Tag Archives: teenagers

Swinging to Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Learning a Lesson in Discrimination.

imagesWhen my oldest niece, S. was young, the two of us danced together whenever we had the opportunity – overnights at her grandma’s, weddings, and always after Thanksgiving dinners at her father’s house.  As soon as her sister was born and able to walk, K. joined us as we made our own conga line and danced down hallways and from room to room, the three of us joyfully flinging arms and legs here and there, our only teachers having been MTV videos and Barney.

Then S. turned into a teenager, and before long, she was no longer content with our own stylistic gyrations.  She wanted to learn how to swing dance and shimmy to the salsa.  At age 16, she was old enough to take adult dance classes at the local recreation center.  There, the swing classes required partners, and I agreed to be hers.  The idea of the two of us taking lessons made us giggle — but not for long.

When I turned in our registration, I learned that we could not sign up together.  When I asked why, the clerk said, “Because you’re the same sex.” She also suggested others might be offended by my niece and I dancing hand-in-hand.

I was stunned but only momentarily because civil rights issues fire my blood more quickly than any Latin dance.  As my FB friends know, I’m quick to jump on a soapbox.  I pointed out that our country was nearing the dawn of a new millennium: that the center was a public facility funded by tax dollars: and that laws prevented such discrimination!

Still, the woman insisted it was the policy.  Understanding she was the messenger, I asked her to pass on my comments, which she did.

A week later I heard my concern had been sent to the city attorney’s office.  I was thrilled, sure that soon my niece and I would learn how to dance to the sounds of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy without knocking into each other, and, in doing so, she would benefit from a real life civics lesson.  My heart swelled.  I, her old auntie, would have a hand in creating an activist for equal rights.

Two weeks later, the clerk called to give us the okay.  She didn’t sound too happy, and I wondered if she had no niece or daughter of her own.

Maybe I should have thanked her and hung up, but I REALLY couldn’t.  This was about more than S. and me.  “So,” I said, “what if two guys come in tomorrow to sign up?  Will you let them in the class?”  There was a moment of silence not unlike the kind at a funeral service, the way it lingered before she said, “We don’t have any choice.”

The rest of the day I kept watch on the clock, waiting for S. to arrive home from school.  At 4:40 p.m., I called her.

“Great news!” I said.  “ We’re in.”

“What happened?”  I detected excitement in her voice.  My own little Bella Abzug.

“They had to let us in. They can’t discriminate.”

“Oh,” S. said, now sounding a bit dejected.

“What’s wrong?”

“Well,” she paused, “I thought you were going to say they’d found us some cute guys.”

But this story, like so many of mine, doesn’t end so quickly.

Our teacher, a skinny platinum blonde with hurricane hair, segregated us from the group and sent us to a corner.  When the other dancers changed partners, we were not included.  But at some point they all cut eyes our way, watching S., fired up by her love of dance, push and pull and spin me as I hung on for my life.

Afterwards, an old friend and his wife asked why we were not allowed to participate with the rest of the class, a group that seemed too somber to enjoy dancing.  Before I could answer, S. said, “The teacher thinks we have cooties.”

In the following weeks, others we knew only by sight asked, too.

Then, on the last night my friend told the instructor that everyone wanted to dance with S. and me.

“Is that true?” she asked, her mood soured by the request.  They all nodded.

She started the music, and when she turned to us, no one stood with his or her partner.  The Spanish couple had broken apart. So had the African American one.  Two women had paired up and didn’t seem the least bit put off by holding hands.  S. danced with most of the group, including a man whose age totaled that of three 16-year-old boys, and I danced with my friend, his wife and others.

And, that night, we all laughed and danced, no longer minding if our moves were smooth or steps in time. All inhibitions were surrendered as we became grown-up teenagers who just wanted to share the joys of dance with a 16-year-old girl.

The Year I Became a Black Sheep and Stayed that Way.

imagesOne glorious morning after my high school graduation, I totaled my car while my parents were vacationing near remote Corolla, NC.  They were unreachable because cell phones had yet to be invented, and Corolla Beach was off the grid.

I had stayed home alone because of my job at a bank where I spent my days checking the accuracy of computer print-outs for credit card merchant fees.  Even then, I thought the job, aside from being tedious, was silly.  Who was I, who maintained a steady C in high school math, to correct a computer?

But I did, and that’s where I was headed on a bright June morning as the eight-track played the Moody Blues when I, the only driver on the road, hit a parked car.  An Oldsmobile that was big, shiny cherry red, and, later I learned, bought new only one week prior.

Terrified, I knocked on doors until I found the owner.  But Jerry, even after taking a look at his car, seemed more worried about me.  He let me use his phone to call my neighbor and my boss.  He called the police because he needed a report to file an insurance claim.  As we waited for our guests, he gave me a Pepsi Cola and a Valium to calm my nerves.

When the policeman showed, Jerry begged him not to give me a ticket, but I left with a citation for reckless driving.

That Friday evening, my neighbor drove me to a pick-up spot north of Corolla to meet my father as planned the week before. Because I’d already spent a good portion of my life on restriction or writing “I must not . . .” sentences hundreds, perhaps thousands of times, I was scared to tell him about the ruin of Jerry’s car, the damage to my fifth-handed 1964 Impala and the ticket.  But I had to since my car was nowhere in sight.

As I recounted my morning and all that had gone wrong, his nostrils flared.  Moments later, he informed me that I would have to pay for the damage to my car and for a lawyer, whom I’d not planned on hiring.

Then he said, “Tell me exactly how this happened.   What were you doing?”

I told him that my shoulder bag leaning against the diver’s side floor hump flopped toward the gas pedal as I made a left turn and that as I’d reached down to remove it, I swerved into Jerry’s car.  An innocent mistake.  That was all.

“Hmph,” my father said.  “I think you were smoking a cigarette and dropped it.  You swerved trying to pick it up.”

It was scary how close he was to the truth, but I stuck to my story and told it to the judge who said, “What about centrifugal force?”

I left that courtroom with a reduced charge of improper driving, a fine and a crush on that white-haired man.  Even as a teenager I had a thing for brainy guys like Leonardo Da Vinci, Albert Einstein and Judge Lamb.

I told my father about court, the wisdom of the judge, and I let my dad think that he had gotten the story right since his theory was so close.

I would have left it at that if not for one thing.  The story became part of family lore —  the-daughter-as-a-black-sheep tale, and it was brought up at family dinners for the next 15 or so years.  I had moved on, done a lot of amazing things no one every mentioned or asked about.  In some ways I had the least blemished record of anyone in the family, except my mother.  Yet the story persisted.

Then, one Thanksgiving, long after my parents had split up and married others, someone, without a doubt my father, brought up the story that had so entertained my family, my family which had grown to include two teenage brothers, in addition to my older one, and a sister young enough to be my daughter.

This time when he came to the “she was smoking a cigarette,” I said, “Dad.”  I put down my fork.  “It wasn’t a cigarette.”  For a long few seconds, no one spoke.  Everyone stared at me. Having nothing to add, I picked up my knife and fork and returned to eating my dinner.  So did the others.

Several years passed before anyone brought up that story again, and the next time it was told, it was told right.

But not by my father.  He didn’t say a word.

Writer’s Note: I’ve an old notebook in which I keep weird facts, websites and off-the–wall news items.  Today I scanned through it, hoping for a blog idea.  Then I came across one line that read — The International Society of Black Sheep. This blog almost wrote itself.