This morning as we waited for the bus, a beat-up old Civic drove past us. “Funny,” I told my daughter. “That person looks like they don’t belong here.”
“Why not?” my daughter asked.
“Look around you,” I said. “It’s an old messed up looking car, and there’s a Hispanic guy driving it.”
“I don’t get it,” said my daughter.
“Honey, look at this neighborhood. Everybody looks the same. They all drive new cars. And they’re all white. Up north, they would call them WASPs, but down here they are all white Baptists.”
“We aren’t Baptist,” said my daughter.
“No, we aren’t,” I told her.
“We aren’t Christians either,” she said.
I hastened in to try to save her from later public lynchings. “We are Christians, honey. We believe in Jesus Christ.”
“Daddy says we aren’t Christians,” said my doomed daughter.
“Don’t EVER say that to anyone out loud,” I told her. “Unless you LIKE being set on fire and having no friends.”
“Why does it matter,” she asked, “When Olivia doesn’t believe in God or any religion?”
Olivia is our babysitter. Her mom is a midwife, and they are the only hippies in town. I love them. But in Alabama, this line of inquiry was not safe for my daughter.
“That’s OK that she believes that,” I told her. “But it’s not safe when you live around here to say things like that.”
“What do you mean?” she wanted to know.
“Honey, look around you. There are no African-American people in this neighborhood. There are no Hispanics in this neighborhood. Everyone is all alike.”
The bitterness was coming out of me now. “For Chrissake, even the CHRISTMAS tree lights here have to be white,” I told her. “All the WIVES look alike. They’re all scrawny, and jogging, because if they get fat, their rich husbands will replace them with younger prettier wives. They all say the same things. They all go to the same church.”
“There are Chinese people here,” she said.
“Asian people? There are no Asian people. Or are you thinking about that family with the adopted Asian girl?”
She nodded her head. “The houses look all alike too,” she said, cheerfully.
“Yes, they do,” I said. “McMansions. They’re big but they all look the same. All except ours.”
She was mulling this over.
“Remember that book we read, honey, by Madeleine L’Engle? The kids traveled to a planet that was run by a giant pulsating Brain, It, and all the people had to be alike?”
“Remember, the one little boy, out in the street, who was bouncing his ball out of time from the other kids? And later they found him at It’s headquarters, in a glass room, screaming in pain while they made him bounce his ball the same as everyone else? It was called Camazotz.”
“Look around you,” I told her. I should not go here with my daughter, but I want her to be safe. I should not let my bitterness spill into her innocence. My husband keeps telling her that it doesn’t matter what other people think, but he is wrong. It is not safe here. “You want to see Camazotz? This is it. You’re living in it.”
I do not tell her that I was that boy, once. Middle school. Suddenly those kids made me very, very aware that I was Other. Our house wasn’t right. My clothes weren’t right. My grades were too good. We didn’t have a Mercedes. My mom didn’t wear little tennis dresses.
I was that boy, screaming in pain, awkwardly bouncing my ball while they shocked me to put me in their rhythm. They sneered at my fumbling attempts to bounce the ball right. My makeup was off. My hair was off. I was Other.
Every once in a while, they would nastily pretend that maybe I was becoming one of them. And then they would jerk their hook back, still ripped through my cheek, laughing because they took my hopes away again.
In the ultimate irony, when I changed schools, I thought I had broken free of the grasp of It. The children looked different, and their balls were a different color, but they were still the same. Oh, they thought they were different. They were like that scene in Monty Python, all holding up the same leg and screaming, “We are all individuals!!”
It took me twenty years to clear the confusion from my brain and recognize that It had been there too, and I had let It in me. And I had thought I was unique.
Now I am what I am. I am too old for them to hurt me. Yes, I have no friends in town, but I have a husband and a daughter. I wear my baseball cap backwards on my head like a little punk when I walk around my neighborhood, and I wear funny jewelry and my hair is bright red. But my daughter is 8, and she is not safe. I will not watch her destroyed, taken apart piece by piece and rebuilt in the graven image of a mid-sized town’s auto-dealing, judgemental cookie cutter loser. She will have to stay under the radar. She is not safe.
Camazotz. Welcome. Let the nauseating pulsations of the Brain pull you in, make that ball bounce bounce bounce. You’d better not drop it. Or you’ll be in that glass room, screaming as they tear you apart. If you’re lucky, you’ll get out and find that not all places are exactly like this. But watch your back. Camazotz.