This is the story of one city girl's life and how she views it.
by Betty Bean
They are waiting to fly. Sitting in swings attached by chains to a pink and yellow and aquamarine canopy on the shore of Chilhowee Park lake, they try to hold onto each other as the contraption starts to spin. But the speed lifts the swings and forces them apart, leaving the girls to zoom separately around the pastel axis flashing wind-aided grins while the music blares a Creedence Clearwater Revival tune popular when their parents were young.
Amber Braxton's auburn braids are streaming out around her face.
The swings slow down and the girls disembark, their feet barely hitting the ground before they dash off to tour the Tomb of Gloom, after which they take a whirl on the Gravitron and then head down the way through the tunnel back to the east side of Magnolia Avenue.
Over there is more midway magic, with fast rides and bad food and barking carneys and a giant rat and a man-eating snake and a headless womanEast Knoxville transformed into a cash-siphoning cotton candy wonderland not five blocks from their Fifth Avenue neighborhood. It is a fitting end to summer, and Amber and her best friend Nicole aren't even worried that tomorrow is a school day. There are lots of other things they're not thinking about, too, like the fact that this probably marks the last summer of their childhood. Life is about to get serious. Twelve is an uncertain, in-between age for a girl child in any part of town.
Amber at Home
Not that it's been mostly merry-go-rounds so far. Although Amber's block of Fifth Avenue is a close-knit neighborhood with lots of kids and parents, it is located in a tough part of town afflicted with all the ills that exist in any city. There are gangs and crime and violence and drugs. Hookers ply their trade at the end of the block on Cherry Street, and a block west on Magnolia is where the notorious rapist and accused serial killer Thomas "Zoo Man" Huskey once trolled for victims. Amber tells a horrifying story about a former neighbor who, in the course of settling a domestic dispute, killed her spouse with Amber's own Louisville Slugger.
There's teen pregnancy and racism and daddies who go bye-bye for good, and pressure to wear the right kind of shoes. But Amber has something important going for herthe love of a big, brawling, supportive extended family in "the Kool Aid House," a rambling pink shingled two-story structure where everyone gathers after school and work to catch up on the latest and watch children tumble on the front lawn. Her older sister Mikey, 24, a certified auto mechanic, is pulling a transmission in the driveway. Amber is proud that she lives in "a full-grown house" that her mother owns.
Amber is a sturdy girl with golden bronze skin, almond-shaped hazel eyes, a dimpled smile and big white teeth that she says she's going to have straightened so she can be a model. Her light brown hair is currently hidden under a pile of red braids Mikey helped her affix to her head with the aid of a crochet needle. Her mother, Lynn, jokes that she looks like a Cabbage Patch doll. Amber prefers to think she resembles Scary Spice.
When she grows up, she wants to be a singer, a gymnastics instructor, a hairdresser, and a car mechanic like Mikey, although she figures when she makes it big in music, she'll concentrate on that.
"Girls," she says, "can be anything they want to be. And when I grow up, I'm gonna have people jumpin' for me because I'm gonna be a singer."
Ask Amber how many siblings she's got, and you're likely to get some astonishing answers. Sometimes 11, sometimes 12. Always a lot.
That's because, as Mikey says, "Our mother's been taking in troubled teens since I was a child." Mikey counts 14 siblings through birth or adoption. Throw in a house full of friends, at least two dogs and several cats, some fish and hamsters and mice and birds, a snake and a turtle, and you've got some idea of the controlled chaos of the Kool Aid House, where there's a big porch with somebody to fight, get hugged by, tell a joke to, or just hang around with. Mama Lynn works full time, but there are lots of surrogate parents around Amber and her little sister Alice, 6.
Across the street, there's Amber's sort-of boyfriend Ned, who's in her house every day, or in her front yard, where they chase each other around and tussle like puppies. Sometimes they go to the dollar movie, always accompanied by one of her brothers.
"We don't do like no other kidshunch and stuff. No bump and grind. Me and Nicole are virgins," she says, proudly, proclaiming that she and Nicole are the only such abstinent girls her age she can think of.
(Aleece Stewart, supervisor of health services for the Knox County Schools, says that Amber probably has more company than she thinks, but cautions that there are still plenty of babies having babies. "The teen pregnancy numbers are much better than they used to beprobably 30 percent better over the last five years. Unfortunately, there are more pregnancies in the ninth grade than in other grades. Used to be tenth grade was most common...")
Amber stays busy. She is a natural-born huckster who makes her own money peddling pickles and soda and muffins and suckers and Laffy Taffy out on the sidewalks of Magnolia Avenue. She uses an innate understanding of bait and switch tacticsher two-year-old niece Jennie for exampleto lure potential customers closer. They stop to chuck the pretty baby under the chin, and, Wham! Amber's sold them something. It's a never-fail formula.
"Entrepreneurthat's what my mom calls me. Sometime she calls me a panhandler," Amber says, laughing at the family joke. She says she has made as much as $160 in just a few hours of peddling, and she is thinking about getting a city license so business owners can't order her off the sidewalk.
"What a hustler," Mikey says.
Amber at School
Montina Jones is Amber's principal at Vine Middle School. Here's what sticks out in Jones's mind about Amber: "Amber wanted to be in the chorus, but all the positions were filled, and she just planted herself in the hall and said 'I'm not moving until I get in the chorus...'"
"I thought about how we could get her into something, and knew there were openings in the after-school show choir. She was bound and determined to get in chorus, but her schedule did not permit it. And when I told her she would have to try out to get into the show choir, a light came on in her eyes like 'No problem. I'm in.' So she tried out and got in. She is very determined."
Amber likes that story, too. "I went down and wanted to sign up, and I said 'I'm not leaving this school today until I get in the chorus.' Then I got in the after-school choir."
(The combined show choirs from Vine and Austin-East will perform before a national TV audience Oct. 13 at the Knoxville Convention Center when Colin Powell comes here to present his "Schools of Promise.")
Montina Jones: "I see life in the heart of the inner city as the background music to a symphony. I can hear the syncopation to the beat of the inner city, and Amber is one of those beats that make the inner city go around... She has the survival skills, the street skills that you and I may not even have..."
Amber, a natural-born feminist (although that is a word she'd not likely use) concurs with Jones. She says it's important for girls to stay on their toes.
"Girls got it harder than boys, without a doubt," she declares. "Look at what women gotta deal withget a job, have children, pay for a car, pay for your children's shoesand normally you want name brand shoes."
That triggers a fashion lesson on the hierarchy of footwear. In descending order: "There's Jordans, Nikes, Filas, Adidas, L.A. Gearand FuBu; boy, I'm sick of FuBu. There's one boy got some orange and black FuBus look like somebody bled on 'em... And there's a pair of Jordans cost $500. They're girls' stack Jordans make you look tall...
"If you don't have at least a pair of L.A. Gear like I have they'll crack on you so bad your children's children will feel it."
"Crack" on you?
"Yeah, like when this boy, he's wearing some old Jordans, says 'You got them shoes at K-Mart,' and I say 'Maybe so, but at least I don't live in the projects.' And then he says 'You live in a cardboard box,' and I say 'You live in a two-story cereal box.'
"Then somebody else'll say 'My brother had your mama last night.' That's crackin'. One boy told me today, 'Your mama's so dumb she sit on the TV and watch the couch.' I told him his mama's breath so bad her teeth be duckin'."
Amber giggles. No hard feelings. In fact, she's pretty proud of her ability to defend herself, verbally and otherwise. "I just sit and laugh," she says. "It's funny."
"Amber is a fighter and a survivor," says Montina Jones, who doesn't necessarily buy Amber's description of peer pressure to wear the right clothes, or approve of the kids' rough humor. "That's not a problem in our building. Kids wear sandals, boots, Buddies (inexpensive tennis shoes). At Vine, we just take pride in making sure kids feel good about themselves."
(Jones, by the way, doesn't believe in school uniforms, suggested by President Bill Clinton and the National Caucus of Black Legislators as an antidote to the peer pressure problem. "I think kids need to have a free spirit... Vine is a school that has a free spirit. When you box kids in with uniforms, you dampen that spirit...")
Kimalishea Anderson is Knoxville's representative on the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth. Now employed in the private sector, she has held a variety of social service positions, mostly dealing with issues affecting young people, and she says she will always advocate for children. She says Amber's tough banter with her classmates is a traditional way African American children develop necessary survival skills.
"You've got to know that information to survive," she says. "You've also got to learn where the lines are, and you don't cross themtalking about people's families, for example."
Amber is thriving socially, but academically, things are not as good. She takes performing arts classes at Vine and gets help with her reading disability. But school, for the most part, is not her favorite thing. She's straightforward about the reason why: "I can't read very well."
Amber's dyslexia runs in the family, says Mikey, who has struggled with a similar problem. Amber was diagnosed when she was in the fourth grade, but she still hasn't completely mastered the art of reading. She has no patience with people who say she should just try a little harder.
"My theory is that it's just like wheelchair people. Some wheelchair people stay in a wheelchair for a couple of days, some stay for weeks, some stay for months, and some for the rest of their lives."
Which kind of dyslexic is she? "I don't know. There's 134 kinds of dyslexia, and my kind is very hard to get over."
Susan Bolt is special education director in charge of Comprehensive Developmental Classrooms (CDC) at Vine and Austin-East. She says she's not sure Amber's exactly right about the number of kinds of dyslexia, but agrees that the disability comes in many forms.
"It does affect individuals differently. It is a reading/learning disability that affects reading comprehension or the decoding of sounds... A lot of very, very bright people have had difficulty learning to read. Some children try and try and try to learn to read and just can't. Children have multiple intelligencesthey may have trouble with reading, but be good dancers... There are a lot of accommodations that can be made. Winston Churchill, Tom Cruise, Cher, Greg Louganisthey all had trouble learning to read, and they have become role models for children who may need someone to look up to... You have to work harder at something that's hard for you. What we want these children to do is keep trying..."
Amber on Holidays and Presidents and Police and Other Things
On a recent school night, Amber is sitting in McDonald's on Magnolia a couple of blocks from her home, slurping a milk shake and talking about life. She says she's had a bad day in schoolgotten a "referral" that will send her to "ISS," in-school suspension, "where you have to sit in a corner like this and you can't move all day." She mimes staring at the wall.
She'd rather talk about almost anything than the classroom. Like holidays, for example. She wants to discuss her favorite ones:
"I like Christmas, Halloween, and Valentine's Day. The only holiday I do not like for some reason is all them presidents' birthdays." She goes on to say that the kids at school don't like the dead presidents day, either.
"But Martin Luther King Day? We (the kids at Vine) love that day because of the Black Nation..."
She goes on to explain that her school is "89 percent black, and the rest are white kids but they act like they're black, so it doesn't make any difference. "
(Montina Jones says Vine is more like 60/40 African American to Caucasian.)
That reminds her of something else she doesn't like:
"I'm tired of old white guys being president. Ain't never been a black man or woman president, or a woman at all. I think people are still too prejudiced. And we got presidents having love affairs with people that aren't their wives, I just don't like him (Bill Clinton)."
And if Amber were the first woman of color to be president?
"The first thing I would do is paint the White House black, or maybe half white and half black, and let it be the Mixed House. And I would make a law to make it illegal to charge tax. I think it's stupid, if something is 99 cents and you take a dollar to the counter, you should get a penny back. You know what they use that tax for? For mothers who don't know how to get their lazy butts off the couches and take care of their kids. Tell the truth, some people get that check think they can't work."
She thinks of another thing President Amber would do: outlaw abortion.
"I think girls should assume they was pregnant the moment they lay down on that bed and spreaded their legs. I do not believe in abortion. If you brought it here, you should show responsibility for it."
And she'd pay attention to kids in special education classes, like the reading classes she must take.
"I'd make certain schools for kids in need. I'd make a CDC school, but keep it a secret, make it undercover, and look just like a regular school so the kids don't have to be embarrassed."
Just then, three small African American children, the eldest of whom Amber knows, come running through McDonald's from the play area out front, a white security officer on their tails.
"You have to buy one thing that costs at least 59 cents, or you can't play out there," Amber observes, pointing to the uniformed security guard. "That's his job, throwing kids out of a park. Maybe it's fun to him..."
Like many African American kids, Amber isn't fond of police officers.
"Some policemen want to yell at people," she says. "My friend, she got caught stealingthe rest of us didn't even know. She was stealing two packs of bubble gum. We were in there with her after school, and we made up money and we paid for it. But the police officer came in and was yelling at all of us. She made my friend cry. She told us to show him [the store owner] some respect. But that's not right, yelling at us, making people cry. That's wrong. I'd say police officers should show respect to get respect. I don't like them very much.
"I would say to them, 'Lower your voice. Don't talk to children like they are some kind of illiterate maniacs.'"
It is time to broach a difficult issue. Does she ever see her father? She answers with characteristic frankness.
"My dad don't care about me. None of our [her sisters'] dads care about us. They don't even send child support. My dad is a massive man. He was a police officer in California. I haven't seen my dad in two years."
Just then, Amber looks up from the dregs of her milkshake and spies a woman walking down the sidewalk on the far side of Magnolia.
"See that woman over there? She's a hooker."
How does she know that?
"This is real nasty," Amber says, waiting for a go-ahead sign to continue. "We were walking at the Exxon and she was over there in a red car that was parked at the Exxon." She pauses, slightly embarrassed.
"You know what 'head' means? that's the nicest way to put it," she says, "Or 'chewins' or 'tie my shoe.'"
Overcoming her previous reticence, she warms to the topic. Like an Eskimo child who knows a hundred different words for snow, Amber, a girl who has vowed to abstain from sex until she is married, lists the slang terms for sex acts:
"There's the nasty and the locomotion and the motion in the ocean and the shooting star and the stick in the hole."
She stops short. Suddenly there's something else on her mind.
She gets up and walks fast out to the play yard, unties her shoes and scoots up the bright plastic chute and climbs through the tubes, stopping up high inside the play structure to poke her lips through an opening and hoot with laughter.
The worldly adolescent who the minute before was demonstrating her shocking vocabulary is suddenly a little kid again. She clambers through the colorful maze for 10 minutes or so. When she's done, she slides out the bottom, sits down at the outdoor table, puts her shoes back on, and reminisces about her triumphant show choir audition.
She recites the words to the song from the Space Jam soundtrack she sang, closing her eyes and remembering. "I Believe I Can Fly" by R. Kelly is a song Kimalishea Anderson says has become an anthem for a generation of African American children because it has given them hope:
"I believe I can fly
"I believe I can touch the sky.
"I think about it every night and day
"Spread my wings and fly away.
"I believe I can soar.
"Come running through that open door
"If I can see it, then I can do it.
"If I just believe, I can do itThere's nothing to it,
"I believe I can fly."
Tomorrow is a school day and Amber is ready to go home.