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Because Momma Says So
“No, it can’t be!” I yelped in despair. The television had to be broken. I fiddled with the antennas some more. The dull black-and-white appearance of news channel five had been spitting out fuzzy images all day, the newscasters important-sounding voices fading in and out. The screen then presented just one blurry image. I could just make out a big white suit and grey landscape so holey it looked like Swiss cheese. I thought it was a joke. Our television never works!
“Jo-oel!” Anyone could recognize the voice of their own angry mother, but everyone could recognize mine. At school, they called her the crazy lady when they thought I wasn’t listening. That was because she came in at school one day and showed my teacher a thing or two.
“My boy deserves to sit in the front of the classroom with all of the other little white girls and boys, gettin’ a good education!” A warm shiver crawled up my spine. Not every Rodney or Jill’s mother would do that for them. But my momma did, and I never let those school-kids make me ‘shamed about it. Momma says that one day, everyone will treat us just like everybody else. I’m not sure if I believe her.
I shook my head to clear my thoughts, just as momma came over to me with that scolding look on her face.
“Joel! You’ve been sittin’ front of that darned stupid box all day. Go get yourself outside.” Looking from the television to my mother, I squirmed on our old, ratty couch. Just like my prayers had been answered, the television shook awake as if it suddenly remembered it had a job to do. News channel five was coming in nearly understandable now. Momma all but jumped out of her shabby denim skirt in shock as our television started talking to us. By the time momma could plop herself on the couch with utter amazement I had already crawled up beside the television, my nose an inch away from the screen.
“Those crazy men had actually done it!” Momma exclaimed.
“We would like to confirm that Neil Armstrong took his first step on the moon this July 20th. He remained on the moon’s surface for two and a half hours; collecting a variety of samples that will return to Earth. An American flag was left on the moon’s surface as a reminder of this accomplishment.” The television fuzzed, stopping the imperative newsman in his tracks. I remained staring at the television, my jaw hanging open. If momma knew any better she would’ve sent me to the crazy house because I was acting so dumbfounded, but I looked over my shoulder. She was too. My momma pointed at the screen blankly, and I spun around catching a glimpse of a black-and-white photograph. It was true, that man was actually on the moon.
Momma would’ve said that I was taken over by the devil, but I knew I wasn’t. All of the sudden it just seemed so clear. At school we were always jabbering about what we wanted to be when we grew up, but I never knew. Johnny wanted to be a fireman, Timothy wanted to be a police man, and Paige wanted to be a teacher. Well, Joel Ramsey now knew was he was going to do, too, I imagined proudly in my head. I just had to figure out the details on my bike ride to the library.
When I got on my rusty-red bike, I pedaled as hard as I could. I tried to focus on the dusty road in front of me as I swerved to avoid oncoming traffic. All of the sudden a gang of decked out boys approached me, coming quicker and quicker on their brand new skateboards. I was suddenly embarrassed that I have had this pile of metal since I could walk. They grinned bluntly, studying me from up to down.
“Hey, some twitchin’ bike you got there, Joel,” one boy howled bravely as they jostled each other to the front of their group. It was the eighth graders and boy were they huge.
Catching the boys off guard, I hopped off my bike. The force of the metal crashing against my ankles invigorated me, and I felt my hands clench into fists. These boys were going down. A few of them casually swayed over, smirks ready to be cleaned off their faces. I closed my eyes, preparing for my fist to go barreling through one of their stomachs when I heard laughter.
“This nine-year-old baby really thinks he can fight us” the front man said, his eyes tearing with laughter. His group nudged each other supportively, a few of them rolling on the old path unable to contain themselves. They thought I was a joke. They thought I was a nobody. They thought I couldn’t do nothin’ by myself. Oh, would I show them. All of the sudden they all stopped laughing and studied me. They realized I still had my fists clenched, and my face was bright red.
“Let’s book it boys, before little Joel hurts himself,” he chuckled awkwardly. My feet were glued to the ground as they skated into the horizon. It was just one battle won for Joel Ramsey.
Carefully peeling my bike off the hot cement, I pedaled proudly with the wind in my face. Nobody could beat Joel Ramsey. Nobody could tell Joel Ramsey what to do. I parked my bike and strode into the library. The librarian immediately raised her eyebrows at me, her face in a permanent scowl that always made her look like she was sucking on a particularly sour piece of candy.
“Hey, Missus, can you tell me where the space books are?” She frowned even more, her displeasure drifting towards me like an unpleasant smell.
So I smiled proudly, walking right up to her desk and announced for all I was worth, “Because, Missus, I wanna be an astronaut when I grow up.”
Her pale, wrinkly hands pushed back from her desk as she walked towards me and kneeled until we were face-to-face. The librarian’s frown softened into a look of concern, and she laid her hand on my shoulder hesitantly. Her mouth opened and closed several times as she grasped for the right words, but then she looked at her hand and wiped it off on her old-lady dress.
“Oh, you poor little black boy you,” she shook her head, her white hair bobbing on her head. My hands remained glued on my hips, and I stuck my lip out defiantly. Maybe this pasty granny misunderstood me.
“No, ma’am, just want the space books, please. I wanna be an astronaut,” I said louder. Her veined hands smoothed over my crinkled, checkered shirt and her long nail caught on one of the tears. She shook her head again, wiping her hands off on her dress.
“Child, you can’t ever become an astronaut. Look at yourself in the mirror; you’re as dark as molasses. No black men are going up to the moon, ever, that’s white man’s business. Look at Neil Armstrong, look at Buzz Aldrin. Both white men, silly child.” She shook her head sadly, and wiped her hands off again on her dress like she was disgusted by touching me. My hands were no longer on my hips. Instead, there were tears running down my face. They tasted salty and they just kept coming. I looked up at the librarian with remorse and sprinted out of the library. I couldn’t pedal home fast enough.
My momma met me at the doorstep of our derided house. As I ran into her arms I realized it was the best house ever, with the best momma ever.
“Where were you, oh boy of mine?” She murmured affectionately, her gentle hand caressing through my thick, black hair. I told her the story, the whole story. Eventually my tears faded and left only the streaks on my face and puffy, red eyes. She cradled my face in her worn hands; her gentle fingers stroked my cheek.
“Oh, baby boy. Don’t you let anybody ever tell you what you can do. How you act comes only from the decisions you know are right, the ones that come from your heart. “
I nodded and wriggled out of her grasp, “Ok, momma, will do,” and meandered back to the television.
News channel five was still on, still talking about what went on earlier that morning. It was then they played a short video clip that NASA has received from the space shuttle. It was Neil Armstrong ready to take his first step on the moon.
“This is one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” he confided to the world.
So, I nodded in agreement. “You have no idea, Mr. Armstrong, you have no idea.”