The following story is the first part of a post coming in the future. Let my tale serve as an example that words and how people interpret them is not just something to get over. In this example, words serve as deep rooted trauma that I am unearthing for the betterment of my readers. Throughout high school, my locker number was 295. These are some of my tales.
The New Normal
When I started at my new high school back in the fall of 2003, I went in knowing almost nobody. True: I was on the football team and we had practiced for roughly two weeks up to the beginning of the school year, so I did know some of my classmates, upperclassmen and some of the adults too. However, that feeling of isolation on that August morning when my father dropped me off in front of the main entrence to Shoreland Lutheran hit like a haymaker from Tyson when I walked into the gym. Backpack on my shoulders, I almost froze when I saw the 70-ish teenagers that I would spend the next four years with: I was really the only black kid in this school and it scared the hell out of me. I felt the eyes of those students focus on me as I tried to quickly find a seat in the front of the bleachers. Schedule in hand and heartbeat at 100 mph, it was finally time to begin this new journey.
Now, feelings of nervousness before the first day of high school is not something exclusive to black kids. I am 100% certain that there was some level of trepidation from all my classmates on that August day. What I could not speak to for everyone was my issues with making friends at my last school. Coming from a large public middle school in Illinois my years of school up to that point was multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-ethic situations. Waukegan Public Schools, specifically Abbot Middle School, was a heterogenous mixing of students, families and experiences from all walks of life. Race was not much of an issue for kids in District 60 (D60) because we as a student body were just used to people who did not look like us. Naturally, there were problems from time to time that arose due to people still being affected by the systemic issues in our society. However, I can count on one hand the amount of times there were racially based problems in D60.
Even coming from a diverse school setting, I had issues making and maintaining friendships, especially in the middle school years. I joke with my friends that “middle school is hell” when they ask me about my job. Admittedly, there is a lot of truth in that statement because of what I went through as a middle school student. Complete with the given problems that arise with puberty during that time (I was a late bloomer), the social aspect of middle school was one that I did not navigate well. Without going too in depth, there were times I did not handle myself in the most mature way a middle schooler should. I am open enough to say that I played the victim in far too many situations. Yes, I was bullied by students in my class, and in hindsight it was a big problem and still is a big problem in schools across our nation. However, I also at times did not help my case by reactions I gave. For the most part, I really look at my years in D60 as preparing me for my high school journey. I thought that if I could survive Waukegan, then everything else should be simple.
“C’mon it’s just a joke…”
‘Hey Kyle: how is a pizza differnent from a black guy?”some “hilarious” freshman c.2003
Truth be told: the first month and a half of high school went off pretty well. I made friends, played football, went to homecoming, joined clubs and participated in class like any freshman would. Things seemed to be going off normally, I was accepted and it felt wonderful. Yet, the journey across this bridge would not be without its share of hardships. I forget the exact context of the situation, but I was in freshman history and we had a question about something going on with the lesson. I unassumedly raised my hand to provide my perspective on the matter. To my surprise: my input was immediately shot down and even chastised by my classmates. Not that the answer was wrong or anything of that matter, but the fact that it was different. Then slowly over the course of the first semester more issues started to rise. Nothing really big or earth shattering, but issues none the less that started sending messages to me.
It started off innocently enough: I had a group of friends and we would rib each other like high school boys tend to do. The jokes were not terribly funny but I laughed because I didn’t want to seem overly sensitive. Almost every lunch period that first semester there was at least 2-3 jokes at my expense. They never got too serious or distasteful but these jokes and ribs seemed to be never ending. What threw me off was This group of friends I had never really got on each other that much. “You’re the new guy, you gotta take your lumps” I would say to myself in an attempt to justify their behavior. I wasn’t the type to make jokes at other’s expense, especially people I was trying to get to know better, so I just took it with a smile. Then one day in choir: the jokes stopped being funny.
One of the guys while I’m walking to my chair notices I’m wearing a light blue shirt from FUBU (a black owned clothing line meaning For Us, By Us) that day. At the end of the class a guy says to me: “Hey Kyle, what’s that stand for: Farmers Used to Beat Us?” Much to the delight of a number of the other guys in the class, I simply gave him a look and walked away. He attempted to resolve the issue by simply saying “C’mon it’s just a joke” and I regretfully said “Yeah, I know” in an attempt to show I can take what they dished out. That night, I threw that shirt, in addition to all my other FUBU gear, in the back of my closet in hopes to never wear it again. I wish I could say that’s the worse it got, but this journey of adolesence was just getting worse.
“Don’t get mad”
Christmas came and went. Second semester was well underway and despite a few bumps, I was still surviving. I was on student council, I was looking forward to track season, I was making decent grades ( I was never a brilliant student), I wasn’t in and out of detention and generally just trying my best each day. Then there was a faithful day in second semester that would change the course of who I am forever.
It was just after lunch period and I was waiting outside of the study hall room with my math, English and Spanish homework. The advisor for that period’s study hall (who was the principal) was a little bit down the hall to unlock the room. I am still to this day confused about what prompted him to say this, but one of the study hall students, a freshman mind you, decided to utter this phrase to me:
Why don’t you go back to where you came from? Nigger.
Now I heard him, and I knew he said it, but just to clarify I asked him, “I beg your pardon?” So he said it again, this time with a destestible smile on his face. No sooner than 3 seconds after he said it, the principal turns the corner to unlock the door. I remember not going in to the room right away, but taking a few seconds to collect myself and think “Don’t get mad.” I then took my seat, attempting to hold back tears and work on my homework for 43 minutes was a difficult task. When the bell rang, I just went to my next class as if nothing happened, I wasn’t okay at all but I tried my hardest to be. The last last class of the day came and it was another study hall. I remember staring at my work for a few minutes and then asking the advisor to go to the restroom. I sat in the stall of the boys’ restroom for 12 minutes sobbing quietly. All of the “jokes”, anxiety, stress and comments and ultimately being called nigger had finally broken me. I felt ashamed for letting this affect me so much, considering I was given ample chances to transfer schools from my parents. I felt that I did this to myself so, this feeling is was what I deserved.
Subsequently, I went back to the study hall room to let the advisor know I would be in the office because I was “sick”. I went straight to the dean’s office and cried again. As I told him the story and who did it, I felt as if a burden was unloading from my shoulders. When I was finished, he asked me two questions: “Are you okay?” to which I said “I will be” then he followed up with “Kyle, why didn’t you tell me earlier?” I sat and looked at him and honestly said “I have no idea, I guess I didn’t want to cause problems”.
I boarded the bus dreading the ride home. I obviously wasn’t in trouble but I did not want to face the onslaught of questions from my parents about what happened. When I did finally get home, my mom was angry, not with me but with the school and the situation. She was on the phone with my dad who was on his way home from work and he asked to talk to me. Wanting to skirt around the issue, I gave the usual “I’m fine” answers to his questions, but he wasn’t having it. When he got home, they had a long talk with me about changing schools. They were asking me to transfer so I wouldn’t have to go through this again. My dad said something that really threw me off “I told him (the dean) that I’ll put him in Waukegan Schools so that he can be called nigger for free.” That’s when I told my parents this, “I cannot leave. If I run away then what does that show them? I think I have a job to do, and I need to finish this. And it will be finished when I graduate.” While the conversation ended there, I couldn’t help but still feel that this was somehow my fault and I had to change myself in order to avoid this. Whatever I needed to do, I knew for a fact that leaving Shoreland was out of the question.
The Short of It
The following days at school there was outpouring of support from almost everyone. Fellow freshman taking the time to hang out with me. Upperclassmen showing genuine concern and care. Teachers and Admin staff just casually striking up conversation with a 15 year old boy. I even had one of my football teammates tell me “I’ll kick that kid’s ass and get suspended, I don’t care”. To every response I just summed it up by saying, “I just want to move on and finish the year”.
Looking back, I kind of regret taking that stance. If 31 year old me was there I would have forced honest conversations about race relations with my peers, and how the jokes people have been saying to me are not funny. I would have met with the administrative team and pressed about how they plan on stopping this from happening in the future. I would have tried to make the case for other black/brown students and how they should never have to go through what I went through. I realize hindsight is 20/20, and the advantages of looking at this through the lens of a much more educated and mature man cannot be ignored either. Yet, the stance I did take of trying to maintain poise even in the face of what I believe is the ugliest aspect of human nature is one decision I look back on and realize there was no other way for me to react at the time.
part two coming soon…
“…Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them…”