“On the gruff exterior, …” began the short description. It was an assignment for 9th grade composition. I was 14. I remember I had chosen the shop teacher whom I didn’t know personally as my subject. He was an older white man with silvery short hair that had a neat part on the right side. I would see him move around school with a hush and a hum. He was efficient somehow and quiet like a shadow. I wondered if anyone really knew him. Although to write my description I must have known something about him because in the text he turned out to be surprisingly calm and warm. Perhaps as he worked with his hands or demonstrated how to use a tool. I cannot remember.
Now nearly 40 years later, I cannot recall the man’s name and how we were connected, only the words I used to begin to paint his picture. Gruff exterior. It was so fitting and was part of the reason that I was asked to join an advanced English class in the next semester. I suppose this was one of those moments when my affinity for words surprised some people. I, the Black girl who was so … articulate, who used words like gruff and exterior to describe a person. My committed white teachers didn’t see that coming.
In fact, it was not the first time I stood out for my writing acumen. As an 8th grader I won a 1979 savings bond for an award winning essay “America – What It Means To Me”. The contest was sponsored by the Ladies Auxillary of Polish American Veterans Legion. Nowadays we would say I nailed it. I served up just the right portion of patriotism and exceptionalism, found the right words to say we’re the best without ever saying “We’re the best.” I don’t think I was being manipulative. I’m pretty sure I believed everything I wrote. When the award was presented to me at an end-of-the-year ceremony, the Polish American lady who called my name nearly fainted when this skinny Black girl rose to claim the prize. (My mother told me this afterwards. I didn’t register the reaction myself.)
Ah, these memories, at once funny and worthy of a good sigh, they run circles around my head. I have always known the joy of words, always found power in tossing them up and catching them in different orders. That this has been a source of dismay for others has a history, one wider and deeper than my personal one. No matter, the pleasures of literacy fill me up and hold me tight, keep me calm and warm, while my exterior need not grow gruff.