My mother and father, the only kids to go to college in their large families, believed deeply that they could only have genius children. When my older brother, Stephen, was assigned to the fourth-grade slow learners' class at Franklin Elementary for his habit of staring at the floor, it set into motion a chain of events that would end, for me, with a partial scholarship to the Barrett School for Girls. Every day I got up at 6:00 a.m. and rode a school bus from Southwest Philadelphia to a sprawling campus in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Stephen got a tutor and transferred to a better public elementary. I got a school with its own coat of arms.
My first friend at Barrett when I started there in second grade was a girl called Jane, who had light brown hair, so Stephen began calling me Jane. Even after the girl had left the school and moved away, Stephen continued to remind me how much of a Jane I was becoming when I was excited or angry or got in the way of his frequent mood swings. This continued even after the fourth grade, when another black girl came to my class and we became best friends.
Hearing our two names together — The-a Brown, Nad-ja Bell — was how I learned about poetic meter and internal rhyme. One day our English teacher, Mr. Edwards, put aside Emily Dickinson and chanted our two names several times. He clapped staccato beats and looked proud of himself. Nadja wore a blank expression, and I tried not to smile.
As we walked away from the classroom, Nadja said, "You know he can't tell us apart, right?" and that was true and sad, so it made me laugh. A bland girl named Stephanie Simon, who was walking alone, looked at us with curiosity. When I saw her looking, I laughed even harder.
You could barely breathe in the space between me and Nadja. I might have been a shrill thing, but my best friend was cool, like a villain on a detective show. Once, in the locker room after swimming, Allison Evans announced, "I heard there's pools of blood on every corner in Philadelphia."
I clutched a towel to me and couldn't think of anything to say except "Well, well."
Nadja, already dry and dressed, closed her locker with a definitive click. "I guess that's why there's taxes for street cleaning."
Before Nadja, I had a few friends who were loyal to me at lunchtime, though we had nothing to talk about. I waved discreetly to the black girls scattered in other grades, and smiled at the hairnetted black lunch ladies who ladled me extra soup. I threw a party, and nobody from school came. With Nadja, I had someone to sit and eat with, and somebody in the world besides my grandpa Theo called my house to speak to me.
Sometimes on Fridays after school I went over to Nadja's, where we'd listen to the Power Four at Four on Power 99, and she'd teach me the new dances she'd learned from the older girls who lived on her block. Each of those afternoons, just before six o'clock, we'd turn off the music, dab away our sweat, and spread our books out on the dining-room table. Nadja's mother believed that dancing was for adults and that secular music was from Satan. Those were the days of Rick James and of Prince's "Erotic City," so I guess she was right.
At the end of sixth grade, I learned that Nadja's mother was transferring her to Saint Mary's in South Philly. Her mother had recently married a minister who thought his stepdaughter should go to a Christian school.
Nadja told me the news on a chilly spring day. We wore sweatpants under our gray uniform kilts and twisted up the swings after lunch. "It's not like there's anything I can do," she said.
"Well, did you even try?"
"I just told you I did. My mom kept saying, 'The more you complain about going down there, the more me and Mr. Al know you need to do it.'"
"But Barrett was okay all these years."
Nadja stared ahead. "Yeah, well, now he's gotta pay part of it. And I overheard them talking the other night — it's a lot cheaper."
I wrinkled my nose, hating Mr. Al, whom I'd never met.
"Oh, does your mom know how sadistic the nuns are?" I asked. I had learned this word from my mom's best friend, a Catholic school graduate.
Nadja looked at me blankly.
I embellished on what I'd heard about girls getting whipped and humiliated by the Sisters, and I added some Barrett snobbery. "You know it's going to be a bunch of mallchicks and skanks, and you're gonna start using a lot of hair spray and going to dances with Guidos — "
Nadja halted the lazy motion of her swing. "Thea, this is not helping me. Anyway, I already use a little bit of hair spray." She pushed at the sides of her pulled-back hair.
I also made my swing stop. "Well, maybe I could get my mom to transfer me too."
She smirked. "Your parents would never let you go anywhere white people get to beat you."
That afternoon on the school bus, I planned to go home and look injured until my parents asked me what was wrong. Instead I ran to meet my mother at the door and told her Nadja was leaving me.
Mom paused at the door, listening. Then, as if snapping out of a trance, she hung her jacket, slammed the closet door, and sorted a stack of mail into two piles.
"Thea, I'm sorry," she said, and kissed me on the top of my head. "I'm sure you all will stay friends. I have got to get out of this skirt!" Her voice was cheerful, but her back was to me, as she was already on the stairs. I went to the living room and flopped onto her huge velvet chair.
"What am I going to do without Nadja?" I asked as soon as she came down in one of her many sweat suits.
"Thea, you'll be fine," she said, shooing me out of her chair with a weak smile. "Maybe Barrett will get some new black students. Tell you the truth, though," she said, as if I couldn't hear her, "I really don't know what Reba is thinking, sending her down there with that white trash."
"You'll be fine."
Later, I followed my father into the kitchen, where he made omelets for dinner. I leaned onto his whisking arm and addressed his neatly rolled shirtsleeve. "What am I going to do at Barrett without Nadja?"
"Well," he said, and gently pushed me back up to standing. "You're not there to socialize. You'll do what you've been doing — bringing home A's. Yeah."
At dinner, Stephen gave his opinion.
"Now you're really gonna be a wannabe Jane." Incidentally, Nadja was the sole Barrett girl my brother didn't call Jane.
Stephen made me so mad that my head was a blender full of blood. Sometimes, when my parents weren't around, I pulled off the do-rag he wore at home or called him a faggot. He hated that.
"Let your sister be, Stephen," my mother said in a firm voice, though sometimes when he called me Jane she looked amused.
Neither of my parents answered me. They couldn't tell me who I would walk everywhere with, or what would I do when I was finished lunch and everyone separated into twos and the occasional three. Worst of all, Barrett dances started in seventh grade. When Nadja told me she was leaving, I couldn't help picturing myself at one. Again and again I saw myself stuck to the wall of the main auditorium. All the girls in our class and a bunch of boys from Braeford Prep were in the center of the room under a disco ball, a writhing throng of pale arms and legs tangled up in each other, closing ranks.
Excerpted from "Twelve Takes Thea," from Get Down, by Asali Solomon. Copyright 2006 by Asali Solomon. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.