Saturday, August 7, 2010

I'm proud to be me, you're proud to be you...Poppycock!

I'm proud to be me,
but I also see,
you're just as proud to be you.

We may look at things a bit differently
but lots of good people do.
That's just human nature,
So why should I hate you
for being as human as I.
We'll live and let live,
And we'll get as we give.
And we'll all get along if we try.

I'm proud to be me,
But I also see you're just as proud to be you.
That's true!
You're just as proud to be you. 

     What a nice song. Or so I thought. I just realized that this cute little song that I learned when I was about seven or so is actually a girl scout song. I learned it when I was taking ballet lessons at our community center  in Chicago so many years ago.  Yeah, I took ballet lessons. I woke up with this song in my head as for whatever reason, I have done before on several occasions. I remember when I heard the words for the first time, feeling that there was someone out there that thought that folks should be equal, the same. I thought that it might have been written by on of those hippie people that I heard talk about on television. But I dare not ask my mother about it. Or maybe it was a song like those VS'ers at our church would like to sing. More about them later. So much wonder and bliss came with taking ballet lessons. I was in my element. Away from the kids on my block picking on me, beating me up and/or taking things from me. I was away from home and suspicion from things that I did not do. I was away from the threat of my alcoholic foster father coming home drunk and beating me for no reason. It was a safe and wonderful place and I was was there. It was a place where I could pretend and not get laughed at. A place where I could swirl and dance and no one would tell me to sit down or to go to bed. I could be someone else and no one would stare at me or question me about what I was doing. I could just be me. Isn't that what the song said?
    I will never know how this affected the other girls in my ballet class but it was the world to me. I can't recall for the life of me what transpired in order to get me into the class in the first place. I can only recall bits and pieces of different days and events. For all I know I was younger than seven which would account for the fact that the memories are fuzzy. What I do remember is that my (foster) mother was so proud of me and very supportive of my efforts to be a good ballerina. I looked at it as a time that I could be alone, away from the pressures of being different that I felt on my own block.
     There was going to be a big event, a concert. I was going to do my ballerina dances in front of everyone and there was a rumor that the mayor was going to be there. When I heard that the king of the city was going to be there, I was excited for about a minute until I realized I really didn't know what a mayor was other than he seemed the king of our little fiefdom. My excitement was so wonderful and overwhelming because not only was I going to get to be in front of people dancing around and pretending to be something else, but all of this was going to be with my mothers' permission and no one could tell me otherwise. I was going to do this thing and people were finally going to know that I wasn't weird, that there was something going on inside my head other that words that I used to correct those who spoke bad English and other things I wasn't really supposed to do. I was going to be proud to be me. For once I was going to be able to stand up and be me, just me and people would understand for once that I was like everyone else and not strange.
     Well, the big day was approaching and the more nervous I got. Not only was I going to get to dance with my class but I was going to get to sing a solo. I was going to get to sing My Kinda Town (Chicago is...). Wow, I remember hearing ol' blue eyes sing this song about Chicago and now, they are going to let me sing it to the audience, to the mayor, all by myself. I was going to sing a solo and dance. That will surely show people that I was normal.
    In the coming weeks we rehearsed our dances and I practiced my singing to the music on the phonograph. Janet was our teacher Mrs. Harris' assistant and I guess she was a nice lady. But for the life of me at the time and even now I got the feeling that she didn't care for me as much as she did for the other girls. I cannot remember how many girls there were in my class but I do remember that i was the only little black girl in the bunch. This wasn't a real oddity in itself since the community center was at the end of our street on Halstead. 20th and Halstead as a matter of fact. Right smack in the middle of the "T" where our street, CullertonCullerton. Anyway, back to the story at hand. I would always get this strange vibe from Janet, the assistant, when I would say anything to her or our teacher, Mrs. Harris, who was also black would give her instructions as to what record to put on or what ever was required.  But of all the times in rehearsal that she would put the needle on the record where the track was for me to start singing, she never missed it, she never faltered, always dead on the beginning of the track and I would start tapping and singing. On the night of the performance...the record skipped. Not at the beginning as she was putting the needle down but right before the chorus where I was supposed to sing, dance and have a big finish. Her explanation was that she was trying to turn the sound up so that the audience could hear the music as I was dancing. Well needless to say the song ended more quickly than anticipated and so did my hopes of not feeling stupid. My mother was as heartbroken as I was. But the worst was yet to come.
   It seems that someone decided the person that should be responsible for the taking of all concert photos was a man, that from what I gathered, was an uncle or something of one of the ballerinas. He was said to be from Mexico and was supposed to be very good at taking pictures as since he took pictures of his family all the time or something to that nature. He came in and too individual shots of us and from what I gathered took prepayment for the picture he was hired to shoot. Well, what he took was not only pictures but our parents money as well and was said to be back in Mexico about the time that the picture were supposed to be in the hands of our parents never to be heard from again. I don't know what the deal with this guy was. Maybe he had a starving family in Mexico that he needed to feed or something. Maybe he just just a thieving asshole. I guess I will never know. What I do know is that the little ballerina that was his niece disappeared poste haste as did our teacher, the assistant Janet and our ballet program, just gone, with no explanation. Just one day not too long after we found out that our money and pictures were gone I went to the place that we called "social center" for my weekly ballet lesson and was told by the lady at the desk that there would be no more lessons and our teacher was gone.
     I never knew who Lois Harris really was other than our teacher. She was something of an enigma to me and remains so. This was in the sixties and I was just learning that there were negro ballerinas but had no idea that there were negro ballet teachers at all let alone in our area, our little no place in Chicago. She was a small woman as you might imagine a ballet teacher to be. Her skin was light brown and her look was stern as she taught the little girls the steps, positions and pirouettes of the ballet. We were all apt pupils and willing to do whatever she told us. She introduced us to a musical gizmo called an auto harp. She would play this and sing to us as she directed our steps and positions. We obeyed and smiled as we knew that this would make us all stand out and be noticed. This was a world that was ours. The swishing sound that our shoes made on the stage floor as we swooped and swirled back and forth. Our hands afloat like fragile little birds learning to fly. The only candy on our minds were the lolly pops on the tree in the song and anything that was outside of the auditorium was fleeting. This was real and we were learning it.

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