She pulled me to the side while the rest of the class made their way onto the playground for recess.
The room was darkened and quiet with the exception of the clamoring of my classmates playing outside.
When everyone left and she was sure we were alone.
She leaned in towards me, her breath heavy with a metallic stench of sorts. Her eyes narrowed to two slits as a sneer slowly enveloped her face.
When she spoke, her words seemed to chill the air:
“You inner-city kids need to appreciate being here, it is a privilege for you to be here. You had better learn your place!”
Except that I wasn’t from the “inner-city”, but it mattered none.
I was a Black kid and an unappreciative one at that, for her it was safe to assume that I had no identity outside the confines of this fictitious collective that she thought I was part and parcel of.
If it was her goal to make me feel as if I didn’t belong, she was successful. If she wanted to crush my 10 year old ego like a discarded cigarette box, she met and exceeded her mandate.
I remember biting my lip and clenching my fists in an effort to hold back the torrential tides of tears that I felt forming in the pit of my stomach. In response I returned her sneer and met her contempt with a recalcitrance that mirrored the bitterness that was the essence of her words.
It was at this point that I was cognizant that my hue was a detriment, I felt ashamed and never told my parents or my sister (who was in the same class) of the exchange.
This was a pattern that she employed with ruthless efficiency – and it scarred me for the remainder of the school year. 5th grade was a bittersweet opera of sorts, where I unable to come to terms with the fractures in my personhood.
A year later, I was expelled from the school and I subsequently tumbled out of control as I tried to reconcile my place in a world that seemed to revile my presence.
From that exchange I recall that there was an omnipresent frown pasted on my face going forward – as I tried to bury those feelings of inferiority in a place deep within where they wouldn’t be discovered.
Strangely enough she worked in tandem with another.
The neighborhood bully
I had a nemesis in my neighborhood, an older kid whose flagitious actions towards me had no end – this dude had no chill.
His visage made my blood run cold, I’d take alternate routes around the neighborhood to avoid interacting with him.
It was as if he and my teacher were on the same team and colluding to destroy my sense of self-worth. I remember encountering him on a return trip from the library:
“Whatchu got there loser? You got the whole library there?”
He reached back to knock the books out of my hand.
I cowered and braced for the impact…
Out in the distance was a shout:
It was my older brother Alfie.
My nemesis froze:
“We was just playing Alfie, calm down“, he demurred.
“What did I tell you about messing with my brother?”
“You thought I was playing?” Alfie growled.
The nemesis grimaced at me and stepped aside.
As Alfie and I walked back to the house, he told me something that I always remembered:
“You know he’s jealous of you, right?
“No he isn’t”, I shot back.
“Naw, you’re going to do something when you grow up and he’ll be in jail somewhere – he’s just mad.”
For some reason I believed him and strangely enough, his words were prescient.
That marked the last time I cowered before my nemesis.
My nemesis did a tour of duty as a number in the prison industrial complex – while my proclivity for words lead me to academia where I procured undergraduate and graduate degrees.
I’m far from the young man cornered by his teacher in a darkened classroom or minimized by his nemesis on a neighborhood street – I wouldn’t piss on either on them if they were being ravaged by fire, I’d just watch and open a bag of popcorn.
However, I am grateful to the both of them, because they are 2 of my ingredients of what defines me.