When I moved on to Harding Middle school I had hope because there were new kids. They seemed old though, like too old to be in middle school, and aside from that I wanted to know why we were sharing a field with the projects next door. At least we had metal detectors. There was a nervousness I’d developed by then. One I knew would never leave me, because I knew that any time I met new people it would turn out poorly. I wanted to see a new school as a chance to start over, no longer be the pissy kid with the crackhead mom and the bad haircuts, but my body wouldn’t allow it. From the time I left in the morning till the time I got home I was trembling and struggling to hide it. My underarms were soaked through all the time and I’d go to the bathroom to reapply deodorant, since I’d learned about the onion arms thing already.
I was terribly anxious, and any time it looked like someone was about to speak to me I’d recoil. But I also genuinely wanted friends and by observation, could tell already who the cooler kids were. There was a black and white kid named Terrell who was their leader. A pretty boy, sort of. Long hair that was sometimes braided, sometimes not. If it wasn’t there would be some girl braiding it during classes while he interrupted the teacher (when there was one) and shot spitballs at people. There was also a rumor that he was sixteen, which wasn’t hard to believe. He’d walk around slapping and grabbing the girl’s asses in the halls all the time, like the older drug dealers always did.
Terrell also had a sister, Tyesha, and she was fine as shit. I would have done anything to touch her ass. I had to be about six feet tall by then and she was almost as tall as me. And thick. All long thick legs in those khaki uniform pants with no back pockets. It was torture to have her walk by me. Her smell was sweet, but subtle like some expensive soaps I couldn’t have named. When her hair slid across my arm I just imagined her lotioning up her whole body after the shower before putting any clothes on like grown women did. Not only was she fine, but I also got the sense that she wasn’t as hood as her brother and therefore safer. I mostly believed that because I didn’t see her talk much. We never had a class together, but of course, I was wrong.
So many times Tyesha passed in the hall and I would open my mouth, starting to speak and she’d keep walking, giggling with her friends. One of those times, her brother noticed and approached me.
“Hey wassup young boul,” he said, and reached out to shake my hand. I returned the gesture. “Syke!” he shouted, pulling his hand back quick to his long hair. The goons around him all laughed. And that’s when I knew I fucked up.
Later that same day, I was sitting in the cafeteria eating my lunch at a table alone. It was one of those boat shaped pizza things, stiff, unseasoned green beans on the side. We had long lunch tables and I was facing away from the lunch line in my seat when a smack came across the back of my head.
“Open neck no respec bitch nigga!” yelled one of Terrell’s goons, Rob a tall dark skin one.
It was everything I feared would happen. I was used to it though; I had practice from Stearne. I’d known I would respond differently though, that I would take a stand. Any plan different from elementary school would have been fine. I took as deep a breath as I could and closed my eyes. I wanted to silence the roars of laughter from the cafeteria. But I couldn’t. I kept my eyes closed because I couldn’t stand to look at any of their faces. But I felt them. The heat of all the kids hovering and moving around me and pointing and laughing and I couldn’t keep it in. Tears squeezed out of my closed eyes as I strained, balling up my face trying to keep them in. And so, the tone was set for my middle school career.
There was a bright side to middle school though; as the kids got older, the bullying became less physical and more verbal. Still, it took me a while long to learn how to take advantage of it. Even though I’d think of witty retorts to all the comments about my lankyness and even the gay jokes, I never said them. I was already boxed in. I thought that keeping quiet and to myself would be most useful, even though it had failed all this time. Talking shit, or bussin, became the ladder one could use to climb the social hierarchy. Even these two fat white kids, the only two I remember being in middle school, Anthony and Billy, rose to excellence by virtue of their diss game.
Anthony, the blonde one who I think was a little fatter, came up with the nickname I would carry all the way to ninth grade: Shitmouth. I had this pitch black cavity right in front of my left canine. I’d never been to a dentist before, nor did I really consider it a thing. No one in the house brushed their teeth or talked about it so it was foreign to me, unlike sweets. I did my best to hide it and keep my mouth closed, but every time I’d talk, there it was. I refused to answer questions in class even when I knew the answers; even adopted a way to say small things with my mouth completely closed. When I smiled though, the tooth was most obvious. So I never did. But Anthony caught me slipping regularly.
We were in gym class and I’d just realized I could dunk. It was pretty monumental, and the other kids seemed impressed, especially the gym teacher. By then I’d started to enjoy sports but I avoided playing most of the time because I hated all the kids. It was gym though, we had to participate. I slammed the ball through the hoop and hung on the rim, triumphant. When I let go I landed on both feet, knees bent, and rose slowly, watching all the proud faces around me, reveling in the “ooooh” and “oh shit”s coming from the crowd. I had never been looked at like that before, I couldn’t help but smile. And Anthony caught me.
“Ill, what the fuck is that, Shitmouth!”
The other kids groaned in disgust, twisting their faces at me.
“Shit look like a black hole!” another kid said.
“Back up, I don’t want to get sucked in!” said Anthony.
They all laughed, wrenching and bending over until our gym teacher had us all go back to our spots. I didn’t cry though. I was done with that. I was so used to shit at home and at school that I assumed I had no tears left. In gym class, we sat on these little colored dots on the floor. We were all maybe five feet away from each other, and I could hear the whispers all around me, the kids continuing to make jokes and point. And I didn’t cry, but I grew hot. Anthony was sitting on the dot in front of mine.
“What the fuck is that? Shit is nasty right?” he said to another kid.
He was not gonna let it go. It made me tremble. But I kept quiet and tried to stay calm. The gym teacher was in the closet getting dodgeballs when Anthony turned back to look at me.
“You know that shit is triflin right? Why don’t you fix that?” he said. A bunch of kids snickered a little louder.
Why don’t I fix it? I had no understanding of how to fix anything. I’d never had a doctor or dentist or even a toothbrush. I rarely had clean clothes. How would I go about fixing it? I’d asked a social worker before about emancipation and she asked my grandfather why I’d ask that; I got my ass beat when I came home. I was more concerned with having food that didn’t have roaches in it. Why don’t I fix it? I hadn’t been so angry in a long time, and Anthony was smiling and laughing so hard. I stood up.
“What you doin Shitmouth?” he said. Then he turned forward like nothing happened, still laughing.
I walked up to the side of him quietly with my fist tight and swung on him with my whole body. My fist smacked onto his right cheek and the sound rung out through the gym. The flubber on his face rolled like a wave, and kept jiggling for a few seconds even after I drew my hand back. The crowd went wild.
“Oh shit, that nigga socked the shit out you!”
“Yoooo,” others said.
I was still furious but my hand hurt so bad I wasn’t gonna to do it again. And Anthony? He just sat there, and I went right back to my dot and sat down, trying not to let my rage show, and even much less, the fact that my hand hurt. Anthony’s cheek was bright red and he started to cry, loudly. The sobs drew the attention of the gym teacher who was drawing more equipment from the closet.
“What’s going on out here?” she asked.
Nobody said a word. No snitchin. But Anthony was obviously crying. Then, I started to cry too. I wished I didn’t have to deal with any of it. I would have preferred to have friends, but that’s not how it worked. In order for people to respect me, I’d have to dominate them, mistreat them. By punching Anthony in the face and making him cry, I’d earned respect: the only social capital that mattered. I was crying louder than Anthony, which made me ever more furious, lapping up snot as it ran down my face. I couldn’t unknot my fists no matter how hard I tried. We both just sat there, crying.
That was the first time I got suspended. When I came home with the pink slip, I told my grandfather I had defended myself. He called me a dumb faggot and said I better not fuck up in school anymore. Then he kept grumbling obscenities into his room, fuckin dummy, if that boy had a brain, he’d be dangerous.