For better and worse, I had several About A Boy moments in seventh grade, very early on. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a person like the character played by Hugh Grant anywhere in my life who could’ve saved me from the ostracism that followed me and my kufi that year and in the years to come.
It started on the very first day of seventh grade, my first day in Humanities. I can still remember what I wore: a pair of navy-blue dress pants, a pair of white Adidas sneakers, and a white, short-sleeved Izod Lacoste (the “alligator” logo) knockoff. These would be the only new clothes I’d get for the entire school year. Oh, lest I forget, I also wore my bright and white kufi (a knitted cap with many small holes in it) with the rest of my ensemble. As our teacher Mrs. Sesay went through our introductions, one of my new Italian classmates asked
“Have you ever been to Israel?”
“Yes, once. I’ve been to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.”
I’d only traveled outside of New York four times, including my fetus travels in ’69. But at least I lied about it in my most proper diction. I assumed that she knew that I was lying, but it turned out that she was shocked when I admitted the truth four years later in our eleventh-grade English class.
That was hardly the worst of it. Six weeks into seventh grade, I had a fight with the late Brandie Weston. Or, rather, she had a fight with me, stemming from comments I had made about her weight a year and a half before (see posting from September 2007). It wasn’t much of a fight, though. Two semi-nerds in a fight of words, lots of shoves, and a flurry of half-hearted punches isn’t a fight. It’s an ugly display, like watching Mike Tyson fight in his later years against White guys taken off the street. In one corner, at five-foot-two and 120 pounds was me, in the other, at five-foot-seven and about 150 pounds was Brandie. I certainly didn’t want to fight a girl. Brandie thought that she could pound me into the ground. At one point I punched Brandie in the chest, only to find that her chest felt spongy. It dawned on me that Brandie had breasts. I stopped pushing and punching her right then and there, somewhat in shock from the revelation. This was while she had called me a “pervert.”
Since I didn’t know what “pervert” meant—not that I would’ve admitted such a thing—my juvenile writer’s brain found the word that was the most similar sounding to pervert. Somewhere in my tangle of speech center nerve endings, between “adjective” and “breast,” I pulled out “adverb” and called Brandie that in response. That ended out fight in horrific laughter from Brandie and the classmates who witnessed it, including my eventual crush #1. It was another About A Boy moment, one that I wouldn’t soon live down. If my classmates thought I was weird before, I was sure that some now suspected that my intellectual reach exceeded my grasp. That’s academic-speak to say that many of my classmates thought that I was dumber than dirt!
About a week later, something even more embarrassing and soul-destroying occurred after school in the back of Davis. Two of the “Italian Club” boys instigated my ambush and beat-down in November ’81, the one where about half of 7S watched. They and about ten other 7S classmates attacked me. They grabbed, punched, and kicked me, and called me everything but a child of God. This was my third About A Boy moment, making me verbal cannon fodder for them for the rest of the school year.
Ironically, these attacks because of my kufi and the dumb things I used to say (I can still be tactless on occasion, but it’s rare compared to those days of doom and gloom) made me dig in my heels regarding the kufi, being a Hebrew-Israelite, and reveling in my weirdness. Not exactly “reveling” — more like “exaggerating.”
At the same time, between my mouth, my religion and my kufi, I was a semi-outcast in the Nerd Society by the end of the first marking period. My weirdly normal classmates saw me as an enigma and treated me as such. Sometimes they picked on me, a few tried to pick fights with me, a curious minority asked me questions about being a Hebrew-Israelite. Most simply avoided me. It was as if I was part of the goyim, a stranger in a strange and sordid land. I considered quiting Humanities because of my Bs and sometimes Cs by February ’82, and after the summer of abuse, there were times I was downright suicidal. Thank God for crushes and other signs of love and emotion!
I often think about my son Noah when I think of these things. I want him to be more like me now and much less like me from twenty-seven years ago. I have to make sure not to put him in the position of making mistakes that would lead to social ostracism. I also need to let him know that it’s okay to be weird in some way or another. How to balance being cool with being unique, I don’t know. It took me the better part of two decades to figure it out. But I do know one thing for sure. He will never have to wear anything to school that he isn’t proud to wear. Nor will he have to wear something that he doesn’t fully understand for himself.