Thursday, August 12, 2010

Ignorance is bliss

 John Phillip Sousa Junior High School, Bronx, NY

I switched to John Phillip Sousa Junior high school on Baychester Avenue when we moved to Pratt Avenue in the Bronx. Sousa was located across the street from Cardinal Spelman High School where my sister would graduate and become an alum - joining the likes of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer.

Sousa was only a 20 minute walk from our house. It sat next to Seton Falls Park that many whispered was haunted and filled with child snatching thugs. Needless to say, I never ventured into the park.

I attended the seventh grade at Sousa during the last half of the 1978 - 1979 school year. I still uncomfortable with the routine in the American school system.

For instance, standing with my hand over my heart, facing the flag and saying the pledge of allegiance first thing in the morning was definitely different. I took one night and memorized the entire pledge. I did not want to look out of place not knowing what seemed to be a mantra of sort.

Also, I was clueless about the hierarchy of power in junior high school. But I learned quickly during gym class compliments of Bill Perry.

On gym day, we gathered in the boy’s locker room, changed into our gym clothes, put our street clothes in metal lockers, and headed up to the gym. We often had free time to play after a series of brutal calisthenics. One game in particular was my favorite – dodge ball.  We played dodge ball on a small basketball court using a volleyball. I was a skinny and agile young kid and could dodge a speeding ball in a flash.

On this particular day, Bill and his friends had lined up on one side of the court and me and a few other boys on the other. Bill was clearly a big kid that probably got left back in school several times. He wore new sneakers and trendy clothes and was always seen sitting at lunch with a gang of guys. I never had a problem with Bill or any other student as a matter of fact. I just went about my business assuming everyone was a nice person and had my best interest at heart.

The game started with Bill running forward, throwing the volleyball whizzing through the air, and hit a boy square on the knee caps. The force of the strike sent the slim boy toppling to the ground. He lay on his back for a second and then hopped up and slowly limped to the side.  

A boy on my side picked the ball up, ran forward and hit an overweight kid who could not get out of the way fast enough. Walking back to the safety of the pack with a swagger of confidence, the boy exclaimed with a smile on his face and pointing to Bill’s team, “easy pickings!”

The game went back and forth for five minutes. Boys were dropping like flies. I hung in there until there was only me against Bill and two boys. A crowd of boys had gathered around the court excitedly cheering on.

What happened next made me understand that this was no ordinary game.

Bill had thrown the ball and missed hitting anyone. The ball hit the back wall, bounced off, and started to roll back to Bill who was standing at the mid-court line. I took the opportunity to cut the ball off but slipped a mere few feet from reaching the ball. I realized shortly thereafter that Bill was going to have the ball in his hand with me being less than six feet away on the ground.

Bill reached down for the ball as I tried to scramble to my feet. However, the dusty floor provided little traction for the bottom of my sneakers and I slipped back down. Bill had me dead to right. I expected him to just softly hit me on my legs with the ball as I lay there in complete submission. But when I looked into his eyes I saw malice and wickedness. I saw the look of a hunter who had his prey cornered and was closing in for the kill. He raised his hands and aimed the ball dead at my head and released it in a full wind-up motion.

What happened next was simply a miracle. I felt a breeze blow over my face, then the sound of the ball hitting the floor a couple of inches from my head, and then the chorus of thirty plus boys exhaling in synchrony.

He missed!

I opened my eyes and looked at Bill’s face that wore the mask of disbelief as he followed the ball with his eyes and then anger as his gaze returned back to me.

I got up, ran, and grabbed the ball that had bounced off the wall and straight to me. I turned and cocked my hand, ran forward, and flung the ball at the retreating Bill. He tried to duck out of the way but the ball had enough speed to catch him on the side of his head.

He was out!

A chorus of “oohs!” rang out from the crowd on the side line. Bill turned and walked towards me as if he wanted to inflict bodily harm. Then came the second miracle in the form of the gym teacher saying, “okay boys that’s it - head down to the locker room.”  Bill stopped and turned towards the door. He had a smirk on his face.

One boy came up to be and said, “yo man, that was dope. You hit Bill in the head.”

I replied, “I did not mean to.” We chatted some more as the boys made their way down to the locker room. I was trying desperately to downplay what had just happened. I still had no idea that I had seriously challenged the hierarchal order.

We made it to the locker room and I got my clothes out the locker to put on. I stood slipping on my pants when out of nowhere Bill walked passed me, bumped me hard with his shoulder, and kept on walking. My friends who witnessed the assault started with their “oohs!”

“Damn, you let him do you like that.” One boy said.

“If I were you, I would go over there and punch him in his head.” Said another boy as he pointed to where Bill was standing with his lackeys.

Yet another boy said, “he played you like a punk.”

That was it. I decided I had to take a stand regardless of the consequences.  

I walked up to Bill and shoved him in the back. He fell forward and was held up by his friends. He turned and stepped to me and swung his right fist at my head. I stepped back and immediately saw the left hand coming towards my face. I ducked and quickly returned to an upright posture when I noticed Bill charging. Not being able to quickly move out the way, he tackled me in my midsection, lifted me up, and ran with me to the lockers. As he ran, I grabbed the back of his head by instinct. I really was just holding on to his head and trying to brace myself for the impending smash of the lockers on my back.

My back hit the lockers with a loud sound followed by a smaller sound of my head hitting the same metal frame. My hand had remained on the back of Bill’s head and not knowing this would serve to keep Bill’s head very straight as it rammed into the locker’s metal handle.  Bill let go of me and I crumpled to the floor. He stood over me in a daze as blood poured out the right side of his forehead. There was so much blood coming out of his head that it made me sick.

The gym teachers quickly came to the scene asking what had happened. I heard boys talking over each other saying that Bill and I were fighting. The teacher grabbed me and asked if I was hurt for which I responded no. He told me to get changed and meet him in his office. He escorted Bill to his office, opened a box, placed a bandage on Bill’s head, and walked out the locker room with Bill in tow.

One of my friends looked at me and said, “damn you are brave. Bill has a lot boys and he lives in Edenwald projects. You better not come back to school.”

Honestly, I was scared. I did not know what was going to happen to me. The gym teacher returned and told me to come along to the principal’s office. As I sat there in the principal’s office looking out the window, I saw Bill being put into an ambulance in front of the school.

The principal walked in and said, “congratulations Salandy you managed to send a child to the hospital with a severe laceration to his head. Now tell me how did that happen.”

I went on to tell the principal about the incident in the locker room and did not know how Bill’s head got cut open. I reaffirmed that I did not hit him and had not intended for anyone to get hurt. The principal said I was going to be sent home and my parents would have to come in with me the next day. I was officially suspended.

I explained what happened when my parents got home that evening. And told them I was scared of Bill and what he might do to me and it probably would be a good idea for me to transfer to another school now. My parents assured me that nothing was going to happen to me and transferring was out of the question.

They took me to school the next day at about 11am and explained to the principal that I was scared of retribution from Bill. The principal assured me and my parents that Bill will be monitored and I should not fear him.  I was told to go join my class in the cafeteria. I did not want to go because I knew I would see Bill there. I did not have a choice. The principal escorted me to the cafeteria.

The cafeteria was full of loud chattering children and clanking plates and glasses. I got in the line and picked up a tray. I got my food and headed to sit somewhere not too conspicuous. I was looking so frantically for Bill that I walked up on where he was sitting and did not even see him. He wore a white bandage that circled his entire head. His right eye was swollen and blood totally covered the sclera of that eye.

Bill shouted as he stood, “hey Salandy!” I felt like running but could not move my feet. He was going to kill me right here in front of everyone. I thought to myself self that this is a true thug. The cafeteria had gotten quiet and I looked around for teachers to intervene and prevent my death. None of them were moving. It seemed that the same ‘foot immobilitis’ condition was affecting them as well.

But death passed me by. It never came. There was a slap or punch as I expected. To my amazement, Bill extended his hand, gave me a dap and said, “good fight. You stood your ground.” 

“Yeh! good fight. You are good too.” I mumbled trying to keep it together.

And with that I walked away and found a seat close to some of my friends who began to ask me a dozen questions about yesterday and today. The noise level in the cafeteria had increased to its pre-showdown level.

Bill and I became very good friends. He was really a very cool guy. We started hanging out together. We played scully and basketball. I would hang out at his house in the projects and he at mine. He introduced me to his friends and his parents. And I also realized that boys who I did not know were ‘dapping’ me up and giving me the brother head nod.

I was now aware of the hierarchy in junior high and somehow had ended up in the top echelon.

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