Back to School with Black Ice

When I wrote the final revision of Black Ice about my years as a Black girl at St. Paul’s boarding school in its early years of coeducation and integration, I aimed to create complexity through a text that fitted easily, casually, like a great pair of jeans. It’s memoir, not curriculum. Ideas — about race, class, gender, spirituality, sexuality — should float through the story as leitmotifs, not bullet points. When the book is chosen as a school or university Summer Reading, and I’m invited into the conversation, and even after these many summers, I’m still surprised to hear what works, or doesn’t, at different schools in different populations and regions. It’s an education I had no idea I’d get back when all I wanted was for Knopf to sell the First Edition’s 7,500 copies.

This year, when the Kent School in Connecticut invited me to talk to faculty who’d been assigned the book, I found myself wanting them to listen in on amazing Black Philadelphia public-school students seeing themselves in the New Hampshire adolescence I’d depicted. No doubt the Year of Isolation makes me want to connect audiences, through time, to learn with me.

Here’s this exceptional case. It stays in my mind and heart:

At Motivation High, a small magnet school in the very Southwestern corner of Philadelphia, when I visited 10th graders who’d read Black Ice, I planned to read a brief section of the book, talk a bit about the writing process, and then invite students to lead the conversation with their questions. It’s literary-performance improvisation. For years I’ve practiced like a jazz musician to have at the ready the skills I need: writing, teaching, reading, collaging ideas and current events, Bible passages, poetry; images, metaphors; I’ve practiced listening.

Earlier that afternoon, for example, a 9th-grader had revealed a publishers’ probing business mind. How did the process work? Who did what? It mattered to her to try to envision the system. After the books were printed, who shipped them all over the country? Did the publisher charge less to libraries and schools so that more students could read the book?

But then the sharp business vision went blurry. How, she asked, would a writer “get discovered.” Her language changed from active to passive, from doing to being, waiting, wishing, wanting, but powerless. The image that came to my mind was from my parents’ generation: Lana Turner, “discovered” by the publisher of the Hollywood Reporter as she sat drinking soda in the Top Hat Cafe. Tight sweater, pointy bra, available to the male gaze; show and tell. But the Hollywood myth had trickled through time bringing its paralysis into this Philadelphia high school gymnasium in a new millennium.

The other image that came to mind was my pack of 40 queries offering to publishers my early-career mystery novel and the four or five responses, all rejections. I told students this, but it wasn’t enough. They couldn’t feel it.

This lady who looked like somebody’s grandmother, standing in their midst, had grown from the girl in the book. They’d taken that in, no problem. Some version of the girl in Black Ice going to college, getting a magazine job, they could see all that. Now, I wanted them to know that there was nothing passive about trying to get published. I had not been a literary ingénue waiting for success to drop on me, but a young writer, hungry, thirsty, hustling, trying every strategy I could, banging on every door.

That was it!

I clambered noisily up the six-foot high iron barriers that protect students from falling off the gymnasium bleachers. The teens looked amused, quite beautiful in their blue uniforms, curious. I rattled the metal supports and shouted: “’Publish me! Publish me! Read my stuff!’ That’s what you have to do. No one will ‘discover’ you! You have to go get’em.”

So that was the 9th graders. Then the 10th graders came in. They were different, attentive, but tense. There’s a crackly energy in the air when young people want to challenge you. But because I couldn’t read them, rather than starting my talk, I asked which passage they wanted to hear. A girl on the top tier called down, not too loudly, but clearly: “Chapter Six.”

I do not generally remember content by the chapter, so I thumbed pages. “Oh,” I said when I’d found it. “Chapter Six.”

That’s the section in this memoir about boarding school where my boyfriend comes to visit a day earlier than we’d planned, and, using the flawed magic of adolescent logic, I decide that the only thing I can possibly do is to hide him in my room for the night! It’s about bad judgment, how we program boys to go for it, and how we program girls toward passivity. It’s about consequences and luck, and loss of innocence; where anger goes, and how fast.

Thirty years ago, I realized that I had to write as honestly about that first unhappy sexual experience as I was writing about exams, soccer, race and class, summer work at the diner, and faith and doubt. Sex, honesty, disappointment, fear, true and false selves: these were as much about spirituality as all the rest. It turned the book from a sociological text with me as my own object to a proper meditation about growing up. A young Black Life that Mattered enough to examine and recount. And to read.

I dropped off in his arms, and I began to dream. Then in my dream I heard somebody shushing me. I had to get out of where I was, but someone shushed me. I opened my eyes and saw his form above me…and I felt a sharp pain…

…Suddenly I didn’t like his smell. I searched in my mind for a word, as if a word would save me from the stupidity, the dull, dark stupid feeling. If you flag my train…I wouldn’t have those words I wanted other words. You might as well take a ride…I didn’t want it like this. I didn’t want it. I hated myself.

Clearly the students had discussed Chapter Six in class; they wanted to know whether I owned it, whether it was true, whether their sexual lives are precious, even though America urges them to use them up carelessly, and even though the feelings that urge them on often result in lousy encounters that do not feel good at all and sometimes cause harm. They needed to know: Was I blaming him? Did I own up to my part?

I tried to talk about these things to them. I tried to be honest because that’s what young people need from us — and deserve.

After dismissal, a few students came up to talk. Finally, a reserved boy named Garrett stepped forward. He wanted to know what I’d meant by the phrase “Life is like a leaf” in the last chapter.

Oh, Lord, that was 40 years ago!

There in the gym, as one of the teachers folded back the bleachers, we laughed together, and he showed me his poem, a Zen-like meditation on life and death and renewal, shared with a woman talking to teens about her book about being 16, and doing it after a season of illness that followed a year on the city’s former School Reform Commission.

The next day was Ash Wednesday, and I found myself thinking about Motivation High as I drove out to the church where my husband had been called as interim rector. During the psalm I prayed for the girl who said that she wanted to know where God figured into my writing. I prayed for another who said that she’d been date-raped, as the phrase had it then, and had never told anyone before reading my book. Now she promised to seek counseling. Motivation High was struggling to aim these young people at opportunities America had kept from their parents. Still the students asked how I knew; how did I know I could write; how they could know to what they were called; or how they could get there. These were not crass ambitions; this was hope. In the absence of St. Paul’s School’s luxurious educational resources, this was hope trying not to let itself be extinguished.

My husband’s sermon that week gave the answer that I hadn’t been skillful enough to call up in the Motivation High gym: writer and theologian Frederick Buechner’s idea that vocation is “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” It bears repeating: “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.

“Find love,” my husband told us.

This is what I wanted the teachers in Connecticut to hear: how this book sounded to young readers who quite naturally related to the narrator. Their reading of Black Ice was not a diversity exercise. It was a rare school-required assignment followed by a visit by an author who asked them, like the Kent faculty ask their students, to put their own gladness and need at the center of the universe. I wanted, I want, the young people to find love through a long legacy of ambient American hate to light their way through adolescence.

From the Motivation High website, School District of Philadelphia