things I plan to do for our class," she said. "First, I plan to--"
"Is it true your relatives once owned slaves?" I asked, interrupting her.
Her face dropped and her body seemed to sag. "What has that Evans been telling you?"
"Just that your great-great-great-grandfather owned over a hundred slaves and probably whipped them but good."
"You left out one great," she said, laughing. When she saw that I didn't think it was funny, her grey eyes grew sad. "It's true. I mean about his owning the slaves. But Evans doesn't know a thing about how the slaves were treated. No one does."
"He said you did a book report on Harriet Tubman?"
"Yes. The lady who helped with the Underground Railroad. I learned so much more about her while I was doing research for my book report."
"But why would you do a book report on Harriet Tubman? Did Miss Barnes assign her to you?"
"No," Angie explained. "Miss Barnes said we should pick a great American, and I chose Harriet Tubman. I've always been interested in her. She's one of my big heroes. Or heroines--Miss Barnes says we should start using that word."
"Yes. Don't sound so surprised."
"Well, do you know any--do you have any black friends?"
"As many as will have me, so there! Look here, Kwame Freeman, if you're wondering if I'm prejudiced, the answer is no way. Just because my family owned slaves way back doesn't have a thing to do with what kind of person I am. Maybe you're the prejudiced person, if you can't accept me based on who I am."
I burst out laughing. "Me, prejudiced. No one's ever said that about me before."
"Well, you don't have to stoop to Evans' level, do you?"
"No. You're right. Let's just forget about it, Angie. That was then and this is now."
"Evans is going to pay for putting us through all this," she said, gnashing her teeth.
I smiled. "He's going to make this year interesting, I can already see that. He's said enough bad things about you. Let's hear you say something about him."
"Well, he is the AWOL kid."
"The AWOL kid?"
"Yeah. His mind is usually absent without leave, so I call him the AWOL kid."
I chuckled. "Say, what state are your folks from? The ones who once owned the slaves?"
"Tennessee," Angie replied. "Ten generations on my father's side and eight on my mother's side."
"My family is from Tennessee too," I said. "But just on my father's side."
"The eastern or western part?"
"Western. Near Paris."
"Oh," Angie said, sounding disappointed. "We're from the eastern half."
"You didn't say 'but Paris is in France.' Most folks say that when I tell them my relatives are from a town near Paris, Tennessee."
"My cousin found a job teaching school in Paris. When I tell people that, they say she must really know how to speak French. I have to explain that I mean Paris, a county seat in Tennessee. We visited her there a couple times. Say, it's way cool you and I are from the same state."
"Yeah, it is," I said. "Hey, how long has your father been over in Iraq?"
"A little over a year," she answered. "His second tour there. He's in Baghdad right now. But how did you--Evans must have told you."
"Dad was supposed to be home already, but they're keeping his unit there a little while longer. We e-mail each other a lot, and I pray for him every night. Sometimes he calls. That's about all we can do." She grew quiet for a moment and I could tell she was thinking about her father. "Has your father been over there?"
"Yep. First he was on a ship off of Kuwait. Then he was in an office in Kuwait, and then he went to Baghdad. He thinks he might be going back soon. He keeps saying, 'any day now,' but he hasn't been sent back yet. He was in the first Persian Gulf War, too. That was before I was even born."
She grew quiet again. Then she said, "Say, Kwame, you don't have to vote for me, but I hope you'll at least listen to what I have to say."
"Sure I'll listen. And I'll think about voting for you."
"Let me tell you what I plan to do when I get elected. Oh, the bell just rang. Come on, I'll tell you about it on our way inside."