I dodge the small, puckered cracks in the concrete of the sidewalk. Maple trees and oak, large houses and small, a corner church and rumbling cars; kids running and moms yelling; neighbors greeting each other and horns blaring. Happiness is here in this heat-embedded city on a bluff near a mighty river. There is a glimmer of joy as I take in these sights, and I don't know why. There are bad things here and bad people who don't want us to rise, to be. But on we move from our homes to our jobs like nothing malevolent hovers, like there aren't two water fountains or two entrances to a theater or two worlds in this city, in this nation, split between black and white skin.
William's head is still bowed, his nose so close to the pages of the book, it's a wonder he hasn't fallen on his face. But he takes this path every day to school. He's aware of everything around him, but tunes it out, words on a page the only reason to keep moving and breathing. I remember feeling like that, like a book was salvation.
"How much farther? I need to get back to The Scarlet."
"You can go. I'll be fine making it by myself," he answers.
"I gave my word I'd see you to school so that's what I'm doing. You'll be rid of me soon enough, but I tell you what, if you skip class today and Mama Sugar hears about it, finishing that book will be the least of your worries."
William's eyes never leave the pages of his book. "Take the next right on Hunter Avenue."
Looking up, William smirks. "Okay, Sara."
"So do you go to school with... other kinds of kids?"
Will stops, again looking up from the book at me. "It's school. I'm not the only one there."
"Oh. Nah. White kids go where they go. We go where we go for the most part. But Mr. Coulter said that's why we gotta study hard. He said it won't be like that forever."
"You believe him?"
William shrugs. "Don't know why grown folk think it means that much. Like we're not studying for a test. It's like we're studying for a war or something."
The boy isn't that far off. I know he already sees it. The edges of what other people think his humanity to be, how he's to be treated because of his race, something over which he has no control but somehow has to fight to find some kind of control over. But at least he's got a few people in his corner like Mama Sugar and this Mr. Coulter. Some part of me is relieved he doesn't have to be the first child or adult to walk through the doors of somewhere he's not welcome. To hear shouts or curses; feel the blast of a water cannon or the heat of a fire or the teeth of a dog. To be the first doesn't mean glory or applause or fame. Most times, it means fear and sacrifice. Sometimes being first means death.
"You study for Mr. Andersen's arithmetic test?" asks a young girl in an emerald dress three steps behind us. Matching bows adorn two thick black braids touching her shoulders and a third one down to her midback. She strolls up on my other side looking at William, waiting for his answer. "So?"
Rolling his eyes, William drops his arms down to his sides, the book dangling to his right. "Yeah Diane, I studied enough. Why do you care anyway?"
She coughs, hard and phlegmy. Sweat dots her forehead. "Well... it might be nice to have some competition."
I pat Diane's back. "Are you okay?"
"Yes ma'am. It's the heat. That's what Daddy says. Memphis heat can heal you or kill you."
Diane laughs or wheezes. The sounds are the same in my ears. She looks at William. "I've had the highest grade in arithmetic class three weeks... in a row."
"Won't be four," counters Will.
"We'll see." The girl in the emerald dress walks ahead of us. Slowly. Grabbing on to each fence post as she makes her way down the street.
William puts the book back up to his face. "Diane thinks she's so smart. She doesn't know everything."
Children run to a red brick building almost a block wide with four snow-white pillars, two flanking each side of the main entrance. The American flag and a small bell tower are perched atop the roof. Sunlight illuminates large open spaces, distilling the air with the smell of grass and wilting flowers.
"Okay, you can tell Granny you saw me here."
"I'll be back around when school's over."
"I got studies with Mr. Coulter, remember? Can you let Granny know it was tutoring?"