Twenty-eight years ago this week was the fight that kept me in the gifted track known as Humanities. To think that, with the possibility good grades, forming friendships, crushes, teachers, the needs to be around peers of a similar ilk all before me, and it took a fight for me to finally begin to feel that the move to this strange magnet program might still be good for me? This story is about a fight, but it’s also about being a tweener boy who’s trying to find a way to cope in two impossible worlds, between a deteriorating family life at home and semi-academic and social ostracism at school.
But it’s not like I wasn’t without fault. I spent my first five month in Humanities intimidated by the group of super-smart and affluent White students who had been in the elementary school version of the program since as early as second grade. Or with White students who lucked out when the elementary program moved to their school a year and a half before the first day of seventh grade in September ’81. No, I spent a considerable amount of my verbal resources attempting to convince everyone around me how smart I was. After the way things went in sixth grade, I firmly believed that no one in the world was smarter than me. It wouldn’t have been any funnier if I were on SNL as Ana Gasteyer’s “Celine Dion” yelling that “I’m the greatest singer in the whole world!”
And I tried to let as many people know how smart I was at every opportunity. My arrogant assumption — based completely on my insecurities — was the reason that I was initially overwhelmed by the Humanities Program. Many of the seventh-grade members of Humanities had taken classes together since the second, fourth and fifth grades at the Grimes Center for Creative Education. Teacher after teacher had told them about their genius and potential for the previous six years. Admittedly, I was unprepared for this reality of privilege and entitlement, much less the kinds of diversity that it brought. My Polyanna-ish attitudes about myself and the rest of my peers were difficult for even the most arrogant and affluent overachievers among us to put up with for long. I couldn’t keep my mouth shut in those first days of intimidation and the flaunting of upper middle class experiences by others in our classroom.
My first sign of real trouble came at the end of October. I was not only about to earn my first C+ in math since third grade. I was sub-par in all of my other subjects. It wasn’t so much that the material was any more difficult than it’d been the year before. I didn’t exactly feel at home in 7S. My classmates called me “stupid” and “idiot” so many times that ever so often I honestly thought I was dumb at certain choice moments. I was already all by myself in a class of thirty students. I had no friends, and that really did make me feel stupid.
Now, I also knew that the main barrier between me and most of my classmates was the kufi, the fact that I was part of the bizarre Hebrew-Israelite cult, as they probably attributed most of my weird behavior to it. But the combination of my mouth and my multi-holed woven white cap attracted the attention of a group of who I came to call Italian Club boys, led by a Fonzi-type Italian tweener. They made fun of everything I did. Or, to put it in the language of today’s it-generation, they clowned on me as if I were a cartoon character in South Park! The way I walked, talked, smiled (which was rare), laughed, chewed my food, answered questions. If they could’ve, I’m sure they would’ve beat up on me about my bathroom routine. Instead, two of the Italian Club boys instigated the beat-down I received in November ’81, the one where about half of 7S watched or participated. They jumped me on my way out the door after school. They grabbed, punched, and kicked me, and called me everything but a child of God for about five minutes.
So I should’ve have felt like I was part of the in-crowd after all of that, right? I seriously thought about quitting the Humanities Program by early February ’82. My grades were unimpressive. I struggled in every subject except in dumb Paul Court’s social studies class, where three years of reading World Book Encyclopedia and forty books of all kinds on World War II made me a nerdy standout. I barely averaged a C+ in math, my Italian teacher Ms. Fleming told me that my “Italian sounded British” when I attempted to speak it, and I was averaging a C+ in art. In Art! All because Doris Mann, who was about as effective a teacher as the late Michael Jackson was at being normal, explained that she didn’t “give A’s for effort. I give out grades based on your ability to create good art.”
It had gotten so bad that folks who wouldn’t have dared to mess with me at the beginning of the year — guys significantly shorter than me and guys who were so superior to me that they didn’t even notice me — started messing with and threatening me. Mr. OshKosh was one of those classmates. The week before the mid-February winter break, our homeroom/English teacher Mrs. Sesay was home with the flu. Our substitute’s idea of managing a classroom was reading a newspaper while the class engaged in verbal and physical combat. It seemed that no one was safe from strife that week, including me. Mr. OshKosh decided that it was his turn to give me a hard time. A ten-second scuffle took place on Tuesday over the usual tweener issues of communism versus capitalism, or to use more sophisticated language, neo-Marxism versus Keynesian economics. He also didn’t like that I had corrected him the month before about Australia’s official language, which he said was “Australian.” I learned that day that you should never correct a tweener contrarian when they think that they’re right.
When I walked into the boys’ locker room for gym class that Thursday afternoon, I was greeted with two punches to my chin and face. He walked away and went through the green double doors to his locker, arrogant enough to think I wouldn’t respond. He muttered “stupid” as he walked away. I think it was the combination of being caught by surprise and being called “stupid” by Mr. OshKosh that got the better of me. Or maybe it was five months of enduring public humiliation combined with the sense that things at 616 were spinning out of control. Whatever it was, I finally snapped. I stared blankly at the red lockers, green doors, and depleted beige-colored walls for a couple of seconds, and then my mind exploded in violent colors. I threw my entire being into Mr. OshKosh as he had started to undress at his locker, knocking him to the floor.
I choked and punched him until I had bloodied his mouth and made his nose turn red. Mr. OshKosh attempted to fight back to no avail, as I kept my weight on his legs while I head-locked him with my left arm and wailed away with my right hand. Just as I began to run out of energy, the gym teacher came in to break us up. He yelled at us and asked “Do you want to be suspended?” When I got off the floor to go my locker, I almost couldn’t believe that I had won that fight. I went into the break with an emotional boost, one that I hoped would lead to better things for me at school.
You could say that only a nerdy tweener boy like myself would find academic motivation in a fight. That’s definitely true. But, where else would I have found it in February ’82? It would be another three weeks before my love of Crush #1 would begin to take shape. And I didn’t have any emotional support from home, much less the spiritual or psychological grounding to persevere. No, boys especially often need to find a spine, to fight their way out of a slump, sometimes literally, to get where they want to go.