There weren’t many black kids in my grade school, and maybe that’s part of the reason I remember Danisha with such clarity. In seventh grade, I was one of those skinny white girls with blue eyes and limp blond hair, while she was already radiating Woman with a capital W—curvy everywhere it seemed, including her brilliant white teeth, with a cool, asymmetrical short afro. I wouldn’t call us friends, but she did give me a sweet Lisa Frank pencil on the bus one time, and we occasionally gloried in being naughty together the way girls that age can be as they awaken to the realities of bodies. In a note one day, I wrote something to her about what two of our single teachers might do to each other when they were alone, trying to impress her with my worldly imagination. Another time, she drew a picture for me. “Can you tell what it is? It’s my dad bending over in the shower to pick up a bar of soap.” When she giggled, she’d put her hand over her mouth, dark, marble eyes crinkled brightly with glee above a set of manicured nails.
Then one day, we were yelling at each other in the classroom at lunchtime. I don’t remember what our fight was about and timelines are hazy from this distance, but I associate it now with the ill-advised abortion debate our homeroom teacher decided to stage. In a private Christian school with a presidential election coming up, of course we were all against abortion—until it became clear that a few of us weren’t. Attempting to pluck a ripe teachable moment, Mr. V. instead ended up humiliating the few students, all of them female, who disagreed with the Republican party line that most of us had inherited from our parents. To this day, I can remember who the dissenters were—primarily notable outsiders of one kind or another in our Dutch Reformed ghetto, Danisha among them.
Whether our lunchtime argument related to the debate or not, I can’t remember now. But what I can remember with great embarrassment, is how, in one of my retorts, I made a circular motion with my head that I specifically intended as a mockery of her black attitude. It wasn’t enough to spar with words and ideas; I needed to make her look ridiculous in the eyes of our peers, and the cheapest, easiest shot was to point out her most obvious difference. Like Mr. V., I went for the lowest hanging fruit and crushed it in my cruel fist.
Mr. V. barked at us to cut it out from the front of the room and we were both glaring silently at our lunches on our desks when the loudspeaker crackled to life. The disembodied voice was very sorry to inform us that Miss Van had passed away.
Miss Van (which was a shortened nickname based on a Dutch mouthful) had been fighting cancer for a while. Her friends had even gotten her favorite singer, the evangelical pop star Sandi Patti (before she fell from grace), to come visit her in the hospital, which is when we all knew it was really serious. For several years, Miss Van had been our gym teacher, offering us an important counterpoint, to the pretty, polished version of femininity that was, and remains, so dominant. A single woman in her late twenties, she was solidly built, with short hair and a husky voice—you know: a gym teacher. For Halloween, she’d dress up as Wolfman Jack and imitate his over-the-top radio broadcasts, complete with the howl. At the PTA’s fundraising dinner, themed around those lovable 1950s, she put in an appearance during the “Blue Moon” lip sync as the dreamboat dude next to the other women teachers, swooning in their poodle skirts. For some reason, a community that would not welcome any kind of everyday gender-bending was always simply delighted with Miss Van’s shenanigans. I picture her now most easily in a fitted track suit with a whistle around the neck of her zip-up, polyester jacket, making us march in a circle pounding away on what she called lummy sticks, in rhythm with the music from a scratchy record player perched on the edge of the gym stage. I see her in her tracksuit blowing her whistle to get us to lift the giant parachute off our giggling classmates lying on the floor underneath it. But my most precious memory with her involves seeing her outside of school—in a bathing suit.
Seeing your teacher outside of school is always a shock, but going to the beach with Miss Van and another teacher, who was our family’s neighbor, seemed like a particularly intimate breach of the suspension of disbelief. This would have been a year or so before she got sick, and I don’t know why they invited me along or remember who the other kids were who went with us. But I do remember walking along the shore with Miss Van for hours collecting beach glass, reveling in the singular attention of an admired adult. I remember falling asleep with my head on her lap in the backseat of the car on the way home, exhausted in that thorough, after-the-beach kind of way. I remember being constantly aware of her orbit of attention and trying always to stay inside that orbit. I realize now how deeply fascinated I was by the mystery of her unconventional womanhood. As far as I could tell, she was not ashamed of the ways her ample body overflowed from her simple swimsuit. She was funny and witty in a way I had only seen boys and men demonstrate to the affirmation of others. She remembered how to play in a way I rarely witnessed in my exhausted mother, who was just trying to keep her head above water with the four of us kids.
So when the announcement came over the loudspeaker that day, my first tears were sudden and genuine. Even though she hadn’t been able to teach for a while, I would grieve for Miss Van on a new level from that point on. But there was another layer of tears that began to spill over as part of the performance I needed to crush Danisha. She had only been at our school for a year, so she couldn’t possibly know how much Miss Van meant to us, the insiders who had been here all along. I’ve always been embarrassed of my tears, but this time, I shot her a wet, miserable glance, just long enough to let her feel how sorry she should be for yelling at me just before I found out that my favorite teacher was dead. She took my cue, and when the quiet chatter began to cushion the silence in the wake of the announcement, she came over and gave me a hug. “I’m sorry,” she said, and I think she meant it.
And yet, I’m pretty sure we both hung onto those incriminating notes we had written each other for the rest of our junior high years, just in case we needed a bit of irrefutable evidence of the other’s total depravity. At the time, I thought I won my frenemy battle with Danisha, but now I can only see the infinite number of ways I lost.