Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Flirting with racism: more memories of the 9th grade

The news from Jena, Louisiana has gotten me thinking about some racial incidents that occurred when I was in the 9th grade. Last year I wrote a couple of memories of that year (White Christmas, Ms Gooden). This past summer, I also wrote a review of Timothy Tyson’s Blood Done Sign My Name, a book discusses the racial turmoil in North Carolina (including Wilmington) in the early 70s. Although I have many other “memories” from my year at Williston that I would like to explore, I have to admit that this is scary stuff, especially when I think about what could have happened. I am also nervous about posting these memories of 35 years ago. Warning, this is an “adult post,” with language and themes that are of a more “mature” nature than my normal posts.
I was still dark, early morning, when I sat down at the dining room table for breakfast. My mother passed me my plate: a soft fried egg, grits, toast and bacon. I chopped my runny egg with a fork, poured a bit of coffee over it and supped it with the toast, a trick that came from my mother’s family. The bus would be here in a few minutes and I wasted no time gulping down my food. Mom was still standing by the stove, reading the morning paper. She then dropped the paper, looked at me and asked if I knew T-. Hearing his name, I jumped and asked, “Why?”

T- had been my nemesis for most of the ninth grade. He was 18 years old, but still in the ninth grade and we were in two classes together, social studies and shop. I was small for my age. T- was nearly a head taller and darker than most of the African-American students at Williston. I was a puny white kid. One day in Social Studies he taunted me before the class in front of several other black students, asking if I wanted to try LSD, and then asking if I had ever played with myself. He kept this up for several days, pushing the topic further including making suggestive remarks about how he wanted a “white boy” to “feel him off.” I was so embarrassed that I didn’t say anything about it, even to friends who would have helped protect me (I’ll write more about them later). Instead, I started scheming ways to protect myself. I tried carrying a knife, but it was hard to hide a sheaf knife and I knew a pocket knife would be too hard to open quickly. Some of my friends were carrying bicycle chains, hanging them down inside their pants, but there would be no way in close quarters that I could pull it out in time to defend myself. Then I thought about a tool that I had a legitimate reason for carrying, a drafting compass. I took out the pencil and placed the point in my wallet and put it in my front pocket.

I knew I was most vulnerable in shop, as the teacher couldn’t keep his eyes on all parts of the L shaped room. Before going across the street to the shop class, I made sure my weapon was available. Several days after he’d started making his threats, he grabbed me when I was in the back part of the room, pushing me up behind some stacked wood and pinning me against the cement block wall. He got right in my face and whispered, “White boy, I want you to feel me off.” I was scared and slowly moved my hand to my pocket as I told him to let me go. He laughed. I pulled out the compass and jabbed it toward his stomach, catching him by surprise. He jumped back and tried to grab my hand. The point stabbed him in the palm. Shit,” he said, shaking his hand as drops of blood fell on the concrete floor, “I’m going to get you for this, I’m going to go tell Mr. Howie (the principal). At this point, my adrenaline was pumping so that I felt invincible. “Let’s go,” I said pushing past T-, “I’ll tell Howie along with the rest of the school that you’re a faggot.”

I never had any more problems with T-. To my surprise, he told the teacher that he’d cut his hand on a nail that was sticking out of a board. The teacher got him some alcohol and gave him a Band-Aid. The puncture wasn’t that deep and didn’t bleed too much, just a few drops. Interestingly, there was an immediate change in T-. He never said anything more about going to Mr. Howie and he stopped taunting me. He even began to show respect for me, and in the weeks ahead referred to me around his friends as “My man…”

The last I saw of T- was that morning at breakfast. His picture was in The Star-News. He and another man, both handcuffed, were being lead away by police. They’d been arrested the evening before done on Castle Street. If I’m remembering correctly, T- was carrying a sawed off shotgun on Castle Street, supposedly to protect the Church of the Black Madonna. This was near the time of Ben Chavis and the Wilmington Ten’s trial and the city was experiencing a new wave of racial violence. T- never did come back to school and regardless of all the chummy gestures he’d recently made toward me, I was relieved to know that he was locked up.

Note: There are a number of other stories that I need to write down from the 9th Grade. They include running with a white gang and creating mischief and mayhem, being jumped in the stairs and on the playground, my “hippie friend” Mark and his Sugar Bear Club, and biracial camping trips with the Order of the Arrow in which black and white Boy Scouts became friends.


  1. Great "memoir" and if there are more, you should continue....

  2. Never had to defend myself with something while in school, but I more than once protected an ongoing fight after school from becoming a larger fight with a electric pig shocker.

    What a different world that was. You shock someone with a shocker or stab them with a compass these days and you get sued.

  3. Great story. Have actually been thinking of how the South is so ultra-aware of racism, much or most of it is now less racist than other places

  4. Coffee on your runny eggs?!?

    Well, sounds like T was getting all the man love he wanted to there in the end. No pun intended. :-)

  5. Great blog, and nice to see you at 3WW.


  6. Boxer, they'll continue

    Ed, it's a shame anyone has to defend themselves anyway--and I'd given anything to have a pig shocker

    Pia, I think you're right about that--the south mostly has county school systems which has allowed more intergration than the local systems up north--at least the systems in NY and MI that I'm familar with

    Murf, this is how I started drinking coffee at an early age--it's actually quite good but I haven't eaten eggs that way in years (but I'm now getting hungry for them)

    Hi Gay! I'll try to get a more developed 3WW done tonight

  7. I find that bullies back off quickly when they know what you're really made of us. Most people are stronger than they give themselves credit for. It took a lot of guts for you to do what you did. It's a great story and I look forward to hearing about you running with a white gang.

  8. Good story, Sage, and I can see why you might be somewhat scared to write about it. It is unfortunate that the only way to deal with a bully is to get on his level.

  9. Man, I used a pencil once to defend myself in 5th grade; unfortunately, I wasn't as lucky as you. I carry lead in my right thigh. :0

  10. It's amazing that we all made it through the "Wonder Years" in one piece - thanks for sharing!

  11. Scarlet--I'll write more about that--as they'd blended the ninth grade from 3 Jr. Highs into one school, the gang part came out of those of us from the same school sticking together

    Mistress, I've been meaning to write about Mark for a year or so--he was one of two good friends that I lost before I hit 20--Mark was killed in a motorcycle accident, I wrote about Tom a year or so ago

    Kenju, but I hate to stoop down that low. btw, I'll probably be in NC after thanksgiving, but am not sure if I'll fly into Wilmington or Raleigh/Durham

    Maggie, putting it that way, you sound like a western gunslinger!

    Diane, you know, I liked that TV show--probably because so much of it I could identify with.

  12. Bullieism isn't related to race. I was small for my age too (damn did I grow)and a target for some in our class. Bravo for your bravery!!

  13. Great blog, Sage. I think it's good that you felt like writing about this, 35 years later. Some stories just need to be told because it helps us put them in the past.

  14. I feel very sheltered after reading that.

    Quick thinking: good for you.

  15. In my school years, I was the object of some bullying but never sexual bullying like you described. For that I am grateful.

  16. That's crazy.

    Also crazy: I can report absolutely no racism at all at my high school. This was probably due to the fact that it was solely and painfully white. 100% white, out in a cornfield. Sad, right?

  17. Pat, although I added maybe 8 or 9 inches from the time I was in the 9thgrade, some say I never grew up.

    Jaded, you're probably right about it helping to get it out--I've been wanting to write something exploring racism--but first I probably need to deal with some of these feelings

    TC, I can't imagine sending my daughter to such a school...

    Tim, this was the only incident of "sexual" bullying that I've experienced

    Jay, those were crazy time.

  18. Good post Sage.

    I have to admit I have never understood the whole racism thing. It just does not seem logical to hate a person just because their skin is a different color.

    Glad you were able to fight off that bully.

  19. Thank you for sharing Sage. It is amazing how unaware teachers are to what is under their nose. Teens are good at hiding what they don't want known and bullies are good at not looking like the bully.

  20. The day before I was telling my students about my school days and how we protected ourselves from bullies. I was in a girls school and girl gangs were rampant. Not in a violent way but the taunting insulting way only one cn see in scholl.

    Now I try to be be vigilant for my girls in myschool.