I belonged to the first generation of kids who were taught racism was bad. By that I mean taught formally, officially, in school. By the time I began kindergarten, the civil rights battles of 1960s had entered the realm of Settled History, with clear victors and losers, heroes and villains. There was once a time, we were told, where discrimination based on the color of one’s skin ran rampant, but now racism had been vanquished thanks to Martin Luther King Jr. and Bill Cosby.
Around the time when the first MLK Day was celebrated, my elementary school hosted a presentation wherein someone who bore a remarkable likeness to the man himself reenacted the I Have A Dream speech, and led an entire cafetorium in the singing of “We Shall Overcome.” As a budding history nerd and self-righteous soul, this presentation genuinely moved me. In a fit of Lisa Simpson-esque civic earnestness, I felt compelled to write a letter to the White House, asking the president what I could or should do for the cause of civil rights. Because the president at the time was Ronald Reagan, I received a photo of The Gipper and a form letter that made no mention whatsoever of Civil Rights.
This setback notwithstanding, the message that Racism = Bad was constantly reinforced throughout my childhood, both in school and in kid-aimed PSAs like One To Grow On, wherein the ethical quandaries of the age were resolved by Nancy McKeon and Soleil Moon-Frye. The belief of the inherent equality of all humans seemed less a belief that needed to be held, but a fact that I acknowledged. I never encountered anyone who felt otherwise.
And then I met my bully.
He entered my life some time during sixth grade, new to my school. Back then, my outer-ring suburban town was split evenly between the kids of city cops and firemen who rode the tide of white flight as far it would take them, and the kids of rednecks who’d always lived there, who were suspicious of city folk, if not downright hostile toward them. My bully belonged to the latter category. He had sandy, curly hair that he wore in a tail, a common aesthetic choice for nascent dirtbags of that era. His eyes were beady and piercing. I don’t think they had any color in them at all. His voice held vague southern inflections. He sounded like an 11-year-old doing a bad imitation of Elvis.
One afternoon, I found myself sitting behind this new kid on the bus. I don’t think I’d ever noticed him, or even knew he rode the same route as me, until he turned around and asked me, sneering all the while, what grade I was in. The way he said it, I knew it was some kind of trap, but I answered anyway. Sixth, I said.
The kid laughed, then turned to his seat companion, who had darker hair but equal levels of dirtbag-itude. You hear that? he said. This little faggot says he’s in the sixth grade.
By this point, I had rounded out, quite literally, into a Fat Kid. I had received occasional grief for that, and for general nerdiness I was not yet wise enough to tamp down. Those incidents hurt, but none stung as much as this first encounter with my bully. When other kids made fun of me before, I just thought they were being mean. This felt personal, felt like he wanted me to feel shame. Back then, the pointed use of faggot was the kid-dom nuclear option of insults. There was no counter to that assault. All you could do was dig out of the rubble and rebuild, eventually.
From that day on, my daily bus rides began with a struggle to find a seat where this kid would not find me. Some days I was successful, in that he either couldn’t find me or decided he didn’t care to bother me that day. But most days, I was not successful. Since I knew answering any question he posed meant inviting abuse upon myself, I ignored anything he said to me. He responded by either kicking my seat or whipping an unused seatbelt in my general direction. The bus seatbelts couldn’t reach from one seat to another, but that detail didn’t prevent him from twirling one like a lasso, just to make me flinch.
My stress levels increased even more when, out of nowhere, this kid was suddenly placed in my class. Rumor had it he’d driven his last teacher to the verge of a nervous breakdown, leading to a transfer. Now he was my teacher’s problem, and mine as well.
There was a limit to what my bully could do to me in the confines of class, but just having to be in the same room with him all day was nerve wracking. And because we were now in the same class, we had to leave the building together. Thus, I no longer had any real way to get to the bus ahead of him and cower in a seat, hoping he wouldn’t spot me. As we filed out of school, he would shoulder check me when the teacher wasn’t looking, or whip me with the straps of his bookbag, which was always remarkably free of books.
I complained when and where I could, as discreetly as I could, fully aware that too much complaint would only invite further abuse. After a while, he began to tire of bothering me, the thrill of tormenting a new target having faded—until I was undone by Maniac Mansion.
This being the late 1980s, our classroom was privileged to have one Commodore 64, ostensibly to be used to teach rudimentary programming but more often used to play games during long, snowy indoor recess periods. The most popular game in the class, by far, was Maniac Mansion, a puzzle-solving adventure that took place in a mad scientist’s lair and had just enough PG-13 humor to satisfy the Mad Magazine/Weird Al set.
During one indoor recess, I wandered over to the computer as one of my friends started up the game. The game was still booting up when my bully wandered over too. He had never shown an interest in the computer before. I sensed trouble, but also sensed he’d follow me if wandered off to escape.
In Maniac Mansion, the player was supposed to pick three characters to complete the mission. There were multiple ways to solve the game, based on the different characters’ capabilities, so this process usually involved some pointed deliberation. As my friend wondered which characters he should pick, my bully pointed to Maniac Mansion‘s sole black character and said “Pick the [N-word].”
Now. This was a kid who had called me a fag more times than I could count, who shoulder checked me like Mario Lemieux on the way out of school every afternoon, who concocted a million little ways to humiliate me each day. And all of that hurt like hell. But hearing him say that word angered me in a way I’d never felt before. This would not stand, I declared like a preteen Keith Olbermann.
“What did you say?!” I sputtered out.
He repeated that word, slower this time.
“What are you, a racist?” I said. “You can’t say that word!”
I said all this with the official outrage of an Edward R. Murrow. I could not fathom that a kid my age, even a dirtbag like this one, could say things like this, could be an actual, living, breathing racist. I thought there were no racists anymore! Didn’t Cliff Huxtable take care of this?!
To me, racism was an evil spell, and my reasoned objections could awaken him from it. This was how it always went down in One To Grow On: A kid would call out another kid for crappy behavior. The bad kid would see the error of his ways. They would high five or breakdance. Jason Bateman would share his wisdom.
But in this real-life instance, my bully did not heed my reasoned pleas and see the error of his ways. Instead, my bully lowered his voice, inched closer to me, and growled right in my face, Fuck you, I can say whatever the fuck I want.
One To Grow On never ended like this.
Somehow, in defiance of all logic and the evolutionary precept of self-preservation, I kept right on with my assertion that no, this kid could not say this word. I said it louder and louder, even as he drew closer to me, even as he balled his fists and prepared to beat me within an inch of my life. I’m sure he would have done just that had not a playground monitor separated the two of us, then frog-marched us down to the vice principal’s office.
Our vice principal was not the ideal man to adjudicated this situation. He was a spindly mustachioed man who seemed eager to avoid conflict no matter the cost. I’d once seen him minutes the final bell, dressed in tennis shorts and knee-high socks, ready to hit the court, and had referred to him as Tennis, Anyone? forever after.
I had little respect for him beforehand my bully and I were marched to his office, and I had even less afterward. Whereas I continued to demand that my bully retract his ugly statement, the vice principal kept trying to find some middle ground that I was sure did not exist. He acknowledged my right to feel aggrieved by what my bully had said, but wanted me to admit I’d gone too far in my objections, because I as shouting, or something.
I went to far saying that a racist was a racist? I didn’t think such a thing was possible. Meanwhile, my bully sat, arms crossed, and said as little as possible.
The vice principal forced us to apologize to one another. My bully mumbled a sorry under his breath. I haven’t heard a less sincere syllable since. But that was just as well, since I didn’t mean my apology anymore than he meant his.
I left the office feeling that the vice principal had equated our offenses—dropping an N-bomb vs. shouting—in a way that was even more offensive than what my bully had said. I also left the office knowing that whatever abuse I suffered at this kid’s hands to that point was nothing compared to what was to come. I left not quite understanding the world in the same way I had before I arrived. Are we supposed to apologize to racists for shouting at them? I left feeling wrong for feeling I was so right.
* * * *
Flash forward 15 years or so. I am in the East Village. I am not entirely drunk but not entirely sober either. I stumble into a taco place to grab some food before hopping on the L train. While I wait for my burrito, my eyes pass over a bulletin board. There, I see a corkboard, mostly studded with show flyers. Sticking out like a sore thumb is one tiny business card with blue lettering. I squint to get a better look at the card: KKK – NEW YORK CHAPTER it says, with a PO Box from a town near where I grew up.
The idea that the KKK has business cards angers me. The thought that it claims to have a chapter near where I grew up angers me even more. It pulls my mind back to sixth grade, and Maniac Mansion, and that dumb Elvis-imitation voice that used to give me chills.
I yell so loud it startles the guys behind the counter. DID YOU SEE THIS?! I say. The cooks shrug, having no idea what people put up on the corkboard and caring even less. I yank the card off the board, ripping it off of the pin holding it in place.
I’m about to rip it to shreds when I turn and see a pair of blobulent kids sitting at one the taco place’s few tables. They can’t be older than 16. Their faces are dotted with ugly pimples. They wear matching blue hoodies and each have the permanently damp hair of kids who seldom venture too far away from their XBoxes. I see the dull, dumb looks on their faces and decide they are responsible for this card.
I keep staring at the kids as I rip the card in half, in quarters, in eighths. But they don’t look ashamed or scared. They smirk, just like my bully when he turned around in his seat and sneered Hey kid, what grade you in? I keep ripping until there’s nothing but confetti left and throw the shards in the garbage, but it doesn’t make me feel any better. I thought we were all taught better.