By Jill Bernard
Most of my youth I went to Oakton Elementary School, a regular little school in Evanston IL. My mom had put me on the list to get into Martin Luther King Jr Laboratory School. My mother will be very saddened by this story, because she really did try to do the best thing for me. You are for sure supposed to send your kid to the amazing creative magnet school. I finally got in for fourth grade, which turns out to be four years too late if you want to have a place with your peers. They were as clique as can be. It seemed like everyone was either really smart or really rich and I was neither. I was spacey with braces. I wore hand-me-down Wranglers and plaid shirts from my brothers or homemade dresses, both of which were equally unacceptable. One day a little boy named Phillip said, “I have 47 Polo shirts, how many do you have?” And I said, “Um, I have one JC Penney Fox.” Not the same thing, you guys. There was already a Jill, there had been since kindergarten. I was “no, the other Jill” on the off-chance someone needed to refer to me.
You know when you take a Standardized Test? Martin Luther Jr King Laboratory School students are some of the kids on which the test is standardized. We took so many tests, the Iowa Basic, the California Basic, all kinds of Basics. I didn’t really mind that part. They let me go to some kind of art class because they had a vague sense that I was gifted. That was pretty okay. The math classes were the worst part of my day. There was a thing where you had to pass a timed math test. It was two sides of a page of math problems that you had to complete in five minutes to move on to the next level. The first test was all addition, the second multiplication; I assume there were more past that, division probably. Most kids could knock it out in a few tries. I don’t really work well when there’s a time crunch. It only paralyzed me. It took me all of fourth grade to do the addition one, that’s all of fourth grade sitting by myself in a hallway trying to do a timed math test. Then it took me all of fifth grade to do the multiplication one. It was the last chance, the last week, and I almost got it. I almost finished the test. But I didn’t, and I burst into tears in the hallway outside the Maserati room. (Did I mention that we were grouped into sections that each had the name of a car? Yeah, I don’t really know why. I never felt like a Maserati. They didn’t have a Pinto room, or a Festiva room, but whatever.)
For a minute, I almost had a group of friends. There were girls who got together at lunchtime to braid hair. It was great, you didn’t have to go outside and endure playground misery, you could just sit and braid hair and talk about stuff at a big round table in the Maserati room. The braiding club was a little salvation. But then one day in the hallway, one of my braiding club friends said, “You’re a racist.” I said, “What?” or something equally intelligent. “You’re a racist, we don’t like you anymore.” After that day I was not welcome in the braiding club, and it was back to the playground.
I don’t remember what I had said or done to piss the girl off. I didn’t at the time grasp the nature of my offense. I don’t even remember her name, or the name of anyone at Martin Jr Luther King Laboratory School except Phillip the snotty kid and the primary Jill. But that is how I learned about racism. Suddenly the colors of everyone’s skin drew my attention. At that moment I was able to look back and realize my third grade teacher at Oakton Elementary, the wonderful and kindly Mrs. Hill, was black. So was the Santa Claus at Oakton – Mr. Edwards, the janitor in a jolly suit and beard. My birthday buddy, Marshall, from Kindergarten with Mrs. Whale, was black. I hadn’t ever thought about it before. I was too dunderheaded to know that was a thing. Back at Oakton I once lost my shoelaces from the shoes I was wearing, I was an unlikely candidate to notice anything so nuanced as racial relations. Please don’t think I am accusing the braiding club of reverse racism. My whiteness was an excuse. I’m quite sure they excluded me because I was an enormous dork.
My favorite part about Jr Martin Luther King Laboratory School was the assemblies, because we got to sing. There was a great Stevie Wonder song we got to sing for MLK’s birthday, but the best song of all was:
Lift every voice and sing, till earth and Heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise, high as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.
That’s how I felt, sitting in the hallway staring at a math quiz, and on the bus the day I wasn’t in the braiding club anymore. I marched on. I marched on, although victory was never quite won.
Jill Bernard has been performing with ComedySportz-Twin Cities since 1993. Her one-woman improv piece, Drum Machine, has been featured at Improv-A-Go-Go, the Chicago Improv Festival, the Toronto Improv Jamboree, the Miami Improv Festival, Philadelphia ‘s Female Funny Fest, and the ComedySportz National Tournament. She is the receipient of the 2005 Chicago Improv Festival Avery Schrieber Ambassador of Improv Award.