Who would have thought fourth grade could be so cruel. Ms. Gibbs’s class included many neighboring children who later would become lifelong friends. However, by the sounds of the “rip” sessions between subjects, during gym class or lunch you would have thought we were mortal enemies. Every day, I lived in fear that they would notice the t-shirt I wore three days prior, no-name shoes, or my brother’s blue jeans. But I knew my day would come. In Johnston School in the Wilkinsburg School District, which is adjacent to Pittsburgh Public Schools, everyone had to face his or her moment of truth.
People who grow up poor in America: Expect the bomb to drop. Bullying is the least of your worries.
The most you could hope for in these situations was to come out without a nickname, moniker, or insult that stuck. Unfortunately for me, there were several. Not only did they critique my wardrobe, they tortured what made me human. My hair was so nappy that I started an electrical fire when I combed it. Naturally, the name, Snap, Crackle, and Pop was appropriate. My nose was so big that they could see my brain work. We no longer needed a can opener because my teeth could fill that role. My skin was so dry that I put the desert out of business. My shoes were so hole-y that they were blessed.
My mother was so old that Jesus Christ was pictured next her in a yearbook. She was so old that she couldn’t be my mother. Despite the fact that fifty percent of all the kids in the class lived with someone other than their birth mother, the acknowledgments dismiss the legitimacy of my own.
They plagued me for weeks. Most of the rips were directed at things I could not change. The hair, head shape, nose, skin were all me. I prayed they would talk about anything material. The shoes, shirts, socks, and pants were all easy targets. I even would try to divert their attention. “Don’t step on my shoes man,” I’d say. “They’re already in bad shape.” All attempts were futile. The focus was on me.
One day I decided that I wasn’t going to take the verbal abuse any longer. The first person that ripped on me was going to get it. For weeks, I tried to garner the courage to take a stand. I had reached the point of no return. The time had come for deliverance.
On that day I did strategize my wardrobe – put extra Vaseline on my hands, toothbrushed my shoes, and greased my hair. But I was ready for whatever.
Purgatory should be described as the moment between recess and the beginning of class. It is the moment when the class convenes, but the teacher is not quite prepared to begin. Eyes begin to wonder and the prey senses the predator approach.
Clarence’s whisper is audible to everyone except the teacher, “Hey Lumphead.” A brief silence is filled with humiliating giggles. “Hey Lumphead.” Clarence sat three chairs behind me and often initiated the barrage. He had prime seating. He could see me, but I could not see him. His presence loomed over me like a hungry vulture waiting for my demise.
“Hey Lumphead.” Clarence’s whisper was no longer quiet, and neither was the laughter. I thought to myself, “punch him and punch him hard.” Like a volcano about to erupt, I stood, but the lava didn’t pour. I just stood, and everyone looked in wonderment.
“What do you think you’re doing Lumphead.”
“Don’t call me Lumphead.”
“Why not Lumphead?”
“Don’t call me that.”
“Call you what? Lumphead.”
The class roared with laughter as the teacher continued to prepare for the lesson. I don’t know who was more scared, the teacher or me?
It was my moment of truth. The class anxiously awaited my return. I paused and the class gaped in excitement. The coliseum was restless, and the lion needed to be fed. At that point I lunged in his seat and began to throw punches directly aimed at his face. A whirlwind of blows connected with impeccable accuracy. I let everything go. The class cheered for no one. They applauded the fight. Ms. Gibbs ran to the intercom to signal the principal, and rushed in the mix to break up the fight. At that point Clarence was lounged in his chair and blood flowed profusely from his lip. Ms. Gibbs’ feeble attempts proved futile. I continued to pound.
Rumbling into the class was Dr. Sarnicola, principal of Johnson Elementary School. Dr. Sarnicola was a towering figure that demanded respect. His paddling sessions were historic, praised by parents borough wide. As he entered the throng, we immediately withdrew and the volume dropped to silence. Again I was in purgatory. I stood feeling good about myself, but I knew that I was to meet the infamous paddle.
It was customary for the combatants to shake hands, apologize to the teacher, class, and each other. We were then to be seated and await our punishment after school. “Redemption, finally,” I said to myself as we paid our penance and walked back to our seats. But before I could reach my desk, I heard Clarence say, “You’re still a Lumphead!” The whole class exploded. Even the teacher copped a smile.
At that point I did what any sane person would do. I walked out of class, and I dropped out of school. I dropped out of the fourth grade.
I missed more than 50 days of school that year. I would sneak and go to the library every day until my mother and principal discovered I was hiding. I was held back a grade, but I blossomed after that. Sometimes I think I read more during those absences than in my doctoral program.
Sometimes when I see a boy or girl walking in the streets during school hours, I direct them to the nearest library.
Dr. Andre Perry, founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich., is the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more columns by Andre Perry.