Throw Away Baby

Katherine Jamieson
 

Copyright 2002 by Katherine Jamieson

Photo of guyanese school girl.

This is a story about my friendship with a young Guyanese woman who was a student of mine at a vocational school where I taught. I lived and worked in Guyana as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the late nineties

Two girls, a first and second year student, were in Ms. Corliss’s office when I arrived to collect the keys to my classroom. Sunlight streamed in through the wooden slats nailed horizontally over the open-air windows and a palm tree gently raked the tin roof in the breeze. Outside I could see the nursery school children in their checkered pinafores dancing around in a circle with their teachers singing, “Brown girl in the ring…” The vocational school students, wearing identical freshly pressed white collar shirts and long sky blue skirts, glared at each other from opposite sides of the small room, while the Headmistress sat at her desk, her head swiveling between the two of them.

“Girls, you must try to behave yourselves!” Ms. Corliss said, her normally deep voice rising higher in frustration, “the school is too small and the teachers cannot be watching you all the time. You must change your at-ti-tude!” she said stressing each syllable of the word. The Headmistress was an Afro-Guyanese woman with short jeri-curled hair and thick features. Her small eyes were penetrating and intelligent and she had a magisterial air that imbued the one-room school with a sense of propriety and order.

“Miss,” Angela, the first-year student said, addressing the Headmistress. “Miss, she call me a ‘Sophia skettel.’ She like lie, Miss, me mudda didn’ raise up no skettel!” Sophia was a squatter’s community on the outskirts of Georgetown; skettel was a slang term from the Jamaican dub songs which translated, essentially, to slut. Onica, the second-year student with blue ribbons in her braids, spoke up, “Miss, she lie, Miss! Dat girl look me plain in de face and tell me I black as coal! I’d give her licks, Miss, whaaps, whaaps, whaaps!” and she shook her hand, her long, loose fingers slapping together to make a beating noise.

Ms. Corliss, whose skin was darker than both the girls, smirked at them. She settled into her chair, apparently amused by the fundamental cause of the dispute. “Girls, you mustn’t torment each other about your color.” She turned to Angela, who was a lighter skinner dougla, from African and East Indian descent. “Angela, one day you might marry and get baby,” the Headmistress pantomimed gazing at a baby in her arms, “and you might look down and say,” ‘Eh, eh, wha ting is dis? dis chil’ is me own?’ But that baby is you baby no mattah how dark she shine and you must love it.” She looked up at the two girls, and smiled and they smiled meekly back at her. Then her eyes narrowed and her voice turned stormy again. “I don’t want to hear any more story from either of y’all today, ya heah?”

“Yes, Miss,” they said in unison and shuffled out of the office, cutting their eyes up on each other as they passed.

“Eh, eh, dese gyals gon’drive me pressure up again!” the Headmistress said, exasperated, hitting her hands on the desk, and then, gazing at me standing in the corner she said, “Good morning, Miss Katrin.”

“Good morning, Miss Corliss,” I replied as she opened her desk drawer to find the keys, handed them to me, and then pressed into the desktop with her fingertips to stand up. “Like you been out in the sun this weekend?” she commented, smiling, as she passed by me to give her morning remarks to the girls. I had deep red burns on my face and neck.

Ms. Wills, the reading teacher, walked into the office as I was leaving. “Oh, hello, Miss Katrin,” she said smiling widely, “how ya do? Eh, eh, like ya get buhn up?” Ms. Wells was also in her fifties with a long jaw, and high, broad cheekbones. She dressed like a stereotypical schoolmarm, with horn-rimmed glasses and blowsy flower and pastel shirts and skirts.

“I’m good, I’m good, Ms. Wells. Yes, I forgot my hat when I went Parika Market this weekend.”

“Oooh,” she said, impressed. “You gon’ travelin’ again.” The teachers always commented on how much I liked to, “move around.” Although Parika was only about 30 minutes outside the city, most Guyanese would not have the money or time or energy to be wandering in another town on the weekend. When I began to travel more seriously in the rainforest interior, I used to imagine what they would say if I “met my death” in one of the jungle hazards—snake, jaguar, piranha, truck accident. I suspected they would not have been surprised at all, it would just have vindicated the general Guyanese distrust of the country beyond the coastland. As I hiked through waterfalls and across the savanna, I could almost hear them saying in warning tones, “I sorry she gon’ and dead, but you know how Katrin stay, she like wak nuff’ nuff’...”

I headed down the wooden stairs to the classroom I used on the first floor the building. My teaching at the school had been something of a disaster since I had arrived several months before. At first I tried doing activities from an American manual on “Life Skills” which included things like “Time Management” and “Goal-setting.” The Introductory activity asked the students to list three things they liked about themselves and three things they were “working on.” Most of the girls said they thought they were “nice” though I wasn’t sure if that meant demeanor or looks. About the things to change, though, they would tell me, in earnest tones, “Miss, I wicked,” or “Miss, I lawless,” or, the most common refrain, “Miss, I got to change my ways.” Dumbfounded by their responses, I kept asking why they thought they were wicked, or lawless and what ways did they have to change. None of them would be very specific. I soon realized that Life Skills classes, at least the way I taught them, were sorely missing the mark so I turned my energy to teaching reading.

An illustrative example of my literacy classes happened after I had been teaching for about five months. I was trying to instruct my students about how to recognize the word “smile” which I had written in large block letters on the black-painted wooden plank that served as our chalk board. “What am I doing with my face?” I said expectantly, forcing a grin over my mouth. We sat in the stuffy library, a fan turning listlessly overhead. My students looked at me with puzzled expressions and finally one spoke.

“Red, Miss?” she said with hesitation. I shook my head, wondering what she was talking about and if I had actually taught them anything over the past months. I would not give up. “What am I doing with my mouth, Onica?” I asked another girl, again compelling my mouth to curve upward. “Hot, Miss?” she replied uncertainly.

I shook my head again, feeling increasingly desperate. I looked to the third girl, who offered in a wavering voice, “Sweat, Miss?” This was about as far as I had gotten in five months of teaching. The girls liked me, but not only could I rarely understand them, they apparently had no idea what I was talking about, and were more aware of my maladaptation to the heat than anything else.

Vorda walked in as I was setting up the room, placing little cardboard chips with vowels and consonants around the table. “Good morning, Miss! Ya gon’ teach me fuh’ read today, Miss!” she said laughing, her gold teeth shining in her mouth. Vorda was the link between my daytime life at the school and my nighttime life at home on Gordon Street in Kitty, where I lived with my roommate Maureen, another volunteer. When I told the students where I lived on the first day of class, a hush and murmur had passed among them. Bewildered as to how I had caused the stir, but also gratified that I had at least momentarily caught their attention, I waited until they stopped whispering. Vorda stood up from the middle row, one of the bigger girls in the class, her uniform skirt tight around her waist. “Miss,” she said, in strained, proper English, still laughing a little, “My name is Vorda Liddell and I am also living at Gordon Street, Kitty.” Delighted to make some kind of connection with a student, I invited her to visit me that evening.

Vorda appeared on my doorstep after the sun had set, wearing a short, faded denim skirt, her hair in curlers. “Goodnight, Miss!” she called out loudly as she strode up the walkway, pulling a small, beautiful girl with dark skin roughly by the arm. She looked around my house appraisingly, her eyes wandering over our scant decoration, and large, for Guyana, collection of books. “Miss house nice!” she said, glancing at some pictures on the table. “Ya get boyfriend, Miss?” she asked and I nodded and told her his name was Will. “He’s a nice white man,” she said, in approval of his looks. She let her body fall back into the couch, sighing. “Miss, these chirren driving me mad, Miss,” she told me looking down at the girl reproachfully. “Stop, you gon’ bruck Miss ting!” she yelled at the girl who was innocently tapping her foot on my wicker chair.

“Do you want some water?” I asked, offering them the only drink we had in the house. “No Miss, we jus come fuh tell you goodnight—I gon come back a next time without dem chirren.” She stood up and departed as abruptly as she had come, and I heard the sound of their flip flops slapping down our concrete path until they came to the dirt road in front of the house.

Vorda’s visits soon became a ritual as she got to know Maureen and the upstairs neighbors better. Sometimes she would come over for some extra help with reading, but more often she would offer to cook for us, an offer we never refused. Vorda was a Food and Nutrition student at the school and she wanted to work for restaurants. I looked at her now flipping the consonant card over and over in her hand, her hair extension sticking out in her ponytail, a noticeably lighter shade than the rest of her hair. “Miss, is nice party this weekend by y’all,” she said approvingly, rolling her eyes. “I dance up and dance up with dem girls. Dem ve-ge-ta-bles raw and hard like a rass, though. Ya should a tell me, I would a cook up wan set a nice tings for y’all, chowmein and roti…” She looked up and dropped her voice as the other girls filed in the classroom. Vorda liked to keep our relationship at home and at school separate.

That night Vorda came over and made bakes for us, large pieces of molded dough, denser and sweeter than bread. Weeks ago I had been given a share of the “Gift of the Country of Denmark” flour that had been donated to the school. Vorda’s lined hands, rough from scrubbing buckets of clothes and dishes, reached for the light blue plastic flour container. “Y’all is tek food fuh waste,” she grumbled. She had finished her share of the flour weeks ago, having made bakes, porridge, cheese rolls, and cakes for her large extended family that lived on a couple of house plots up the road from ours. Our Danish flour had become “weebily”, as she suspected, and she gave me the job of extracting the squirming larvae so she could cook. I poured the flour through a sifter into a large bowl and the weevils wriggled grotesquely in a pile as they were caught, while the flour floated down in a soft, clean pile. As I went to throw the weevils under the mango tree into the backyard, Vorda took the bowl from me and tossed in baking powder and water. Soon her hands were white and she was tightening her grip on a mound of dough, kneading it into our orange counter top. She moved efficiently, kicking away one of our kittens who had gotten underfoot and cursing it, her dark skin tensed around the working arm muscles, shoulder blades high and poised.

Her face shone in the warm orange kitchen, a dusting of flour on her high cheeks and broad, flat nose, hair pulled back tight against her head. At seventeen, she was a woman and a girl at once, with her strong, large features and thin, delicate neck and chest. At our party for the new volunteers the weekend before, she had worn iridescent, silver stretch bell-bottoms that hugged her body as it bulged into a series of cresting waves. As I introduced her to other volunteers, she offered a dainty four finger and a thumb-tip handshake, averted eyes and spoke a demure, “Verda Leedell.” I had watched as she danced with her cousins, her tipped belly, hard and protruding, standing out from her waist like something that had been added on too late, that did not belong to her. This was the first time I had noticed how different it appeared from the other girls’ flat waistlines. When I had asked her about it, she said it was nothing, that her aunt and her mother had the same high belly it was just how the women’s bodies were in her family.

While the bakes were cooking, we sat on the wicker couch and Vorda showed me her name and address printed in the new Guyana telephone directory. Absently, I rubbed at the scar on her arm, noticing how it lifted the skin, mottling the smooth, deep brown into tan and beige. “Miss likes my black skin nuff,” Vorda liked to say, laughing at me. We smelled the bake cooking now, and Vorda went to turn it over so it wouldn’t burn. I heard the scratch of the hot dough on the tawa, a thick piece of flat metal like a skillet we mostly used to cook toast. As she walked back to the chair, I watched Vorda’s stomach move unique from the rest of her body. It had definitely grown, even in the little time I’d known her. She wore a short top printed with faded flowers and loose with age, but tight where her physique pushed through, and cut-off jeans, bunched in ridges at the tops of her thighs. Her clothes seemed to form a ring around her belly, emphasizing its intrusion on her frame.

A few weeks before I had learned how much these nighttime visits meant to Vorda. I had brought another of my students, Maxine, to visit my house. Maxine had recently moved to Georgetown from the country and spoke softly if at all. She had rich brown skin, a round face and big, moist eyes. She wore her hair in soft, loose jeri-curls, with a blue ribbon tied in a bow on top of her head. As we talked her smile lit up her whole face breaking through her habitual look of quiet sadness. I was admiring her poise and delicate presence, when Vorda blew in the open door, still in her school uniform.

“Ya tink it’s big ting, come to Miss house?” she addressed Maxine before I had a chance to greet her. Maxine regarded her benignly, her expression unchanged. Vorda walked around the room, as if marking her territory. “Miss and me is friends,” she said, “Miss teach me to read, I cook in she kitchen. You know how many times I come jus for skin my teeth with Miss? Nuff, nuff times!”

I watched amazed as she stormed around the room. Maxine sipped the passionfruit juice I had given her and blinked impassively. “Miss and me is friends,” Vorda reasserted and looked at the younger girl defiantly.

“Vorda,” I interjected feebly, “I invited Maxine to my house today, so she should feel welcome here too.” Vorda didn’t look at me, still focusing her energy on the other girl’s encroachment. Suddenly she looked up and said, “Miss, I got for go and tek care of dem chirren, I gon see you.” “OK, Vorda,” I replied a little unsteadily. And she was gone.

From where I sat on the coach, I could see the scar on her leg from a broken bottle her mother had thrown at her, the round scar on her arm, a shot when she was a baby to keep off disease. There was also a slight bulge on her breast, a “guard” that her grandfather from Suriname had given her to ward off evil intentions. She carried the small squarish packet of herbs wrapped in newspaper in her bra. She showed it to me once, how it had taken to the shape of her chest, worn by sweat, body heat and age. “Nobody cyan do me nuting,” she had reassured me when I would tell her to be careful of things.

The next day at school the Headmistress called me in to the office to talk about Vorda. The other girls had begun to notice her body. They pulled their blue skirts up, tightened their belts and cocked their buttocks out to imitate her. Ms. Corliss was concerned about the reputation of the school, but neither Vorda nor either of her parents will admit that she’s pregnant, and Ms. Corliss had no proof. The students at the school are “out-of-school-leavers” who have dropped out or been expelled from the public school program for behavioral or learning problems. “Dese girls don’t have much of anything, but they do have self-respect,” Ms. Corliss had once told me, “and we have to protect that.”

I asked Ms. Corliss what would happen if she found out that Vorda was pregnant. She said that she would not allow her to graduate. “There are some schools where the girls are allowed to get pregnant and continue,” Ms. Corliss said, her intense gaze fixed on me, “but this is not one of them, and if it were, I would not be the Headmistress here.”

That night, Vorda came over and wanted me to “do the ting,” give her a back massage while we were cooking. She had once seen me give my boyfriend a shoulder rub and when I asked her if she wanted to try it she had agreed reluctantly. Now she would ask me to do it on occasion, laughing and giggling the whole time, but I could tell that she craved being touched. Her shoulders were tense and lifted when I began to rub my fingers against into her skin. I wondered if she really was pregnant. As much time as we spent together, I was still hesitant to ask her. Instead, I asked about her boyfriend who lived in the Islands and when he was coming back. “Soon, Miss,” she replied, “he gon’ come and married me next year,” and she giggled again as I squeezed around her neck.

“Vorda,” I said, knowing she probably wouldn’t understand me, “you were careful with him, right?”

“What, Miss?” she asked, her face scrunching together as I rubbed a knot in shoulder. “You know, careful, with sexing and so on,” I said, almost under my breath.

She laughed. “Yes, Miss, that was a long time, Miss,” and she giggled again as I pounded my fists gently on her back and rubbed my hand under her shoulder blades, feeling her little wings small in my hand. She said nothing else about it.

Vorda’s belly disappeared the day after her graduation from the school, her stomach returning to normal teenage proportions almost overnight. Ms. Corliss was very angry, and felt that she had been tricked, but Vorda had graduated and there was really nothing to do about it. Some teachers believed she “trew away babee” or had an abortion, which had recently become legal in Guyana. Others thought that she had delivered the baby and that an auntie or her mother would help raise it until she was grown. I could not imagine that Vorda had gone through either of those experiences so young, but then I did not know what it was like to grow up as a girl in Guyana.

As far as Vorda was concerned, it never happened and we never spoke of it. In Guyana, I found that it was often easier to do as the Guyanese do and let the inconsistencies of life wash over you without need for question or explanation. So I thought of Vorda’s body that I had rubbed and kneaded while she laughed and squirmed. I thought about how it had been swollen and growing for a time, and wondered what this had meant to her, how she thought of herself and her body’s ability to give life. I did not know how to offer her any more help than I did, and I do not know if you would have known how to accept it if I did. Afterwards, when Vorda came to visit, she still wanted to cook and I helped her as best I could. We brushed the cats aside and I watched her in the kitchen, amazed at all that she could make with flour.

I am a poet and creative nonfiction writer and my work has been published by Tucumcari Literary Review, Lynx Eye and Poetry Motel, as well as the online Moxie magazine and the Peace Corps Readers and Writers website. In 2000, my essay "Telling Time" won the Peace Corps Experience Award for the best one-page essay on being a volunteer. In March 2003 my story "One More Story to Tell" will be published in a Lonely Planet anthology, "Rite of Passage: Backpacking 'Round Europe." I work as a Holistic Health Counselor and yoga teacher in New York City and I live in Brooklyn, New York.
 
 

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