Being The Wrong Color

Rated: R racism, violence, assault, death


So, what's your earliest memory? Mine is falling off my bike. Or, rather, falling over while learning to ride my bike. Okay, not just falling over. See, there was this tree growing between the sidewalk and the street, and it had pushed one side of the sidewalk way up, making what any kid would consider a perfect ramp. So, my earliest memory is riding my bike as fast as I could at that ramp, up it, then...

That's where the memory ends. My next earliest memory is looking into the mirror in the bathroom at the huge knot on my forehead, and mom telling me that I shouldn't be trying to ride my bike over that broken sidewalk. It was almost an entire week before I did it again, and I can remember throwing my hands up over my head in victory, feeling like I had just conquered the world, then riding over it again.

Those are my very earliest memories. I guess that I must have lived a fairly boring life back then, as my next memories are of school. Third grade, to be exact. I know it was third grade, as I remember the teacher very well. Mrs. Engle was nice, and very old. I remember having friends, not many, but I can remember playing in our yards and riding our bikes with each other.

I moved after second grade, I don't remember why. I only remember a new house, new neighborhood, and a new school. And no friends at first. But as third grade started, I tried being friendly, at first, but that was beaten out of me. It seemed the other kids didn't like me. They called me all kinds of names, mostly about the color of my skin. So it was only natural that I ended up with the only other kids my color as my friends. There were only five of us the same color, and we found out that by sticking together, we didn't get picked on nearly as often. We weren't the only ones our color, but we didn't play with the girls. I mean, girls! Yuck!

There was this one kid, though, Elmer, who was the same color as all the other boys but who had talked to me. We even had some fun together, before the other kids explained to him that he was like them, not like me and the others like me. They explained it to him with a baseball bat, right in front of me, and told him if he ever talked to me again, he would have to be scooped up with a shovel.

So, Elmer and me didn't talk at school anymore. We still met at the White Hen Pantry sometimes, though, and rode our bikes to the woods, and played with our leftover fireworks from the Fourth Of July. I guess the other kids followed the sounds and found us. They had that baseball bat, like they always did, because they always played baseball. Me and my friends weren't allowed to play, as much as we liked baseball, because we were the wrong color. But they found us that day. We ran, but I guess they caught Elmer and taught that he shouldn't talk to kids like me.

At first the police tried to blame me. I was the kid of the wrong color, and Elmer couldn't explain. I was so scared! The cops wouldn't let me talk to my parents, or anyone. I was locked in a real cell next to grown-ups, mostly the other color, who kept telling me what they would do to me when they got the chance. I had to curl up real small in the middle so they couldn't reach me. I wet myself because the cops wouldn't let me use the bathroom, and I knew I couldn't get near the one in the corner of the cell because I would be too close to the three men in the next cell that kept showing me what they wanted me to touch, put in my mouth, and they said they were going to put inside my butt.

Some man in a suit came with two policemen and they took me to a little room and tried to make me tell them why I hurt Elmer. They said they had witnesses who went to school with us who said they saw me do it. I remember crying a lot, and screaming at them that I didn't do it, that I liked Elmer, that it was the other kids, the ones the same color as him. They didn't believe me. I yelled that they could ask Elmer, but they kept saying he was dead, and I was going to jail for the rest of my life if I didn't admit the truth so the judge could take it easy on me. If I didn't admit to it, the judge would send me away and I would never see my parents again.

I was so scared, but I had managed not to crap my pants until the second that the door busted wide open and another man in a suit came screaming in. He was pissed, and the same color as me and my parents, who were right behind him. All I cared about was that my parents were there. I didn't care what the men in suits and the cops were yelling at each other - I just wanted to go home.

By the time I got home, my parents had told me how Elmer was fine, just hurt, and he had told the cops what had happened hours ago. The man that had come with them was a lawyer, and my parents told me not to talk to anybody at school about what happened, not even my friends. And most especially not to tell anyone the other color anything, not to talk to them at all, and if any of them scared me or said something bad to me that I was to tell the principal and my teacher right away, and both of them as soon as they got home from work.

I got to stay home for the rest of the week, and my friends came over after school and we played at my house. Like I said, there was only five of us the same color, so we all played together. We all liked Planet Of The Apes and had some of the action figures and some of the play sets, and we had a lot of fun that week. They asked me what happened, but I couldn't tell them.

I went back to school the next week, and Elmer was there, too. He nodded at me once, but otherwise he ignored me. I couldn't blame him one tiny little bit. But that wasn't the worst. David moved. He said one day that he wasn't going to be around any more, how he was going to go live where there were more kids our color and he wouldn't stick out so much. I envied him - a lot. We all did.

That left Mikey, Carl, Sean, and Chris. And me. And the girls, but, girls, yuck.

Third grade ended, and I went with my parents to visit relatives over the summer. Fourth grade started, and not only was David gone, but Carl never showed up either. Mikey, Sean, Chris, and me wondered where he went, and if he was okay, or if the kids of the other color got him. We never found out.

Now there were only four of us. We started getting chased home more often. If we stuck together and walked home together, we were usually left alone, but not always. Four of us had a better chance, though, even when half the class would chase us home.

Chris, Sean, Mikey, and me spent all our free time with each other. Things were okay for a little while. Except something started bothering Chris a lot. We used to go over to his house to play in his basement sometimes. It had this neat kind of bar in one corner and a couch, table, and television. It was always cool down there, too. But his uncle came and stayed in the basement when he lost his job, and we couldn't play down there anymore. And that was about when Chris started acting funny. Well, not funny, he used to act funny and crack us up a lot, but now he started being sad a lot.

Then they caught Chris one day as we ran home after school. Maybe ten or twelve of them were chasing us home, calling us the usual, stupid, same old dumb names. We were almost at his house, which was the closest, when Chris just stopped. He said he didn't want to run anymore. He told us to keep going, called us names, and said we should have better friends than him, how he was a bad person. We didn't know what the hell he was talking about, but we didn't have time to argue with him. They caught up and were about to jump us. Chris just stood there with his back to them and telling us to run home and not go to his house. He had tears in his eyes and looked so sad that I wanted to cry, too. Then he was down under all of them. Mikey and Sean and I didn't know what to do. We couldn't help him any, not against all of them. We almost did, though, until some of them noticed we weren't running away anymore, and started toward us.

We got away, but I guess Chris put a fight, because they hurt him pretty bad. It made what they did to Elmer seem like nothing. But Elmer was one of them who just needed a lesson. Chris was one of us, and he needed a different lesson, I guess. He never came back to school, and I heard he was in the hospital. Then I heard he moved. We never even got to see him, not once. He made the papers, though. It was a big deal, how race problems were so bad in the schools. There was a couple of policemen at the school for a while, and Mikey and Sean and I got to walk home and not have to run for a while.

For a while. Then the day the policemen stopped showing up, things got even worse. The other kids were laughing and plotting, and Mikey, Sean, and me knew it. We were scared all day, and we asked the teacher to let us go home a few minutes early. Our fourth-grade teacher was one of them, though, and grinned and told us we had to learn how to take care of ourselves.

We ran as fast as we could after school. We had gotten good at that. We tore up the stairs to my front door just as my mom opened it. I had no idea what she was doing home. She told the kids chasing us that they were all racist cowards, that if they had any guts, they would come up one at a time and face me, one at a time, like human beings, not animals.

They left. My mom asked us if that happened all the time. We almost lied, but I didn't. She called Mikey and Sean's parents. They came and got them later, and they talked with my parents. We were asked what we did to make them chase us. We told them it was just the color we were. I told them how Elmer didn't care we were different colors, and we had been friends, but he had been beaten up for it.

I didn't have to go to school the next day. Or the next. The third day, after my parents had been gone after dinner both nights, they told me we were moving. Over the weekend, we looked at houses. Mom and dad paid a lot of attention to the neighborhoods they were in, and drove past the parks, looking at the color of the kids playing.

I didn't want to move, but I didn't want to be chased home every day, either. I was really torn in two. I didn't want to move away from Sean or Mikey, and asked if they could move with us. I was told that wasn't possible unless their parents decided to move, and moved to the same neighborhood, too. My parents didn't think that was likely.

Mikey and Sean came over Sunday night and I told them I was moving. They said their parents were talking about moving too. We hoped we would all end up going to the same new school and living next to each other. It didn't happen that way.

Mom and Dad found a house in a neighborhood of people like us, and we moved over the summer. Mikey and Sean and me promised we would call on weekends and write all the time. It was really bad when it was time to go. Ten year old boys don't cry in front of each other. They try not to, anyway.

My new school was completely different. I wasn't one of only a few kids who looked like me anymore. In fact, almost all the kids looked like me, sort of. At least I wasn't one of the minority there. Now, the kids of the other color were few, and we had the numbers.

At first I just wanted to be left alone, and didn't join the other kids who teased and made fun of the kids who weren't like us. At first. But then that letter came.

Mikey couldn't run home fast enough one day, and Sean tried to help, but they beat him up pretty bad, too, before he managed to get away. Sean went with Mikey's father to look for him later when he didn't come home by dinner, and they found him. They had beat him really badly, then threw him in a pile of garbage, where he died.

I wrote Sean and asked if he would tell me the names of the boys who had caught up with them that day. He wrote back, listing their names, and telling me how sorry he was that he didn't do more to help Mikey. I called him and told him I was glad he didn't, and he was alive. He said his parents were going to move now, too. I said good, and that he should tell me his new address and phone number the day he moved, not a day later. He agreed.

Nearly a month later, Sean's letter arrived with his new address and phone number. He had moved out of state. That was sad, but it was very, very good, too.

By then, I knew who the biggest, toughest kids were at school, and I took the letter from Sean telling me about Mikey's death to them one day. I told them about how I had to run home every day after school, how they had beaten up Elmer for not hating us for being a different color, how they had beaten up Sean, too, and everything I could remember about them. And then I gave them the letter from Sean with all of their names.

They were older and wiser, being sixth-graders and all, so they took the information to their even older and even wiser brothers who went to high school. The older boys asked me what school it had been, and if I knew where any of those kids lived at, where they went to play at, and other questions, too.

The next weekend I was invited on a sleepover. My parents were glad that I was making friends, and told me I could stay over all weekend, so long as they knew where I would be. I gave them my friend's phone number and address. I stayed there that Friday night, talking to my friend and his older brother, and his friends from high school. On Saturday night, I went with them downtown. I stayed in the car, behind the tinted windows, and pointed them out.

I got to be there as they said, "For Mikey Walker," with the first hit, then again with the last one. They hit them once for me, once for Sean, once for Chris, twice for Mikey, then left them crying in the dirt.

It was called a neo-Nazi, skinhead hate crime, even though none of them had anything to do with Nazis or had shaved heads. But then, what else would Chicago's newspapers call it when several white, suburban, middle-class, high school boys drove into Chicago and hunted down and beat up a dozen poor, helpless, innocent, inner-city, black fifth-graders who had never hurt anyone and were just playing harmlessly in their own neighborhood?

I guess the fact that each one of them were suspects in the murder of a ten year old white boy didn't matter. Not in Chicago, anyway.

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