Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Suspended three times in high school

         Mount Saint Michael Days

I got suspended in high school three times. I often look back at my adolescent years and conclude that I was in pain. The pain I felt was difficult to verbalize. But it manifested itself in my outlandish behavior and contempt for authoritative figures.

I believe to this day that the pain I felt was associated with the trauma I experienced as a result of being separated from my parents and later my grandmother. It was the pain of missing one’s parents and later being ripped from the only mother you truly knew. The pain grew like a cancer coloring various aspects of my life. My relationship with my parents suffered. My school work deteriorated like an unattended plant sapling in soil void of water on a mid-summer’s day – it slowly withered.  Sometimes, however, I would rebound with vigor from a supportive word and an empathetic ear.

It sometimes is difficult to grasp that I have a Ph.D. and that I had been an at-risk teen failing academically. My poor behavior had encroached onto my academic playing field and was ruining the game of life for me. I was creating a trajectory for myself, which if not derailed, would land me in a world of trouble.

I was suspended in a series of what would be attempts to fit in, lash out, and be clever. The last suspension at Mount had me close to being expelled two weeks before graduation. But I was unbowed. I wore my disdain for school officials throughout High School like a scarlet letter on my forehead. To this day, I still crinkle my forehead – a reminder of what was and how much the underpinnings of that crinkle have changed over the years.

The first suspension came shortly after transferring to Mount Saint Michael Academy in the Bronx, New York from Sousa Middle school. I still had a heavy accent and felt a little out of place in a culture that screamed abundance and left little room for tolerance. Wearing uncool clothes seemed like a sin and I seemed to be the sinner’s poster child. I wore Buster Browns in 8th grade – really!

Mount, as it is fondly called, was a typical Catholic all boy school. It is nestled in the north Bronx, and used to be surrounded by predominantly white neighborhoods. It sat on the border of Mount Vernon. Mired in a milieu of testosterone, the school body’s ethos was “only the strong survive”. The student body was made up mostly of Italian boys with a smattering of Black males. Football, basketball, and track were the three main sports.

The school was divided into the high school and the junior high. The Marist Brothers ran the school and had a dormitory on campus. Most students lived close by with the majority hailing from the Bronx.

I lived fairly close to school. It took me approximately twenty minutes from door to gate. Some of my classmates lived in the neighborhood. Many times we would meet up at the corner and walk to school together. Other times we would walk and our group would grow to about ten kids by the time we reach the school gate.

My last classroom fight was a few months before at Souza. I had grappled with a young lad from Edenwald project. That was a scuffle to fit in. But on this day, I would be engaged in a fight for respect. Certainly, it was not lost on me that I was sitting in a class with four Black youth and twenty-five White kids. We were the minority and I was the biggest one.

Little did I know that the rhythmic cadence of my sweet Trinidad accent would land on intolerant air drums and ignite a torrent of racist words.

“Why don’t you go back to your country!” said a White kid sitting in the back of me.

I turned and faced him. His eyes revealed that he meant it – daring me to take action. He was heavier than me but I did not pay it much attention. His vicious words overshadowed the surrounding landscape and created a tunnel that focused on the bridge of his nose.

Half of me was in disbelief of what I just heard. The other half felt like an active pregnant volcano ready to spew its molten insides far into the sky.  I wanted to lash out and I did. My right hand came around, south of Alabama, and landed flush on the bridge of his nose. With one shot, I had quieted the boy and drew attention to the melee. The teacher had seen the punch.

I was quickly escorted out of the classroom by the teacher as some other boys tried to find a gym towel to put on the now bleeding nose of my tormentor.

“Quiet! I will be back!” said the teacher over the uproar that had ensued after my slug.

I was being dragged to the Principal’s office by a White, 100 pound, barely 5’ 2” nun in a habit. I could hear the Principal being told that I had hit another boy. I wondered if my story was going to be told. The way she made it seem to the burly Principal was that I had killed the poor boy or at least sent him to intensive care. What an exaggeration, I thought. She argued that I had started the fight.

I was ushered into the Principal’s office. He asked what happened in a tone that presumed I was guilty. I told him what the boy said and explained that I was sorry for hitting him. I noticed that the die had been cast. I was going home. There was no need in arguing. I kept my mouth shut.

“Regardless of what he said, fighting is not tolerated in this school. You will be sent home for the rest of the day. I would like to see your parents here tomorrow morning when you come in,” he said as he signed a letter to my parents.

I went back to class and gathered my books from my desk. The boy had gone to the school nurse. Dried blood from his cracked nose laid on the floor. I thought as I turned to the door – would I get my behind opened tonight by my father. I could be in intensive care right next to that bully come nightfall.

I was never bothered by that boy again and no one talked about me returning to Trinidad. No one even made fun of my accent. I look back at that time and wondered what would be the result if I took that same action in school today. I may have been charged with assault, sent to detention or worse a youth bootcamp. Maybe I would not have been the only boy from Trinidad in the class. Who knows! On that day, I had stood up against ignorance and bullying. Today, I still stand up but I use words and writing and I use them effectively!

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