Sample text for New boy / Julian Houston.
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"It won"t be easy, you know," said Cousin Gwen. "They won"t take any
foolishness up there. Especially from a colored boy." She was standing on
the sidewalk in front of her apartment building in a wrinkled pink housecoat
and worn bedroom slippers, giving me some last-minute advice. Her face was
the texture and color of a raisin. Her eyes were penetrating.
My parents and I had driven up from Virginia the night before on our way to
Draper, the boarding school in Connecticut to which I had been admitted. We
had spent the night at Gwen"s apartment in Harlem, and now my parents
were sitting in the big Buick Roadmaster, waiting for me to climb in. "This is
quite an opportunity you have," said Gwen. "It"s so rare that any of our boys
have a chance to go to these schools."
"I"m looking forward to it," I said, doing my best to sound confident. Until she
retired, Cousin Gwen had been a schoolteacher in Harlem for forty years, and
as I listened to her, I felt like one of her pupils. It occurred to me that forty
years of teaching members of the race had left her with an unerring ability to
"You"d do well to keep to yourself at first," she said, "until you know who
you"re dealing with." Looking back, I"d say it was the best advice I"d ever
been given by any adult, including my parents, although I didn"t pay much
attention to it at the time. I was eager to get going and she must have
recognized it. "Well," she said with a resigned sigh. "Just remember when
you"re up there, they"ll need you back home when you"re finished. Don"t end
up like Joe Louis."
In those days, the life of Joe Louis was a cautionary tale for every colored
boy from a comfortable home. A big, yaller nigger, as my father would say,
Louis was the son of an Alabama sharecropper who became the heavyweight
boxing champion of the world. He would make the white folks jittery just by
climbing into the ring. In the photographs I saw of him as a child, he was
always pokerfaced, the kinks in his hair greased to perfection. He was the
most famous Negro of his day, and he made millions of dollars. And lost
every cent. He could knock you out with a six-inch punch, but he didn't know
what to do with his money; so he trusted the wrong people. They would come
to him like courtiers, with a promise of something for nothing. "just sign here,
champ," they would say, and he would sign, lending his name to a candy
bar, a milk company, a restaurant, a toy doll, a saloon, assuming all of the
liability for a fraction of the assets. By the end of his career, he was
penniless, reduced to greeting guests at the doors of nightclubs and working
as a referee at wrestling matches to pay off a tax debt too huge to
comprehend. Through ignorance and carelessness, he had allowed his
chance at independence to slip through his fingers, and had been returned to
slavery by the government.
We reached the school just before lunch. I reported to the headmaster's
office with my parents, and the secretary, a tall, dignified woman with short,
iron gray hair, directed us to the dining room. "We've been expecting you,"
she said with a soft smile. "Mr. Spencer would like you to join him for lunch
at the headmaster's table."
The dining room was bustling when we entered. Four hundred pink-faced
boys in jackets and ties, more white people than I had ever seen in one place
in my life, were seated at long wooden tables noisily comparing notes about
summer vacations, summer romances, course assignments, and teachers.
And just as the school's catalogue had described, at the head of each table
sat a member of the faculty "to insure civility and to promote appropriate
discourse." At the opposite end of the table sat a student in a white cotton
jacket who was assigned to wait on the table for two weeks.
Tall, pale, and slender, in a brown tweed jacket and a bright red bow tie, the
headmaster, Oliver Spencer, stood when he saw us entering the room and
walked over to greet us.
"Well, this must be the Garrett family," he said. "I'm Ollie Spencer." His wide
smile exposed a mouthful of crooked, tobacco-stained teeth. I could imagine
my father, who was a dentist, cringing at the sight. Mr. Spencer extended his
hand, which my mother accepted without removing her glove. She was still
conducting a final inspection, before deciding, once and for all, whether to
leave her only child in this place.
"Did you have a good trip?" said Mr. Spencer, making what I came to
recognize as headmaster small talk. He pumped my father's hand and then
mine with an excess of enthusiasm, not even waiting for a reply. "Come and
join us for lunch. We've saved three places for you." We began a brief but
conspicuous journey to the headmaster's table, observed by everyone else in
the dining room. For several seconds, amid the din of voices and the clatter
of tableware, a hush fell over the room and conversation stopped while
everyone took a good look. I was the first, you see, the first colored student
in the eighty-seven year history of the place, and I suppose they could be
forgiven, at that point, for gawking.
My parents and I were seated next to each other, at the head of the table,
and introductions were made all around. Across from us sat Mrs. Spencer,
plump and hearty, with rosy cheeks and long blond hair piled loosely on top
of her head. She was wearing a white cotton blouse and a pale blue
seersucker jacket. For some reason, she reminded me of a teller in a bank.
Seated next to her was Mr. Wilcox, a mathematics teacher and a dour man
with a bald head, a bristling mustache, and heavy, tortoiseshell glasses that
he preferred to look over rather than through. And next to Mr. Wilcox was
Peter Dillard, president of the sophomore class, the class I was entering,
who was wearing a navy blue blazer and who looked as though he had
recently stepped out of the shower. Of the three, Mrs. Spencer seemed most
"Well, how are things in Virginia?" she asked. Her eyes were gleaming. I was
uncertain if she was asking about the weather or if she wanted to know the
truth, but my father intervened.
"Hot," he said. "It's always hot this time of year."
"Well, it's been pretty warm up here, too," she said. "We've had very little
rain. My garden is just parched."
My mother had been silent up to that point, and I was wondering what she
was thinking. I had been looking at dried-up gardens in our neighborhood all
my life, and I had never heard one described as "parched." I wondered if
mother had, and what she made of the headmaster's wife.
"Very fine school you have down there in Charlottesville," said Mr. Wilcox,
biting off his words like pieces of raw carrot. We let the comment twist slowly
in the wind, hoping no one would catch its scent. Of course, Mrs. Spencer
"Oh my, yes!" she squealed. "The university! Tell me, how is Charlottesville? I
haven't been there in ages. Such a lovely town, don't you think?"
"We sent three seniors there this year," chimed in an aroused Dillard, the
class president, as lunch arrived, lugged on a large metal tray by a student
All three seemed oblivious to the fact that until very recently I could not
attend the University of Virginia, under any circumstances. I wondered how
widespread was this ignorance among the rest of the school population. I
was certain my parents were uncomfortable with the implications of this
discussion. They had tried to shield me from the indignity of segregation
whenever possible -- arranging to take me wherever I needed to go so that I
didn't have to sit in the back of a segregated bus or streetcar, refusing to
patronize any shop or restaurant or theater that maintained a COLORED
ONLY section -- but they never pretended that it didn't exist. I could imagine
my mother giving the three across the table a withering look, dabbing the
corners of her mouth with the end of her napkin, and rising from the table to
say to Mr. Spencer, "We have obviously made a mistake. We have no
intention of leaving our son in a school like this. Thank you for your time."
Instead, Mr. Spencer put a baked chicken breast on each plate and passed
the plates around, together with stainless steel serving bowls of peas and
mashed potatoes, and the subject was not pursued, to my great relief.
It had become clear, before the end of the first hour of my first day, that the
world I had just entered was utterly different from anything I had previously
encountered. I was on my own. I would have to fend for myself, and I was
thrilled by the prospect.
"There will be a meeting of all new boys in the auditorium this afternoon at
four o'clock," said Mr. Spencer, toward the end of the meal. "Between now
and then, you can get your class assignments and your books and find your
dormitory room. Dillard will give you a hand." I had finished lunch and was
eager to get started, but first, I had to say goodbye to my parents. They were
still eating, however, and the headmaster's table in the dining room seemed
hardly the place for such a parting.
"Do you play any sports?" asked Dillard from across the table. In truth, I
hadn't played any organized sports in Virginia because there were none,
other than in high school, which I hadattended only for one year. We were not
allowed to play on the Little League baseball or football teams, and the only
way we could walk onto a golf course was as a caddy, which my parents
refused to allow me to do. I played a respectable game of playground
basketball, and could hold my own in football and baseball, but I had never
been coached in anything.
"A little basketball, a little football," I said, hoping my vagueness would cause
him to drop the subject. Instead, he seemed to take it for false modesty, and
his eyes widened.
Really?" he exclaimed. "Boy, can we ever use you. Football practice starts
this afternoon. Why don't you come over to the field?"
Everyone at the table was looking at me, waiting for my answer. Although I
didn't realize it at the time, I was about to define myself.
"Not this afternoon," I said. "I need to unpack and get my books. Maybe
some other time." Dillard gave me a long look of disappointment. My parents,
on the other hand, seemed to heave a joint sigh of relief.
The lunch dishes were cleared away, and my parents stood up and shook
hands with everyone. I told Dillard I would meet him at the dormitory in a few
minutes, and I got up to leave.
"Would you like to be excused?" said the headmaster. I gave him a puzzled
look, and he gave me a good-natured smile in return. "At Draper, boys are
expected to excuse themselves from the table before leaving," he said,
smiling again, with a kind of low-wattage, paternal grin.
"Excuse me, sir. May I be excused, sir?" I said. Everyone at the table
beamed, including my parents.
"Catches on fast," said my father with a smile. "That's a good sign." I had
passed my first rite of initiation into life at the Draper School, but it was
certain not to be my last.
"We're very glad to have you with us, and I hope you'll feel free to come and
see me whenever you have a problem," said Mr. Spencer, still flashing his
benign, all-purpose smile. "And, yes, you may be excused."
I walked out to the car with my parents, observing that we were still the
object of curiosity on the part of everyone around us. Not only the students,
but the adults, from the teachers to the groundskeepers, gave us long looks,
though it was not easy to tell what they were thinking. A few seemed friendly
and some seemed cool, but most of the expressions were blank as a piece
of paper that had not been written on.
The drive over to the dormitory with my parents gave us our first and last
opportunity that day to exchange in private our impressions of the school. I
was about to be left alone, truly alone, for the first time in my life. The two
great pillars that had supported me up to that point were about to be removed.
"Well, you're on your way, son," said my father. "They certainly keep the
place looking nice," he mused, steering the Buick past manicured lawns and
the graceful, towering elms that covered the campus. He was fond of
bromides, and maintained a barrel of them for use in every situation. Later,
after much thought, I realized that they were one of the tools of his trade.
Patients came to him expecting the worst, and his first task was to put them
at ease by talking, but only about little of consequence.
Mother, on the other hand, was a schoolteacher like Cousin Gwen. She was
used to having only fifty minutes to work with, so she got right to the
point. "You're going to be under a microscope while you're here and don't you
ever forget it. Not for one minute. Just when you think you've been accepted
and they're treating you just like everyone else, that's when something will
happen that will cause you to remember that you're a Negro. The only
contact these people have had with our people has been with maids and
shoeshine boys, and you can imagine what that's been like. I didn't see
another colored face in that dining room, not even back in the kitchen. So
you're it. You're going to represent the race, and from what I've seen and
heard, they've got a lot to learn." She leaned over the back of the front seat
toward me so that I could kiss her cheek, and as I did, I realized that it was
wet with tears. "Make us proud of you, son," she said.
As we were unpacking the car, Dillard arrived to help me take my things to
my room in the sophomore dormitory. It was a long, three-story brick
building, with an entrance set off by four tall white columns. My room was on
the third floor, with a dormer window that looked out on the campus, the
surrounding hills, and a part of the golf course. There was a bed, a desk and
chair, and a built-in dressing cabinet. It was not as large as my room at
home, but it was comfortable enough. My parents, who had accompanied us
up to the room to take a look, approved.
"Is there an adult in charge of the dormitory?" my mother asked Dillard as we
were all walking back down to the car. Dillard pointed to the far end of the
long corridor and a door with a brass knocker facing us. The door was shut.
"There's a master living on every floor," he said. "You don't see them that
often, but they'll have you in for punch and cookies once in a while. They're
mainly here to make sure things don't get out of hand." The three of us
chuckled at Dillard's remark, and strolled out to the car. Everything about the
school seemed to be in such perfect order, the graceful elms, the manicured
lawns, the handsome buildings, constructed with red brick that had aged
beautifully, and the pristine white columns. The footpaths had been paved
with the finest gray slate and did not contain a scrap of litter. Even the birds
seemed to have been trained to fly away to deposit their leavings elsewhere.
It was hard for me to imagine things getting out of hand in such a place.
All of the schools I had attended before had been hand-me-downs, schools
used by the whites until they were falling apart, when they were ready to be
abandoned to the Negro hordes. At least, I thought, I wouldn't have to worry
about a leaky roof in my algebra class at Draper.
We were downstairs at the car, and my parents were preparing to leave.
Dillard handed me a sheet of paper.
"I picked up your course assignments for you," he said. "You still need to get
your books from the bookstore, which is behind the main building. I've gotta
head over to the field for football practice. You sure you don't want to come?"
"I'm sure," I said. I knew I was fortunate to have a choice. Draper had
awarded me a small academic scholarship, but most of my tuition was being
paid by my parents, which meant that there was no expectation, when I
arrived, that I would have to earn my keep by wearing the green and gold of
the Draper Dragons.
Dillard said goodbye to my parents, shook their hands, and headed off to the
"Seems like a nice young fellow," said my father in his blue serge suit, his
hands clasped behind his back, surveying the campus again.
"Are you sure you packed that extra pair of pajamas I left out for you?" said
my mother. I assured her I had. "What about underwear? Are you sure you've
got enough underwear? What about your gloves? Remember, it gets cold up
here." She was having trouble leaving, and it should not have surprised me,
for I was the embodiment of her dreams, the life she had nurtured from her
womb and then tended in the hoary, weed-choked garden of the South, until
the decision was made to send me away to firmer, richer soil. Nevertheless, I
was absolutely desperate for them to go. This was supposed to be my
experience, and I wanted to have it on my own. I was too young to
understand that it was also their experience, indeed, their adventure, in a
world they had dreamed about and read about but never inhabited. Now they
were going to live in that world through me, but the price of the ticket was
steep. When they returned home, my bedroom would be empty. At
dinnertime, the table would only be set for two. And they would no longer
have to transport me from place to place so that I wouldn"t have to ride in the
back of the bus.
We exchanged brief hugs and kisses, and both of them seemed to be
fighting back tears as they climbed into the Roadmaster. I felt, at that
moment, looking at them seated behind the windshield of the huge black
sedan, that in the brief trip north, they had somehow aged; that without their
realizing it, time had caught up with them and was passing them by, and
now, having brought me as far as they could, they were about to return to the
past. Dad turned over the big Buick engine and it rumbled to life. From the
interior of the sedan, he looked at me standing alone at the edge of the
driveway and gave me a big wink, which I pretended not to notice. With the
edge of a handkerchief wrapped around her index finger, Mother dried the
corners of her eyes and managed a faint smile and a wave. Dad eased the
car forward, rolling it slowly down the driveway, until it reached the main road
Copyright © 2005 by Julian Houston.
Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Prejudices -- Fiction.
African Americans -- Fiction.
Jews -- United States -- Fiction.
Boarding schools -- Fiction.
Schools -- Fiction.