Dear Mrs. Petty,
I am sorry for the frustration I caused you. From this vantage point decades in the future, I see our interactions as cinematic, a horrible retelling of a trite film: science teacher in a white, Southern elementary school discovers gifted black student from a broken home. A rough, but antagonistic, friendship forms, as much armed truce as respect. The ten-year-old child, played on screen by a version of me with better posture and straighter teeth, eventually trusts the teacher and rises to valedictorian of his class. (We didn’t have valedictorians back then, but the critics will forgive this license.) Cut to twenty years later. You are retiring. Alone in your classroom. The two decades have not been kind. Budget cuts, crowded classrooms, students more interested in their phones than books. You pack up a crate of all your possessions, surprisingly light considering the weight of the knowledge you have poured into your teachings.
Suddenly, a tall form appears at your open door. It’s that one black student everyone told you not to waste time on. You’ve followed his career through Howard, through MIT, through numerous awards. He’s returned at this crucial juncture of your life when you need someone to validate your years of selfless devotion. A tearful reunion as he takes the crate from your trembling hands.
“Let me carry you for a while,” he says.
No. Not quite right.
He says, “Let me take that load.”
Yes, that sounds like something he would say. As he steps aside to let you pass, a little girl, achingly beautiful, appears, as if by magic, in the door frame. You kneel, one hand on the doorknob to protect knees that have carried the weight of hundreds of children’s dreams. You’re surprised, but not shocked, to discover she shares your name. When she says, “I’m not so good at school.” You smile knowingly and say, “let me tell you about your father.”
Fade to black.
Unfortunately, the documentary version of my time with you is anything but uplifting. I was aware of how the rest of the class perceived me, perceived all the black students bussed to your neighborhood. I was not broken in the way you think. Are you familiar with the Japanese art form, Kintsugi? Pottery is broken, then reassembled using gold as the binding agent. The idea is not to hide the imperfections but to embrace them. My family was a lot like that. Except we repeated the breaking process every few years, reinventing the vase in ways that helped us cope or, at least, tolerate the pressures of living in the South. I came out of one of those jagged reattachments. No amount of gold could disguise my ill-fit to my religious, working-class upbringing. I read a lot, mostly horror and mystery. Even though my core was R&B, gospel, and funk, I cherished everything from country to jazz. When not engaged in football or basketball, I painted and sketched in secret. I didn’t exactly turn my back on God, but I did step around him as if he were a stranger I was forced to pass in a dimly-lit alley. I lived a strangely hermetic life for someone surrounded by family.
You were the first person to recognize that I had more than my share of concrete intelligence. That numbers and postulates, equations and solutions, all obeyed me. Think of it as cilantro. To some, it tastes like soap. To me, math and science were the spice that made the universe palatable. Even then, I could untangle a knot of equations until they were straight as a desert horizon. During our first class, you sparkled when I pronounced mitochondria correctly on the first try. If I had known the pain that pronunciation would herald, I would have butchered it, as I eventually did your hopes of mentoring me.
I’m writing to you because I want to discuss the day you broke me. My family lived down Beatties Ford road. In those days, “down Beatties Ford road” carried the same dark inferences as telling someone from California that you are “from the South.” Riding the bus to your school every day was like crossing dimensions. Your neighborhood was a forbidden zone for anyone who shared a legacy of racial trauma. The white students and their parents stared at our bus as we passed. We stared back through tightly closed windows, as unsure as they were as to what this crosstown bussing would mean. In my mind, I could see their fists clench and unclench on all they feared but would not say to us. Weeks after the novelty of looking for them wore off, I spent the bus rides with my head against the window, nuzzled against the coolness of Fall. The wind whistling through the cracked rubber of the seals drummed the clamor of the other passengers to silence. Like most mornings, I was half asleep or trying to get there, when I finally relaxed enough for the gate to my fantasy world to open.
And I was gone. As simple as that. Imagination was my private cosmos, and I could disappear, literally, at the speed of thought. Today, I was aboard a sentient spaceship escaping a relentless demolition crew sent to dismantle it. The spaceship was old, a relic from a past age, the last of its design. It plotted long, slow courses through the galaxy, often stopping to reorient itself with nearby planets and stars. It was an all-consuming fantasy, full of twists and turns. I could live all day in this universe, inventing and reinventing adventures for this ship. Unfortunately, that is what I tried to do.
All the kids in your class hated the recorded science lessons you forced upon us. All except me. I loved each one. Primarily because I never listened to any of them. They were my savior from your incessant hovering over me, your hopeful gaze. It was no secret that I was your favorite student. For me, that was a nightmare. Every day, you wandered the aisles in mid-lecture, brushing the tip of your fingers against knees and elbows, prompting us to be mindful of the space we occupied. Each time you paused to ask us questions, you were at my desk, hand on my shoulder, as if I were a lodestone, my magnetic field forcing you out of orbit. Even when I was quiet, when I had no answer to give, I felt pressured to do so. That each hand on my shoulder was my cue to take stage and shine. From that first week as your unwilling protégé, the other students were trying to figure out this strangeness. Like an unsolvable puzzle constantly shoved in their faces, it eventually became easier to despise me. Over the months, I ignored their side glances and condescension, but it still hurt.
I hated your class.
That day’s lecture was on the wonderful world of photosynthesis. But I had my own wonderful world. You didn’t believe in assigned seating, so I sat down in the back of the class, in the corner, near the extra textbooks gathering dust on a shelf. And I continued my daydream, working through the plight of my spaceship.
I pressed my hands to my ears to block out the monotone dirge from the reel tape. The half-dead voice ran roughshod across my nerves, trying to pull me back to your class. I closed my eyes so tightly solar flares burst behind my eyelids, becoming explosions from the demolition crew attempting to shoot the spaceship down. The fantasy deepened; grew with the attention I gave it. The spaceship’s navigation array had been sabotaged, damaging its ability to plot courses. A dying passenger, escaped from a top-secret research facility, had hidden an experimental device aboard that allowed brief jumps through time, up to 30 seconds in the past. But the device was malfunctioning, taking the navigation array with it. The demolition crew chasing the ship was actually a highly specialized retrieval squad from the secret facility, ordered to get the device back. At any cost. Even if it had to dissect the ship to do so. Consumed by my thoughts, I never heard you rise from your chair and come down the aisle to my desk. When you touched my shoulder, the ship exploded.
I don’t blame you for what happened. I fully remember what I was like as a student: unfocused, untethered, easily distracted. You must have been horrified that I turned out to be what everyone else in the class expected: a black child from down Beatties Ford road who had no business in the same class as them. Again, I apologize for the time you wasted trying to prove them and their parents wrong. I can only guess at the effect of this demonstrative shattering of your faith, only imagine your shame. But I don’t have to imagine my own. I didn’t look up, so I never saw the look on your face. Your shoes. They were the black ones, the imitation of 1950s wingtips with the grey bobby socks. You kept your hand on my shoulder, speaking not to me, but to the rest of the class.
“I can always tell when a student will be with me next year.”
Mrs. Petty, I wasn’t a bad kid. I was simply a lost child who invented stories and lived in them. Your threat shamed me and caused me to retreat into a shell. But not for the reason you think. More than failing your class, I feared being shown in a negative spotlight. My terror was of anyone seeing that I also knew I didn’t belong.
As far as the movie version of this story goes, the rest of the school year was decidedly anticlimactic. I finished all my assignments on time. When you asked questions, I answered as many as I could, eyes glued to you, sitting erect in my chair. I moved to the front of the class where I couldn’t see anyone looking at me.
I never found out what happened to that ship.
It took years to regain the confidence to daydream as freely as before I met you. Twenty-six years, to be exact. My fantasies retreated to crevices, coming out only when the light of day waned when no one else could witness me lost in thought and turn on a spotlight. But I wasn’t alone. During this great divide between my conscious and subconscious selves, many people whom I now consider inspirations were mentoring me in my growth.
Ed Booker, my history teacher at Coulwood Junior High, who rode a motorcycle, protested Vietnam, gave me my first other-world novel that wasn’t Science Fiction. It had a cover with a frenzied barbarian riding the shoulders of an apelike creature that was trying to kill him. Both the artist, Frank Frazetta, and the writer, Robert E, Howard, send tingles through me when I think of them. I secretly wondered if I could put my own worlds on paper, make them as vibrant. An English teacher with green hair—that everyone except me knew was a toupee—introduced me to Lord of the Flies. I didn’t understand why those children were ridiculed, instead of pitied. Of Human Bondage, East of Eden. Both sparked my empathy for suffering, laboring under the subjugation of pain and expectations. I found Langston Hughes in the library, and he mentored my first timid understandings of poetry. “A Dream Deferred” shone through me like the first match that drives away the dark. I had never written a poem in my life, but I thought I could open a journal and pour myself into it.
In High School, my daydreaming reemerged, like an animal buried for days in collapsed mine: ravenous, hungry. For no reason I can explain, I began writing. My grades plummeted, but my satisfaction with myself rose. Because my intelligence occasionally resurfaced like a seal rising for air, I was relegated to all the Advanced Placement classes. After two years, my English teacher, Jean Avery, presented me as Editor of the Pegasus Literary Magazine. She is still one of my definitions of God. For the first time, I openly dreamed of life as a writer.
But old scars, like old fears, don’t fade easily. I told my guidance counselor about my dream of being a writer. Knowing no examples of successful writers, much less black ones, she redirected my shallow river of hope from Liberal Arts colleges to an engineering track at NC State. It wasn’t a difficult push. Artistic children with no guidance or direction are easy targets for those who know better than they do. Besides, the child who abandoned that rocket ship when it needed him most was still in me, always willing to hide from the light.
How do I explain the skipping years? Imagine an immense record album containing all your favorite songs, hundreds of tunes. Now imagine yourself as a stunted needle, worn down by the truncated thing that should be your soul. You stutter and trip across the tracks, skipping at the wrong times, never finding continuity in life. Many of the songs are beautiful: the birth of your children; getting married. Some are tragic: you are a horrible student; you wash out of NC State; join the Navy. Some songs are as eerily serendipitous as a Twilight Zone episode: because of your electronics background in the Navy, Intel hires you, and you spend 20 years as an engineer.
Yes, Mrs. Petty, you were right. I still have a strong affinity for math and science. But my constant struggle to define myself in ways that ignored my creativity stunted me. I love my children, loved my marriage, tolerated my job. But I was hollow. An outsider in my own actions, robbed of being a full participant in my life. I was no longer able to see that the vase was broken, had lost the knack for repair.
One day, I woke up in Cambridge, MA, on my way to divorce, with knowledge of being a father, a husband, an engineer, and little else. I had skipped through thousands of songs, never having a chance to sing any of them with my voice.
As I conclude this apology, typing slowly with, at most, three fingers since typing was yet another class that didn’t hold my attention, I want to take a moment to describe my surroundings. It’s 2019. I’m renting a very large mid-century home in Sacramento, CA. I have lived in this house through eight Halloweens, my favorite holiday. I’m 54 years old, lying on my side in bed, typing, listening to the rain, typing some more. It’s early spring, but still a little cold for my taste. When I finally get up to make some tea, I will slip on Bunny Slippers, ones with big teeth like the vicious rabbit in The Search for the Holy Grail. Later today, I will drive down to San Jose to continue a lucrative engineering consulting job. Yes, I am still an engineer. But even though I am very good at it, that profession means little to me. It represents a small niche in my life, a crevice much like the one that I used to force my imagination to crawl into and hide. Allow me to introduce myself.
My name is Indigo Moor. I am the Poet Laureate of Sacramento. I am also a scriptwriter and author. I have written three books of poetry, including Through the Stonecutter’s Window (2010), which won Northwestern University Press’s Cave Canem prize. As with my first book, Tap-Root (2008), my 2017 release, In the Room of Thirsts & Hungers, is an Editor’s Select choice from Main Street Rag. Last year, I collaborated with visual artist Barry Ebner to produce the poetry/abstract art book, Fragments.
I teach creative writing at the Stonecoast MFA Program, where I graduated in 2012 with an MFA in poetry, fiction, and scriptwriting. I am on the advisory boards for the Sacramento Poetry Center and Modesto Stanislaus Poetry Center, a Cave Canem fellow, the resident artist at 916 ink, and a graduate member of the Artist’s Residency Institute for Teaching Artists.
Three of my short plays, Harvest, Shuffling, and The Red and Yellow Quartet debuted at the 60 Million Plus Theatre’s Spring Playwright’s festival. My full-length stageplay, Live! at the Excelsior, was a finalist for the Images Theatre Playwright Award and was optioned for a full-length film.
I could go on, but you get my point. My engineering work is only important in one respect: it allows me to be my own private patron. I am a man who lives by writing down what is in his head. Engineering only pays the bills. I am focused on the arts beyond most imaginings. I am driven and extremely ambitious. You would not recognize me.
In Cambridge, MA briefly separated from my children and all I had been, I was forced to rediscover myself. In a catharsis that spanned two years, I gave myself over to writing. From a Bible Belt perspective, you could say I was baptized in the Komunyakaa river. swam with Dove, scratched myself running through the briar patches of Dawes, Finney, and Toomer. I rode the Shore to Cassells and many, many more. I literally wrote myself into being. I broke myself and reassembled the pieces over and over, until I understood every inch of my being in painful brightness, in exquisite gold. Yes, this process is never-ending. But, each year, I find the breaking process less traumatic, the cracks a little less noticeable. The pieces fit together so tightly even I can’t find the seams. Mrs. Petty. I am sorry to say you really were wasting your time. I was never going to be a scientist, or biologist, or a mathematician for a very simple reason.
I’m a writer.
And anything that makes it difficult for me to write, makes it difficult for me to breathe. I have spent the last 19 years learning to incorporate all I love into my writing world, letting all the songs work with each other. For this, I don’t owe an apology to you or anyone else.
Understand, this letter is not a rebuke. I’m not upset with you. I’m writing because I left something in your class, and I need it back. My bedroom is next to my office. A large room with wall-to-wall bookcases, where most of my work, if not begun, is completed. I must be quick now. I can already feel the walls shaking, books jostling, toppling off the shelves. As I said, there is always another vase to break. And, as the rumbling in my office rises to a dull roar, I know I’ve found what I left behind in your class.
Goodbye, Mrs. Petty. I’ve got a spaceship to catch.
Poet Laureate of Sacramento, Indigo Moor is also a scriptwriter and author. His three books include, Through the Stonecutter’s Window, which won Northwestern University Press’s Cave Canem Prize for a second book. In 2017, In the Room of Thirsts & Hungers, as with his 2008 release Tap-Root, was part of Main Street Rag’s Editor’s Select Poetry Series. Indigo curates the “Renegade Literati” Reading Series. Three of his short plays, Harvest, Shuffling, and The Red and Yellow Quartet debuted at the 60 Million Plus Theatre’s Spring Playwright’s festival. His full-length stageplay, Live! at the Excelsior, was a finalist for the Images Theatre Playwright Award.