23 Feb

Thalia Hicks was the only black girl in my class until school busing started in 1970, when we were in the third grade. She lived on Cooke Street, only a few blocks from where I lived, but I don’t remember going over Thalia’s house to play.

Thalia dressed nicer than the white girls. She wore conservative, neatly pressed dresses, bobby socks and loafers. Her hair was usually either braided into two neat side-braids, more like french braids than corn rows, or into a ponytail, with a short curl of a bang in front. We all played together in the schoolyard—all the white girls and Thalia, or Birdie, her nickname that we sometimes used. She told us why she was named that, but now I can’t recall—was it for her long, slender legs? The only times I do remember all of the white girls and Thalia coming together outside of school was at our birthday parties.

Whether it was out of politeness or genuine friendship, Thalia was invited to all of the white girls’ birthday parties, and we were all invited to hers. While there was never any fallout at the white girls’ parties, every time we were at Thalia’s birthday, one or two of the white girls would end up leaving.

The first year, two of the girls ended up fighting about some random thing, and both decided to leave. Other years one or two girls would get mad about something or another, nothing particular that I can recall, and just storm out of the house. In my mind, I remember them storming out, but in reality, at that age, they probably had to call their mothers to be picked up. I can almost recall this—the tension in Thalia’s living room, all of us children sitting eating birthday cake in silence, the adults, Thalia’s relatives along the perimeter of the living room, sitting on sofas, and chairs brought in from the kitchen, trying to pretend everything was fine, trying to pretend we didn’t leave her party feeling like a train wreck.

Even at the age of eight and nine, I thought these girls couldn’t tolerate being at a black person’s house, and had to leave. I felt bad for Thalia, and for her Mom, who remained pleasant throughout these annual trials. I felt ashamed of white people for doing stuff like this. I didn’t know what social justice was, but I knew something was wrong here.

A few years after busing started, even though Thalia was one of us, a pre-busing neighborhood kid, our circle of friends shifted; changed. I suppose all girls’ friendships are fickle, regardless of race. One year so-and-so is your best friend. The following year, she’s not in your class anymore, or you decide you hate her, and you claim a new best friend. And, even though the point of integrated schools was to have children from diverse backgrounds learn and socialize together, the opposite may have happened.

We did get along, we played together at recess, but outside of school, sameness seemed to have won out. I spent most of my after school time with white friends, and I imagine Thalia spent most of hers with newfound black friends. I was glad that Thalia had more black friends because I remember being surprised, that even at her parties, there weren’t any other black girls from outside of school there. I wondered if before busing, not having any friends that looked like her, made her feel lonely.  By the time eighth grade rolled around at our K – 8 school, it was clear that Thalia wasn’t a very big part of our circle anymore. I can’t say I blame her.

I now wonder how Thalia felt after those parties. Maybe she never gave those days another thought . If she has, I’m sorry that her memory of birthday cake was anything less than sweet.


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