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life lessons, hard lessons

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I was five years old when I decided one Saturday afternoon that I was going to swallow a penny. I couldn’t even tell you why I was so set on performing this unusual feat, but I was particularly bored and antsy, and looking for something to do with myself. Certainly, I had very comfortably swallowed down more than my share of thick wads of bubblegum. Why wouldn’t I be able to manage this unassuming piece of metal down my throat?

The coin flipped sideways right at the back of my throat and just lodged there. I gagged long enough for the panic to take over as the unsettling thought occurred to me that I was not going to be able to swallow this penny. Instead, I was choking on it. I hurriedly stuck two fingers into my mouth and fished the coin out of my windpipe. I gasped and caught my breath, shakily, still pretty scared and uncertain having come that close to death. That was the day life taught me to take stupid chances, no matter the risk.

I was seven years old when I fell in love with my first doll. She wore the prettiest little strawberry pink dress with ruffles at the neck. And she came with a rainbow lollipop that was about three times larger than her lips. Except, the doll in the store that I asked my parents to buy me was Caucasian with blonde locks; not this brown-complexioned one with tight black curls I unwrapped on my birthday that year. I remember crying later in my bedroom. That was around the time life taught me to hate my skin color.

I was eleven the first time I recall my father ever lying to me. You see, when you’re that age, promises hold as much weight as a handful of rocks, and as much value as a rhinestone ring out of a vending machine. They mean something in your eyes. As I’ve grown older, I don’t take too many promises that seriously, but as a child, promises might as well have been contracts signed in blood. My dad was my best friend in those days, and my best friend promised to take me to McDonald’s and then the movie theater afterward. Dad said he’d be home to pick me up by 12 o’clock in the afternoon. About fifteen after, I rationalized that he must have decided we’d go to the next showing, which was a little before two o’clock. A quarter after two in the afternoon, I finally replaced my jeans with lounge pants, but only because I didn’t want to stain my slacks as I ate lunch with my siblings, waiting on him. At half-past five, my brother stopped into my bedroom and found me sitting on my bed, nursing my stuffed toy monkey against my chest. That was the day life taught me that promises were meant to be broken.

I was 13 years old the first time I took something that didn’t belong to me and lied about it. It was a piece of candy: a white, speckled malted Easter egg. When my mother confronted me over it, I denied its whereabouts. She found it languishing in the right pocket of my shorts. That was when life taught me to be a better liar.

I was 16 years old when I asked my mother why God would make Black people’s lives so hard. There actually was a brief phase in my preteen years where I considered becoming a cop when I grew up. I developed an interest in police procedural dramas and true crime stories. Cops were awesome, right? They could be trusted. They wore a uniform and badge and they commanded respect everywhere they went. Plus, I really wanted to help people. I wanted to be the closest thing in the real world to a superhero. At sixteen years old though, the news stories began to paint an altogether different picture for me of the so-called good guys. I learned that they could be evil too. Vindictive. Bitter. Jaded. Irresponsible. Racist. Incidentally, today I am a Black woman who works in public safety as a police dispatcher and emergency call taker. I do it because I really do want to believe that there are some good people behind this badge. Even so, life taught me to question the good in people and to trust sparingly.

I was 18 when I got suspended for a semester from my first college for plagiarizing on a group math project. I begged the academic board to punish me in any other manner than a suspension. Even typing up a lengthy, bulleted appeal that elaborated on such things as my struggles as a commuter student as well as the stress of my combined course load. They flatly denied my appeal; in retrospect, I could see why. I wasn’t remorseful. My ego was just badly stunned. I went home that day absolutely deflated. Rather than facing up to the accusations of academic misconduct I had been found guilty of, I deceived my family with some pathetically constructed excuse for why I was no longer attending Spring classes. After the semester came and went, I continued to lie about why I wasn’t going to be returning to school for an additional three months. My mother grew suspicious of my suddenly lackadaisical attitude towards finishing my degree. She ultimately coaxed the truth out of me. I remember the look of disappointment mixed with anger that washed over the red in my mother’s eyes. That was when life taught me to betray the trust of those I love.

I was barely 20 years old when I had my first crush. He worked in the same grocery store I did, but in a different department. He was sloppy, lazy, goalless, depressed, usually hungover, and addicted to Adderall. I thought he looked cute with his dark square-rimmed glasses. I pretended to like his weird kind of music, which bordered on sounding like something made with a garbage can lid and an old-fashioned washboard, and even discussed possibly rooming with him one day. That was when life taught me it was perfectly okay to have reasonably low standards in men.

I was barely 23 when I broke up with my first boyfriend; a broken, traumatized military reservist with at least a half-dozen mental health problems and serious dad issues. He looked me in the eye one day and asked me why my mother’s opinion of him meant so much to me. I answered, “Because she’s my world. My everything. All the good decisions I’ve ever made in my lifetime, I owe to her love for me.” He was never a good decision. That was the day that life taught me that I couldn’t always trust my own heart.

I’m 29 years old and today I showed my mother the op-ed I wrote in our local newspaper, praising the message of the Black Lives Matters movement and all that it’s accomplishing in the fight for justice in all aspects of our society. She wonders how I ever became so brave, so strong, and so passionate. Life didn’t teach me that. She did.

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