8U, A.B. Davis Middle School, Baboon, Beauty, Bigotry, Humanities, Italian Club, Monkey, Racism, Stereotype Threat, Teenagers, Writing, Writing Scrapheap
There are plenty of stories and vignettes that ended up on the Boy @ The Window scrap heap. Most because they weren’t relevant, some because a particular person or character really wasn’t a significant player in the book. In my final set of story revisions (not dialogue revisions) in ’09 and ’10, I operated under the “two or more rule.” If a person or character showed up fewer than two times in the book, I took them out, as they really weren’t as significant as I originally thought.
But in the case of the Sonya story below, it was a tough cut. I wanted to craft a book in which people felt everything I went through while not feeling sorry for me. I think and hope that I did. Though this story contained many elements of what I wanted in the rest of the book, it didn’t quite fit. Still, it serves as a good reminder of how mean even someone as polite (but certainly not always nice) as I am today could be at thirteen.
“Sonya was major fodder for Alex in eighth grade. She had a short Afro, an ‘au naturale’ to be exact. She wasn’t nearly as polished in maintaining her looks as many of the other girls in 8U. Sonya wasn’t ugly by any stretch. But by her not attempting to beautify herself in any way, she stood out for some in our class. Why would’ve she needed to anyway? She was also well-spoken, intelligent and outgoing, at least at the beginning of the year. Unfortunately for Sonya, my Italian Club classmates Alex, et al. were around to call her all kinds of names, like ‘baboon,’ and ‘monkey.’ I felt sorry for her, but I was also angry with her too. It pissed me off to see her respond to these semi-racist barbs with a blank face or even a smile.
It pissed me off so much that I ended up calling Sonya one of those names by the end of the school year. One day in homeroom, par for the course, Alex and company picked with Sonya again, calling her a ‘baboon’ among other things. She just sat there with that silly ‘Oh well’ smile on her face, as if they were telling her that she should go into professional modeling. Under my breath, I called her ‘monkey,’ and not as a joke. I just couldn’t believe that she was going to sit there like some pre-Civil Rights era Black in the South and take their crap without any response.
Except that I had called Sonya a ‘monkey’ within earshot of her and Alex. She ran out of the room, apparently to the girls bathroom, where she cried for several minutes, I later learned from Allison. I immediately tried to apologize, which Sonya eventually accepted (after my eighth grade science teacher Ms. Mignone and Allison shamed me for what I said). What I said was unacceptable to me, and the rationale was too intellectual for my own good. For Sonya, it simply came down to her looks, not her disposition. I wished that it had never happened, given what I faced from some of my classmates on a semi-regular basis.”
The Sonya story has many of those elements, exposing me good, bad and ugly in the process. It’s about race and teenage ignorance and intellect. It’s about stereotype threat on one obvious level and trying to fit in on an unconscious one. It’s about the person I needed to become in high school as well as how I got to be that quiet yet observant person. The story is significant, yet because I only dealt with Sonya for two paragraphs in a 345-page book (in print form), it didn’t make the final cut. Because there are other and more central characters and stories in which stereotype threat and the ugly side of my immaturity both come out, I didn’t include Sonya.
Luckily, I also have a blog, where even scrap-heap stories can find the light of a new day. So, for this week, the thirtieth anniversary of my calling Sonya a “monkey,” I apologize again. I was a baboon for saying it in the first place. And Sonya, I hope you are well!