It was the first time I felt alone in the world and had to call on survival skills I didn’t know I had because, in my formerly nuclear family such as it was, I never needed survival skills. I had a basketball team-sized gaggle of adult half-brothers and biological brothers who looked out for me.
And, of course, there were my parents who each swaddled me in attention and adoration in their own ways.
When I walked into the fourth-grade classroom of a disheveled, middle-aged hunched over teacher whose name I can no longer recall, I nearly passed out.
“This is Kathy. She’s new,” he barked to the class.
Fourth-grade bodies squirmed in their seats.
I took the desk second from the teacher’s, second row from the door.
To my right was Robert, a raven-haired, red-lipped white boy whose face and nearly Dorothy Hamill-esque mop top I’ll never forget long as I’m black.
Robert very quickly picked up on every open fissure I had showing and even the ones I tried hard to hide.
But he pounced on my blackness with vim and vigor.
First, he delighted in whispering “nigger” to me two desks away from the teacher.
I’d heard nigger only sparingly in my girlhood house and in the streets of Hamilton; it was like Sunday clothes — only pulled out for special occasions. My father only called another black man a nigger when he was really defaming that black man’s character.
It was a curse word.
But Robert dropped it on my head like he was sprinkling me with confetti and it hit hard as body blows.
I suddenly hated going to school. Thoughts of that school made me physically ill, but I wasn’t wily or brave enough to skip so I trudged ahead, pushed forward by thoughts of my parents going places they’d rather not every single day.
Then, Robert ramped it up. He left pages on my desk ripped from God-knows-where of lynched black people — sometimes burned and castrated — hanging from trees.
Our little ritual went thusly: I’d open a textbook or move a notebook, find the photograph, look at him with wet eyes, register him sniggling gleefully, ball up the paper or cover it over then turn forward and look straight ahead the rest of the class.
Finally, he whispered his dad was a member of the KKK and he was going to come get me and do to me what had been done to the niggers in the pictures.
That was enough fear and loathing.
I told my teacher who, surprisingly, intervened swiftly. My memory says I’d kept one of the pictures for proof.
He was angry and red-faced, spitting as he yelled at Robert.
I felt protected.
He moved Robert across the room and to the back.
The playground was a minefield where I developed and honed my now-legendary peripheral vision. I knew when Robert was behind me or coming up on either side.
I didn’t tell my mother about this until I was a grown woman working at the newspaper in my hometown and the subject of bullying came up randomly. She was hurt because she knew I’d kept that awful secret just to keep stress and drama away from her as she worked one shit job after another and battled our father for child support. From the horror stories she told me at night about her racist, misogynistic bosses and slave wages, I could tell she, too, was being bullied out in the world.
I saw her soldier on, so I did, too.
Later that school year, Robert and I ended up simultaneously crossing a dam at a creek running below our complex and except for a silent staring match I’ve never laid eyes on him again.
I ain’t never been bullied again, either.
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