PTRTSESSD: Post-Traumatic Racially Tense Southern Elementary School Stress Disorder

What horrible lessons to teach a child.

When we moved from Connecticut to Florida when I was 10 years old, I don’t think any of my family knew exactly what we were getting ourselves into. I’m quite sure we didn’t expect to be living in a tent. We had no idea that my stepfather would never have a decent job again, and that my mother would make so little money that we’d struggle to survive.

And then there was the culture shock. I could barely understand what anyone was saying. I didn’t know how to cope with the unrelenting heat and humidity. The food was strange. And after spending my entire school life up to that point in a school where the only black child had to be bussed in, I had zero comprehension of the racial dynamic I was entering when I was enrolled in Phillis Wheatley Elementary School in Apopka, Florida.

According to this report, for context (and, mind you, I knew none of these things at the time): The school that eventually became Wheatley Elementary had been established in 1886 as a school for the children of African American field hands. Segregation was the unbreakable code back then, and the teachers were paid less, had little or no school supplies, and coped with secondhand books and substandard facilities.

When segregation became illegal in 1954 thanks to the federal courts, nothing changed in Orange County, Florida. No, siree. It was not until a group of parents sued the school board in 1962 that the district was required to desegregate fully. And yet 11 area schools, including Wheatley, were still considered segregated in 1970. According to the report, “In 2010, Orange County Public Schools achieved what is called unitary status, freeing the district from the court order and requiring the replacement of a group of aging schools attended predominantly by black children. Those construction projects were completed in 2018.”

That’s right. I said 2018. So now imagine tiny, white, 10-year-old, yankee me wandering into this place in 1974. Even though only a quarter of that county’s population was black, 80% of the students at Wheatley were. (To this day, only 26% of the students are white.)

Not only did I talk funny, but I probably looked funny. I started working at that age, growing and selling houseplants at the flea market, just so I would have a few school clothes and a pair of shoes that I wasn’t ashamed of. I did wear a lot of hand me downs, and this was the 70’s, so you can just imagine what a horror show that was. A lot of plaid bell bottoms were involved. I also remember wearing a pair of faded jeans with about 5 inches of dark jean material that I had sown onto the bottom as I grew. I’m sure my teacher viewed me as white trash.

My first impression of Wheatley was that it looked like a prison, and because of that I was terrified. The buildings are of concrete block. The concrete hallways, at least at the time, were outdoors, with hard plastic patio roofing to keep off the rain, but with no walls. I was introduced for the first time to the concept of “portables”, which are trailer-like classrooms set on wheels. Those were scattered amongst the concrete block buildings.

To my horror, I discovered that none of the bathroom stalls had doors, because of drug deals. I had never even heard of people dealing drugs in Connecticut, especially elementary school students. I was very sheltered, there.

After a few short days in my classroom, I realized that concrete block sweats in the heat as much as humans do, and there was mildew everywhere. There was no air conditioning anywhere in the school, except up at the front office. My teacher would prop open the door and the screenless windows, and lizards and cockroaches would run in and out. One time a snake came to visit.

And as for my 5th grade education, I got none, really. My teacher didn’t know what to do with me. I was reading at a college level. It took my mother several months to realize that I never brought homework home. I could do the work before the teacher was finished teaching it. (In fact, I had been in the Florida school system for 3 years before they taught me anything I hadn’t already learned in Connecticut.)

I had very little respect for my teacher. I had never been taught to say ma’am or sir, and she took great exception to that. I quickly noticed that she would often teach things incorrectly. At first I’d speak up and correct her and explain why. (Yes, I was exactly that brand of obnoxious.) You can imagine that that didn’t go down well. Eventually I just stopped listening altogether.

When my classmates learned about the Civil War, they treated it like it was a football game. All of them, without exception, were rooting for team South, because you root for the home team, don’t you? I remember nearly losing my mind that day. I remember shouting that the South was for slavery. How could they be for slavery? That’s when I gave up all hope. I was just doing time in my violent little elementary school prison.

And violent it was. I witnessed my first knife fight in my first week there. It happened in the cafeteria. Furniture was toppled and thrown. The two boys involved had to be wrestled to the ground and hauled away, kicking and screaming. The rage was palpable. My whole life up to that point, I had never seen anything worse than your basic playground scuffle.

I’m sure that those boys got paddled and suspended. That was also new to me. Paddling. In Connecticut at the time, it was unheard of to lay hands on students, let alone hit them on the back side with a board. No one had ever done that to me, and despite the fact that I never acted up, and despite the fact that my mother had written a letter, on file at the office, saying that she did not give them permission to paddle me, I lived in constant fear that some huge misunderstanding would happen, and I’d be beaten by an adult.

And while the school was theoretically desegregated, none of the black kids would talk to me other than to threaten my life. They didn’t even speak as they beat me up, which happened pretty much daily. I was smaller than everyone. I learned to curl up into a ball to protect my stomach, and wait for them to get bored and stop kicking me. I have no idea where the adults disappeared to during these events. They certainly weren’t rushing to my aid. I spent most of 5th grade being afraid for my life.

After much pleading on my part, and after bruising that could no longer be ignored, my mother spoke up about this eventually, and the school’s solution was to have the secretary escort me to and from the school bus every day. That made me even more of a target. All the kids jeered at me as we walked by. My own little walk of shame. I got my mother to call me in sick a lot. I attended school maybe 3 days on a good week. The rest of the time I’d stay home and read books all day. In my mind I can still see my mother’s handwriting on my notes.

“Please excuse Barbara from school yesterday and the day before. She was ill.”

These notes were never questioned. I still got straight A’s all the way through school, so I don’t think anyone much cared.

On the rare occasion that something good happened at the school, it was quickly trampled on. Once, my class planted 100 tree seedlings on the hill beside the playground. I was really proud of that. But they had all been ripped out of the ground and thrown over the fence in less than 24 hours. No supervision. Students gone wild.

The one bright spot in that year was that my teacher operated the class on the star system. You got gold stars for good behavior. Good behavior included things like actually doing your homework. Actually showing up. Actually staying awake. Not attacking anyone. Remaining seated. Thumping the chalk dust out of the erasers. At the end of the week, your stars would be tallied up, and you’d get to bid on various privileges or treats. I always had the most stars, so I always got the most “expensive” privilege: the opportunity to go be a teacher’s aid for a few hours a day for the kindergarten teacher.

The kindergarten class was my oasis. I was surrounded by kids who were much too small to hurt me. I got to eat cookies and milk with them. I did cool stuff like go to the air conditioned office to run off dittos on the ditto machine that the kids would then get to color on. And the teacher was very kind. She always made me feel safe.

On the last day of school, the kindergarten teacher gave me a ring as a thank you. It was big and clunky and it turned my finger green, and one of the big blue plastic “gems” fell off and was never seen again, but I wore that ring for years. For me it was a symbol that somewhere in the world, someone liked and understood me.

I never saw or heard from her again. The next year I went to Ocoee Junior High School, where things were still pretty bad, but I only feared for my life about half the time. That was a vast improvement, relatively speaking.

When I look back at my 5th grade experience, which I try not to do very often, the adult me gets very angry. I’m sure that that year damaged me in ways that I still haven’t grasped. I know I was beginning to learn that people in positions of authority could not be trusted. I also started to believe for the first time that the world is an inherently unsafe place, and that most people are basically stupid, and that, most of all, my cries for help would, by and large, not be taken seriously by anyone.

What horrible lessons to teach a child.

Oddly enough, I never blamed the school itself for the chaos and neglect that surrounded me. It didn’t occur to me. I had always viewed schools as being beyond reproach up to that time. Education is precious. Thinking otherwise was a very bitter pill to swallow.

What I couldn’t accept or understand was my mother’s passivity. I still can’t, really. I know she was under a great deal of pressure herself, just trying to keep us fed. She was unable or unwilling to hear about the constant danger I was in. She didn’t take my 3 year gap in learning seriously. She did take me to the library a lot, but the rest was up to me.

She heard about my daily beat downs and watched my self-esteem and my sense of security get chipped away, and yet the only thing that changed was deep within me. I became more determined to grow up and get the hell out of Apopka with each passing year. I’m not a parent myself, so maybe I can’t understand it from that perspective, but I do know this: if someone I was responsible for was thrown into the equivalent of a child prison, where she was chewed up like raw meat in a lion’s den, I’d move heaven and earth to change that one way or another. If there was ever a child who was meant to be home schooled, for example, it was me.

I think this is perhaps why I am so sympathetic toward immigrants. I know what it’s like to feel constantly terrified, and to want, more than anything else in the world, to go somewhere safe. No one should have to experience that. Especially at age ten.

I have no idea what Wheatley is like these days. I hope there are doors on the bathroom stalls. I hope there is air conditioning. Their website is awash with pride, as all school websites tend to be. It’s also sprinkled with spelling errors. According to this report card, the parents give it high marks. Based on the standardized test scores, which I take with a grain of very conflicted salt, approximately 55 percent of the kids are doing “satisfactory or better” in English and Science. The students are also now required to wear school t-shirts, which suggests that the administration worries about gang activity. So yeah, it’s a mixed bag.

I just hope that none of the kids who go to Wheatley today will have the same visceral, tear-filled reaction that I do, nearly 47 years after the fact, when looking at this picture of that school’s bleak and relatively unchanged façade. I see they’ve added a second floor, and the windows look closed which suggests climate control, and the 8 foot high chain link fence appears to be gone. That’s something, anyway.

I guess.

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El Norte

A movie that is still very relevant today.

After graduating from college for the first time, I was struggling to figure out what to do with my life, so I took a series of jobs. None of them were a perfect fit, but they all taught me a great deal.

At one point, in an effort to keep the student loan wolves from the door, I took a minimum wage job at Video Action, a video rental place in Apopka, Florida that, needless to say, no longer exists. I was only there for two months because I needed to make more money than that, but I remember the place fondly.

Working there was fun. To prevent theft, they’d leave the video boxes empty on the shelves, and then when the customer brought them up to the counter, you’d have to go get the vhs tape from the back for them. There was a lot of running around, and a lot of fascinating people to meet. The shift always went by quickly.

At Video Action, I met an octogenarian woman who would come in every week and rent about a dozen porn videos. She gave me hope for the future. Getting old doesn’t mean you’ve died.

Another person that gave me hope for the future was the 16-year-old girl who owned and managed the place in order to raise her baby. Jessie was amazing. She showed me that your life is what you make of it. I often wonder how her life turned out.

There was a large Mexican migrant population in Apopka, because it was a farming community. I was kind of drawn to them because I majored in Spanish in college, mainly because I got tired of people being able to talk about me on the school busses in Apopka without me understanding them. They kind of shaped my life without knowing it.

Whenever they came in, I’d recommend the movie El Norte, ostensibly because it was the only bilingual video we had, but also because it is an amazing film about Guatemalan refugees who are forced out of their country due to violence, and they travel through Mexico and sneak into the US, undocumented, in an effort to have a better life, with very mixed results. I figured these people could relate to this video on a lot of levels.

And it’s a beautiful movie, too. In Guatemala, in particular, it’s infused with rich color. And I truly believe it makes you get inside the immigration experience in ways you could never understand otherwise.

Recently I was thinking of this movie and decided to watch it again. Yes, it’s as beautiful and moving as I remembered. The horrible thing about it is that even though it came out in 1983, it’s still relevant to our current immigration situation. If anything, things have become much worse under our current racist administration. How heartbreaking. Shame on us.

See this movie. See the special features that come with it, too. Your eyes will be opened.

El Norte

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The Cinema and Brew

God, I loved that place.

Sometimes nostalgia hits me like a freight train. I hadn’t thought of this place in decades, but suddenly today this little chestnut popped into my head: The Cinema and Brew in Apopka, Florida.

It was a dingy little place, tucked into the corner of a strip mall. Nothing to shout about, really. One screen. Chairs with ragged upholstery surrounding sticky tables. A counter where you could order pizza, beer, popcorn, candy, and soda.

Not the best neighborhood. Someone I distantly knew was stabbed on the sidewalk out front once. God, though, I loved that place.

The minute I turned 16 and could drive at night, I was there every single week. If I remember correctly, it only cost a dollar to get in. The manager would get really irritated with those of us who couldn’t afford to buy food. That was his only chance for profit. But since I was quiet and never caused trouble, I never got kicked out, as many of my male friends did.

The movies were often really bad. Cheech and Chong. The Porky’s franchise. Most of the time I didn’t even bother to see what was playing until I got there. Because the whole point was being there.

It was a place to run into friends. It was also the place to hope for romance. I got my first kiss there. I also got my first unwanted kiss there. He had pizza breath and really awful body odor, and he took me by surprise. I made it quite clear that it would be a really bad idea to ever try that again. Hopefully he’s not aiming for a future in the Supreme Court.

It was also a place to go to get away from my dysfunctional home life and fantasize about being rescued. One time I was there by myself, and a really good looking guy came up to me and said, “Is this seat taken?” My heart was pounding. I said no. So he took it. Away. To another table.

Another time, a friend was supposed to meet me there, and she was running late. Finally I gave up on her entirely. So I’m sitting in the pitch black, watching the movie, and during a quiet scene, she screeches my name. It made everyone jump.

“Jeez. Over here,” I said. Everyone laughed. We all sort of felt like we were hanging out in a big living room in a low rent neighborhood.

I had forgotten how desperate I was back then. Desperate for love and friendship and acceptance. Desperate to get out of my circumstances. Desperately poor.

Still, a tiny part of me wishes I were going to the Cinema and Brew tonight, for old time’s sake. But like so many other things from my past, for better or for worse, it’s long gone.


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Even Weeds Belong Somewhere

My whole life, I’ve felt as though I didn’t quite fit in. So much so, that at some point I gave up trying. In fact, these days I seem to have gone to the other end of the bell curve entirely. I kind of delight in being out in left field most of the time.

Except when I’m feeling vulnerable. When I’m tired, I feel much more insecure. When I’m improperly dressed at a party, and have no idea which fork to use, I’m not going to lie–that kind of sucks.

But it isn’t anyone else telling me that I don’t fit in. It’s entirely me. And it’s based on some pretty arbitrary social rules. It always makes me think of weeds. I’m a weed.

During my young adult life, I lived in a town called Apopka, which called itself the “Indoor Foliage Capital of the World.” (I wonder if they still do? It’s been many decades since I’ve been back.) Back then, you couldn’t throw a rock in that town without shattering a greenhouse window. It made me look at plants in an entirely new way.

It amazed me how much people were willing to pay for stuff that you can find growing entirely wild somewhere or other. People do love the exotic, but even exotic things have to be commonplace in some location, or they wouldn’t exist.

So, a weed is simply something that doesn’t fit in. It’s not where it’s supposed to be. Worse case scenario, it’s invasive. But that’s not the weed’s fault. It never asked to be uprooted. There it was, minding its own business in its natural habitat, when some fool decided to send it half way across the world without considering the consequences. And then the name calling begins. (Damned weed. Get out of my yard! We don’t want you here!)

So it’s all about perspective and location. We all have our place. It’s just a matter of finding it. So maybe as you walk along the path of your life, try being a little less judge-y of the other living things that you encounter who are feeling out of place. They, too, have their journey. Just sayin’.


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White Boy

Growing up in a small town in the rural south, I encountered my fair share of interesting characters. One guy that I’d occasionally see around was known as “White Boy”. He was a huge guy with a huge chip on his shoulder. He was intimidating. He used to fight a lot. I never saw him smile. We weren’t friends.

White Boy came by his attitude honestly. He was actually African American. He also happened to be an albino. This made him the subject of ridicule from all sides.

As an African American in the South, he was already treated like crap by a huge segment of the population. But his albinism meant that he didn’t fit in with African Americans, either. I don’t know who started calling him White Boy, but no one seemed to know him by any other name. I wonder how he felt about that.

I can’t even begin to imagine what his life was like. I just knew that he was angry. As far as I was concerned, this made him one to be avoided. So that’s what I did.

A true test of one’s character is how one treats those who happen to cross one’s path. Looking back, I’m ashamed that I never learned White Boy’s name. I’m ashamed I never gave him a chance. I’m ashamed that I stared at him and avoided him, basically treating him as I would a strange and dangerous animal in a zoo. I never called him names or bothered him in any way. I just kept him trapped on the other side of the glass. That was cruel enough.

I have absolutely no excuse for my conduct, other than the fact that I was in my early teens, and no one was modeling better behavior. At the time, it didn’t occur to me to choose another path. That particular defining moment in my life is one of my everlasting regrets.

Wherever Wh… wherever that fellow human being is today, I hope he found, and continues to find, reasons to smile.


A big thanks to StoryCorps for inspiring this blog and my first book.


Meaning What You Say

“Let go of him, or I’m going to hit you,” I said to my boyfriend, who was playing a little too roughly with his much younger brother. The kid was choking. My words didn’t seem to sink in.

“P, I swear to God, I’ll hit you if you don’t let him go!”

Nothing. So I hit him. His little brother, having been abruptly released, immediately fell down on all fours and was gasping for air, but P was rubbing his jaw and looking at me in utter shock. “You hit me,” he said.

“A) the kid was turning blue. B) You are in my living room, not some wrestling ring. And C) I warned you, twice, that I would.”

I had never punched anyone in my life (and haven’t since then), but that seemed like as good a time as any to start. I don’t know why this took him by surprise. Even back then (this was 30 years ago) I said what I meant and I meant what I said. If I make a statement, you can count on the fact that I’ll follow through with it unless I am in a hospital dying. I don’t know how else to be.

This also reminds me of the time when I was in high school and my best friend’s boyfriend said, “You’ll never leave Apopka.” Why? Because I was so darned happy in that little redneck town? “Oh, trust me. I’ll leave Apopka.” He scoffed at that.

Since then, I’ve traveled to 22 countries, and have had 12 non-Apopka addresses. In fact, now I live in Seattle, Washington, which is about as far away from Apopka, Florida, both culturally and physically, as you can get without leaving the continental U.S. It was the two of them, now married, who never left. But they always seemed happy there. Good for them.

I don’t know which confuses me more: people who don’t believe what I’m saying, or people who say things they really don’t mean. I generally take people at their word because I know my word is good. Even when I discover that someone is untrustworthy, I have to keep reminding myself of that fact.

Trust is my default position. That quite often bites me in the butt. I’d like to think I’m extremely intelligent, but I suppose I’m not particularly sophisticated. Still, I’d rather be a straight shooter than a crooked one any day.

say what you mean

That Sinking Feeling

Anyone who has lived in Central Florida knows on some level that it’s basically sinkhole central. The land is comprised mostly of limestone, which is easily dissolved in water, so it gets very porous. That’s fine when those pores are full of water, but in dryer times, they become air pockets, and the walls and ceilings of these pockets can crumble, and the next thing you know, you’re reading about someone’s house disappearing into a massive hole. That’ll ruin your whole day.

house sinkhole

By the way, the county won’t help you in this situation because it’s on private land.

[Image credit:]

In my home town of Apopka, Florida, we are lucky enough to be surrounded by some crystal clear springs and a blue sink and a massive lake, all because of that limestone. It’s a beautiful area, and I used to love swimming in those springs every week with my best friend. But should it be so massively developed? Probably not. This is something the realtors don’t like to discuss.

Rock spings

Rock Springs in Apopka, Florida. My old splashing grounds.

About 40 years ago there was a big story in the paper that indicated that the vast majority of Apopka was perched over one enormous potential sinkhole. When I read that, I freaked out. But I seemed to be the only one who did. Because nothing happened. Nothing changed. Nothing further was mentioned. The area is much more developed now than it was then. And if you Google it now, you won’t find anything about this monster hole. But you’ll find lots and lots of stories about smaller sinkholes all over town, one of which swallowed up a lady when she was out walking her dog.

There are just some places in this world that humans aren’t meant to inhabit. Deserts, for example, and huge swaths of California. A big section of Central Florida falls within this category. But we aren’t about to demolish Disney World, now are we? So we look the other way.

When are we going to stop taking more from the land than it can give?


Reported sinkholes in and around Orange County, Florida.

[Image credit:]

The Cigarette Girl and the Waving Man

I spent the first 10 years of my life in Connecticut, so when we moved to a small Southern town in the 1970’s, it was quite a culture shock. The segregation was more subtle than it had been in the 50’s, of course. We all went to school together. But we certainly didn’t live in the same neighborhoods, attend the same churches or socialize in any significant way. Every rural town has its characters, but in Apopka, Florida where I grew up, ours were even more tragic or heroic or, I suppose, both, due in part to this unofficial segregation.

Every day, rain or shine, you were bound to come across the cigarette girl. She looked like she was in her early 20’s. She was always in a ragged house dress and barefoot, summer or winter. I never saw her move, but she must have, because she popped up on various street corners throughout town, and she’d just stand there in a catatonic state, looking like an impoverished, unkempt and extremely neglected statue. The saddest thing about her was that she always had cigarette butts stuck haphazardly in amongst her corn rows. It was disgusting. It was tragic. And the fact that her family and the powers that be in the city did absolutely nothing for her, and I felt completely unequipped to do anything myself, made me feel like the world was not a safe place, and that you couldn’t count on adults at all. Whenever I saw her I was mesmerized by her, but was too afraid to approach her. I tried to find out her story, and I did hear a rumor that she had been gang raped when she was 5 years old, and hadn’t been “right in the head” since. I don’t know if that’s true or not. But I do know that the entire town seemed to be content to let her roam the streets like a stray dog, and there’s something very, very wrong with a community that’s willing to do that.

On the way home from school or the library or the drug store, we would have to drive through the poorer neighborhoods because we were extremely poor ourselves, and therefore lived on the outskirts of town. Every single day unless it was raining, we would pass this broken down shack next to the railroad tracks, and sitting out front on one of those ratty old webbed lawn chairs would be a very old, weathered man. Whenever a car would drive by, he’d wave and smile, so I called him the waving man. I knew nothing more about him. He never had anything with him. No newspaper, no radio, no book, not even a glass of sweet tea. But he never looked bored. He just sat there and waved his wrinkled old hand as if that was his calling, as if he had always been there and always would be.


(Image credit: )

At the time it never occurred to me to stop and talk to him. I think I’d have been too scared because of the neighborhood or too intimidated to cross our great cultural divide. But I was always curious about him, and would have loved to know his story. He looked happy, and yet I’m amazed that shack he lived in didn’t fall down every time a train went by and rattled its already shaky foundation. I never saw him with friends or relatives, but he looked much too old to be taking care of himself. Still, he was there, day after day, smiling, waving, enduring and apparently timeless, living his life. And I would always wave back. I hope he was content and cared for by his neighbors during his last days, but I’ll never know, now.

The last time I went back to Apopka it had changed so much that I could barely find my way around. The drug store was a mere shadow of its former self. The library, once housed in a cozy corner of a strip mall, had moved on to bigger, more modern accommodations. Everything seemed bigger and more modern, in fact. My town had joined the 21st century at last. But I will always remember it as a small town that looked the other way, and maybe that was good, and maybe it wasn’t. That was just the way Apopka was.