Articles + Essays
When Mrs. Bjorkquist Said She Could Moonwalk
by Ijeoma Njaka
Nigerian-American writer Ijeoma Njaka shares
her American Story.
Mrs. Bjorkquist said she could moonwalk. Her classroom was mostly carpeted, but there was a small segment of tile by the door, a series of white squares speckled with green and gray notes. My fourth-grade classmates and I watched her as she stood on the tile. She was a thin woman in her twenties, with long legs and big, brown hair stretching out and up in loose curls. She was tall and had a bright smile; she was pretty. But, we watched her feet in black loafers. She said she could moonwalk, and then, she did.
I thought that she had a funny name, and I knew that I had one, too. Our last names had a similar composition, the second letter a J with a consonant preceding it. We both loved Michael Jackson. We lived in the same suburb, shopped for groceries at the same Cub Foods. And we both had one African-American parent.
Mrs. Bjorkquist was Black. She had one Black parent and one White parent. Björk in Swedish means birch. Birch trees. A collection of white wood growing out of rich, black soil. This was the name of my only Black teacher from the time I was in kindergarten to when I went to college.
I saw Michael Jackson in concert while in Mrs. Bjorkquist’s class in 1997, and despite being small and having truly terrible seats, I marveled when he moonwalked across the stage. Despite my efforts over the years, to this day, I can only manage an easier, though acceptable, sideways moonwalk and not the iconic backwards one. Naturally, I marveled at Mrs. Bjorkquist, wondering how she did it.
Twenty years after sitting in her classroom, I wondered again about Mrs. Bjorkquist. As I went from elementary school to middle and high school (and as Michael Jackson became less critical to my daily existence), I started accumulating questions about myself. I occupy this curious spot in the Diaspora. My mother is an African American from Alabama. My father is an Igbo man from Nigeria. I am from Minnesota, someplace where aren’t many African Americans or Nigerians. I recalled Mrs. Bjorkquist after I returned from my first trip to Nigeria last year. I barely pronounce my own name correctly, so I was stunned to watch myself become a real, passport-toting Nigeran in my late twenties despite having never stepped foot in the country. I envisioned that I would take this trip, get the passport stamped, see family I had never met, and perhaps reconcile or shed the questions I carried.
However, it didn’t quite happen like that. I got back from my trip, and I thought first about White teachers I had, the ones who taught me Things Fall Apart or allowed me to talk about racial identity in the classroom if I felt like it as a high school student. I even wrote to them, spending three days trying to craft an email to these teachers to thank them for the space they gave me, but being careful to not thank them, as White people, for affirming my multicultural black identity. Moreover, I wasn’t sure they were even aware of how I viewed myself: an insufficient Igbo who was also not Black enough.
But, then I remembered Mrs. Bjorkquist. I knew Mrs. Bjorkquist understood straddled identity because Mrs. Bjorkquist, like me, had a mixed identity. I replayed the moment she glided across the floor in my mind, impressed and awestruck all over again.
When I was in her class, Mrs. Bjorkquist told us that she had a Black parent and a White parent. When we talked about fractions, she said that since she was half Black and her husband was White, that her two sons were a quarter Black. She got us two hamsters as class pets, one of them white blonde while the other had black fur with brown streaks. She still spoke French after studying abroad in France during college, and she told us stories of her travels, gesturing and translating, holding my attention. She read us Sideways Stories from Wayside Schools, filled with a cast of characters I automatically pictured as White. (Mrs. Bjorkquist went on to adapt the book into a play for the class to perform in the auditorium with our families present, and everyone in the class had a role.) But, she also read us The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 about a Black family who, among other things, are in Birmingham during the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing which killed four little Black girls who were not much older than her students. Mrs. Bjorkquist was animated, passionate, and committed when she read both books to us, doing different voices for the characters, and I can’t help but think that these books were a conscious choice.
Like Mrs. Bjorkquist, I studied a new language and studied abroad in college, though I studied Swedish instead of French. This meant that when I thought of Mrs. Bjorkquist again as an adult, I could translate her name. Just as I got questioned about why I, tired as I was of being a person of color in America, decided to go to Sweden of all places, I wonder if Mrs. Bjorkquist got questioned about her name. A name like Bjorkquist belongs in the Midwest, in Minnesota where nearly everyone, it seems, claims Scandinavian ancestors, yet I wonder if she felt the pull of others questioning her name as though it should not have been hers. She was the only Black teacher I had, and I wonder how she felt working at a mostly White school with mostly White peers, if it gnawed at her just as it grated at me to be the only Black student as I got older. Then again, this woman moonwalked.
I saw Mrs. Bjorkquist once when I was in high school. One of my friends, who already had a driver’s license, and I had gone back to the elementary school to visit and reminisce, to see who would remember us. Mrs. Bjorkquist was still tall, her hair going more down that out than I remembered, not quite as big.
“Can you still moonwalk?” I asked a breath after hello.
“No, I don’t think so,” she said. Mrs. Bjorkquist shook her head. She seemed doubtful or slightly confused, as though I had made a mistake or mistaken her for someone else, as though she thought she never knew how to moonwalk. I wondered how she could forget, could let herself forget something so amazing.
Now, I wish I hadn’t asked her that. I shouldn’t have put her on the spot, asking her to perform. I wish I had told her that I knew moonwalking was hard, and I admired her for it.
Photo: Ijeoma Njaka taken by Susan John
Ijeoma Njaka is a writer, educator, and graduate student currently living in Washington, DC. A 2018 Kimbilio Fellow, she is also an alumna of VONA/Voices of Our Nations, Hurston/Wright, and GrubStreet. She is currently working on her first novel.