Twelve Years Old and Out of Time

Childhood ends when a black child is criminalized.
book-excerpt.jpg

“Twelve percent of us receive at least one suspen-
sion during our school careers while our white (girl) counter-
parts are suspended at a rate of 2 percent.”

Photo by Juanmonino/Getty Images

The first time I am arrested, I am 12 years old.

One sentence and I am back there, all that little girl fear 
and humiliation forever settled in me at the cellular level.

It’s the break between seventh and eighth grades, and
for the first time I have to attend summer school because of
my math and science grades, and I am angry about it. No
other Millikan kids come here, to this school in Van Nuys,
for remediation, only me. The summer school I attend is for
the kids who live in my neighborhood. It doesn’t have a cam-
pus, but it has metal detectors and police. There are no
police or metal detectors at Millikan.

Somehow, mentally, I don’t make the adjustment. I still
think of myself as a student there, which I am but not for
these summer months, and one day I do what I’d learned
from my Millikan peers to do to cope: I smoke some weed.
At Millikan it is a daily occurrence for kids to show up to
class high, to light up in the bathroom, to smoke on the cam-
pus lawn. No one gets in trouble. Nowhere is there police.
Millikan is the middle school where the gifted kids go.

But in my neighborhood school things are totally differ-
ent and someone must have said something about me and
my weed—two girls had come into the bathroom when I’d
been in there—because two days later a police officer comes
to my class. I remember my stomach dropping the way it
does on one of those monster roller-coaster rides at Six Flags.
I can just feel that they are coming for me, and I am right.
The cop tells me to come to the front of the room, where
he handcuffs me in front of everyone and takes me to the
dean’s office, where my bag is searched, where I am
searched, pockets turned out, shoes checked, just like my
brothers in the alleyway when I was 9 years old. I have
no weed on me but I am made to call my mother at work
and tell her what happened, which I do through tears. I
didn’t do it, Mommy, I lie through genuine tears of fear.
My mother believes me. I am the good girl and she takes
my side.

Later, when we are home together, she will not ask me
how I am feeling or get righteously angry. She will not rub
my wrists where the handcuffs pinched them or hold me or
tell me she loves me. This is not a judgment of her. My
mother is a manager, figuring out how to get herself and her
four children through the day alive. That this has happened,
but that she and her kids are all at home and, relatively
speaking, safe, is a victory for my mother. It is enough.
And for all of my childhood, this is just the way it is.

What made middle school such a culture shock, beyond the
race and class differences, was that all throughout elemen-
tary school I was considered bright, gifted even, a star
student whom my fourth-grade teacher, Ms. Goldberg,
indulged when I asked if I could teach the class about the
Civil Rights Movement. A week before she had given me a
book, The Gold Cadillac by Mildred Taylor, about a girl mak-
ing the frightening drive with her father from Ohio
through the Jim Crow South, down to Mississippi, where
her extended family lives.

The terror in it was palpable for me, the growing sense
on every page that they might be killed; by the time I was
9, police had already raided our small apartment in search
of one of my favorite uncles, my father’s, Alton’s, brother.
My uncle who used and sold drugs, and who had a big laugh
and who used to hug me up and tell me I was brilliant, but
who did not with live us, whose whereabouts we did not
know the day the police in full riot gear burst in.

Even tiny Jasmine, probably 5 years old during that
raid, was yelled at and told to sit on the couch with me as
police tore through our home in a way I would never later see
on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, where Olivia Benson
is always gentle with the kids. In real life, when I was a little
kid, when my brothers and sisters were, we were treated
like suspects. We had to make our own gentle, Jasmine and
I, holding each other, frozen like I was the day of the alley-
way incident, this time cops tearing through our rooms
instead of the bodies of my brothers.

They even tore through our drawers. Did they think my
uncle was hiding in the dresser drawer?

But as with the incident with my brothers, we did not
speak of it once it was over.

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In any event, I am sure this incident is at least partially
why The Gold Cadillac, of another time and another place,
was a story I clung to so deeply, why I remember it now,
decades on. Where the details wove together differently, the
fear drawn out across those pages is the same, is my own.
Finishing it, I wanted more. I wanted confirmation that that
which we did not speak of was real. Which was why I asked,
Please, Ms. Goldberg, may I have more books to read?

Of course, she said, and gave me stories I devoured,
child-size bites of the fight for freedom and justice.

Please, I went back and asked Ms. Goldberg, can I teach
the class about the books?
Yes, she said, Why not? Because that’s how she was. Ms.
Goldberg, with her ’80s feathered brown hair and her
Flashdance-style workout gear she wore to school every day.

I had a reward—pieces of candy—for my classmates who
answered the questions I posed during the 15-minute presen-
tations I was allowed to give on the books I read. I wanted
them to know our history in this nation, what it was we come
from. I wanted them to learn, as I had learned, the terror we
knew. Somehow it connected to a terror I—we—felt in our
own neighborhoods, in our own current lives, but could not
quite name.

But between Ms. Goldberg and then Ms. Bilal—the
afterschool teacher and the single dark-skinned Black
woman I would have during my early education, who brought us
Kwanzaa and Afrocentricity—I turned toward middle
school hopeful, even if it was in a community I didn’t know,
a community without my community. I expected to still be
loved, encouraged.

Millikan Middle School is sufficiently far enough away from
my home that I need a ride each morning in order to get to
school on time. Before, I could simply hop on the city bus
with all the other kids from my hood, but getting into Sher-
man Oaks is a more complicated endeavor. The problem is
that my family does not own a car, which is why our neigh-
bor Cynthia steps in to help. My mother borrows her car to
ensure my safe passage. This is not quite as straightforward
as it may sound.

Cynthia, no more than 19, a young mother who has on
and off been involved with my brother Monte and who will
eventually have a child, my nephew Chase, with him, had
been shot a year before in a drive-by while she was at a party.
From the waist down, she was left paralyzed. But she has a
car she loans my mother, a beat-up, champagne-colored sta-
tion wagon. The back windows are gone, replaced by plas-
tic lining, and the whole thing smells like pee because with
Cynthia being mostly paralyzed, she sometimes loses con
-trol of her bladder.

My mother takes me to Millikan in that car, which
initially I deal with because, a car! But after the first day, I
realize quickly I have to make a change. Day two and I say,
Drop me off here, Mommy, meaning a few blocks away from
the school. The car we are in does not look like any of the
other cars that pull up to Millikan, all gleaming and new in
the morning sun. Kids pour out of those vehicles, Mercedes
and Lexuses, and run from waving parents onto the cam-
pus’s greener-than-green lawn, as all at once I become famil-
iar with a sudden and new feeling taking root in my spirit: a
shame that goes deep, that is encompassing and defining. I
realize we are poor.

Later, as an adult, a friend will say to me, Of course you
felt that. Oppression is embarrassing, she will say quietly.
But in middle school, segregated as it is, between Black and
white kids, wealthy and poor kids, I don’t quite know
what to do with this feeling or the terrible question that
encircles my 12-year-old soul: Am I supposed to be embar-
rassed about the people who nurtured me, who gave me
to the world and gave the world to me?

I don’t fit in with the white kids who smoke weed in
between classes in bathrooms or on the campus lawn. I
don’t fit in with the few Black girls who want to be Janet Jackson
or Whitney Houston when they grow up. I wear MC Ham-
mer pants, crotch swinging low. I wear my own brand of
Blackness informed as it also is by the Mexicanness of the
neighborhood I was raised in. People say I am weird, but I
don’t feel weird. I only feel like myself: a girl from Van Nuys
who loves poetry and reading and, more than anything,
dancing. I am in the dance department and my dances are
equal parts African, Hip Hop and Mariachi, which is also
to say, weird.

Middle school is the first time in my life when I feel un-
sure of myself. No one is calling me gifted anymore. No one,
save for my dance teacher, encourages me or seems to have
patience with me. It’s in middle school that my grades drop
for the first time and that I come to believe that maybe all
that love I’d gotten in elementary school had somehow dried
up, my ration run dry. At the age of 12 I am on my own, no
longer in the world as a child, as a small human, innocent
and in need of support. I saw it happen to my brothers and
now it was happening to me, this moment when we become
the thing that’s no longer adorable or cherished. The year
we become a thing to be discarded.

For my brothers, and especially for Monte, learning that
they did not matter, that they were expendable, began in
the streets, began while they were hanging out with friends,
began while they were literally breathing while Black. The
extraordinary presence of police in our communities, a re-
sult of a drug war aimed at us, despite our never using or
selling drugs more than unpoliced white children, ensured
that we all knew this. For us, law enforcement had nothing
to do with protecting and serving, but controlling and
containing the movement of children who had been labeled
super-predators simply by virtue of who they were born to
and where they were born, not because they were actually
doing anything predatory.

I learned I didn’t matter from the very same place that
lifted me up, the place I’d found my center and voice: school.
And it will not be until I am an adult, determined to achieve
a degree in religion, part of a long and dedicated process I
undertook to become an ordained minister, that I will en-
joy school again.

A few years after I complete my degree, Dr. Monique W.
Morris published her groundbreaking book, Pushout: The
Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, demonstrating how
Black girls are rendered disposable in schools, unwanted,
unloved. Twelve percent of us receive at least one suspen-
sion during our school careers while our white (girl) counter-
parts are suspended at a rate of 2 percent. In Wisconsin
the rate is actually 21 percent for Black girls but 2 percent
for white girls.

But having attended schools with both Black and white
girls, one thing I learned quickly is that while we can behave
in the same or very similar ways, we are almost never punished
similarly. In fact, in white schools, I witnessed an extraordi-
nary amount of drug use compared to what my friends in my
neighborhood schools experienced. And yet my friends
were the ones policed. My neighborhood friends went to schools
where no mass or even singular shootings occurred, but
where police in full Kevlar patrolled the hallways, often with
drug-sniffing dogs, the very same kind that they turned on
children in the South who demanded an end to segregation.

By the time Black Lives Matter is born, we not only
know that we have been rendered disposable because of
our lived experience—which few listened to—but also from
data and finally from those terrible, viral images of Black
girls being thrown brutally out of their seats by people who
are called School Safety Officers, for the crime of having
their phones out in the classroom. Monique Morris’ re-
porting will tell us about the 12-year-old girl from Detroit
who is threatened with both expulsion and criminal charges
for writing the word “Hi” on her locker door; and the one
in Orlando who is also threatened with expulsion from her
private school if she doesn’t stop wearing her hair natural.

Twelve.

And for me, too, it started the year I turned 12. That
was the year that I learned that being Black and poor de-
fined me more than being bright and hopeful and ready. I
had been so ready to learn. So willing.

Twelve, the moment our grades and engagement as stu-
dents seem to matter less than how we can be proven to be
criminals, people to be arrested.

Twelve, and childhood already gone.
Twelve, and being who we are can cost us our lives.
It cost Tamir Rice his life.

He was a child of 12. And the cop who shot him
took under two seconds, literally, to determine that Tamir
should die.

Tamir Rice. Twelve.
Twelve, and out of time.

From When They Call You a Terrorist by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele. Copyright 2018 by the authors and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.

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