MADELINE AND ME
“Stop it! Stop it!” Madeline screamed as the kids on the Whittier Elementary school playground hurled whatever they could find on the ground at her. Sticks, rocks, dirt, even discarded remnants of lunches were launched toward Madeline as the evil chorus shouted, “Fat Mad!’ Mad, Fat!” “Mad” was short for Madeline and “fat “was because, well, she was bigger than the rest of us and those kids were mean.
Madeline ducked and dodged as best she could, screaming all the while. “My hair is clean!” she cried, as she covered her head with her hands in an attempt to protect her gleaming blond hair from the onslaught of garbage landing on her from head to shoes. That blond hair of hers was her crowning glory. For her, it neutralized her large body type and gave her a modicum of self-esteem. And for Madeline, the big white girl, and me, the skinny high yellow bookworm, self-esteem was often hard to find.
Madeline was not just a white girl standing in the middle of the 1960’s white flight, she was the only white girl left at my school. All of the other white kids and their families who were in the neighborhood when my family and I arrived in 1960 had moved away. On the schoolyard, as in the world, we had become acutely aware of our differences, and the torture that could sometimes result. We had also arrived at an age where how we chose to handle differences would be revealed. As fifth graders we did not process much beyond influences from parents, teachers, friends and television. When those influences combined with where we were at the time, we often just fell into the actions that made us fit in with the others. It felt so good to fit in and so lonely to be an outlier, we were all vulnerable to meanness at one point or another. And those of us who were different, in varying ways, tended to cling to each other, just to get through the times we were forced to leave our sometimes viewed as odd comfort zones and step foot on the scary asphalt yard with the others.
United in the third grade by our differences to the accepted norms, Madeline and I were solid best friends. We were the only friends we had, and on that day, on that schoolyard, it was my duty to come to her defense. Even though I was thinking this, I still waited a tick for the adult yard monitors to intervene, but when I looked over at them, they were pointing and laughing at the attack along with the others. As I scanned the crowd it became clear that the adults who were supposed to protect us were having a good time watching Madeline’s anguish. As more joined the sideshow, those who had already used their physical weapons, added their voices to the verbal insults, while others began to gather just to join in the “fun.” After all, nothing bad could be happening since the adults were participating. No nothing bad. Just the torturing of Madeline.
Splat! A half empty milk carton landed right in the middle of Madeline’s head, her fingers providing insufficient cover for the carefully aimed missile. Milk ran down the sides of her face ruining her shiny Breck shampooed blond hair. “Two days clean! Two days clean!” Madeline whimpered as she ran toward the gate to exit the yard.
The kids followed, continuing the bombing and the verbal insults. “Fat Mad, Fat Mad!” they shouted in unison until it began to sound like a chant for some pagan ceremony.
It was when the crowd began to follow her like an arm waving, yelling, hurling blob; I knew I had to do something to stop it. I ran around the blob and stood in front of Madeline.
“Leave her the fuck alone!” I shouted.
To my surprise, the crowd became silent and fell back. At first I thought it was all because of my courage and use of an adult curse word that caused them to retreat, but soon realized the bell had rung signaling the end of the afternoon recess. It was like nothing had occurred as they mumbled their way back to class.
By then, Madeline was sitting on the ground in a sobbing heap with her back against the fence and her head between her knees. As I turned around to comfort her and to make sure she was not hurt, I felt an adult hand pulling gruffly on the back of my collar. It was the big “losing prize fighter-faced female yard monitor, one of the three who had just silently stood and watched Madeline being pelted.
“Why are you grabbing me?” I asked.
“Oh, Miss smarty, you are in big trouble, she said. I am taking you to the principal’s office! You think you can cuss like that around here?”
I didn’t know where the word came from the first time, me being the silent and studious type, but I felt it rumbling up from my toes to my tongue a second time, and before I knew it, I had lifted my arms to free myself from her grasp, spun on the balls of my PF Flyers and let the “fuck YOU”, just roll out of my mouth. I could hear the kids who had by then surrounded us cheer as I was led away to the principal’s office. For them, I was just a new scene in the day’s entertainment.
I spent the rest of the afternoon in an unforgivingly hard wooden chair in the principal’s windowless outer office wondering what had become of Madeline. A few people came in and out but barely glanced in my direction. Feeling righteous and indignant I was not really worried about being punished. No one ever came out to talk to me. When the closing bell rang, I just got up and left.
When I reached the gate, there was Madeline, waiting for me, with the strangest smile on her face. Her clothes were splattered with stains and I could still see the dried milk in her hair. “Come on, she said calmly. Let’s go to my house so I can change my clothes and wash this stuff out of my hair.”
Madeline lived three blocks away from me in a small apartment she shared with her mother. Neither she nor her mother ever spoke of her father, and I never asked. Unlike me with my parents and three sisters, it was just the two of them. Her mother was an aircraft mechanic at the naval base across town, and unheard of occupation for a woman in those days. She was short and stout and once when a kid snatched her purse as she walked down the street to catch the bus for work, she chased him down and beat him senseless. After that, she became a neighborhood legend and people steered clear. Madeline on the other hand, while resilient in many ways, was gentle and quiet and would never fight back.
Even then, at the age of nine, I could feel the change in my friend after the schoolyard attack and could almost taste her seething anger. But most of all, I could see the anguish mixed with confusion on her reddened face as she struggled to understand why she had been singled out. As far as she and I knew, nothing new had happened to provoke such an attack. It seemed out of the blue and spontaneous. It was shocking and hurtful to both of us, but most of all to Madeline. She lost her sense of safety and comfort that day. I knew that feeling well.
One of the most difficult things I ever had to do was to leave Madeline alone at that school when I went to another school for the sixth grade. I knew we would lose touch. We lived close to each other but our visits would invariably taper off as we made new friends and engaged in new routines. Then the day came when my family and I moved away from the neighborhood.
I would not see Madeline again until my mother died almost twenty years later. She travelled from another state to be with us when she heard. She borrowed a scooter from a friend and made her way to the family home in the Oakland hills. We sat on the sofa and held hands for a time while we caught up on the years we had been separated. I had stayed put while she and her mother had moved to the Midwest. I didn’t think about the next day’s funeral while she was there. She didn’t stay for it; she said she couldn’t. I wanted to leave with her.
A few years later I found her again and reached out to her and in May 1986 received a letter, which read in part,
I don’t believe it! I thought I’d lost track of you!
You’re still psychic! I do have news, NEWS!
Finally, after (how many years?) Years! At 35 I’m pregnant! Right now 7 mos + 4 days. Ultrasound says a boy, too.”
In December 1987 she sent us a family Christmas letter with a picture of her son enclosed. It was a typed letter (for which she apologized) and full of news about her now toddler son and her mother’s fall visit. Although the letter was a bit impersonal, I could feel her joy. I was happy to know that she was happy.
I sent cards and letters over the next few years, but stopped when they went unanswered. I thought she may have moved and didn’t get them.
Then one day I couldn’t stop thinking about her and decided to look for her again. I found what I hoped was her location and phone number and called her. Her hello was as familiar and warm as it had been and we were overjoyed to be in touch. Yet somehow, I could not reconcile her warmth on phone and my not hearing from her for so long. I knew her son was keeping her busy, but this was Madeline. The woman who rode the motor scooter up the steep hill to grieve with me and my family; the girl who like me, refused to fit in with the crowd; the independent, whip smart and happy soul.
During the call I asked her why I had not heard from her and if she was ok. “Just a minute,” she said.
Whispering now, she continued,
“Sheryl, I got your cards and letters and that beautiful picture of you and your family.”
“Oh, I am so happy you received those. I was wondering…”
“No, you don’t understand, my husband saw them and we had a major fight. He told me I could not have you as a friend. He said he would leave me. Please understand, I have a six year old son and no job right now.”
I found myself whispering as though we were back in the neighborhood, conspiring or agreeing on something or other like true friends would do. “Madeline! What are you saying?”
I could feel the circling doom. By now we were both in tears. The end was coming. I had asked the question that would come with an answer I did not want to hear.
“I love you, Sheryl. My husband is a racist. This whole town is racist. I just have to fit in here. I love you, Sheryl.”
Crying out loud and then forcing the tears to subside, we knew there was nothing more we could say to each other. This was not as easy as the frightening recess on the schoolyard now seemed. There was no rescue, no lathering shampoo to wash it all away. I finally caught my breath, and as though sharing a deep secret and conspiring like a best friend to never, ever, tell anyone, I whispered,
“I love you too Madeline. I love you too.”
Excerpted from “Running For The 2:10- More Stories From A Baby Boomer’s Ongoing Journey, copyright © 2017 by Sheryl J. Bize-Boutte