A project of Brooklyn Historical Society
Writings from Racial Realities
Photo by Robertheb. Click to enlarge
Along the Q by Judith Ohikuare


   Getting into Mark Twain I.S. 239 was a preteen dream of mine. Twain had one of the best public intermediary arts and sciences programs for teenagers when I went there in 2000, and it still might today. Students didn’t simply test into the school’s academic program but into “talents”: specialized tracks in drama, creative writing, music, and fine arts. Unlike my predominantly West Indian and West African elementary school, Twain was filled with Italian, German, Russian, and Polish American kids whose parents, according to my PTA president mother, wanted to keep it that way. The home care agency where my mom worked at the time was only a train stop away from Stillwell Avenue, the last stop on the Q train in Coney Island close to where Twain is located. My mother hates driving—her nerves can’t handle the outbursts of rage needed to navigate New York City streets—but she knows the public transportation system better than anyone I know. That she worked so close to Twain, which was also a straight shot away from my house on the Q, made the school feel like part of her domain; attending the school would be my inheritance. I got in, and I went there for just one year before I transferred to Chapin, an all-girls K-to-12 school on the Upper East Side. 

   The day I took the tests for my talents I was so nervous I could barely eat. Kids whose parents had money, or were willing to spend money they didn’t have, hired acting coaches to help their offspring prepare monologues for the drama audition. I ventured to think of myself as an “artist” for the first time in my life and decided to test out for fine art and creative writing.


   Art was first: one hour of sketching still-lifes and stylized scenes based on prompts. The proctors placed colored pencils and sheaves of paper on desks around the room. I wanted to draw people; I loved portraiture. My parents had always complimented me on the likenesses of them I created, but I didn’t believe I could perform on command. I was used to sitting on the floor  by their feet, silently doing my best to capture the furrows in my father’s forehead, light brown in the winter, dark cedar in the summer; the fullness of my mother’s face when she frowned or smiled as they sat and watched TV. But now I choked; I settled for fruit bowls and flowers. I sat there mute, terrified, and sweating, glancing at the other applicants’ work to see if they had managed to get anything on paper. I saw brilliantly executed texturing and shade work. One person sketched a lovely plant with weeping leaves; another put the finishing touches on a chubby-faced baby. I wrapped my arm around my paper and hastily drew a one-dimensional Christmas tree with tinsel. I supposed I managed to eke out something much better for the writing examination because I passed, but I never told my parents that I flubbed the other test out of fear.

   I made new friends quickly even though I was only there for one school year. Those friendships are some of the most intimate I have ever had. Isa was a tall, slim, cellist with a slight lisp, a quiet voice, and a full laugh. Nia was mischievous and witty and had dark, glittering eyes, a keen sense of style, and excellent penmanship. She wrote in squat, rounded letters and dotted her i’s with circles. Ife was wry and easygoing. I remember my excitement when she told me her last name was Yoruba. My dad is Nigerian but I have few ties to his side of the family. He once told me that he kept his accent on purpose, but when I was young he never taught my brother or me any of the dialects he knew; he said it was too hard for one parent to do. Sometimes he played high-spirited, percussive records and translated lyrics for my brother and me as we giggled and watched him do his shuffling two-step around the living room.

   Nia, Ife, Isa, and I ate lunch together, sometimes finished each other’s sentences, and sighed over two of the cutest and supposedly wildest guys in school. We didn’t share any classes with them but assumed they were Dominican; one of them was named Fernando. We made a song out of his name to the tune of “Maria, Maria,” a popular song at the time featuring Carlos Santana. Aside from one afternoon when they saw us rushing through the hallways and asked us our names, we never spoke to either of them. I sometimes wonder if Nia or Ife ever got anywhere with one of them after I left.

   At some point, Isa invited all of us to a sleepover at her house in Seagate, a gated community my mother said was one of the nicest in Coney Island. I hoped the neighborhood’s status would play into my favor; I had never been to a sleepover before. My mother always asked if there were “men in the house,” and if there were I wasn’t allowed to go. Words like sex, rape and molestation were never explained to me, but somewhere along the way I learned what they meant and became wise enough to recognize the boundary of that decree: “There are men in the house.” But Isa’s parents were long divorced and the only man in her home was a large white rabbit she let us poke a little when we stayed over.

   I remember eating not as much junk food as I expected, but still enough. I remember falling asleep in a brand new set of pajamas my mom bought for the occasion: sky blue cotton pants with a matching long-sleeved, button-down top. There were shooting stars and crescent moons because I loved Sailor Moon; Isa told me she liked that show, too.

   Sometimes we dressed alike. Once Nia, Ife, and I all came to school wearing dark blue jeans, sneakers, and blue, red, or white shirts. We thought it was a happy accident until an older girl sidled up to one of us and asked if we were Bloods. At first I was confused, not out of ignorance but out of context. Though I would have lost some street cred for saying so—and though I didn’t really see it that way then—I was a sheltered Brooklyn kid. My parents owned a single-family home on a tree-lined, dead-end block, and my grandparents lived across the street. I wasn’t allowed to play outside with the other kids on the block past dark or unless I had finished my homework, and sometimes not even then. I was thought to be a stuck-up little sh*t because I didn’t chafe against my parents’ rules and I had never really wanted to. I knew that I was watched but I rarely felt hemmed in.

  I had guy friends at Twain, too. Carlos and Stephen were part of what I considered to be our group, and they were sweethearts. Once, in the cafeteria, Stephen started joking about a girl named Katie that wasn’t part of our group. She was hot, he said, cupping his hands in front of his chest and flexing his fingers in explanation. “She’s alright,” I said honestly, taking her in for the first time. Nice enough but he hardly knew her. Stephen said I was jealous. I was flat as a board and couldn’t understand; he and Carlos cracked up. I still don’t know what possessed me. I took the chocolate ice cream bar I was eating at the time and wiped it up and down the front of his white jersey like I was painting a fence. Stephen jumped back. I remember our friends gasping and laughing and, after the initial flush of triumph, feeling horrified. I apologized a million times, offered to take the jersey home with me and have it washed, but Stephen just took it off, crumpled it into a ball in his hands, and put it in the trash. Even after that we were still friends.

   The day I left Twain, I stayed long after everyone else, cleaning out my locker, tying up loose ends with the assistant principal and other teachers, and playing the This Is the Last Time I’ll Ever Walk Past This Room game. By the time I left the building mostly everyone was gone and though I had forgotten it, the last shuttle bus that transported students between the train station and school had left for the day. Summer hours. Stillwell Avenue was probably a twenty-minute walk, tops, but it was usually strewn with flaccid, dripping, or drying condoms and the occasional needle. It was alright to walk the path with other people if you had to, but I had never done it alone. I stood outside in the concentrated sunlight at a loss for what to do, where to go, and whom to tell. It was the worst sendoff I could have imagined.

   At some point, my math teacher came outside, clutching his briefcase in one hand and fishing for his car keys with the other. He asked me if I was excited for summer and looking forward to the next year. I told him no. I would not be returning the next year and I had just missed the last bus to the train station. My parents never picked me up and, in the pre-cell phone era, I seemingly had no way to alert them that I was stranded. He walked a few steps away to his car, clicked the button to unlock it, and asked if I would like a ride. I knew my mother would never have wanted me to accept. In her mind there were always predators lurking—in your school, at your friends’ houses, in your family tree—but I didn’t know how else to get home and I didn’t want to be at Twain any longer. “Okay,” I said, and he walked around to the driver’s side while I opened the passenger door. I wonder if he sensed my trepidation as he started the car and pulled away slowly; I had pushed myself up against the door as much as possible. Instead of assaulting me he asked what I liked about his class, congratulated me on the new school, and asked what I would be specializing in. I answered him quietly and monosyllabically.

   I knew that it wouldn’t mean anything to anyone at Chapin that I had made it into Twain. I would be the second black person in the class and one of the few that many of my classmates would interact with on a daily basis, other than their babysitters and nannies. It would become easier for me to silently accept that I was a novelty, than to illustrate the world beyond their experiences, which proved that I wasn’t. I attended more sleepovers, but always in Manhattan since my new friends’ parents were wary of Brooklyn, that far off place. Those “play dates” (a new term for me) were the source of multiple arguments with my father who demanded to know if I was ashamed of our home and of our family. My hair was pulled and stretched (“Look! It stays in the same place!”), and any time I expressed a negative feeling stronger than irritation, I was perceived as aggressive or antisocial. This was a world of child psychiatrists, ADHD medication, and anti-depressants for the teenaged set. I eventually made great friends at Chapin, but only after falling in with a crowd that didn’t care if I was sometimes weird, and not always nice.

   Some months into the new school year, Nia and Ife called to tell me that Twain was having a dance. We all knew it would be a big deal. There had been one the year I was there and it was only the first or second dance I had ever been to. I learned how to move with a guy or at least pretend to know what I was doing, and we all laughed about what the older kids had done later. This year we were older. There were probably new dances I hadn’t learned and drama I wasn’t exposed to; I couldn’t wait to go.

   I put on one of my favorite shirts at the time, a black and orange striped long-sleeved velour shirt that was probably way too warm for the occasion. My father drove and my mother brought me to the steps of the building where the principal collected tickets. I called Nia and Ife once each and anxiously waited for one of them to appear, even though I probably could have snuck inside. They were holding my ticket but I was the right age and looked well-behaved. One or two students greeted me curiously, seemingly wondering if I had disappeared for the entirety of a semester, only to return for a party. But no one came up to me or seemed to want to draw me inside. It was probably an unreasonable expectation. My mother and I made small talk on the steps.

   At first I figured that Nia and Ife just needed to catch a break between songs.  The music was so loud I could make out the artist from the doorway: Jay-Z. In 2001, Jay, as I called him, wasn’t a minority shareholder of a well-branded basketball team, and a black president hadn’t endorsed Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies.” The only thing I heard white people say about either of them was that one was ghetto and the other had a fat ass, in a bad way. This was supposed to be the first time in a long time that I could laugh and dance without holding back. I had pictured our reunion in my head dozens of times, imagined that it would feel like no time had passed at all, and that it would be proof that I could return relatively unchanged—or still liked in spite of any changes—but no one ever came.

   My mother grew impatient. My dad may have beeped the horn. I felt like the worst kind of burden. Something inside me knew that if I called once more or waited just twenty minutes longer, they would have shown up and we would have laughed it off. But I told my mother that I wanted to leave. I lied and said that I had called each of them a bunch of times and they weren’t picking up. Even though she was angry with me for giving up I told her that all I wanted to do was go.

   On the way home, Nia and Ife texted to ask where I was—they had been looking for me but couldn’t find me, was I still around? I told them that my mother hadn’t wanted to bring me after all and that my dad couldn’t drive that night. We made small talk and promised each other that we would meet another time, but we never did.