Essay: What I Learned

Essay: What I Learned

This is the fifth in our series of essay contest winners.

A play date crumbles in a Church’s Chicken parking lot.

It might have happened if she had been white, but she was not. She was Shanae, brown-skinned with braids all over, and she rode the big yellow bus up the hill to kindergarten every day. From the first day, my 5-year-old son saw in Shanae a kindred  spirit, a reader of books with  their made-up words, a player  of the same imaginative games on the climbing structure and in the sandbox, a little girl honest and unafraid—and such a sweetheart, full of kindness.

It was a quarter century ago, and I knew less than I do now. I was full of dreams and hopes, and it did something tender and right in my gut to see Jacob run into that classroom to find Shanae first thing, to show her a new book or a small toy and to give her a drawing he’d made. I helped out in the class most days, bringing my 2-year-old in his stroller. I saw how the two of them had other friends, but nothing with the same zest and spark, and how they sat quietly next to each other on the rug during story time.

I met Shanae’s mother early in the school year—a tall, reserved, grown-up version of the exuberant little girl. It was Back to School Night, and she asked about what the children were learning and how to help her daughter do well. I introduced myself, and the reserve melted to a woman’s version of the little girl’s sweet smile. She shook her head and said something about my son—“the talk of my house”—and to me she seemed so OK with it. “I love how both of them love books. It’s what Shanae needs; just the right friend for her.”

That night, sitting side by side on the little chairs in the classroom, she and I traded tidbits about the children’s never-ending make-believe games. We laughed together and exchanged phone numbers. I remember thinking: We could be friends. As the program ended, I turned to her. “It would be wonderful to have Shanae over sometime. She could walk home from school with us. I could bring her back home in time for supper, or you could come by to pick her up.” I remember that she put her hand on my arm lightly: “Yes, that would make her so happy. It would be fine; any day is good. Maybe soon, right?”

She must have talked to Shanae about it, because from that day on, it was all that Shanae and Jacob talked about. “When you come over” was the dream, and they filled it in with multicolor pictures and plans, and “we have a big tree in the backyard.” “Will we climb it together?” asked Shanae.

I called Shanae’s mother and left a message, full of warmth and welcome in my voice: so good to meet you, those kids can’t stop talking about this, let’s figure out a time. There was no return call. At the end of the week I tried again—shorter this time, “hope you got my last message,” that kind of thing. When I came to help in the class, Shanae and Jacob sat on either side of me, listening to me read and interrupting: When will it be?

I sent a note home. I wrote it carefully and shared it with the children, reading it out loud to them: “I’d love to talk to you and find a good time for a play date.” Shanae asked if she could decorate it and then folded it carefully, putting it in the front pocket of her pack and promising Jacob she’d give it to her mother “this night, today.”

In the morning, she was waiting at the classroom door when we arrived.

“She said yes!” I put an arm around each of them, quieting them down.

“Yes what, sweetie?” “Yes  I can come over today!” I saw them reading my hesitation. “Today! She told me it’s fine for today. She told me to tell you.” Shanae reached for my hand.  “Really. You can call her!”

I walked the baby home and put him down for a nap. I called, listening to the four long rings before the machine clicked on. “Just checking to make sure it’s fine for today—want to be sure with you. Please call me; I’ll be home; here’s my number.” I heard the hesitation in my voice as I recorded it. Giving her the number again—was that too much?

I checked the answering machine and then sat out back in the sun, looking at the big tree, a pulling anxiety fighting with something I didn’t like: annoyance, maybe even anger, and then anger at my anger. I wandered through the house, picturing Shanae and Jacob at the big dining table working on a treasure map, Jacob pulling books off the shelf to show her, the two of them running all over the backyard looking at snails and worms and finding rocks.

I ate lunch with the baby, distracting myself with his Cheerio-pinching antics and then talking out loud to him as he mashed a banana slice with his finger. “So what will I tell them? What should I do? What could possibly be wrong?” He crowed in delight as I shook my head and shook his head back at me, the sun pouring through the window on his blond hair.

I pictured the children’s faces at pick-up time and got up out of my chair, walked to the phone, stood there for a minute. I pushed the unease away and left another message. “Hope everything is OK. We’ll walk home together and will be here at home, to make sure to catch your call. I can drive her home if that’s best for you, or you’re welcome to come pick her up if you want. Come any time. Did I give you my address?”

We made the dream happen—the walk home after school down Spider Way, the snacks with long and earnest consultation about who would pick which thing to eat, the elaborate drawing on huge paper on the big table, and the hunt for treasure in the backyard. I was helping Shanae find a sweater as the day cooled off when the phone rang.

Here is what I remember from that time.

Her voice, a different voice, and all the words. You have my daughter. You took my daughter. I never said. What gave you the right? Now, Church’s Chicken on Telegraph and 42nd. Oakland. Right now and I’ll be waiting.

A quiet car ride, the two of them in the back with the baby in between, a soft whisper, and once, from Jacob: “Mommy?” My glance through the rear-view mirror, seeing their hands, white and brown, twined together. My tears and my terror of an accident.

My car turning in at the drive-in, seeing her standing there, hair uncombed, an old coat too big for her. Wondering where her car was, how she got there, why there, kicking myself for all those wonderings. Saying I was sorry, too many times, what good is sorry, and useless to hide tears from her.

I knew she was right. I knew nothing, assumed everything, and there was no excuse. No excuse at all. I knew it was wrong, but there was more. There between us, the ache that doesn’t go away, just this break, deep to the middle of the earth, so much bigger and deeper and wider than that bus ride up the hill. Her life, my life. My blind assumptions, the fear I saw—was it the first time?—in Shanae’s eyes, and the troubles written all over her mother’s face, all mashed up together there in the parking lot of Church’s.


Wendy Bomberg lives in Berkeley. It was her experience as a volunteer in her older son’s elementary school classroom that drew her to her second career, as a social worker in the Oakland schools and with a community-based organization, working with youth who still populate her dreams.

This essay appears in the January edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.

Published online on Jan. 30, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.