©Hector Lee, 2014

©Hector Lee, 2014

Excerpted from my still unpublished “Forty Years in the Trenches”

Alicia was a ninth grader, a silvery pearl of a girl. She was small, delicate, almost tiny, her skin translucent, her chin in a point, her eyes roundly hazel, her hair huge.  She was a painting by Gainsborough.  Perhaps it was her size that made her hair seem so overwhelming.  It stood far above her forehead, crinkled out of straightness, then drawn upward many inches, ratted, teased and sprayed into a pompadour that outdid anything Marie Antoinette could have imagined. Alicia had saved some of her hair so that it could trail down her neck and, sweet tendrils, onto her shoulders. As for the rest, I never saw it move; it stood proudly above Alicia, a monument to hair products everywhere.

Only twice did Alicia tamper with her upsweep.  We, the whole class and I, traveled from Concord, California to the DeYoung Museum of Art in San Francisco to see the exhibit of African-American art.  I agreed to a field trip in response to their “Nobody ever takes us anywhere,” which was true, what sane person would take 34 ninth graders anywhere.  A bit of a warning: when you decide to really listen to kids, you have to every once in a while accede to their demands or they’ll stop talking to you.  “Okay,” I said, “if everybody reads and does reading logs on “Raisin in the Sun,” we’ll go to the DeYoung.  “In San Francisco?” they wondered.  “Yay! I never went there!”

We took BART, we took three buses and walked and walked and it was hot and Alicia came alongside me, tugged at my sleeve and said, “Mrs. Juska, do you have a Tampax?”  Not for a good 10 years.  I shook my head No.  “Nobody’s got one,” she said.  “I have to have one. I’m getting my period, I can tell. I have a cramp.”  We looked wildly about for a drugstore.  There it was.  “Do you have any money, Mrs. Juska, I could borrow?” Alicia wanted to know.  “I just brought what you told us for buses and things.”  I looked down at her very pale face, a faint sheen covering her upper lip, and gave her money.  She withdrew into the drugstore and on her return announced,  “Now I’m going to that gas station over there. Can Marcia come with me?”

We were all patient waiting on the sidewalk in the hot October sun, the boys muttering their gratitude to the god of manhood for not having to put up with “that stupid shit.”  Out came Alicia, all smiles, and not long after we found ourselves on the steps of the DeYoung where, inside, many many students from schools all over the Bay Area strolled or raced, clutching many pages of questions their teachers had mandated they answer:  “When did this artist live?”  “What is he best known for?” “What section of the country is he from?”  Questions that couldn’t have interested even the teachers, let alone high school students, questions that were just damn busywork.  The questions my kids were to answer were of my design and were intended to add to, not subtract from, the pleasure of going to a museum.  My questions were cool: “What painting surprised you?  How?  What painting disturbed you, made you uneasy?  How?  What painting would you most like to own?  Why?  What painting would you come back to see again?  Why?  What question would you like to ask the artist?”  Good questions, aren’t they.  Only took me 25 years to think them up.

My reward for going to the trouble of dragging 34 ninth graders 40 miles above and below the earth was watching them look at paintings.  Not one of them had ever done so before.  Alicia dutifully wrote down her answers to all my questions, her eyes round with wonder even as she was bumped and jostled by kids bigger and older than she.  At the end, as we stood beneath Jacob Lawrence’s “Dreams No. 2,”  she held her notebook out for me to see.  “I did all my work,” she said and then, “Do you know that saying they had in like the olden days?”

“What olden days?”

“You know, like the Sixties.”

“Oh, those olden days.  What saying?”

“Black is beautiful. Did you ever hear of it?”   I nodded.

“I never knew what they meant, but it’s true, isn’t it, like just look.”

She was right again.

There was something different about Alicia today though I couldn’t put my finger on it.  It wasn’t until we were about to board BART, the last leg of our homeward journey, when Alicia said.  “Do you notice anything about me?”

“I’m not sure, there’s something but…”

Alicia pointed at her hair.  “I’m wearing a headband.”

Indeed, she was.  It created a sizable dent in her coiffeur although Alicia beneath it remained her luminous little self.

She continued.  “Did you notice the color of it?”

“It’s white, isn’t it.”

She was pleased with my perspicuity.  “Know why?”

“You got me there.”

“Well, I couldn’t wear black because that’s the Crips color.  And I couldn’t wear red because red’s for the Bloods.”

I stare at her in amazed silence.

“I chose neutral.”  She points at her band.  “White.  In case there’s a gangbang.”

“Good choice, Alicia,” I say.  “Good thinking there.”  We smile at each other, both of us relieved that our day in the City will soon end.

At the end of April Alicia comes to my room during lunch.  Her hair is brushed straight and shiny and falls over her shoulders.  She wears a blue ribbon.  She looks for all the world like Alice in Wonderland.  “I wanted to tell you I’m going to leave.”

I am surprised.  “But there’s so little left in the semester….”

“I’m going to stay with my sister.  She’s over in Hayward.”

“But…”

“Things aren’t right at my house.”

“Oh, Alicia,” I say, “I will miss you.”

“Me, too.  Can I give you a hug?”

And away she went.  And I did miss her and I still do.  She was precious and I bet she still is.

©Jane Juska, 2014

Born in 1933, Jane Juska is an old person but a new writer.  Her first book, A Round-Heeled Woman, was published in 2003, followed in 2006 by Unaccompanied Women.  Before that, she taught English for forty years in high school, college, and prison.  Her work has appeared in magazines and anthologies.  She is working on a novel.  The Summer Institute of 1982 is responsible for all this.

5 Responses to “A Pearl of a Girl by Jane Juska”

  1. Steve Tollefson Says:

    What a lovely piece, Jane. Very moving and funny. (And I love the whole paragraph description of the hair!) Your memoir needs to get published. Thanks for this.

  2. Ruby Bernstein Says:

    Oh, those field trips! Wonderful description and dialogue, Jane. And all of
    that terrific hair; Hector Lee’s sketch adds to that memory.

  3. Jan Bergamini Says:

    Hi Jane – as always your writing makes me smile in recognition, nod my head, and say, “Yes.”

  4. judybebelaar Says:

    I was right there with you. Oh, I hope Alicia somehow sees this and lets you know how she is, and how much she liked the story about her.

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