HILDA STEPPED OFF THE GREEN SCHOOL BUS onto the sidewalk outside Vogelweh Elementary School. Though the day was already warm, she shivered a little. The administration had given her family a tour of the school earlier, and they had met the other new families at a special assembly last week. But she was terrified.
Almost all the kids at the new school lived in the neighbourhood around the school in Army base housing. She was coming from downtown Kaiserslautern, the first stop on the bus route to Pulaski Barracks. She had never taken a bus to school; the last school was in her neighbourhood. She had the only dark complexion on the bus. The others on the bus were officers’ children, or, like her, from families in which one parent was German. Only a dozen kids, spread out in the bus.
Hilda had never noticed her own skin colour before, surrounded as she had been by a kaleidoscope of skin tones. In Buenos Aires, there had been a mix of children whose parents worked in a wide range of professions and specialties. They also came from all over the world. Caucasian Americans were a minority, and her friends spoke Spanish, German, French and English with equal ease.
Off the bus, her surroundings seemed more normal. The children who had walked from base housing were the typical mix of colours, half of them cocoa and dark brown.
For the first time in her life, her height made her self-conscious. At nine-years old, she was entering fourth grade, but she could see over the heads of everyone except the grown men. She had started this growth spurt last spring, and already she could no longer cuddle in her father’s lap.
Her father, Tongai (Tom outside the family), had left on his first secret mission. No one, not even her mother Margareta, knew where he was going or when he would be back. This had been the routine in Argentina for her first three grades of school. At least he had been home for long stretches between assignments. Hilda hoped this tour would be like that. Kaiserslautern was also different because it was home. Her parents had fallen in love, married and settled here, and her grandmother, Ebba Mayer, lived in the apartment building next to theirs.
The day before he deployed, Tongai had crouched down in front of his daughter after they toured the school. Margareta was exchanging addresses and phone numbers with the mothers who lived in downtown Kaiserslautern.
“Murapi, my mudiki,” my little one, he said in Shona, which they preferred because only Margareta could eavesdrop. Murapi, healer, was Hilda’s Shona name. “Remember that you cannot be like the other children. Don’t try. Be proud of who you are. Welcome the friends who welcome you. Let the others go.”
“I’m scared, Baba.”
He hugged her to him, sitting back on his heels. “The princess Murapi is afraid?”
“That was a story that my sekuru told me.” Her grandfather, Garai Paisley, lived in London.
“And who did he say was the girl in the story?”
“And what was she to you?”
“Oh. My many-times-great-grandmother. Was she really a princess?”
“Yes, and a great queen. We named you for her – and your grandmother and her grandmother.”
“Do I have to learn to milk cows?” African princesses did not live in fairy tale castles in the story.
Tongai laughed. “Your father does not own any cattle, so you get off easy.”
She had felt better, but now she felt very alone. She looked and listened for something familiar. She followed some young voices shouting in German and entered the school. Knowing that others were speaking one of her languages dispelled some of the fear. She straightened up and looked for the fourth-grade classroom.
The room was where it was last week. She slapped herself mentally for worrying that it would move. A young woman, maybe mid-twenties, stood at the doorway with a clipboard. Almost as tall as the men, she had the broad shoulders and strong frame of an athlete, and a mid-length Afro hairstyle. Her eyes smiled with her mouth.
“Hello. I remember you. You’re Hilda Paisley.”
“I’m Ms. Harlow. I’ve put you in the last row because you are so tall. If you have trouble seeing or hearing, please let me know.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Hilda walked to the back, conscious of the stares and the sudden silence. Her seat was between a tiny girl who looked Asian and a boy with red hair and freckles all over his face and arms.
Ms. Harlow came to her desk at the front of the room and put down her clipboard.
“Good morning, students. You all know who I am. Let’s go around and introduce ourselves. Name, hometown, and how long we have been here at Vogelweh…”
Margareta was waiting on the sidewalk when the bus stopped on the Fischerstrasse.
“Well, cära,” she said to the girl hugging her waist. They spoke in Swedish, the language that Margareta had grown up with. “How was the first day?”
“I was scared at first because everybody stared and stopped talking. That was so weird.”
“I remember that. Every first day of school, every year. Did it change after a while?”
“Yes, by lunch, the noise kept up, even though some kids kept staring. Ms. Harlow had us introduce ourselves. I met kids who spoke German and live near us. I also met a Puerto Rican girl, whose father was in the Marine Detachment at the Embassy in Buenos Aires. They live in Kindsbach, so she rides a different bus.”
“So does anyone speak English?”
“Everyone, of course. But it’s not so lonely now.”
“Good. You might as well get used to the stares, because I expect that you will be as tall as your father one day.” Tongai stood two meters tall (about six feet five inches) and Margareta almost that tall at 198 cm.
“And as beautiful as you, right?”
Margareta laughed. “Your father would say that, but you are already beautiful. Come, let’s go tell your grandmother about your first day…”
The blaze of colours blanketing the hills of the Upper Palatinate yielded to the green firs, brown deciduous trees, and grey stone. Sprinkles of snow played with the children at recess. Ms. Harlow and her colleagues hugged themselves in their puffy jackets and overcoats, and yet again marvelled at the hot little bodies racing around the yard. Hilda was learning basketball from a group of fifth graders. After two weeks since the older kids had asked her to join them, she did more than stand still and wait for her teammates to pass her a ball for a three-point shot. In fact, the kids found out that she was very fast, if a little clumsy. If she did not have to do more than one thing (like run and shoot), Hilda could sink baskets the others only dreamed of. Most of them would learn in another year or so about the awkwardness that accompanies a fast growth spurt.
“Quite an athlete, isn’t she, Melinda?” Doris Smith, the fifth-grade teacher, asked.
“Her size alone gives her an advantage, but yes, I agree.” Melinda Harlow rubbed her hands together briskly. “She also seems to be very bright. That international school in Buenos Aires must have been ahead of us in the basics.”
“No, not at all. She does not volunteer much and seems not to want to draw any more attention to herself than her size already does. A quiet child.”
“A blessing. That crowd she is playing with doesn’t slow down after recess. Takes hours to calm them down.”
“I remember them last year. Hilda is going to be an asset, I think. Did you know that she speaks six languages?”
“You’re kidding. I should not be surprised at three, living here, but six?”
“In addition to the usual English, German and French, she learned Spanish in Argentina, and speaks English, Swedish and Shona at home.”
“Shona? Isn’t that from southern Africa somewhere?”
“It turns out that Hilda’s grandfather emigrated from Rhodesia long before it was Zimbabwe. Shona is the majority language there. Hilda said that he served in the British Army in World War Two.”
“That explains their English accents.”
“Yes. It does make her different, though. I hope she does not catch grief from some of our bullies.”
“Don’t worry, Melinda. She has her basketball friends on her side now. The bullies don’t mess with jocks.”
“Right. Thanks, Doris.” The bell rang for the first afternoon class. “I was afraid for Hilda, but now I wonder who the bullies will target, and will we catch them?”
Hilda and Margareta walked from their apartment to the church. It was Wednesday and time for choir rehearsal. Ebba was the organist and music director, so Margareta had grown up in the Alt Katholische music tradition. Hilda loved to hear her mother’s voice; she had been a popular opera soprano before Hilda was born, and even today drew crowds when word got out that she would be singing at a benefit, or in church, or, like this year, at the New Year’s Eve street party downtown. They swung their arms, holding hands as they walked. It was an immensely happy motion for them both.
“Mama, what’s a banana?”
“A fruit, dear. Why?”
“Ai-lan, the girl next to me in class, was crying at recess. I asked her why, and she said some fifth-grade boys called her a banana and slapped her.”
“That’s terrible! Do you know these boys?”
“No. They usually play at the other side of the yard at recess.”
“Three of them. I think one was retained, because he is so much bigger than the other two.”
“Did you and Ai-lan tell Ms. Harlow?”
“No. Ai-lan said she was afraid. Is it something bad?”
“If it’s what I think it is, it’s an insult.”
“I think it means she is yellow on the outside and white on the inside.”
“That’s an insult? Why?”
Margareta sighed. “I’m not sure. It think it’s used between Asians. What are the boys?”
“I don’t know. What Serena would call Anglos.”
“They probably don’t have any idea what they’re talking about.”
“Ai-lan was really upset. It made me very angry.”
They walked a little farther.
“Have you heard anyone call someone an Oreo?” asked Margareta.
“No. What’s an Oreo?”
“A very sweet cookie. A white sugar filling in between two black cookies. The sweetness makes me grind my teeth, which is why I never buy them.”
“You mean, black on the outside and white on the inside?”
“You got it. So, never heard that?”
“No. Is it an insult, too?”
“I think it’s supposed to be. Black people use it to mean ‘you are not one of us, you just look like us.'”
“It sounds silly to me, Mama.”
“It is. Considering that you are half-German and half-African, it is a stupid insult because you are both. Anyone who knows you should know not to use it. However, you may be called an Oreo by those who don’t.”
“It wouldn’t bother me, I think.”
“Good. Now, it obviously bothered Ai-lan to be called a banana. Are you sure you don’t want Ms. Harlow to know?”
Hilda thought as they walked.
“Let me ask her again tomorrow. If she is still afraid, I’ll ask why. I don’t know the boys, but maybe she does.”
“That sounds like a good idea, dear.” They approached the steps of the church. “There she is. Go!”
Hilda ran up the stairs to hug her grandmother.
The next day, Hilda tried to talk to An-lai, but there was never a chance. At lunch, the tiny girl disappeared, only to return in time to eat one of her sandwiches before recess.
Hilda picked up the basketball from the edge of the yard. She heard a squealing sound in the bushes by the fence where she had found the ball. Ai-lan’s voice. She ran to a space in the hedge. Ai-lan was struggling between two of the boys who had insulted her yesterday. The big one was pinching her on the chest.
A rage came over Hilda, something she had never felt before. Yesterday she had been angry, but this was different. The world turned red around the scene. She dropped the ball and ran at them, screaming a long, wild shriek.
Picking up the big boy, she threw him into the hedge. The other two stood still long enough for her to pick up one of them and throw him at the other one. They went down in a heap and began crying. Hilda turned to Ai-lan and hugged her.
“What’s going on here?” Ms. Harlow and Ms. Smith appeared.
Hilda continued to hug her friend and turned her head to the teachers.
“They were beating her up.”
The two at the edge were getting up. “Stand right there, you two!” Ms. Smith barked.
She bent over the big one, who was bawling. “Someone picked me up and threw me!”
“I see that. What were you doing to Ai-lan?”
Ms. Harlow took the Asian girl aside and examined the bruises on her chest.
“Nothing, eh? Everyone to the office. Now!”
Ms. Smith picked up the basketball and passed it to the others standing on the court.
Tongai returned from wherever he was two days later. Margareta was home, but Hilda was still at school. They skipped lunch to make up for lost time – and to take advantage of the absence of their precocious and very observant daughter….
As they lay in each other’s arms, Tongai asked, “So, how is the new school? Murapi was so afraid when I left.”
“She’s not afraid anymore, but her life is probably more exciting than yours now.”
He arched an eyebrow, asking for more. Margareta told him about the racial insults and the bullying of An-lai.
“I expected some bullying. There had to be some tough kids there, but I did not have time to meet the families and figure out who they would be.”
“It would have done no good, dear. You’re not in a unit here, and it turns out that she was not a target.”
“Never. First because of her size, but when the basketball players taught her the game, she was looked on as one of the jocks.”
“Our mudiki, a jock?” He laughed gently and shook his head.
“She’s your daughter: strong, big and fast.”
“Yours, too. Voice of an angel and as gentle as a kitten.”
“Try leopard cub.” Margareta went on to describe what happened to the bullies. The three of them had been warned several times and earned suspensions for the assault on Ai-lan. Hilda almost was suspended, too, but the two teachers convinced the principal that the speed of her reaction had prevented additional damage to An-lai, and that she had used minimum force.
“She never hit anyone?”
“No. She picked them up and threw them.”
Tongai laughed until the tears ran. “I need to get myself under control. How am I going to set an example for her? — hey, what are you giggling at?”
Margareta kissed him on the cheek. “Let’s get it out of our system before she gets home. We can’t be seen encouraging violence, can we?”
© 2022, JT Hine