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First Day of School in Alabama - Mary Ellen Chatwin

The wide white stairs of the Bay Minette Grammar School

Spread out on each side of us like wings that September morning.

Holding Mama’s hand, I stared at my black pumps and the shadow of my light blue dress,

Like an umbrella shading the hard bright steps.

Still squinting down out of the intense heat when we reached the top

I heard the sound of heavy doors as Mama pushed.

We entered a suddenly cool, dark hallway that stretched far to each side.

The window at one end of the linoleum corridor framed a dark silhouette

pushing a long-handled broom almost wide as the hall.

The broom slid closer, pushing sawdust that caught the dust.

“Good morning Miss Anne”, the lady said to Mama, then bent down and smiled at me.

Her teeth were as white as the starched collar and buttons on her light green dress.

“You starting school today, Cissy?”

“Yes Ma’am,” I said, staring back down at the broom.

The lady continued along the hallway towards the other end,

Followed by a gleaming floor behind her darkening silhouette.

Mama leaned down and whispered,

“Honey, we don’t say ‘ma’am’ to colored people.”


Mary Ellen was a child who saw San Francisco (where she was born); Trieste, Italy (where her dad was stationed); and Washington DC before she began her school and university in Alabama. She married then moved to Switzerland, where she continued her studies and became a social anthropologist. She raised her children, including her adopted daughter from Brazil, with varying levels of success. She has lived in Georgia, a country in the Caucasus, for more than two decades, where she headed humanitarian and social policy programs, and now writes fiction and edits non-fiction...and is creating a village permaculture garden. She believes that understanding how white children in the South were 'enculturated' into a system of segregation should be part of the themes of 'black lives matter'.


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