Junior High and the KKK

It’s probably impossible to write an honest blog post about junior high school without embarrassing yourself.  But I think I’m going to do it anyways.  If ours is the generation characterized most by hatred, both in how other generations view us as well as how we view ourselves, then at some point I should talk about that time in life where hatred is felt the most sharply.

I knew that Otter Creek Junior High School was a dangerous place before I even showed up as a 6th grader.  My survival plan was to become as invisible as possible.  I’d always been kind of quiet, but that went to a new level when I got to Otter Creek.  I did what I could to draw as little attention to myself as possible while I was at school, and then I’d go home and read my Marvel comics.  If I did become an item of scorn or scrutiny, I’d try to use some clever turn of phrase to deflect that elsewhere.  This either worked or resulted in a punch to the face.  I think I probably deserved at least half of those punches.  I wasn’t at the bottom of the junior high school totem pole, but I was close enough that if the kid who was moved one day, it would likely be me or one of my friends who replaced him.

I made many a poor choice when I was in junior high school: I was disrespectful towards women and sometimes said things to classmates that were hurtful.  I knew better than to do either of those things, but for whatever reason when I look back at junior high, it’s the thing I didn’t know better than that I really regret.

There was a lot of racism in North Terre Haute in those days, and two black kids in our class that made it through all the way to 9th grade.  I remember a neighborhood football game where a huge white country boy showed up from somewhere and started tossing around the N-word, and the black kid in our neighborhood just sort of hung his head like there was nothing he could do about it.  Like his place was somehow a bit lower than everyone else’s: even among his friends in his own neighborhood; a neighborhood where his parents had the nicest house and he always had the fanciest toys.  A few years later he started listening to N.W.A. and talking about how his English teacher was racist, and I couldn’t figure out why this formerly fun, sometimes even naïve, neighborhood kid was suddenly so angry.

Every message I was getting from the culture of North Terre Haute in those days was that black people were somehow inferior to white people: or at least they should be.  A neighbor at the rental house next door once told me about being bussed into school wherever he used to live and for whatever reason that meant he didn’t want to play with the black kid in our neighborhood. Even the adults seemed to promote this segregation as nobody would bat an eye if someone said the N-word but somehow slang words for human body parts were always a no-no.

You should probably take everything you hear in junior high with a grain of salt, but eventually I came across a kid who claimed his dad was part of the KKK, and that there were at least two other boys in our class with the same situation.  If what he said was true, the sons of the KKK would have outnumbered the black kids in that junior high school class.  Whether or not it was true, I can tell you that he was definitely a bigot; he was downright evangelical about it.  I don’t know that any of those Klan kids ever physically harmed anyone, but I do know that they used threats against those two black kids in our class: hateful words and KKK hand signals.  I know because I was sitting there next to one of them when he did it.

And one of those black kids was small.  He had asthma.  When we ran the mile in P.E. class it was him and the fat kids bringing up the rear.  If any of those Klan boy threats were real, he couldn’t have even run away from them.

And my biggest regret from junior high school is that I didn’t do anything about that.  I couldn’t understand why they could hate someone so much, especially someone who seemed so harmless.  But some instinct told me that if I stepped in in any way, they’d turn that hate against me, and I felt like I had enough to deal with as it was.  I’m not sure what I could have done, what that would have even looked like for an undersized 14 year old with a nearly complete collection of the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe wearing hand me down flannel shirts half a decade before they become trendy.  Shit, I didn’t even stand up for my own friends back then, what was I going to do to help some kid I didn’t even know?  Of all the stupid things we did to each other in junior high that I knew better than, most of those things were in the end harmless.  But to be one of two black kids in a school full of white, some of them making racial threats, and how in the hell do you figure out which ones aren’t?  Nobody on your side, not even the teachers.  That’s too much weight, too much bloody American history, to let land on the skinny asthmatic shoulders of a 13 year old who can’t even run away right.

That’s what happened to our generation: the first generation to grow up completely in integrated schools.  Cultures that had been at odds are suddenly smashed together and have to figure out what it’s like to play nice and have hormones at the same time.  This isn’t my story: I was part of the majority and was never bussed elsewhere.  I thought it was somebody else’s problem the whole time and didn’t start paying attention until I’d grown up myself.  But I saw the chaos of that culture clash and eventually realized, at least in some small way, what it might have been like to be on the minority side of things.  Of course, at the end of the day integrating schools is definitely a good thing, please don’t hear me saying anything else.  But would it have been too much to ask that the adults of the 70s and 80s could solve their own racial problems instead of letting their kids figure it all out for them?

I don’t know what happened to all of those black boys I grew up with, but I do know that the one with the asthma could kick your ass right now if he really wanted to.  And I know that Chris Rock learned his comedic genius because he grew up bullied in an all white school.  Sometimes adversity can make us stronger.  But sometimes it just ends us.  I don’t know the stories that ended prematurely, but the statistics tell us there are lots of them.

Tim Wise is probably the first White man who has been able to speak to the nation about privilege.  And I think most of us White people can’t really hear that message unless it comes from a White man.  He is also the product of integrated schools.  He is also part of our generation.

This nation is a better place because our generation grew up in integrated schools: some of us were made better by that process and some of us didn’t make it through.  But that’s the story of our generation.

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