I went to a huge, inner city school in the south, and it was a scary place. There were fights every day. The principal got punched multiple times. A kid got stabbed with a pencil. People brought guns to school. Upon reflection, it was hell. It was the kind of school that makes school shooters. I never wanted to hurt anyone at school, but I knew kids who did. This was before Columbine; we never imagined long guns and explosives in hallways. We imagined simpler revenges.
There was a kid who sat behind me in my social studies class 8th grade year. He had failed numerous grades, and he was a seventeen-year-old 8th grader. He was even mature for his age. Physically, at least. He was a man, and I was a boy. He sat in the last seat, back right side of the classroom. I sat in front of him.
Almost every day, this kid (I'm glad I don't remember his name) would fill his hand with lotion, reach around and smear it on my face, saying: "I just came on your face, white boy." I didn't realize at the time how fucked up this was; at the time, I just wanted to be the kind of kid who would turn around and stab someone with a pencil. Punch him at least. Anything other than sit and take it.
But I sat and took it. Never even turned around. Just wiped my face and thought about explosions and blood and violence, so I wouldn't cry. I began to consider stoicism a virtue. I turned the other cheek, but out of fear, not benevolence.
I used to lay awake at night thinking about it. How one day, I would just turn around and try to break my fist on that dude's fucking face. I knew he'd kill me. No doubt in my mind, but I would have that one moment where the pain in my hand would match the pain inside. I dreamed about splitting my knuckles open on his teeth. I was a skinny kid. So, I just stayed home as much as my mom would let me, which wasn't often enough.
About 3/4 of the way through the year, an ally presented herself. I don't remember her name either or I'd track her down and give her the biggest hug in the world. I don't even remember how it started. I remember this:
She was huge. Dark-skinned and beautiful and just BIG. I didn't have a crush on her. I was in awe of her. And somehow, she found out that I liked Hip Hop. I can't imagine a scenario where this happened, but I swear it's true. Somehow, she found out that I liked Hip Hop and that I had a freakish ability to remember lyrics. I could rap for her. Only her. And she loved it. Almost as much as she loved Richard Grieco - the only other thing I remember about her.
Believe me when I say she put a stop to the lotion shit with a quickness. I don't know how. I don't know if there were explanations or threats involved. I just know the big motherfucker stopped fucking with me, and I had a new friend. And she was huge and black, but was head over heals for Richard Grieco. I remember her many speeches about how she was "in love with that white boy." Maybe I wondered if she wanted me to be her Grieco stand in. Maybe I didn't question it.
I've had some dark shit happen to me, but those repeated months of humiliation and rage changed something in me. They didn't make me violent. They didn't make me want to shoot up the school. They gave me a suicide trump card I knew I would never play. They gave me hardness. They gave me the capacity for cruelty. I didn't want those things, but that's what I got. I control them OK, now, but that wasn't always the case.
I know there are kids going through hell every day. Some of it, I see. Some of it, I don't. But I know it's there, and I'm constantly hoping a new student will show up, pictures of Richard Grieco on her binder, to act as safe haven for the kids who need it. To be the safe port in contentious storms. To be the kind of savior you don't even know you're looking for.