She pulled me to the side while the rest of the class made their way onto the playground for recess.
I remember the air being sticky with humidity – the lights in the room were turned off in a futile effort to combat the heat. As I peered out against a landscape of empty desks, the room was eerily quiet with the exception of the clamor from the children playing outside.
Cold and calculating, she waited until everyone left and she was certain that we were alone.
She leaned in towards me, her breath was heavy with a metallic scent that stung my nose.
Suddenly, her eyes narrowed into two menacing slits and 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, quickly!”, she snapped.
Except that I wasn’t from the “inner-city”, but it mattered none.
The limited understanding of my 10 year mind informed me that that the term “inner-city” was a pejorative and one that didn’t fit… I picked it up watching Walter Cronkite with my Father after school as they talked about the crack epidemic sweeping the nation.
And I remember thinking to myself:
“Inner-City kids don’t have Daddies, but I have one – and I do everything with mine, so she can’t be talking about me.”
If I only knew that this woman was only scratching the surface of the racism and stereotypes that would color and warp my mind in later years – maybe I could have braced myself against the assaults that I would be on receiving end of.
To my teacher, she made clear that she didn’t see me as a student.
Instead, she saw me as an interloper.
A Black kid (a colored when no one was around) 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.
She wanted to crush my 10 year old ego like a discarded cigarette box – she met and exceeded her mandate.
It was her goal to make me feel as if I didn’t belong – she was successful and it was this event and others like it, that served as a reminder – that I was to be seen, but not to be heard.
I was the other…
Her words served to hollow out my sense of self and I stood there paralyzed, a shell of who I was just a few minutes prior.
I remember biting my lip and clenching my fists – in an effort to hold back the torrential tide 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. Why? Simply put, I was ashamed and unable to put my disaffection into words.
This was a pattern that she employed with ruthless efficiency – and it scarred me for the remainder of the school year. My time in the 5th grade was a bittersweet opera of sorts, where I was unable to come to terms with the fractures in my person hood that she exposed and nurtured.
A year later, I was expelled from the school and I subsequently tumbled out of control in the subsequent classrooms that I was a part of – as I tried (unsuccessfully) to reconcile my place in a world that seemed to revile my presence.
From that exchange 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.
Over time I developed the ability to discern his lanky frame from a block away – and in response 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.
One day I let my guard down and I encountered him on a return trip from the library… And he pounced – his slow drawl spilled out through a pair of dry cracked lips that blathered in an cacophony of loathing towards me.
“Whatchu got there loser? You got the whole library there?”
He cocked his arm back to knock the books out of my hand.
I cowered and braced for the impact…
Out in the distance there was a shout:
It was my older brother Alfie barreling down the street towards us.
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.
“I’m tired of his dirty big lip ass fucking with me!”
“Stop cursing”, Alfie cautioned…
“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 always believed my brother and strangely enough, his words were prescient.
That marked the last time I cowered before my nemesis:
We would have occasional run-in’s after that event, but he never inspired the fear that used to leave me paralyzed… When I entered high school and sharpened my repertoire of insults – my referencing of his lips being out sized in proportion with the rest of his body as “Bazooka Joe lips”, (because his lips looked like two unchewed wads of chewing gum) to the raucous laughter of our peers, established that I could give as good as I got – and the bullying ceased from that point forward.
My nemesis did a tour of duty as a number in the prison industrial complex (like my brother told me he would years before) – while my proclivity for words lead me down a path that ran parallel to his.
I’m far from being 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 saw them being ravaged by fire.
Actually, I’d just watch and open a bag of popcorn.
However, I am grateful to the both of them, because from the ashes of their efforts to dehumanize me – I was able to rise like the Phoenix.
I developed a resilience that would make me impervious to the arrows of a ugly world that would attempt to ravage me time and again.
But – more importantly it was the love in the form of my family that served to impede the growth of the feelings of inferiority that would have engulfed me if left unabated. Whenever my knees buckled, assorted members of my family would be there, compelling me to my feet.
I was able to make it.
But what of the countless others who were told that they didn’t belong by those who were supposed to empower them, but instead chose to abdicate that sacrament?
Am I the exception or the norm?
What about them?
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