The sun seemed to be shinning a little brighter this morning. The type of sunshine that made it seem like everything was glowing. You know the type. It wasn’t just the sunshine though, even the birds were singing my favorite song. I always loved the first day of school but today was especially exciting.
“Aiden, you are going to be late! Get down here and eat!” Mom thought I was still asleep but who could sleep on such an exciting day?
The morning was always a triathlon for the senses: There was the smell of day old coffee being re-brewed; we didn’t get paid till next week so Pops did what he had to do; the glow of the incandescent light bulbs which made the kitchen look like something out of a poor persons Norman Rockwell painting; Pop’s cigarette smoke burning the eyes and throat doing its best to distract from the sweet smell of burning menthol, which everybody in the room, if they were honest, could taste– he worked overnight and needed a little something to keep him up long enough to wish Becca and me a good first day of school; at any given time someone was trying to talk over the radio which stayed playing the top 40 hits that “we know you want to hear!;” then there was the smell of burning hair from Becca’s curling iron which, mixed with the coffee and cigarette smoke, made the entire house smell like something rich folks imagined when they thought about families like mine. All accompanied by the chorus of neighborhood dogs responding to Charlie’s, our 80 pound Husky, good morning serenade. In the midst of all that what I cared about was happening behind Mom who had just won the battle with the toaster and got the two pieces of bread to stay down. Soon they would be covered in a thick layer of peanut butter.
“Good morning Mom.” I mumbled through a yawn and sat at the table waiting for the toaster to finish its job.
“What up little shit?” Becca said without missing a beat. Her Auburn hair held just a tint of orange. Mom loved that because she felt like it was her contribution to making us. Mom is 100% Irish, complete with the fire red hair and freckles. When Mom married Pops, who ain’t Irish at all, one of the things she worried about was when they had kids Pops’ dark features would just kinda wash away the half of us that was Irish. The orange in Becca’s hair let Ma know she was in there, that she was still here.
“Becca! Don’t use that language in this house!” Mom said that same line every time Becca cussed but it didn’t stop her. Becca was older, she was going into the eighth grade, so she felt like she was grown. Not that Becca didn’t go through the motions, she always said “sorry Mom” but it never stopped her from cussing the next time.
The first day of school is always a little more exciting than the mundane nine months that follows but today had an extra energy to it. Today was the first day back at my old school: St. John’s Catholic, a small neighborhood school filled with the kids of waitresses, cooks, construction workers, garbage men, and other jobs of the sort. Last year was great. It was the first time I was in public school and didn’t have to wear a uniform. I didn’t have any homework… ever, and I made a lot of friends who lived on the North side of the city: Richie, Cory, and Travis were my closest. Public school was cool. I still saw some of my friends from St. John’s around the neighborhood and I would rub it in their face that they had to wear those ugly, stupid uniforms and they had homework. Last year was cool. But at my best friend Jason’s birthday party I realized I needed to go back to St. John’s. We were playing video games in Jason’s room and I was telling him how much cooler public school was than St. Johns and without even looking up from the TV screen Jason shook my whole world.
“Yea but you are going to be dumber than us.” Damn! He said it so calmly too. I couldn’t even form my mouth to make a sound. The whole burning in my chest threatened to consume my whole body. Jason still had the controller way to close to his chin and was hella focused on the game, it was like nothing to him.
“No I ain’t!” it was a weak comeback, I know, but Jason was my best friend I didn’t think I needed something clever. Jason stopped playing the game, put the controller down in front of his crossed legs and looked at me like I was one of them abused dogs on those TV commercials.
“What’s X times 8” Jason asked with the dumbest grin I had ever seen.
I had no idea what the answer was but I quickly shouted out “two!” and grabbed the controller to take my turn. Jason just laughed and went to the kitchen.
It was that moment, sitting there all kinds of confused and hurt and embarrassed that I decided I was going to tell Mom to put me back in St. John’s.
This morning I felt something like Craig Mack in Return of the Mack (Cory had put me up on hip hop and rap music). My uniform was fitting nice, Mom had ironed it extra right this morning. I made sure there was enough gel in my hair to hold every single strand in place even if I was caught up in a tornado. I had to show Jason and the rest of my friends that I hadn’t lost anything; I was always one of the smartest and I needed to stay that way, I needed them to know nothing had changed.
Like I said, this morning the sun was shining extra bright and it felt extra warm too. It really was a perfect morning. The other kids in the neighborhood were already at the bus stop when I got there, they didn’t all go to St. Johns but we shared the same bus stop. Anyway, we all headed up to the corner store to get candy, just like normal but this morning I found an extra dollar in my pants pocket so I could get a Snickers and a Coke… perfect day! The bus ride was cool it felt good to be around Jason and my other friends. It wasn’t that Cory and them weren’t cool but… well… they weren’t Jason and them. It wasn’t until I actually got to school that I noticed things were not all good.
I guess I didn’t notice any change from my group of friends in the neighborhood, they didn’t treat me any different (although, apparently, they noticed it too) I thought I was just Aiden. But apparently I had changed, at least let Andrew tell it.
At St. Johns there were only about twenty five kids per grade, so everybody knew everybody and with very few exceptions everybody got along. At least up until the fourth grade. Now, I know that in the fourth grade identities are developing and what not so some ripples in the harmony are to be expected, and what happened was certainly a part of that but it was more than that too. It all started when I got off the bus. Andrew was getting off his bus at the same time, I didn’t see him though because I was too busy being welcomed back by Steve and his brother Sam.
“Aiden, you know you’re white, right!?” Andrew and me weren’t what you would call friends but we weren’t enemies either. I guess you could say we tolerated each other. I mean St. Johns was small it didn’t make sense to have enemies.
“Yea Andrew I do. Why?” my voice cracked a little at the end and a small whole started to burn in my stomach.
“Then turn your fucking hat around!” Andrew was the youngest of four brothers so he had learned to cuss so smoothly. He hit the emphasis perfectly so that anybody who could hear him stopped dead in their tracks.
I couldn’t move. My mouth felt dry like I was sucking on cotton all morning. I felt small, instead of being comforting the sun now felt like I imagined it did for the ants when my cousin Shane held a magnifying glass over them. All the joy and triumph of my homecoming was gone.
“Make me bitch!” my emphasis was even more perfect than Andrew’s. I mean my Pops didn’t raise a punk and I sure as hell wasn’t going to let Andrew Johnson make me feel like one.
Of all the people at St. Johns to tussle with, though, Andrew was not my first choice. Like I said he was the youngest of four brothers and had plenty of experience defending himself. The one advantage I had was that I could tell he wasn’t used to somebody his age coming back at him.
“You’re a wigger Aiden! Look at you! Listen to you! You ain’t nothing but a wigger! You’re white and act like a nigger!” Andrew was moving closer to me as he was yelling. I balled up my fist and got ready to throw down.
“And you ain’t shit but a racist!” Once again I matched Andrew’s intensity. Right as I was cocking back to deliver a right hook to Andrews chin Sister Beverly, the matriarch of St. Johns, appeared in the window just above our heads.
“Aiden Collins! Andrew Johnson! To the office, right now!” when Sister spoke everybody stopped. More than that, you did exactly what she told you to. She just had it like that.
When we got to the office Mr. Strauss was on the phone. He didn’t even look up from behind his glasses he just pointed to the two chairs against the side wall. Mr. Strauss had been in the Army before going into education and he looked like he was trying too hard to hold on to that shit. He still wore his hair in the military cut, even though he had maybe a fourth of it left. You would catch him every now and then using military time. I remember once he caught Troy in the hallway after the bell rang “Troy! Class started at 1300 hours!” Troy had no idea what the hell that meant but he got his ass to class. Strauss always dressed the same: white shirt, black tie, black slacks (always with a perfect crease), black dress shoes. He could be more than a little intimidating so Andrew and me moved as quick as possible to the chairs and sat down. I didn’t understand what was being talked about but I got the feeling he wasn’t happy: every few seconds he would take these deep, deep breaths and the vein in his temple was bulging all the way up to where his hairline had receded to. I knew it was real bad though when Mr. Strauss took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes with his index finger and thumb.
“Alright, well then we are just going to have to do what we have to do…. No I don’t want to either but if enrollment doesn’t go up then there is nothing we can do. We CAN’T close! She will understand.”
Mr. Strauss hung up the phone.
“Gentlemen, what is going on?
We both just kind of looked at each other.
“Well, I will be making a call to both of your families. Not a good way to start the year gentlemen, get to class.”
The rest of the day I just kind of stayed to myself. It wasn’t that I was scared of Andrew or wanted to avoid him but something he had said really hit a soft spot. I couldn’t tell you what it was exactly but I felt very uneasy. I had to readjust the plan. I thought today was going to be one of the greatest days of my life, I was coming home. Now, though, I just wanted to get back home.
“Aiden, you just get back and are already fighting?”
“For real!” came the echo of voices followed by some half-hearted laughs.
“We didn’t fight. Andrew wouldn’t be here if we did!” it didn’t matter that I was feeling some kind of way there was no way my friends were going to see that. I worked hard to puff up my energy along with my chest. I felt a little like small animals must when they get anxious and scared and try to make themselves intimidating. I think the hair on my neck and arms even stood up.
The rest of the day went by without much happening. Andrew and I exchanged some stares but neither of us said another word to the other. When I got on the bus home I sunk into the last seat, the one that is only really half a seat, with my back and head resting against the window and closed my eyes. For some reason there was a boulder forming in my throat and all I wanted to do was cry.
“What the fuck Aiden! “ Mom only cussed when she was super upset. “It’s the first day and you were in the principal office!”
“Mom, it wasn’t a big deal. We didn’t even touch each other. Mr. Strauss was tripping.”
“I don’t like fighting Aiden. What happened?”
“Mom, we didn’t fight. Andrew was talking stuff and called me a wigger so I called him a racist.”
“What is a wigger?” The look on mom’s face was a strange mix of genuine confusion and disgust, like she has just opened up some Tupperware full of food you couldn’t even recognize anymore.
“A wigger is a white person who is acting like a . . . you know . . . the N word”
“Well that’s stupid to say. But he does have a point Aiden.”
It felt like I had just been punched in the chest.
“What do you mean Mom!?” I couldn’t tell if I was more hurt or angry.
“Well you are white Aiden.”
“So why do you run around listening to that music and talking like that?”
“Talking like what?”
“You talk like one of those rappers Aiden! That’s. Not. You!”
“I thought we weren’t suppose to see color” you could hear my voice crack.
“We don’t. But you are Irish. We are white.”
“And that means I can’t listen to rap?”
“It means they are not your people!”
I could feel my throat start to tighten and my eyes start to fill with water. I didn’t know what to do or say so I just whimpered “whatever” and went to my room where I buried my face in the pillows on my bed and cried until I fell asleep.