©Evan Nichols, 2009

©Evan Nichols, 2009

Segregation of white and colored children
in public schools has a detrimental effect…

–Chief Justice Earl Warren, Brown v Board of Education

The classroom air choked with chalk dust
and floor wax, but huddled in close outside
on the fire escape landing at West Park School,
in McKees Rocks, we tasted chocolates plucked
from inside the heart-shaped Russell Stover box
where my mother hid her bonbons–
a bite for you, a bite for me. The Baby Ruths
from the corner candy store cost you
your milk money, Camellia, the outside melt
the color of your hands, the nougats and creams
inside light as my fingertips breaking into the chew.

We hummed our sticky sweet delights stowed inside
our Butterick jumper pockets, until the teacher
flagged me across the stretch of cement school yard
over to the iron gate that led back to your row house
and my tenement, across hopscotch lines chalked in–
a clumsy journey, swings clanging against
a school bell ringing in the end of play for the day.

Don’t do that, the teacher whispered
like a secret, like a sin, words that traveled
from a playground of a schoolhouse long razed
in Pittsburgh all the way to Charleston
one springtime where in the Old Slave Market
I plucked from a ballast of stone a camellia,
a scentless bloom that fell apart in my hands,
flew in a flurry of spent petals into the wind.

Don’t do that, words that confounded children
in the Sunflower State finally able to walk
to school, or those giggling under cherry blossoms
facing the sprawl of Capitol monuments, or others
digging toes in sand on the Chesapeake Bay
sharing a peach–a bite for you, a bite for me.

Or evenings, their chins perched on hands,
listening together in the quiet, to nightingales
flowering the dogwood–but this bothers me now:
Camellia, the last time I was in Pittsburgh
so many years after, I saw you boarding
the 14C back to West Park, arms brimming
with McCrory store bundles, a little
light-skinned girl latched to your waist,
and I stood there frozen to the curb, unable
to wave my hand, unable to raise my voice,
dumbstruck by words drifting in from a teacher
whose face or name I cannot recall:
Don’t do that, she said, its bittersweet
still on my tongue.

©Andrena Zawinski, 2009

Andrena Zawinski is a fellow of the W. PA Writing Project at the University of Pittsburgh where she led poetry writing workshops in the Young Writers Institutes, Teachers’ Institutes, and Mid-Atlantic Arts Council. Her poetry has been published widely in print and online. She teaches writing at Laney College in Oakland, CA. Her latest full collecition, Something About, will be released this fall through  Blue Light Press in San Francisco. Zawinski is also Features editor at PoetryMagazine.com

One Response to “Bittersweets for Camellia by Andrena Zawinski”

  1. Judy Bebelaar Says:

    Great details, Andrena. The title fits it perfectly. Very evocative.


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