I’ve Never Seen a Black Person In My Whole Life

The year after Mount St. Helens erupted, my family moved from a small, rural town in Minnesota to Seattle, Washington. It was June. I had just turned thirteen and I didn’t know anyone my age. That summer, the only adventures I had were those provided to me by the books I borrowed from the library located only a block north of Lake Union. I was always an avid reader, but that summer, I read 150 books, including the entire Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series and even many classics, like Les Miserables, the Lord of the Rings, The Great Gatsby, and Of Mice and Men.

My parents liked to go on road trips and having known only the rolling hills, plains, and lakes of the upper Midwest, the mountains, ocean, and greenery of Washington State was like a fairy tale.  My fear of volcanoes disappeared when we visited Mt. Rainier, or when we drove up certain hills around the city that offered breathtaking views of the Cascades to the east and the Olympics to the west. Other than these excursions with my family, I stayed home, reading my books, and waiting for school to start so I could begin to make friends.

I didn’t know it, and I would not have understood then what it meant, but the Seattle School District implemented a busing program for its students in an attempt to desegregate its multicultural population. Seattle’s neighborhoods were split along racial lines. North of Lake Union were predominantly white neighborhoods and the predominantly Asian and African American neighborhoods were south of the lake. My family lived on the north side of the lake in the Fremont neighborhood. The Seattle School District was transporting large numbers of their students from the northern half of the city to schools in the southern half of the city. Large numbers of students from the southern half of the city were also transported to schools in the northern half of the city. Before our family moved to Seattle, the only people of color I knew were my Filipina mom and auntie. Everyone else in the towns we lived in were white. I don’t know the details of Seattle School District’s busing program. I only know it brought about my first encounter with a black person.

On the first day of school, I was extremely nervous, as most thirteen-year-olds are on their first day at any new school. “Will I make friends today?” “I hope I don’t embarrass myself.” “How do I look?” “Why is my mom making me wear this outfit?!” Something in me knew that city kids in 1981 didn’t wear knit sweaters, plaid wool skirts, and loafers. Not only that, but I had very long, unruly hair, and I wore large-rimmed glasses with lenses so thick my dad called them coke bottle bottoms.

My dad gave me directions to walk to school: Go up Stone Way North and turn right on 42nd street and go up the hill. I did as my dad instructed and arrived at Hamilton Middle School. As I walked up the stairs and into the building, nervous as I had ever been in my thirteen years, I began to notice the students bustling past me. It’s possible there were white kids in the crowd, but I don’t recall seeing them. All I saw were black kids all around me.

Is there anyone who is cool and totally with it at thirteen years old? If so, I envy them. I was definitely not cool and totally with it. Unfortunately, I am also far too expressive. A short, black girl took offense at my dropped jaw and wide eyes and she approached me. Actually, approached isn’t the right word. She came up at me quickly and aggressively with her arms waving in front of her in a manner I had never seen before. I took several steps backwards, but she was quickly within inches of my face, shouting, “What are you looking at?!”

In a moment like that, when you’re sure you’re about to be pummeled by a short, black girl with the help of her friends right behind her, you don’t have the opportunity, nor the mental capacity, to come up with a wise, gentle answer. I said the first thing that came to my mind. “I’m from a small town in Minnesota and I’ve never seen a black person in my whole life!”

Did her friends behind her, the ones I was sure were going to dog pile on me and beat me up, hear what I said? Did the kids walking past me hear my awkward confession?  I have no idea. But short, black girl, just inches from my face relaxed, looked me up and down, and said, “Oh girl. You need help.” Her name was Jackie and I recall some of her friends called her Lil’ Bit. She befriended me and helped me navigate the multicultural world of busing-era Seattle and big-city middle school. The next year, I attended Ballard High School, still in the north end of the city. I don’t know what happened to Jackie and I lost contact with her, but I’m grateful that she was the first black person I ever met.

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