Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Haunted Kindergarten - 1969

I remember how much my black Hushpuppy penny loafers were killing me on my first day of Kindergarten.  I just wanted to wear my jeans and a t-shirt with my old sneakers, but my mother insisted that I wear a dress with ruffles with those new shoes. I was scared because this was the first time I would be around other little kids who were not my cousins.  I also had developed the ability to see dead people during the summer.  I spilled the beans about the family secrets at my mother’s family reunion which went over like gang busters (there is nothing like a six year old telling the family where they had screwed up via the Patriarch Granddaddy who had passed 20 years earlier).  Couple that with the fact that my father had left my mother during the same summer and you had a perfect storm for my first day of school.  

My mother had tried to limit my exposure to outsiders in the last few weeks of summer because she was afraid that I might see another ghost and spill more family secrets.  Besides my mother, I got to spend time with our maid Etta who I adored and the feeling was mutual.  Her children were grown so having a little girl who idolized her probably felt pretty good.  She was not freaked out about the fact that I could see ghosts.  She was originally from New Orleans where tales of ghosts and voodoo were quite common.   On the days when mother was losing patience with me, Etta would say “Miss Laura, I’ll keep an eye on Sophia while you lie down.”  Mother would smile gratefully and go to her room for the rest of the night while Etta and I made cookies and talked before I went to bed.  I looked forward to those times with her because it felt like this is how a mother should be.  I loved her with all my heart.   She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen, her dark skin, eyes and hair seemed to exude an exotic beauty I would never have.  

“Child,” she said while brushing my long blond hair one night before bed, “You have the gift - there is no mistake about that, but you have to be careful.  There are people around here that don’t take to others being different.  When you are with the other folks out there, you have to fit in.  You can talk to me about ghosts all you want, but don’t be troubling your mother, father or other people because they won’t understand it and folks just hate what they don’t understand,” she said with the sad resignation of a black woman who had lived in the south all her life.  Even if it was 1969 and TV was becoming integrated, the real South was not going quietly into that good night and I just couldn't understand that.  “Yes, ma’am, but how come being different is so bad?” I asked with such childlike innocence it almost made Etta cry.  “People like what they know, child and they want to destroy what they fear.  Now let’s say our prayers.”   Etta had taught me prayers to keep the bad spirits away and the good ones nearby. When we finished praying I would hug her with all my might.  She would tuck me in, kiss my forehead and waved as she closed the door.  

“That woman is a God send, and I should know,” said Granddaddy- the ghost of my great grandfather.  He would visit me every night carrying the ghost of my baby cat Sassy who had been hit by a car six months before.  “She’s right about folks thinking you are different.  Hell it’s been over a 100 years and you got folks still fighting the Civil War - you think they are going to embrace civil rights?   You need to be careful Sophia.  When you start school, try to fit in and if you see ghosts, try to ignore them.”  “Yes ‘em, Granddaddy - I will,” I said with all the steely determination a pre-Kindergarten child could muster.  

That summer, I asked my mother if I could have a TV in my room and she relented because it meant that I would stay upstairs and out of her way when she had company. Etta and I would watch Bill Cosby in I Spy and Diane Carroll in Julia.  I would see the world through this TV lens of integrated possibilities and it seemed so much more interesting and exciting then the people I saw day to day except for my Etta.  She was the one person in the world who loved me for me and not for the person that my mother wanted me to be.  

So here we were on the first day of school -  my mother and I standing at the gates of Blue Lakes Elementary.  My mother wanted a private school but my father bulked at the price and thought that a newly desegregated public school would do me good.  “Now Sophia, play nice with the other children and don’t do anything strange, I’m begging you – please don’t,” mother said in an uncharacteristically pleading tone. “I know, Etta and Granddaddy told me not to,” I replied. My mother winced when I said Granddaddy since she knew he was one of the ghosts I talked to. 

“Hello, I’m Chrissie Bentley, I’ll be your child’s Kindergarten teacher.   Now who do we have here? “ said Miss Bentley who had just graduated with a Master’s in Early Childhood education from Georgia State.  She was young, pretty and wore a flowery blouse with a short skirt and boots - professional and mod at the same time.  “This is Sophia, and she’s a little shy, so -“ mother replied.  “Well, everyone is shy on the first day, but there are lots of children to play with,” said Miss Bentley.  

“Look those girls might want to be your friend,” mother replied hopefully.  One of the little girls from a group near the playground ran up and introduced herself. “Hey, my name is Betty - want to play?”  I squeezed my mother’s hand tighter not wanting her to leave but she made a point of letting go anyway.  “Now go on Sophia - this is a new start for you- take it.”   Mother said hopefully, and left quickly scarcely looking back. 

Betty took my hand and smiled.  She brought me over to a group of girls playing with dolls.  They had blond hair, frilly dresses and new shoes like mine.  They told me I was pretty and handed me a doll to play with.  I saw two other girls who were black sitting in the corner talking but they didn’t have dolls.  They had big brown eyes with long eyelashes and braids with brightly colored hair ties with large florescent beads on the end. They looked sad so I did what any right thinking six year old would have done, I asked the other girls if they could join us.  “No Sophia, those Negro girls can’t - we don’t have enough dolls,” said Betty with an irritating air of authority.  “They can have my doll,” I said trying to easily solve the problem.  “That ain’t it,” said Sherry - one of the other white girls, “we just don’t want to play with them.”   “Why not?” I asked still not comprehending their narrow way of thinking.  “Because, they are Negros - “ Betty said and shot an exasperated look at me that showed that I lacked the ability to grasp the obvious. I sat quietly and I tried to stay with those white girls.  I tried to blend in.  But I felt sick to my stomach.  It just felt wrong.   

I knew those other girls felt excluded and I knew how that felt.  I saw the ghost of a young black man in uniform sitting next to them, trying to get their attention to let them know he was there.  He looked over at me and we made eye contact.  I looked away, not because I was scared, but because I was not supposed to talk to ghosts.  I had promised mother, Granddaddy and more importantly, I had promised Etta.  I understood now why they were so sad.  This man was their father who was killed in Vietnam.   I just sat there with my eyes closed hoping he would go away, but when I opened them he was next to me speaking to me softly, trying to comfort me.   “Hey there little miss,” he said with a kind voice, “I know you can see me - don’t be scared.  I won’t hurt you.”  “I know you won’t,” I said back.  “I won’t what?” asked Betty thinking I was talking to her.  Thinking fast, I said, “I won’t bother you, I’m going to get another toy,” I walked over to side of the playground where the box ball equipment was.  The young soldier followed me.  

“I’m not supposed to talk to ghosts,” I whispered hoping no one could hear me.  “I know - I tell my daughters to never talk to strangers, but those two are my baby twin girls and I wanted them to have a good first day of school.  It breaks my heart that I can’t be with them in person, but if you could tell them I’m here and I love them, it would mean the world to me,” he said quietly.   “I can try.  I’m sorry you died in Vierrname,” I said.   He tried to smile briefly at my inability to say the right name. “My name is Lieutenant Bobby Wilson and I fought for my country in Laos in Operation Dewey Canyon side by side with white soldiers.  Now my girls, Joy and Grace can go to a public school side by side with white children in Georgia.  This is truly a blessed day.  I can tell you are not like those other girls.  I mean besides being able to see ghosts, you have a gentle heart.  Please be nice to my daughters,” he said.   “I will,” I said my eyes filling with tears because I would tear my heart out of my daddy died.   The soldier bowed his head and faded off. 

“Hey, little girl -don’t you go playing with those tar babies,” I heard an angry booming voice behind me say.   I jumped and saw another ghost, an older white man in overalls and a cap.  He had deep set black eyes and what looked like a permanent scowl on his face and tobacco juice dribbling down his chin.  He was skinny and about six feet tall.  I could tell he was not a nice man.  “I’m Betty’s great grandfather, Ed Whitehead and you best let her be your friend or else,” he said filling me with terror.  “She’s a mean girl,” I said trying to run away.   The ghost flew over my head and got into my face, his dark eyes looking into mine.  “Look girlie, this used to be my farm land and I was fine when it was a school for whites only but now with all these - these -“ he was so mad his mouth started to foam and he spat out more ghostly tobacco juice - “You ain’t never been taught right - now stay with your own kind!!!” he bellowed and faded away.  My heart was beating - I had never encountered a horrible entity like that before.  I was running as fast as I could - my feet blistering in those ill fitting Hushpuppies.  I was looking back when I ran into my teacher, Miss Bentley.  “Sophia, my word, I’ve been all over looking for you.  Please stay with the group,” she said sounding annoyed.  Great, my first 20 minutes of school and I had encountered the mean girls, a gentle soldier ghost and an old racist apparition who threatened harm if I befriended the only two people at school that I could relate to.  I wanted to reach out to those girls but that old man scared the crap out of me.  Maybe once I got home, I could ask Etta and she would know what to do.  

I kept to myself the rest of the day.  The mean girls had decided that I was not of their ilk so they let me be.   Joy and Grace sat together at lunch but were completely alone.  I tried to remain invisible but Miss Bentley wanted all of us to be included in everything.  At the end of the day, it was time for Show and Tell and we were all required to share.   Most of the children seemed to have an excited look on their face except for me and the Wilson girls.   One by one, each child got up with a wonderful tale of what they did for summer vacation - trips to Savannah, St. Simons, Stone Mountain or a day at Six Flags.  Each time another child sat down and it got closer to me, my heart beat harder.  What was I going to say?  My baby kitty Sassy got killed and I began to see ghosts. My mother’s family reunion was fun up until the part where I told the family secrets.  My father left my mother so hell yeah, it had been an awesome summer.   

I looked over at the Wilson girls and knew that even with all the crap that I had endured it was nothing compared to losing a father in a war.  I had to think of something that happened during the summer - something fun.  Finally, it was my turn and I thought of the most fun thing I could think of.  I got up and smiled, “This summer my Etta and me made chocolate chip cookies and we watched I Spy and Julia together,” I said beaming.  “Is Etta your aunt?” asked Teddy, the red headed kid with glasses.   “Etta sounds like a colored name, is she colored?” asked Betty who was getting on my last nerve.  “Etta is my bestest friend,” I said confidently, “and for Christmas I would like a Julia Doll.”  Joy and Grace looked up smiled for the first time that day.  “We do too,” they said together.  The room fell silent and the other six year olds were for at a loss for words.  

“Well,” said Miss Bentley uncomfortably, “that’s very nice Sophia -let’s see if anyone else wants to -“  “Why would you want a Barbie with dark skin? That’s just stupid!” exclaimed Betty throwing back her long blond hair.  Her remark made me mad and those girls needed to be taken down a few notches.  “No you’re stupid, I can play with whatever doll I want to -“ the other kids except for the mean girls started to laugh.  Then the lights started to flicker and I looked to see if Miss Bentley was flashing the fluorescents to get everyone’s attention, but she was sitting with us and no where near the light switch.  I felt a sudden cold shock of air and there was old man Whitehead just looking at me with an image of a flaming cross behind him.  There was a flash of light and then the  windowless room went dark.  The kids started to scream and Miss Bentley tried to reassure us, “Children, it’s fine, just a little problem with the lights.”  She stumbled to her desk and hit the button to the intercom to the office, “Hello, this is Miss Bentley in Kindergarten room A, our lights are out-“ The bell for the end of school rang and the lights went back on.  The kids cheered and the Whitehead ghost was gone.  We gathered up our things walked in single file to the car pick-up lane.  
I knew I had to keep my promise to Lt. Wilson.  When I saw Joy and Grace’s mother, I walked up to her.  “Hello, my name is Sophia and I gotta to tell you and your girls something.”  Mrs. Wilson looked at me quizzically. I’m pretty sure she didn’t expect what I was about to say.  “Joy and Grace’s daddy was here to day and he loves you all very much.  He misses them because he got killed in Vieername in Lousy.  But he was proud to fight with the white soldiers.”  There I had delivered the message and I didn’t care what that old Whitehead ghost thought.  

Mrs. Wilson just looked at me - her face going from confusion, to happiness to sadness in just a few seconds.  “How did you know that?” she stammered.  “You saw our daddy today?  He was here?” asked Joy looking hopeful.  Grace just started to cry and said, “I miss my daddy.”  “Now Sophia, you need to come along baby girl” I heard Etta say just as I turned to see that she was picking me up from school instead of mother.   “I’m sorry if she upset you,” said Etta calmly.  “It’s like you said momma, daddy is an angel looking after us and Sophia saw him!” said Joy excitedly.  I smiled at Etta who was concerned as she and Mrs. Wilson looked around to see if anyone else could hear our conversation.  “It is not natural for that child to know such things,” Mrs. Wilson whispered as she tried to comfort Grace.  “I know, but she has a gift and a good heart that’s probably why your husband reached out to her.  God gives us all gifts in different ways,” said Etta gently.  Mrs. Wilson seemed to feel comforted that Etta felt my skill was God-given and not devil made.  “I know — I know he’s around and I feel better that he’s looking after the girls and me.  It’s just shock to hear -“ her voice trailed off as tears run down her face.  Etta looked around once more and while the other parents were not paying attention to our group- but in another minute or two, that might change.  “We need to go- but it was nice meeting you and your girls, God bless you all.”  Etta and I walked away from the Wilson’s as they tried comprehend what had just happened.  

We got into our white station wagon and Etta buckled me into the back seat.  “Sophia,  you were not supposed to talk to ghosts,” said Etta sounding a little irritated.  “I know ma’am, I tried but they kept talking to me.  Especially that old man Whitehead.  He is a very bad man.”  Etta gasped when I said the name Whitehead.  “You saw that man today?  What did he say?”  “Well, he didn’t want my playing with Joy and Grace and only wanted me to play with Betty - like I got to stick with my own kind.  This was his farm land and he wants whites only.  When I was talking during Show and Tell, he started to make the lights go on and off and I saw him standing next to a burning cross.  What does that mean?”  Etta sat there looking visably shaken.  “It means you are right, he’s a very bad man.  Let’s not tell your mother okay?”  “Okay, can I tell Granddaddy?” I asked.  Etta smiled, “Actually I think Granddaddy might be the perfect person to tell.”  

When I got home, mother was there and told me she got caught up in her charity bazaar meeting.  She asked how the first day of school went and how sweet little Betty was.  I did not want to tell her that little girl was a total racist bitch that I wanted nothing to do with.  I instead said, “It was fun, we had Show and Tell - “ “What did you tell about?” my mother asked apprehensively.   “I told them how much fun I have with Etta,” I replied because it was the truth.  My mother seemed relived and a little hurt at the same time.   Etta made me dinner and we went upstairs afterward.  Mother decided to give me a bath and to talk to me.  “Sophia, it sounds like you had quite a good first day.  I’m glad you feel like you are fitting in.”  “Yes ‘em, momma, I’m trying as hard as I can,” I said sweetly hoping that would keep her from asking me any more questions.   I started to play with my mermaid doll and looked down so our conversation would end.  My mother seemed satisfied with that.  She dried me off and helped me put on my night gown.  “Here you go young lady, now you can watch a little TV before bedtime, okay?”  “Okay, mommy,” I said noticing she was more attentive then usual.  She hugged me and let Etta take over.  

“Mommy was extra nice tonight,” I said.  “That’s right Sophia, your mother loves you very much,” said Etta, “that’s why we can’t trouble her with everything that happened today.”  We sat down to watch Julia in my room“You know, me, Joy and Grace all want a Julia doll for Christmas,” I said happily thinking that Santa would hear me even if Christmas was still over three months away.  “I’ll let Santa know,” Etta said with a smile.  “Now, when you talk to Granddaddy tonight tell him about Mr. Whitehead - I have a feeling he might have known him.  Please ask him to come to school with you tomorrow.  If you need extra help you can say the Lord’s Prayer like I taught you.  That prayer and Granddaddy should keep you safe,” Etta explained as she hugged me good night.   The door closed and just like clock work, Granddaddy appeared.  

“Hey there, little darling, how was the first day of school?” he asked as he put Sassy down on my bed.  “Well, Etta thinks you can help me with an old mean ghost named Mr. Whitehead - “  “Sweet suffering Christ, not Ed Whitehead - I never liked that old bastard,”  Granddaddy exclaimed. “Well, his great granddaughter is a mean girl and he wants me to be her friend and not be friends with the two black girls in my class.  He told me I had to like Betty or else and then he appeared in the classroom with a burning cross behind him,” I was shivering because the image and that man scared me.  “That Goddamned old cracker has the balls to threaten my great granddaughter?” he shouted.  Sassy jumped and got under the covers with me.  “When folks found out that he was a member of the Klan, they stopped getting their produce from him.  Eventually, he couldn’t buy his way out of trouble and the bank took his farm,” Granddaddy recounted angrily.  “Etta thought that you could come to school with me and protect me,” I said hoping he would.  “You are Goddamned right I will- living or dead, some people need to learn their place,” said Granddaddy with a determined tone.  “You sleep tight sugar bear, I’ve got this.”  

The next day, I was ready for school and so was Granddaddy.  He sat next to me in the back seat while Mommy drove us to school.  When she let me off, I tried to leave the car fast but she insisted waving to Betty who just ignored us.  “Why isn’t Betty saying hello?” she asked.  “I don’t know, maybe she’s in a bad mood, it happens,” I said.  “Sophia, why would she be in a bad mood?” mother asked.  “Okay, she was mean to the two Wilson sisters and I stood up for them and now she doesn’t like me but the Wilson sisters do so I have friends, bye-“ I said trying to really get away fast.  “Wait, who are the Wilson sisters?” she asked just as Joy and Grace walked up.  “Hey Sophia, let us know if you see our daddy today.  Grace is not scared anymore,” said Joy smiling.  Grace also smiled and waved.  They walked into school and my mother gave me a very long serious look.  “Those are the Wilson girls?  I read in the paper their father died in the war and he talked to you?”  Mother seemed angry and I couldn’t tell if it was because I talked to a ghost or because the girls were black or because the ghost was black - I have a hard time reading her sometimes.  “Mommy, he talked to me and I tried not to but-“ just then the bell rang and the school day was starting.  “Bye mommy - “ I said as I ran to my classroom happy to have the conversation end. 

I got the room just as the Jeb the janitor was checking the lights.  They were flickering and there was old man Whitehead in the corner just looking at me.  This time I had back-up and I saw my Granddaddy go over to him.  “Goddammit, Ed, you stay away from Sophia and those Wilson girls,” he said with authority.  “Fuck you, Chuck,” he retorted,  “You ain’t one to be putting on righteous aires, you ain’t always been so open to the Coons around here - I remember back in 1912 when we burned down the barn of that nig-“ “Watch it!” shouted Granddaddy.  “He mouthed off to a white woman and we burned down his barn - you ain’t so innocent.” said Mr. Whitehead with an air of superiority.  “I regretted that the minute we set the fire- and I never did anything like that again.  Can you say the same thing?!!” yelled Granddaddy.  “The worse thing was you brought your 12 year old son to witness it.  You just spread hate your entire life, it’s what sustained you when you were alive and it’s all you got now that you’re dead.”  

Mr. Whitehead glared at Granddaddy,  He went over the the Wilson girls and started to knock things off their desks.  Granddaddy tried to stop him but more things kept being knocked over.  Joy, Grace and the rest of the children started to scream.   Miss Bentley and Jeb tried to get the children to calm down but the fear in their voices betrayed their intentions.   The lights began in flicker wildly.  “Everybody get under the desks,” I yelled with a clarity that actually surprised me.  Miss Bentley was in a panic and tried to get to the intercom to work to ask for more help.  The lights went off just as Mr. Whitehead grabbed Grace.  I saw a soldier’s hands punch him hard in the face.  For a second, Lt. Wilson was visible to both his two girls, “Get with Sophia where you will be safe,” he commended them.   The girls got under the desk with me and we all put our arms around each other.  

“How dare you punch me boy - “ spewed that old nasty cracker. “Don’t you know you could get hanged for that?” “I’m not a boy, I’m a man and you have no right to be here - this is not your land anymore,” said Lt. Wilson like a true warrior.  “I fought and paid the ultimate sacrifice in the war so my girls could have a good education and a chance at a decent life.  You are not going to take that from them.” 

“Give it up Ed, you’re time here is gone -” said Granddaddy as he stood shoulder to shoulder with Lt. Wilson as a protective shield between the children and the evil entity.  “I didn’t fight for my country just to have the likes of him run me off my land!!“ shouted Mr. Whitehead whose face was turning blood red while his eyes became nothing but black disks of despair.  “You fought for the wrong cause Ed, you never saw how lost it was,” said Granddaddy sadly.  “How can you say that?  Our fathers were in the confederacy - they fought like brothers-“ he responded.  “The Civil War was a sham, it was all about keeping the status quo for the rich.  Our fathers were pawns for the wealthy landowners who didn’t give a shit who got killed as long as they could keep their plantations - it wasn’t about honor it was just about fucking greed,” exclaimed Granddaddy.  

“I’ll show you!!” bellowed Whitehead as he expanded to the size of the ceiling - his face filling with more blood and his dark eyes pulsing.  Suddenly two red dragons with Klan hoods came out of his eyes and started to lunge at Lt. Wilson and Granddaddy.  It’s fangs got closer and closer but Granddaddy and Lt. Wilson would not move because they were the only thing standing between the dragons and the children.  

“Our father who art in Heaven - Hallowed be thy name,” I started to say aloud because I was scared and maybe like Etta said, this prayer might help.  “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” continued Joy and Grace.  The rest of the children joined in and continued with the prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen.” All the kids started to hold each others’ hands during the prayer.  Betty who was next to me and the Wilson girls reached over and held their hands.  

When Old Man Whitehead saw that, he looked like he had been shot in the heart.   “NOOO!!” he shouted.  He started to shrink and the dragons shot back into his eyes and dissolved.  “You got one chance at redemption, you gonna take it Ed?” asked Granddaddy as the ceiling started to swirl.  “Hell no, my pappy was right, my Grandpappy was right - I ain’t going against them, we were right - Goddammit, we were right -“ the ceiling started to turn from white to black and these very bad spirits started to circle around Mr. Whitehead.  His human features started to melt off as his body was pulled into the vortex - he was screaming trying to hold on.  I covered my ears since I was the only one who could see or hear it.  He was finally completely consumed as the roof closed.  I looked up and I could see that it was back to the white ceiling tiles with a few pieces of gum and pencils stuck to them.  

“It looks like that old peck of wood is gone for good,” said Granddaddy.  “Thank you for standing with me,” replied Lt. Wilson.  “I have been trying to redeem myself for - for what I did - “ “If you were not forgiven, you would have gone with him - but you got a good heart like Sophia,”  explained Lt. Wilson.  “I realize now that maybe I needed to be here for my girls like this instead of alive to protect them.  Now I can be at peace with what happened.” For the first time, I saw Lt. Robert Wilson smile.  He walked over to his girls, kissed their heads and faded out.   Granddaddy smiled at me and faded out as well.  

The lights came back on and except for all the thrown books - the room seemed to be back to normal.  When the other teachers arrived, they attributed the mess and noise to the black out.   The class got out from under their desks.  Mrs. Bentely smoothed her hair and tried to regain her composure. Unfortunately, she got in a little bit of trouble because the people in the office heard us praying (which apparently you can’t do in public school even if you are under an attack from a demonic entity).  We were all allowed to go to recess while the janitors inspected the lights.  

“I saw my daddy,” said Joy.  “Me too,” said Grace.  “He’s around watching over us.”  “I got my Granddaddy watching over me too,” I said smiling trying to focus on them and the sunlight instead of all things I had just seen and heard.   I would tell Etta everything that night and thank Granddaddy at bedtime.  But for the rest of the day, I didn’t feel like an outsider.  I was just a little girl.  Best of all, me and the Wilson girls had lunch together.

Sophia Gardeen is a nationally recognized Medium who is currently working on the show Ghost Wanderers for the Supernatural Channel.  She also makes one hell of a good butterscotch blond brownie.