I tore open the unexpected package from my brother and a curled photo dropped into my hand. A slow breath slipped through my lips, when I recognized the teenaged girl whose fragile image I held. The wrinkled collar of a tan shirt framed her sallow face. She looked away from the camera into the void. On the back of the picture, my mother’s handwriting noted, Dawn – 1966 Age 15. I longed to forget this girl. But the mysteries behind her gaze crept into focus like an uninvited song remembering itself.
“High yellow bitch,” high school classmates screamed as they followed me home.
“You ain’t shit,” they yelled. But I already knew it.
“Do somethin’ with that pitiful head!”
We’d moved that year from Des Moines to Pasadena, California. The other girls taunted me for reasons I didn’t understand, and called me names I’d never heard before. As I slunk home with my eyes focused on the sidewalk, the voices stalked me like a pack of feral dogs.
Threats and P.E. were the joyless bookends of my 10th grade existence. And the dismal luck of the draw gave me first period swimming. The water turned my hair to sheep’s wool. I hid it under a brown headscarf until the end of the day. Once home, I headed straight for the bathroom to fight my hair.
“Dawn, what are you doing in there?”
My mother would not leave me alone.
“Don’t you have homework?”
10th grade was the year I got straight D’s.
So they shipped me off to Upward Bound, an academic summer camp for urban teenagers. We were destined to be the first in our families to make it to a university - that is, if we made it through high school. I lived at Occidental College in Los Angeles, with 49 other red, yellow and brown-skinned misfits. The federal government labeled us “high potential low achievers.” It was a kinder description than what I heard from my parents.
At Upward Bound, we spent our days in class, learning how to learn. We spent our evenings on field trips, learning how to live. One such journey introduced me to the ballet. When we stepped off our school bus at the Hollywood Bowl, the scent of night-blooming jasmine hung on the cool California air. The summer sky had not yet fully blackened. We marched, in too-tight shoes, to seats so far back that I couldn’t tell there were swans in Swan Lake. Miniature figures clad in bright colors leapt and flew and spun across the stage. Tchaikovsky seduced me. My tentative spirit unfolded to accept his embrace. At first I squinted to see the dance—then closed my eyes to imagine.
Worlds outside and inside me unfolded that summer. I released the breath I’d been holding all year.
Teachers introduced me to culture, but girlfriends introduced me to “cool.” They taught me the power of black eyeliner. They helped me cough my way through my first cigarette. I learned - if a boy smiled at me - to look at him sideways, scowl, and walk away—slowly.
On the afternoon of our first chaperoned party, we gathered in our lounge to trade clothes and do hair. We tossed skirts and dresses across the couches. Bottles, jars and shoes littered the floor. The room smelled of nail polish and perfumed lotions.
A dark-skinned junior from Jefferson High School turned my damaged “do” into a proud and towering Afro. I sat on the floor between her legs while her fingers danced across my head. When her knees pressed against my shoulders and her hands tug at my hair, the acerbic voices of the past year receded.
Conversation filled the room like soul music on a pricey stereo. Citified soprano sassiness played against the low slow rhythm of country drawl.
“You tender headed?”
“Gi-i-r-r-l-l that is so cute on you.”
“M-m-m, that boy is fi-i-i-ne.”
And then they taught me how to dance. On the radio Martha and the Vandellas wailed, "Nowhere to run to Baby, nowhere to hide," and everybody jumped up. With rollers in my hair and boys in my head, I stepped steps I never stepped before. The high yellow bitch disappeared. The feral dogs retreated
At the party that night, when Stevie Wonder sang I Was Made to Love Her, a short, skinny boy took me by the hand. He strutted onto the dance floor and I trailed behind him. When he turned to face me, the music told my body what to do. The borrowed dress swayed around my legs and I forgot to be afraid.
Decades later, I taped the photo to the frig and traced the sad, pre-Upward Bound cheek with my fingertip. The dancers-actors-writers I became whispered thank you—for those first brave steps that let the music in. I glimpsed my reflection in the glass cabinet door - the face lit by fiery crystal earrings and a scarlet blouse. Stevie Wonder played in my head and a molten rhythm oozed through my hips. I danced through the rest of my day.
First published in Skirt! Magazine. © Dawn Downey. All rights reserved.
Dawn Downey is the author of “Stumbling Toward the Buddha, Tripping Over my Principles on the Road to Transformation.” www.dawndowney.com