Oh spacious mountains majesty…
Or is it,
Purple mountain majesties above the fruited plane?
When I first learned ‘America the Beautiful’ in pre-pre-school at the age of three, I had a hard time reconciling the adjective ‘fruited’ with the noun ‘plane.’ I kept thinking: How could an airplane be ‘fruited’ or ‘made of fruit,’ and this oddly eccentric play on words made me love the patriotic song even more, and that was how I came to learn my first official song, next in line only to the ABCs and the Happy Birthday song.
Our young teacher taught ‘America the Beautiful’ to us (a rowdy group of toddlers) every morning right after we stood beside our desks, held a hand over our hearts in the direction of a crisp American flag (stars and stripes and all) and we pledged our allegiances to the flag and to one nation under God and said in unison ‘God bless America.’
The teacher would then have us take a seat, switch off the lights, and place on the overhead projector a transparent sheet with the song ‘America the Beautiful’ and we’d take notes analyzing the individual words like ‘spacious’ and the grouped phrases like ‘to sea from shining sea’ and I sat in awe of how my fellow students could hold a pencil and write and how there were so many new vocabularies for me to learn, and that was how I came to know that I was at the beginning of my life and how I had a long, long way to go.
Then we were asked to stand once more with the stereo playing the music in the background, the teacher pointing with a marker to each word on the transparent sheet on the overhead projector, while we’d sing our hearts out, myself included. Even though I didn’t know all the words, my heart sang full and proud:
For spash-ous skies…
For amber waves…
For pur-ple mountain…
and that last part came out the loudest:
We all lowered the register of our voices to continue,
God shed His grace…
From thy good…
To sea from shine-ning sea!
We sang the song two more times before the teacher switched off the stereo and the overhead projector. The lights came on and we took our seats to begin the lesson for the morning.
One such lesson I remember well. The teacher turned off the classroom lights, rolled out her beloved overhead projector and instructed us in the art of stippling.
The first few shadow-figures placed on the luminescent screen we had to guess and I had no clue as to who these people were, but I recognized Abraham Lincoln’s hat and beard, and the teacher painstakingly displayed the method of using our pencils or coloring pencils to dot the paper a hundred, a thousand times if necessary to create the illusion of a shadow effect.
Then one by one she called us up to the front to sit in the light from the overhead projector and she traced the outline of our head onto a thin sheet of paper; after that, we were instructed to go back and fill in the sketched head with as many dots as we could until the next activity, and at that time, for me, constantly holding the pencil upright and steady and dotting my face on the paper was intense, hard, almost impossible work.
One day though the teacher got into an argument with me and for the life of me I can no longer recall why I’d been the one to blame, but she sent me to the Principal’s office—where this strange person’s office was I had no idea but I wasn’t going to ask for directions—and so alone I ended up exploring the entire school grounds.
I walked along the first floor hallway where immediately another teacher spotted me and asked where I was going. I lied and said the bathroom and how I was new to the school, which was true, and she politely escorted me to the bathroom and left me to be on her way.
I washed up and proceeded back to my exploration before I had been interrupted. I climbed the stairs to the second floor and discovered that the school had many more classes than the one I was in and with much older students.
Once again downstairs, I exited a backdoor and walked down the ramp and around the cars parked there and walked to the end of the parking lot to the street. I turned right and went on the sidewalk around to the front of the school, where I soon recognized my surroundings: In front of the school where a concrete birdbath had been placed was where my mother dropped me off on the first day of school and I had cried; I’d bawled great deep tears because she was leaving me in a strange, new place and from then on I’d be alone.
Still on my way to the Principal’s office, I climbed the small ledge of the birdbath and looked down inside to see dry leaves and twigs, and I recalled how near that very spot I’d met an older black boy spinning on his head.
School had ended that afternoon and we all waited to be picked up by our parents when I saw this kid upside down and spinning on his head. I thought his moves neat so I introduced myself and since I didn’t know what else to say I asked if he wanted to be my friend.
‘What?’ he said with a playful shock in his eyes. ‘What’s this crazy white boy want with me? Here’s I am just a dancin to my own song and I’m gettin attacked. Racist shame!’
‘Who’s this white boy?’ I asked.
‘Mother of God,’ he said. ‘Holy Mother of Abraham! A white boy that doesn’t knows he’s white.’
I looked at the skin on my arms and agreed with him that I was white. ‘And you’re black,’ I said. ‘So?’
‘Now yous catchin on.’ He spun like Michael Jackson and kicked his feet up in similar moves as if his knees were made of jelly. ‘You knows what?’ he asked leaning close to me.
‘I like you,’ he said. ‘I can dig your grooves.’
‘Boy, you are white aren’t ya?’
The little black boy laughed and I laughed and he danced and I watched on in innocent amazement.
‘What do you call that?’ I pointed at the way he bent and moved his body.
‘It figures a white boy never seen no black boy dance before. I bet you don’t even know where yous live, does ya?’
I thought about that for a while and had to agree. ‘No, I don’t. My mom picks me up and takes me home. Without her, I’d be lost.’
‘Not me. I was born on the street.’
I thought that must’ve hurt a lot.
‘If you go down that street over yonder,’ he said this as he pointed to the far end of the school, ‘and go about three blocks and see a white house, that’s where I live.’
‘Wow.’ I nodded in true wonderment. This boy certainly knew his way around the world. ‘Can we be friends?’
‘Are you color blind or just plain messin with me?’
‘I don’t think so.’
He slapped his thigh and grinned his great whites and shot out his arms to both sides of his body as in some final dance gesture.
‘Sure, we can be friends, but you gots to learn somethin right this herenow. I’m black and yous white.’
‘Why does that matter? I don’t care.’
The little boy laughed and wiped his forehead free from sweat. ‘You white cracker don’t know the world very much, do ya?’
‘Crackers? Can you teach me?’
‘I’m black and yous white and, you see, a longs time ago your white kinds caught my black kinds and made them slaves and dos all the work so yous white kinds can sit in the shade and drink iced-tea.’
‘I like iced-tea,’ I said. ‘But my mommy and daddy didn’t have any slaves, and my granddaddy and grandmommy didn’t either. What’re you talking about?’
‘Yous see. Slaves of the black by the whites. That clear?’
‘Crap,’ I said, using the only profane word I knew. I shook my head and added, ‘That’s not very fair.’
‘So yous see why it’s difficult for a black and a white to be friends.’
‘I don’t care about that. Don’t you want to be my friend?’
‘Ha! Look at this crazy, white boy: A cracker cracking.’ He patted my shoulder. ‘I like you. Sure we can be friends.’
He held out his hand and we shook in agreement on our deal, and that’s how I’d made my first friend all by myself.
‘Can you teach me to spin on my head?’ I asked him.
‘I can try but yous white and it’s hard for whites to dance on their heads like me.’
‘I see.’ I tried to spin on my head anyway and he taught me all about breakdancing and different dance moves he had seen on television.
Then he said he had to run, his mama was calling him and I waved goodbye to him and told him I’d see him ‘later alligator,’ but I never met my friend again and for years after I thought this had something to do with the color of my skin.
But now I stood near the birdbath as the images of my friend dissolved in the front schoolyard. I headed back inside and returned to class.
The teacher asked if I’d been to see the Principal. I lied and said I had. What did he tell me? Not to do it again. I don’t believe you’re telling the truth. You should be crying and giving me an apology. Why would I be crying? You didn’t go to see the Principal, did you? Crap, I thought. No, I didn’t and I’m not going now. I don’t wanna cry.
She grabbed me hard by the shoulder and started to walk me out the classroom while wide-eyed students gripped their pencils and crayons and sat stunned at the rare sight of a little kid arguing with an adult, and not just any adult: the adult was the teacher, all powerful, all supreme.
Then the teacher made her last mistake, or her first mistake, with me. She reached down and with both hands picked me up off the floor.
‘You’re going to the Principal’s office.’
‘No I’m not.’
And I proceeded to unleash kick after kick after kick after kick into her shinbones until she dropped me back to the floor and bent over to grab her legs in pain.
The pain wouldn’t have been so bad if I’d been wearing sneakers like all the rest of the students, but I was a Texan, true and through, and like loyal Texans my family had bought me cowboy boots—more for the support for my clubfoot—for my first pair of shoes.
I was suspended from pre-pre-school for a week while the teacher asked the Principal who told my mother I wasn’t allowed to return to school wearing cowboy boots—somehow my boots had become lethal and changed the way the game was played, and that suited me just fine—but I could return to pre-pre-school only wearing sneakers like all the other students. Then I’m fine with not going back to school, I told my mother, I hated it there anyway.
But my mother and I went to Payless and bought me a brand-new pair of sneakers with Velcro-straps—which I thought my boots were far easier to slip on and wear—and that was how I came to own my first pair of sneakers and how I continued to learn to sing a song that rang out loud,
Crown thy good with brotherhood.
The American novelist CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy), a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, & he’s a member of Club Med & a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) based in London.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father’s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; A Time to Forget in East Berlin; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979.