Art class. The comforting scent of paints and crayons greeted me as I made my way into the room. As if by magic all of my problems seemed to slip away, like I was losing many heavy weights that were tied to my heart. For two hours, those long-awaited two hours on Friday afternoons, I could be as free as an eagle and let my imagination soar. No one called me “teacher’s pet” or shot me mean glances for exactly 120 minutes. I didn’t have to worry about tests, or when we were going to move again, or Mom always being tired.
“Samantha!” Barbra, my art teacher, always seemed to have a smile ready for anyone. No doubt I needed her smile after a long week of school. “Have a seat. We’ll start as soon as the new girl arrives.”
I pulled out a metal chair from the table and sat down. The new girl, I thought vaguely. Barbra had mentioned her the week before. I paid no real attention, there was no reason to. I had never had many friends, we moved too often due to Dad’s job for me to keep any friends for long. No one at this new school liked me and I made no move to get into one of their groups. I was used to being an outsider. I took some colored pencils from my backpack and began to sketch. I drew the outline of a face, then added eyes and a nose in the correct spots. I took a peach color and shaded in the skin. Then I made the eyes blue and the hair blond with a slight curl at the bottom. The mouth was curved in a pleasant smile. I grinned back at my sketch. If only I had a friend like the girl that I’d drawn.
“OK, everyone, let’s stop for a second so I can introduce our new student.” At Barbra’s voice, I closed my sketchpad and looked up. The several other students, all high-school age, did the same. For a moment, we all just stared. Then one of the boys whispered something to a girl beside him, and she giggled. The new student was a girl about thirteen — my age. She was black.
“This is Tammy,” announced Barbra, her arm around the girl’s shoulders. Tammy smiled at us timidly, then Barbra pointed her to a seat. “You can sit over there by Samantha.” Tammy looked my way, but I pretended to study my sketchpad. I had never spent any time with a person who was a different color than me, and I was unsure how to act. Our neighborhoods had been almost entirely white.
Barbra gave us instructions to draw what scared us. I set to work drawing what first came to my mind—a snake. I had always been terrified of snakes. Once I went to the zoo and saw one behind glass. After that I was unable to sleep without nightmares for weeks.
I finished my drawing of a copperhead, my worst-feared snake. Tammy was still drawing. I glanced quickly at her sketch. What I saw startled me—a man in black stood pointing a gun at someone. The person was pressed against a wall, looking scared.
That night, after I had read a few chapters of my book, I glanced at my sketchpad and saw the snake picture. I held the pad and thought of Tammy’s sketch, how real it was. The copperhead was an imaginary fear, in a way. None lived in my Illinois town, or anywhere else that I’d lived. But guns—the possibility made me shiver.
During the next few weeks I had a tendency to sneak a peek at Tammy’s sketches. The one with the gun stayed with me. Every time that I heard of a shooting on television or on the radio, Tammy’s sketch popped into my mind. Her other sketches were good, too. They all showed that feeling that Barbra encouraged us to include in our pictures. She had once said, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”
Then things started happening. At first I thought it was nothing, but I was wrong. After the second art class that Tammy attended was when the happenings began. When she came back the following week, all of her sketches for an upcoming painting were all torn up. Only one sketch remained—one that had a man standing behind a podium. It took a moment for me to realize that it was supposed to be Martin Luther King, Jr. It took a moment because his head had been blotted out with black ink. Scrawled across the paper were the words, “Go home, darkie.”
When Tammy saw this, her eyes opened a little wider, but that was all. Barbra, however, turned as red as a beet, and, for the first time that I’d ever seen, she got angry. “I do not accept this behavior in my class,” she said, holding up the sketch. “I expect it never to happen again.”
The happenings continued, although they weren’t as visible as the first. They didn’t happen every class, either. Once Tammy’s sculpture was squashed. Then her colored pencils disappeared. After that her painting had shoe marks on it, like someone had stepped on it.
Through it all, I remained silent. I hadn’t spoken once to Tammy. The other students occasionally said a few words to her, but they rarely exceeded “Pass the paint.” I did find myself beginning to admire Tammy’s obvious talent for art. Barbra did, too, and began calling her “Picassa” after the artist Picasso. That made Tammy smile.
I felt tension in the class, even when I tried to convince myself that it was nothing. I began to notice that two of the boys would casually knock into Tammy, or spill water her way “accidentally.” Their actions made me feel uneasy, yet I had no proof that they were the ones who were doing all of those mean things to Tammy.
Then one class Tammy was late. She only arrived when the class was half over. One of the boys was absent—sick, his friend claimed. When Tammy did arrive, her shoes were caked with mud, her hair messy, although it looked as if she’d tried to fix it. Out of the corner of my eye I thought I saw the boy who had spilled the water on Tammy’s sketch the week before smile.
That day my mom was late picking me up. My little brother had a doctor’s appointment and she had been caught in the Friday afternoon traffic. I waited for her on a bench outside the art building, my coat wrapped around me. It was a biting cold February day, gray and dreary.
As I was sitting on the bench, the art building door opened and Tammy walked out. I wondered for the first time who picked her up. I had never seen her mom or dad. I noticed for the first time, too, how thin her coat was. It was faded and she held it shut with one hand, as if it didn’t zip. The wind blew her hair out from its ponytail. She had worn no hat, as I had.
Just then, as Tammy began walking down the sidewalk, the boy whom I had thought to be sick jumped out from behind the hedge. He stood right in front of Tammy, blocking her way.
I felt my heart race and my body lock up. I prayed that the boy wouldn’t see me on the bench. I heard the boy tell Tammy, “Give me your bus money, darkie.” Bus money! So Tammy took a bus to and from art. No wonder I never saw a car. And that boy had called her darkie, like what had been written on the sketch! The pieces were all coming together now.
Tammy protested in a firm voice. “No.”
“Give it to me, or else I’ll pound you into the cement,” the boy said with such cruelness that I felt my stomach leap into my throat. I wanted to run and get help, but my legs refused to move.
“No. I won’t give it to you.” Tammy stood her ground. Through my dizziness I noted how small she was compared to the boy.
Then something terrible happened. The boy punched Tammy so hard that she fell to the ground. I heard her body hit the pavement. The boy got ready to hit her again, but this time she stopped him. “Here.” Painfully, she reached into her pocket and gave him a piece of crumpled money. The bully left, then, leaving Tammy lying unmoving on the sidewalk.
As soon as he turned the corner, my legs unlocked and my brain began to function again. I ran to Tammy and knelt by her. “Tammy!” She opened her eyes, cringing, and sat up. “Tammy, are you all right?”
“Yeah.” She softly touched her head. “Yeah, I knew it was coming. They were looking for me on the way to art, those boys. I was able to avoid them by taking a different route—one that went through the woods.” Painfully, she stood, and I saw blood on her cheek. I handed her a tissue and, gratefully, she accepted it. “That’s why I was late.”
“You sure you’re OK?” I blurted out. “I can go get Barbra.”
“Nah,” replied Tammy. “But thanks anyhow.”
I nodded, shifting my weight from one foot to another. “Why did they do that to you? Is it because you’re, I mean . . .”
“Black,” put in Tammy. “I guess mostly. They’re just uncomfortable, though—that’s what my mama says. It makes the bullies feel good to put down people who are different from them. Gives them some kind of ugly power.”
I nodded, understanding. Tammy wiped her bleeding lip. It was puffing up. She didn’t look as brave anymore, just worried. Then it came to me that Tammy probably had no way to get home—that bully had stolen her bus fare!
“Will your mom come to pick you up?” I asked. “There’s a phone inside.” I gestured to the art building behind us.
Tammy shook her head. “We don’t have a car.” She paused. “I guess I could call my aunt.”
Suddenly, without thinking, I volunteered, “I’m sure my mom could take you home. Where do you live?”
“Fourth Street.” Tammy looked hopeful. “Oh, do you think she would?”
I was surprised at her answer—Fourth Street was on the other side of town! Still, when my mom came, she assured Tammy that it would be no problem for her to run her home.
Tammy directed my mom to her house. I wasn’t prepared for what I saw. Poverty and crime were spelled out in bold letters all over the streets. This was the bad part of the city, where there were murders and drugs. Little kids, only about four, walked out on the streets alone. The buildings were falling apart, their windows broken and paint chipped. Boom boxes blared out rap music. I had always thought of the people who lived around there to be mean, like the criminals that I saw on TV. Tammy wasn’t mean, though. She wasn’t a criminal.
“That’s my building,” pointed Tammy. She thanked my mom and me.
I walked Tammy up to the door. Before she went inside, I told her quickly, “Tammy, your sketches are great.”
A grin lit up Tammy’s face. “Thanks! So are yours. I’m so glad that I got to come to art classes. They were my birthday present. Mama said that I should go and become a famous artist.” She laughed. “I’m definitely not famous yet, but maybe someday.”
As we threaded our way back home, I stared out the window. I thought of Tammy’s neighborhood and wondered if she had really seen that man with the gun. It was very possible.
Later that evening I found the picture that I’d drawn in my sketchpad of the “perfect friend.” I turned to a clean page and drew the same outline of the face, shading it in with a chocolate color. Then I made the face have two brown eyes and black hair. When I was finished, the sketch looked like Tammy. Friends, I had discovered, came in a variety of colors.