I was slowly separating from my parents, gradually less inclined to blurt every last thought in my head. I rode in silence behind them in the backseat of the Buick as we drove home from those basketball games, my feelings too deep or too jumbled to share. I was caught up in the lonely thrill of being a teenager now, convinced that the adults around me had never been there themselves.
Sometimes in the evenings I’d emerge from brushing my teeth in the bathroom and find the apartment dark, the lights in the living room and kitchen turned off for the night, everyone settled into their own sphere. I’d see a glow beneath the door to Craig’s room and know he was doing homework. I’d catch the flicker of television light coming from my parents’ room and hear them murmuring quietly, laughing to themselves. Just as I never wondered what it was like for my mother to be a full-time, at-home mother, I never wondered then what it meant to be married. I took my parents’ union for granted. It was the simple solid fact upon which all four of our lives were built.
Much later, my mother would tell me that every year when spring came and the air warmed up in Chicago, she entertained thoughts about leaving my father. I don’t know if these thoughts were actually serious or not. I don’t know if she considered the idea for an hour, or for a day, or for most of the season, but for her it was an active fantasy, something that felt healthy and maybe even energizing to ponder, almost as ritual.
I understand now that even a happy marriage can be a vexation, that it’s a contract best renewed and renewed again, even quietly and privately—even alone. I don’t think my mother announced whatever her doubts and discontents were to my father directly, and I don’t think she let him in on whatever alternative life she might have been dreaming about during those times. Was she picturing herself on a tropical island somewhere? With a different kind of man, or in a different kind of house, or with a corner office instead of kids? I don’t know, and I suppose I could ask my mother, who is now in her eighties, but I don’t think it matters.
If you’ve never passed a winter in Chicago, let me describe it: You can live for a hundred straight days beneath an iron-gray sky that claps itself like a lid over the city. Frigid, biting winds blow in off the lake. Snow falls in dozens of ways, in heavy overnight dumps and daytime, sideways squalls, in demoralizing sloppy sleet and fairy-tale billows of fluff. There’s ice, usually, lots of it, that shellacs the sidewalks and windshields that then need to be scraped. There’s the sound of that scraping in the early mornings—the hack hack hack of it—as people clear their cars to go to work. Your neighbors, unrecognizable in the thick layers they wear against the cold, keep their faces down to avoid the wind. City snowplows thunder through the streets as the white snow gets piled up and sooty, until nothing is pristine.
Eventually, however, something happens. A slow reversal begins. It can be subtle, a whiff of humidity in the air, a slight lifting of the sky. You feel it first in your heart, the possibility that winter might have passed. You may not trust it at the beginning, but then you do. Because now the sun is out and there are little nubby buds on the trees and your neighbors have taken off their heavy coats. And maybe there’s a new airiness to your thoughts on the morning you decide to pull out every window in your apartment so you can spray the glass and wipe down the sills. It allows you to think, to wonder if you’ve missed out on other possibilities by becoming a wife to this man in this house with these children.
Maybe you spend the whole day considering new ways to live before finally you fit every window back into its frame and empty your bucket of Pine-Sol into the sink. And maybe now all your certainty returns, because yes, truly, it’s spring and once again you’ve made the choice to stay.
My mother ultimately did go back to work, right about the time I began high school, catapulting herself out of the house and the neighborhood and into the dense, skyscrapered heart of Chicago, where she found a job as an executive assistant at a bank. She bought a work wardrobe and began commuting each morning, catching the bus north on Jeffery Boulevard or riding along with my dad in the Buick, if their start times happened to line up. The job, for her, was a welcome shift in routine, and for our family it was also more or less a financial necessity. My parents had been paying tuition for Craig to go to Catholic school. He was starting to think about college, with me coming up right behind him.
My brother was now full grown, a graceful giant with uncanny spring in his legs, and considered one of the best basketball players in the city. At home, he ate a lot. He drained gallons of milk, devoured entire large pizzas in one sitting, and often snacked from dinner to bedtime. He managed, as he’d always done, to be both easygoing and deeply focused, maintaining scads of friends and good grades while also turning heads as an athlete. He’d traveled around the Midwest on a summer rec-league team that featured an incubating superstar named Isiah Thomas, who would later go on to a Hall of Fame career in the NBA. As he approached high school, Craig had been sought after by some of Chicago’s top public school coaches looking to fill gaps in their rosters. These teams pulled in big rowdy crowds as well as college scouts, but my parents were adamant that Craig not sacrifice his intellectual development for the short-lived glory of being a high school phenom.
Mount Carmel, with its strong Catholic-league basketball team and rigorous curriculum, had seemed the best solution—worth the thousands of dollars it was costing my parents. Craig’s teachers were brown-robed priests who went by “Father.” About 80 percent of his classmates were white, many of them Irish Catholic kids who came from outlying working-class white neighborhoods. By the end of his junior year, he was already being courted by Division I college teams, a couple of which would probably offer him a free ride. Still, my parents held fast to the idea that he should keep all options open, aiming to get himself into the best college possible. They alone would worry about the cost.
My high school experience blessedly cost us nothing except for bus fare. I was lucky enough to test into Chicago’s first magnet high school, Whitney M. Young High School, which sat in what was then a run-down area just west of the Loop and was, after a few short years in existence, on its way to becoming a top public school in the city. Whitney Young was named for a civil rights activist and had been opened in 1975 as a positive-minded alternative to busing. Located squarely on the dividing line between the North and the South Sides of the city and featuring forward-thinking teachers and brand-new facilities, the school was designed as a kind of equal-opportunity nirvana, meant to draw high-performing students of all colors. Admissions quotas set by the Chicago school board called for a student body that would be 40 percent black, 40 percent white, and 20 percent Hispanic or other. But the reality of who enrolled looked slightly different. When I attended, about 80 percent of the students were nonwhite.
Just getting to school for my first day of ninth grade was a whole new odyssey, involving ninety minutes of nerve-pummeling travel on two different city bus routes as well as a transfer downtown. Hauling myself out of bed at five o’clock that morning, I’d put on all new clothes and a pair of nice earrings, unsure of how any of it would be received on the other end of my bus trek. I’d eaten breakfast, having no idea where lunch would be. I said good-bye to my parents, unclear on whether I’d even still be myself at the end of the day. High school was meant to be transformative. And Whitney Young, for me, was pure frontier.
The school itself was striking and modern, like no school I’d ever seen—made up of three large, cube-shaped buildings, two of them connected by a fancy-looking glass skyway that crossed over the Jackson Boulevard thoroughfare. The classrooms were open concept and thoughtfully designed. There was a whole building dedicated to the arts, with special rooms for the choir to sing and bands to play, and other rooms that had been outfitted for photography and pottery. The whole place was built like a temple for learning. Students streamed through the main entryway, purposeful already on day one.
were about nineteen hundred kids at Whitney Young, and from my point of view they appeared universally older and more confident than I’d ever be, in full command of every brain cell, powered by every multiple-choice question they’d nailed on the citywide standardized test. Looking around, I felt small. I’d been one of the older kids at Bryn Mawr and was now among the youngest of the high schoolers. Getting off the bus, I’d noticed that along with their book bags a lot of the girls carried actual purses.
My worries about high school, if they were to be cataloged, could mostly be filed under one general heading: Am I good enough? It was a question that dogged me through my first month, even as I began to settle in, even as I got used to the predawn wake-ups and navigating between buildings for class. Whitney Young was subdivided into five “houses,” each one serving as a home base for its members and meant to add intimacy to the big-school experience. I was in the Gold House, led by an assistant principal named Mr. Smith, who happened to live a few doors down from my family on Euclid Avenue. I’d been doing odd jobs for Mr. Smith and his family for years, having been hired to do everything from babysitting his kids and giving them piano lessons to attempting to train their untrainable puppy. Seeing Mr. Smith at school was a mild comfort, a bridge between Whitney Young and my neighborhood, but it did little to offset my anxiety.
Just a few kids from my neighborhood had come to Whitney Young. My neighbor and friend Terri Johnson had gotten in, and so had my classmate Chiaka, whom I’d known and been in friendly competition with since kindergarten, as well as one or two boys. Some of us rode the bus together in the mornings and back home at the end of the day, but at school we were scattered between houses, mostly on our own. I was also operating, for the first time ever, without the tacit protection of my older brother. Craig, in his ambling and smiley way, had conveniently broken every trail for me. At Bryn Mawr, he’d softened up the teachers with his sweetness and earned a certain cool-kid respect on the playground. He’d created sunshine that I could then just step into. I had always, pretty much everywhere I’d gone, been known as Craig Robinson’s little sister.
Now, though, I was just Michelle Robinson, with no Craig attached. At Whitney Young, I had to work to ground myself. My initial strategy involved keeping quiet and trying to observe my new classmates. Who were these kids anyway? All I knew was that they were smart. Demonstrably smart. Selectively smart. The smartest kids in the city, apparently. But wasn’t I as well? Hadn’t all of us—me and Terri and Chiaka—landed here because we were smart like them?
The truth is I didn’t know. I had no idea whether we were smart like them.
I knew only that we were the best students coming out of what was thought to be a middling, mostly black school in a middling, mostly black neighborhood. But what if that wasn’t enough? What if, after all this fuss, we were just the best of the worst?
This was the doubt that sat in my mind through student orientation, through my first sessions of high school biology and English, through my somewhat fumbling get-to-know-you conversations in the cafeteria with new friends. Not enough. Not enough. It was doubt about where I came from and what I’d believed about myself until now. It was like a malignant cell that threatened to divide and divide again, unless I could find some way to stop it.
* * *
Chicago, I was learning, was a much bigger city than I’d ever imagined it to be. This was a revelation formed in part over the three hours I now logged daily on the bus, boarding at Seventy-Fifth Street and chuffing through a maze of local stops, often forced to stand because it was too crowded to find a seat.
Through the window, I got a long slow view of the South Side in what felt like its entirety, its corner stores and barbecue joints still shuttered in the gray light of early morning, its basketball courts and paved playgrounds lying empty. We’d go north on Jeffery and then west on Sixty-Seventh Street, then north again, zagging and stopping every two blocks to collect more people. We crossed Jackson Park Highlands and Hyde Park, where the University of Chicago campus sat hidden behind a massive wrought-iron gate. After what felt like an eternity, we’d finally accelerate onto Lake Shore Drive, following the curve of Lake Michigan north toward downtown.
There’s no hurrying a bus ride, I can tell you. You get on and you endure. Every morning, I’d switch buses downtown at Michigan Avenue at the height of rush hour, catching a westbound ride along Van Buren Street, where the view at least got more interesting as we passed bank buildings with big gold doors and bellhops standing outside the fancy hotels. Through the window, I watched men and women in smart outfits—in suits and skirts and clicking heels—carrying their coffee to work with a bustle of self-importance. I didn’t yet know that people like this were called professionals. I hadn’t yet tracked the degrees they must have earned to gain access to the tall corporate castles lining Van Buren. But I did like how determined they looked.
Meanwhile, at school I was quietly collecting bits of data, trying to sort out my place inside the teenage intelligentsia. Until now, my experiences with kids from other neighborhoods had been limited to visits with various cousins and a few summers of city-run day camp at Rainbow Beach, where every camper still came from some part of the South Side and nobody was well-off. At Whitney Young, I met white kids who lived on the North Side—a part of Chicago that felt like the dark side of the moon, a place I’d never thought about nor had reason to go to. More intriguing was my early discovery that there was such a thing as an African American elite. Most of my new high school friends were black, but that didn’t necessarily translate, it turned out, to any sort of uniformity in our experience. A number of them had parents who were lawyers or doctors and seemed to know one another through an African American social club called Jack and Jill. They’d been on ski vacations and trips that required passports. They talked about things that were foreign to me, like summer internships and historically black colleges. One of my black classmates, a nerdy boy who was always kind to everyone, had parents who’d founded a big beauty-supply company and lived in one of the ritziest high-rises downtown.
This was my new world. It’s not to say that everyone at the school was rich or overly sophisticated, because that wasn’t the case. There were plenty of kids who came from neighborhoods just like mine, who struggled with far more than I ever would. But my first months at Whitney Young gave me a glimpse of something that had previously been invisible—the apparatus of privilege and connection, what seemed like a network of half-hidden ladders and guide ropes that lay suspended overhead, ready to connect some but not all of us to the sky.
* * *
My first round of grades at school turned out to be pretty good, and so did my second. Over the course of my freshman and sophomore years, I began to build the same kind of confidence I’d had at Bryn Mawr. With each little accomplishment, with every high school screwup I managed to avoid, my doubts slowly took leave. I liked most of my teachers. I wasn’t afraid to raise my hand in class. At Whitney Young, it was safe to be smart. The assumption was that everyone was working toward college, which meant that you never hid your intelligence for fear of someone saying you talked like a white girl.
I loved any subject that involved writing and labored through precalc. I was a half-decent French student. I had peers who were always a step or two ahead of me, whose achievements seemed effortless, but I tried not to let that get to me. I was beginning to understand that if I put in extra hours of studying, I could often close the gap. I wasn’t a straight-A student, but I was always trying, and there were semesters when I got close.
Craig, meanwhile, had enrolled at Princeton University, vacating his back-porch room on Euclid Avenue, leaving a six-foot-six, two-hundred-pound gap in our daily lives. Our fridge was considerably less loaded with meat and milk, the phone line no longer tied up by girls calling to chat him up. He’d been recruited by big universities offering scholarships and what amounted to a celebrity existence playing basketball
, but with my parents’ encouragement he’d chosen Princeton, which cost more but, as they saw it, promised more as well. My father burst with pride when Craig became a starter as a sophomore on Princeton’s basketball team. Wobbly on his feet and using two canes to walk, he still relished a long drive. He’d traded in his old Buick for a new Buick, another 225, this one a shimmering deep maroon. When he could get the time off from his job at the filtration plant, he’d drive twelve hours across Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey to catch one of Craig’s games.
By nature of my long commute to Whitney Young, I saw less of my parents, and looking back at it, I’d guess that it was a lonely time for them, or at least required some adjustment. I was now gone more than I was home. Tired of standing through the ninety-minute bus ride to school, Terri Johnson and I had figured out a kind of trick, which involved leaving our houses fifteen minutes earlier in the morning and catching a bus that was headed in the opposite direction from school. We rode a few stops south to a less busy neighborhood, then jumped out, crossed the street, and hailed our regular northbound bus, which was reliably emptier than it would be at Seventy-Fifth, where we normally boarded. Pleased by our own cleverness, we’d smugly claim a seat and then talk or study the whole way to school.
In the evenings, I dragged myself back through the door around six or seven o’clock, in time for a quick dinner and a chance to talk to my parents about whatever had gone on that day. But once the dishes had been washed, I disappeared into homework, often taking my books downstairs to the encyclopedia nook off the stairwell next to Robbie and Terry’s apartment for privacy and quiet.
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