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“Guys, we should go in. It’s a school night.”
“Shut up, Charlie.”
“Why’d you have to mention that?”
“Yeah, Killjoy Charlie. You just ended our summer vacation.”
Like it’s my fault the earth spins? I brace for a tornado of punches. Instead I hear Keith say, “Charlie Ross is right. It’s getting dark.”
Capture-the-flag ends in a tie and we all head for home. You can hear air conditioners humming from side yards and crickets chirping from trees. Someone kicks an empty Coke bottle into the street. It sounds like a ringing bell.
You can’t hear much talk, though. We’re all thinking about you-know-what starting you-know-when. Most summers I look forward to you-know-what. But this year I’m starting sixth grade. If I start sixth grade, chances are I’ll finish it. And when I do, I’ll get older than my older brother.
“See you guys at the bus stop tomorrow,” I say.
“Won’t see me,” says Bobby Crane.
“Won’t see me,” says Mike Applebaum.
“Or me,” says Brett Deitch.
“Why not?” I ask.
“I’m going to Buckley.”
“I’m going to Carpenter.”
“I’m going to El Rodeo.”
Buckley is a private school in Sherman Oaks. Carpenter’s a public one in Studio City. El Rodeo is in Beverly Hills.
That’s three out of my four friends in the neighborhood changing schools. I turn to Keith, the one I look up to most.
“I’ll see you at the bus stop, won’t I, Keith?”
Keith has sandy blond hair, fair skin with freckles, and sea blue eyes. He carries a pocketknife in his jeans, started wearing puka shells way before they were popular, and lives in the pillow thoughts of practically every girl in Laurel Canyon. He calls us by our first and last names, which can make even a short kid like me feel tall.
“’Fraid not, Charlie Ross. I’m going to Carpenter this year. We gave my aunt’s address in Studio City so I don’t have to go to Wonderland.”
“What’s wrong with Wonderland?”
“My mom says it’s going downhill.”
“She say why?”
“Nope. Just that it’s a good time to be movin’ on. But don’t worry, man. I’ll still catch you around the neighborhood.”
“Cool,” I say, as in No big deal. But what I feel is cold. Like they all just ditched me.
The trouble with white people is, they’re white. It’s what I try to tell Mama when she informs me I’ll be attending a new school.
“What’s wrong with my old one?”
“It’s segregated,” Daddy says.
“How so? Black kids sit on one side of the schoolyard. Black kids on the other.”
“And where do the white kids sit?”
“Only white kid at Holmes is the one in Miss Silverton’s belly,” says Charmaine, my big sister third from the top.
“That’s segregated. And the Supreme Court has said it’s time for black and white to blend.”
I don’t see why. It’s not like we’re going to rub off on them.
“Where is this new school?”
“In the Hollywood Hills,” Mama says.
Hollywood Hills sounds like I’m going to be a movie star. I check myself in the shine of the toaster. Look like a young Sidney Poitier. Start practicing my autograph on the plate.
“How’s he going to get there?” Lenai, the oldest, asks. “We don’t have a car.” She’s the practical one. Parent Number Three, we call her, behind her back.
“He won a spot on the bus.”
Two slices of toast pop up like eyebrows. Two eyebrows—?mine—?pop up like the crusts on that toast. How can I win what I didn’t even try for? Then Daddy says they tried for me. Signed me up for a new program.
“Opportunity Busing, it’s called. You got the last spot.”
“I see,” I say. “And what time in the morning will my alarm clock have the opportunity to ring?”
“Five thirty. Bus comes at six fifteen.”
All five of my big sisters bust up. Lenai, who hardly ever smiles, is laughing. Cecily the Dreamer, always lost in the drawings she does, looks up from her sketchbook, laughing. Charmaine, boy crazy and bull stubborn, is laughing. Nika and Ebony, identical twins born a year before me, who like to fool the world as to who is who, are laughing. All five of them are laughing. Laughing at me.
Last year I got to sleep till seven. They know I need my beauty rest.
“What’s the name of this school?” I ask.
“Wonderland? You’re sending me to a school called Wonderland?”
“What difference does it make what it’s called?” Daddy says in a tone like a loaded gun.
“It’s the difference,” I say, “between a boy who gets jumped and one who gets left alone. Can you see me stepping off that bus at the end of the day? Kids around here be all, Yo, Armstrong, we hear you’re going to a new school. That’s right. What’s it called? Wonderland. Wonderland? Say, Alice, what’s it like down that hole?”
“That’s exactly why we’re sending you. To get away from ignorance like that.”
“Well, I’m not going,” I say, arms locked across my chest. You got to be firm with people. Especially parents.
Blam! Daddy’s fist comes down hard on the table. That’s my cue to jump up and run. I’ve got the advantage when I’m on my feet ’cause he left the one leg