If I Should Speak, page 2
“Do you have any questions?” she asked Tamika.
She had to ask Tamika twice before receiving a response, which was more a mumble and a shake of the head than it was a clear answer.
“You, Tamika Douglass, have been charged with the physical assault of Jennifer Mayer,” she informed her. “How do you plead?”
Physical assault? How do I plead? This all had to be a joke. These students could not be serious.
“How do you plead, Miss Douglass?”
So they were serious. “Not guilty,” she replied.
The student directed Tamika’s roommate to sit in the desk that was about three feet from where Tamika sat. “Jennifer,” she began, “tell the board exactly what happened last night.”
Jennifer began uneasily, but minutes later, she articulately described the incident, recounting how she had tried to call her mother when Tamika violently punched her hand into the receiver. She further explained that after she asked Tamika why she had done it, Tamika shoved her into the bed, injuring her head. Afraid, Jennifer explained, she tried to fight back, but to no avail. That was when Mandy came in, thank God, before Tamika could hurt her any further. Mandy testified next and told the board what she had seen. She carried on dramatically, and Tamika was amazed at how Mandy’s three minutes at the scene had turned into nearly thirty minutes of expressions, gestures, and reenactments.
Tamika stared at the table as Christina took the seat in front of the board, recounting what she had seen. She told them that she had left the room out of fear for her safety, afraid that Tamika would attack her. Next, the two residents who had fetched security testified, and they too recounted the “terrifying” scene. Tamika began to feel overwhelmed, now wishing she had opted to have a Faculty Advisor by her side, not so much for her defense but for comfort and support. However, she had no one, leaving her feeling isolated and alone as she was painted a villain. The room harbored an unfriendly atmosphere that she could not break. She imagined that it would not matter what she said at that point, and she was certain that she had lost the case.
She stole a quick glance at Dr. Sanders, who listened intently to the witnesses. He had not even as much as looked at Tamika since she had unwittingly waved to him.
Tamika’s stomach began to knot, and her head ached. She swallowed. She wanted nothing more than to just get up, leave, and never come back. But there was no escape. Her hands that were folded neatly in front of her began to shake. She quickly removed them from the table and onto her lap, where her palms began to sweat. The voices in the room were far away now, mere whispers in the background, and Tamika’s mind drifted to her first day of second semester the year before, when she had first met Dr. Sanders.
After class, she had eagerly introduced herself to the first African-American professor she had had since enrolling as a freshman.
“Hi, Dr. Sanders,” she greeted him that day. “I’m Tamika Douglass.”
“Well, hello, Miss Douglass,” he returned the friendly greeting with a smile. “How are you?”
“I’m fine, and you?”
“Just fine. And where are you from?”
“That’s quite a ways. I hear it’s cold up there.”
“It is, but it’s beautiful in the summer.”
“I hear that too,” he replied, stacking papers and putting them into his black briefcase. “So what brings you to Georgia?”
“The university or the town?”
She shrugged. “Both, I suppose. But I guess the university more than the town.” She paused then confessed, “They gave me the most money.”
He laughed. “Well, that is important,” he admitted. “I’m still paying off my student loans.”
“Where are you from?”
“Yes, I guess I was a Southern boy, as they say.”
The conversation had been nice and easy-going, and he proved to be amicable, even as a professor, which was why Tamika enjoyed his class a lot. He also had a sense of humor that gave the class a relaxed atmosphere. She had never been one to study world religions, but after having Dr. Sanders for Religion 101, her interest was sparked in the subject. And she had actually begun considering declaring Religion her major, which was why she enrolled in the 150 course this year.
“Tamika?” the student who headed the Conduct Board repeated.
“Oh, um, yes?” Tamika had unintentionally shut out her surroundings.
The student blinked, and again inquired, “Do you have anything to add to the testimony?”
All eyes fell on Tamika. The student and faculty board members shifted uncomfortably in their chairs. Even Dr. Sanders stared at her now, anticipating a response. “Um, no,” she answered finally without thinking.
“No?” the student repeated, disbelieving. “Are you sure you’ve nothing to add?” She waited for a response. “This is your time to speak, Tamika,” she reminded, “without interruption.”
Tamika glanced nervously about the room. Everyone was waiting on her, focusing on her. How could she tell her side of the story when she had tuned out the majority of the other side? She wanted to argue her case, but for or against what would she argue? Without realizing it, she looked desperately to Dr. Sanders, pleading. He quickly looked away and began toying with his pen.
“What happened last night?” a student board member encouraged.
“Did you shove Jennifer into the bed, causing the head injury?” another asked.
“No,” Tamika managed to mumble loud enough for the board to hear. “I was defending myself,” she said louder.
“So are you saying Jennifer hit you first?”
“Yes,” she answered more assertively, lifting her head to face the questioner. “She came at me, trying to hit me, so I pushed her away.”
A million questions seemed to come to her at once, but amazingly, she managed to answer them all. When they had run out of questions, Tamika was allowed to leave.
“You can call Dean Floyd’s office in the morning for the Conduct Board’s decision. You are excused,” the student dismissed her.
Friday afternoon, the day after she attended her board hearing for the charge of “physical assault,” Tamika stood removing clothes from her closet, eyes watering from anger. She was angry with herself and the entire Conduct Board, particularly Dr. Sanders—angry with herself for not being more wise in building an irrefutable defense and angry with the board for being so unfair. How was it that she had been found guilty of such an outlandish charge due to some meaningless squabble with Jennifer? Wednesday had not been the first day they had argued, although it was the first time they had ever physically clashed. But still, Jennifer was the one who had attacked her, and Tamika was only defending herself, having done nothing other than pushed her roommate away from her and held Jennifer’s arms to prevent Jennifer from hurting her. How was it then that she had on her college conduct record the charge of “physical assault”? Assault! She had not assaulted anyone! Then why was she being punished by having to move out of the room—now Jennifer’s room—by Monday morning?
Her mother often told her of the injustice of the so-called “justice” system of America. But Tamika had not expected to deal with this in college, not in this manner anyhow. And Dr. Sanders. She would have never expected that she would lose any case with him on the board. But she had. How could he? Guilty? He knew her better than that. She was not the type of person to assault someone. But apparently, she had expected more of him than he would give. Perhaps he was afraid of losing his job if he stood up for her. How petty and inconsiderate.
She skipped her Religion 150 class that day, too upset to even look at Dr. Sanders, let alone listen to his voice for fifty minutes, constantly being reminded of the night before, when he had pretended as if he did not even know her. Besides, she did not feel like telling him again tha
Tamika knew she should have turned in her topic two weeks ago when everyone else did, but she was too indecisive. Every subject seemed so boring to her. She had half a mind to just tell him Christianity would be her topic, but she knew he would not fall for that one, given that she was supposed to select a religion with which she was unfamiliar. Buddhism, she had considered, but she could not bring herself to conduct an extensive research on a religion that seemed to be made up primarily of meditating and the “inner self.” It reminded her too much of the karate movies she could not stand when she was younger, and she could not even feign interest, definitely not for twenty pages—minimum. The project was beginning to make her reconsider religion as a major. Perhaps she was not cut out for this after all. Maybe she should just drop the class. Maybe she should just drop out of school.
She was being irrational.
There was a knock at the door, and before Tamika could respond, the door opened.
It was Makisha, lively as usual.
Tamika forced a smile. “Nothin’ much.”
“Heard you beat up your roommate,” her best friend teased her, laughing and closing the door behind her. “Finally!” Makisha’s large, silver loop earrings moved as she threw up her hands playfully, causing the smell of her perfume to drift in Tamika’s direction with the motion.
Tamika chuckled. “Girl, you’re crazy.”
“But you gotta tell me everything.”
She wrinkled her forehead. “It ain’t nothin’ to tell.”
“What are you doing?” Makisha asked suddenly, noticing the piles of clothes on her friend’s bed.
“Moving?” she asked in surprise, her dark brown forehead creasing in confusion. “Why?”
Tamika shrugged. “I don’t know. Ask the Conduct Board.”
“What? They’re making you move?”
She nodded, sighing.
“Girl, you betta fight that.”
She forced laughter. “Yeah, right. They think I ‘physically assaulted’ that girl. How am I gonna fight anything?”
“Physically assaulted her?” Makisha repeated in disbelief, taken aback by the extremity of the charge. “You serious?”
They were silent for a few seconds.
“You okay?” Makisha inquired, now concerned as she noticed the distant expression on her friend’s face.
Tamika shrugged, feeling as if she was going to cry, but she stopped herself, ashamed. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
“When do you have to move?”
“By Monday! That’s crazy.”
“I know,” she murmured, laying her last outfit from the closet on her bed, then opening her drawer.
“So you ain’t goin’ out tonight?”
Tamika shook her head. “But I don’t feel like it anyway.”
“Girl, you need to get out!”
She sighed. “I need to sleep. I’ve been up doing this most of the morning.”
“You didn’t go to your classes?” Makisha inquired, stunned, her tone reeking of disapproval.
Oh. Tamika had told on herself. “No, I didn’t feel like it.”
“Girl,” Makisha warned, concerned for her friend, “you better watch it. Your grades might fall.”
Tamika shrugged. “I know.”
“You wanna go shopping with me?” Makisha offered with a grin, her maroon lipstick accenting the whiteness of her teeth, which seemed to glow each time she smiled.
Tamika shook her head. “I have too much to do.”
Makisha sucked her teeth. “You’re a party pooper, girl.”
Tamika waved her hand at her. “Whatever.”
Makisha started to open the door and turned to her friend, unconsciously tossing the thick synthetic braids that hung just below her shoulders. “Well, I gotta go pick up some things, but I’m gonna try to come back to help you.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“Girl, you gonna need all the help you can get. You got boxes?”
“Well, I’ll ask Dante to see if he can get some for you.”
“Girl, it ain’t no problem,” she told her with a wave of her hand, revealing the maroon polished nails that matched her lips. “But I probably can’t bring ‘em till Saturday or Sunday, ‘cause,” she nodded, smirking, “you know, I gotta go partyin’ tonight.” She moved her shoulders playfully imitating a dance move, and Tamika chuckled.
“Sorry I can’t join you.”
“Don’t worry,” she joked. “I’ll make you feel real bad, telling you all about it.”
Tamika smiled and nodded, at that moment noticing Makisha’s large sweatshirt and blue jeans, a casual outfit that somehow looked exceptionally good on her. “I’m sure you will.”
“Anyways, I’ll be seein’ ya!”
The door shut, and the room suddenly grew still. Tamika sat down on the edge of her bed and lowered her head. A moment later, she began to cry, which she found herself doing a lot lately. She felt as if everything was coming down on her at once. She doubted if she could take anymore. She was barely into the second semester of her sophomore year, and already, she was overwhelmed by the demands of college. She had not even declared a major yet, and if she went on like this, it was doubtful, at best, if she would graduate.
Tamika never wanted to go to college in the first place, desiring to pursue a career in the music industry as a recording artist, hoping to become a famous singer. But her mother thought she was crazy. Sometimes she wondered if she actually was, but that did not decrease her love for music. But, she had to admit, there were many who dreamed of being famous singers and never made it. So she decided that college was not such a bad idea after all. Besides, no one in her family had a college degree, and her mother thought her insane to turn down such a golden opportunity as higher education, especially to pursue an “impossible” career like singing. Her older sister had begun college but was unable to finish due to pregnancy, which was the same thing that prevented their mother from going to college in the first place.
Tamika had done well her first year in college, achieving a 3.4 grade point average, but this had been because she had thrown herself into her books, determined to make her mother happy, even if she herself was not. But even then, she had good days and bad days, but she was grateful that the former occurred more often. However, her sophomore year had begun slowly, and her course load was heavy and demanding. She had been forced to take high level science and mathematics courses, which were required for graduation, and she was lost. She often spaced out in class, unable to focus on what her professors were saying, and she was too shy to ask questions for fear they would think she was stupid. She had already been made to feel like a fool the previous semester, having been shot down by one of her classmates for misunderstanding what the student felt was “basic information” for the chemistry course.
She hated to be another statistic, despising the idea of a minority student falling through the cracks. But at that moment, Tamika couldn’t have cared less. She was tired of seeking to prove the world wrong on things they would believe no matter what she did. If she were to do bad, they would think it normal. If she were to do well, they would think she was an exception. It was exhausting trying to even keep up with what she had to prove. If she were not trying to prove that she was just as intelligent as the next person, she was trying to prove that she was not a sex object. If she were not trying to prove that she was just as capable of the job as the next person, she was trying to prove that she was unique. It was draining, all the battles she had to fight. At times she just felt like relaxing, forgetting about it all, but she could not. Her mother, other family, and friends were cheering her on, en
And then there were the pressures of society, the necessity to find a job, get married one day, and buy a home and car. She did not feel like fighting the battles of the workplace, with its pervasive racism and sexism. For her, the workplace would be less a means to earn money than the grounds for yet more battles she was unequipped to fight. She had had a job all through high school, and it frustrated her how unfair everything was. She had watched White people pass her up after working only six months, while she was still in the same position after two years. They often became her manager although they were not even employed when she began working there. She would come home complaining to her mother, who would simply say, “That’s just how it is.”
Her aunts and uncles felt she could be a senator one day, capable of changing everything. Her mother thought perhaps she could be a lawyer and fight for minorities’ rights. But Tamika, who was barely driven to even vote, feeling it a futile gesture in truly changing anything—in that century anyway (if any others)—wanted nothing other than to go to the farthest corner of the room, away from everyone, and write a poem, which would turn into a song. Paper and pen were dearer to her than gold at those moments. The lyrics would come to her, and she would frantically write, hoping the words did not escape her mind before the pen could catch them. Sometimes she would recite the poem or sing it to her family, and they always enjoyed it, showering her with praise for her talent. But they did not believe in her beyond that.
“You gotta get an education if you wanna be anything,” her mother would tell her.
But Tamika dreaded the idea of sitting in classrooms, taking tests, and stressing over grades for four years, after which she would have to spend several more years doing the same thing—only it would get worse in graduate school. She felt that her poetry and songs were as good as anybody’s, if not better, so why couldn’t she make it like others had? Her family just had no faith. She would prove them wrong. She would be famous one day. She knew it—even if they didn’t. But one day they would know—when she did make it. Perhaps they would find out after turning on the radio one day and thinking, gee, that voice sounds familiar.
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