Growing up, I didn’t even know just how offensive racial slurs were. I do remember associating them with my consequent loss of social status among classmates. With enough time, degradation of the racial variety turns life into anxious suffering. I hated school. I dreaded it. I think now about how insane it was for kids at my age back then to even be having these kinds of interactions. My fairly good grades may have resulted from avoiding other kids. Studying was the only thing left to do. I didn’t even want to have recess time,
“Red rover, red rover send ______ right over,” goes the phrase in the schoolyard team game. When called, Michael and his friends would forgo the point attempt at breaking the chain of linked hands and just run full speed, colliding into me alone, slamming me to the ground. Sometimes I came back from school with my clothes torn. My mother was never upset about it. “You boys play rough,” she observed, “shao shing, ah” She knew her way around a sewing machine like you wouldn’t believe. After all, she made my clothes herself. She used to be a child sweatshop worker.
I didn’t have any playground or free-play time in the fifth grade anyway because for the first the first half of the year, my father had taken that away from me as punishment, guaranteeing my position as the social pariah. He asked my teacher to have me sit in the classroom following my lunch. I ate my lunch as slowly as possible and was frequently the only kid still in the cafeteria when Wallace came around to clean up.
On one occasion, well-mannered boy that I was, I offered help to Wallace. He, in turn, asked me why I wasn’t outside playing. I don’t recall what I said, but I think he understood the situation. That day and every day after, I waited for the other kids to finish eating so that Wallace and I could wipe the tables down, stack the chairs, and mop the floors. I was industrious, but I never asked for anything. I just liked that we talked. We were friends.
After the work was done, I’d sit down across from Wallace with the rest of the chairs at our head level while he ate his sack lunch and the mopped floors dried. I’d tell him about a New Kids on the Block song I liked or about stuff at home. When he finished, he’d put thirty five cents in the stainless steel counter next to the empty cash register and pull an ice cream sandwich or ice cream bar for himself. That year though, he’d give up his daily ice cream and treat his new little buddy instead. Not only did I have a friend, I got my choice of frozen treats, an ice cream sandwich every single day.
Near the end of the school year, when my family saved enough money to move into a larger house, the school administrator called me down to “the office” to explain about transferring to a new district. Everyone was very nice to me, and they offered to pull from class and call down to the office anyone I wanted. “Is there anyone you wanted to say bye to?”
Without hesitation, I said, “Yes. Wallace.”