In the third or fourth grade we had to do a big project about a country, any country. I think I picked France first. It turned out that like five other kids were doing France, I got one school library book about it but others were checked out. Our teacher said we were welcome to switch countries if we'd picked a popular one. I agreed to switch, she said no one was doing a report on Finland so I did that.
In the meantime, a girl who sat near me was sticking with France and asked if she could just borrow the library book I'd checked out on it. I was fine with that.
But then she never returned it to the library.
After bugging her for a week or two I told the library why it was overdue. The librarian shook her head when I said the girl's name and just answered, "We've had some other problems."
So then I tried the ultimate solution: have my mom call her mom! That always works, right? Except it didn't. It took lots of phone calls for us to even reach her mother. Then when mom finally talked to her, it was just... weird. Mom just got off the phone and was sort of unclear on how the conversation had gone, something about how the woman at the other end was just yelling at kids and not really understanding the issue, or something.
I had to pay for the book. Actually, maybe mom gave me the money for it, because at that age I rarely my our own money. It was like $13. Mom was nice about it. She said she was sorry things couldn't just be worked out, sorry that something bad happened to me as a result of trying to help a classmate out. She also said situations like this are good to teach us lessons, and $13 for a lesson isn't so bad. There are plenty of books in the $50-$75 range, she said, good thing I didn't lend out one of those.
I was still confused about why the girl couldn't just return the book, but sort of chalked it up to general "city kid" weirdness. "City kids" tended to be a little unpredictable. The school I went to was in a district that was doing a desegregation program... they bused kids in from the city to enhance the diversity of our classes. It was a controversial program. As an elementary school kid I didn't understand the implications, all I knew was what I saw. The kids who were bused in weren't friends with us, they only hung out with each other. They never stayed in our school more than a year or two. They never did well. They misbehaved. They also fell asleep in class a lot, but I later learned that their bus ride was like two hours every day, so they were up incredibly early to get to the bus. All of them were black, and most of us were white... in fact I only remember one of us who wasn't white. He was a kid named Mitch who rode our bus. He was good in school and really good at drawing and did not hang out with the city kids, it was easier for him to be the one black kid in his circle of friends. His presence kept us from stereotyping black kids, but I do wonder if he ever felt stuck between the very segregated worlds of our "desegregated" school.
Anyway after going to school a few years with city kids, I just got used to the idea that their world was different from mine. In the few conversations we had about that book my classmate sounded so weirdly chaotic and defensive I just didn't know what to make of her... one more experience with the city kids.
Something about desegregation failed there. Just throwing us all in together obviously wasn't enough. I wonder if the grownups noticed or just us? I feel bad now, looking back, for all those kids, being in the minority, riding buses forever and having to switch schools every time some bureaucrat redrew the lines. Living in the inner city of St. Louis is weird enough without somebody's bad idea making things even harder, am I right? Did they get any benefit from going out to our "better" school? I was young but even I realized that my confusion over the book was not a big casualty in the whole situation.