(Excerpt from North Shore, South Shore, a young adult novel-in-progress)


Sandra Jackson-Opoku

I am Coming Home.

My mother will be screaming in an almost dirty dress. The crack is gone. So a Man will be in the house. I must watch myself. I must not dare to sleep.
—Gwendolyn Brooks

“So who?” people say when she tells them who she is. Sometimes they laugh, even though it is a serious name.

SoJourner T. Walker. That “T” stands for “truth.” SoJourner knows she’s named after somebody; she can’t remember exactly who. Somebody back in the day had people trying to dis’ her down. That lady stood up and got everybody told.

“Ain’t I a woman? What?”

Her father used to remind her who she was. Her mother too, sometimes. This was back in the Family Times. Those days ended with Daddy downstate, BettiAnn busy with other kinds of things. Too busy to remind SoJourner who she was.

Her mother once read her a story. These sexy bird-ladies with tempting voices, people called them Sirens. They sat on rocks in the middle of the sea, just singing all night long. Sailors got lost trying to find them. Ships crashed on the rocks trying to follow their songs.

SoJourner now knows that not just sailors are tempted. No islands in Chicago that she knew of. Stony Island was a street out here on the Southside. Only sirens you heard were the kind on top of police cars and ambulances. Still, SoJourner’s mother chased Siren Songs, even though she knew how the story would end. BettiAnn Walker had crashed on the rocks.

SoJourner has been in the System since she was fourteen. Now she’s going on eighteen, almost emancipated. SoJourner T. Walker is ready to walk. She’s been in three foster homes that didn’t work out. Now she lives in a group home “for adolescent females.” It’s the last stage of the game unless you get locked up or knocked up. SoJourner isn’t trying to do either one.

The Passages South girls mispronounce her name. A lot of them call her “Joiner,” like she’s trying to be in somebody’s club. They got it straight twisted if that’s what they think. SoJourner T. Walker don’t be joining nobody’s nothing, especially what they’re selling at Passages South.

A few of these girls are bad. They’re the kind you avoid, or they’ll pull you down into their mess. Some of them are mad, but most of them are just plain sad. SoJourner does get mad sometimes; she ain’t gonna lie. She really isn’t all that bad and tries not to waste time on sadness. People who cry get picked on.

The group leader signs her report card. Miss Willy, the division teacher, frowns at the name. “I know you’re not bringing me a forged signature, Miss Walker.”

“No, ma’am,” SoJourner answers. She puts something extra on the “ma’am” so the teacher will know she’s not lying. “Why would I forge when I get good grades?”

“Well, I can’t make out this chicken scratch. Whose name is this?”

SoJourner leans forward and whispers the answer.

“Speak up, Miss Walker.” She puts on her glasses and squints at the report card. “Who’s your parent?”

“Ward of the State,” she says, sharp and snappy. Hands on hips, she cracks her gum three times. She will not be shamed before giggling girls and snickering boys. Don’t let SoJourner lose her temper.

Don’t let her have to get the lady told right in front of division. Miss Willy, she really ought to know better. “Chocklit” is what they call her behind her back. It got shortened way down from Willie Wonka and the . . .

It’s not as bad as what DiAnthony Davis said before he got up and spit on her shoe. He never came back to class after that. Probably got kicked out and had to go to alternative school.

Miss Willy hadn’t really called him crazy; she just asked the question. Old boy was cutting up like nobody’s business. Pretending to dig out boogers and flick them at people.

“Mr. Davis, are you crazy or what?”

“Who you calling crazy, Chocklit? If I’m crazy, you’s a crazy Cockeyed Bitch.”

“Oh, snap!” Kids always giggled when a teacher got cussed out, even when it wasn’t funny. It was a fear mixed with respect kind of giggle. “Dude is crazy. You heard what DiAnthony said?”

SoJourner felt sorry for Miss Willy. She never saw a brown-skinned person turn so red. What else did the lady expect DiAnthony to do? When people give you disrespect, you got to hand it right back to them. Otherwise, they’ll be dissing you 24/7. Somebody like Miss Willy shouldn’t even be cracking, not when you got eyes looking off in two different directions. SoJourner swallows the insult that pops to her lips. South Shore High School is on ZTP, that zero tolerance policy. One strike, you’re out the door. She doesn’t want to mess up her graduation or group home placement.

Miss Willy rolls her cross-eyes like she can hear what SoJourner is thinking. The teacher takes off her glasses, blows on the lenses, and wipes them off with the edge of her blouse. “I know that isn’t chewing gum in your mouth, Miss Walker. Lose it now, before I lose my patience.”

She could say, “It’s not chewing gum; it’s Flavor Blast Bazooka.” SoJourner doesn’t say a word. She spits it into her hand in front of Miss Willy then puts it back in her mouth going back to her seat. SoJourner doesn’t know why her division teacher is being so mean today. Maybe she’s on her period. Miss Willy is usually nice enough.

SoJourner has her for mixed chorus, sixth period. SoJourner Truth sings second soprano. They’re rehearsing “The Impossible Dream” to sing at graduation.

SoJourner has two more months before she graduates, grown and emancipated. She will grab that diploma and never look back. Walk away from South Shore High School, from Passages South, from the System. If she gets at least a C in gym, she’ll make the honor roll, wear a white gown, and get to sit on stage. She’s not worried about Earth Science, U.S. History, Honors English, or Mixed Chorus. Only Physical Education.

They’ve been in the pool since the middle of April, and SoJourner has sat out every session. She’s on a medical excuse for an allergy to chlorine though the gym teacher is still waiting on a doctor’s note. SoJourner tells her locker mate, “Girl, these braids cost too much to be messing up in somebody’s swimming pool.”

Neither of those stories is exactly true. SoJourner T. Walker doesn’t own a bathing suit.

SoJourner isn’t bad or sad, but sometimes she’s tired. Tired of living in the worst part of South Shore, an area they call Terror Town. Tired of walking past liquor stores, boarded-up buildings, street soldiers slinging at every other corner. Tired of hearing gunshots every night and sometimes in the day.

It’s hard to pretend your life is regular when home is a building set back behind a church. It was probably nice back when South Shore was rich and white and fancy. Those days are long gone. Now it looks like a designer shoe run down at the heel. The coach house is a two-story graystone dungeon with peeling paint and cheap furniture, eight other girls, two group leaders, a night and weekend overnight counselor, and an army of mice. Where people don’t touch you, and if they try, they better be ready to fight.

SoJourner doesn’t like people touching on her. SoJourner took Driver’s Ed in junior year. Nobody at Passages helped her with road practice. It’s not because she didn’t ask.

“No way, Miss Thang,” says Miss Leota, the day group leader. She calls everyone at Passages “Miss Thang.” “You ain’t fixing to tear up my brand-new Honda.”

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