My First Day At Hillbilly High
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I laid in bed listening to the water gurgle through the drain pipes, the heater clicking off and on, and the house shifting its weight. After a sleepless night, the first day of school arrived and Nan dropped me off. But, I would have to take the bus every day afterwards. There were paper signs, written in blue and black magic markers, directing kids to areas according to grade level. The seventh and eighth grades were grouped in the auditorium.
Lost in the moment, I didn’t see Chris come running up. “Jim, you suppose to be in the auditorium. Don’t be scared now, boy,” he said, his laugh mocking me. Lytle came up from behind him.
“Jim, we got to go now. Maybe I’ll catch you at lunch.” I watched as he and Chris walked off in separate directions, each chatting with kids they knew from the previous year.
Upon entering the auditorium, it was like I had forgotten to put my pants on that morning. My entrance into the auditorium led to several double-takes, and more than a few craned necks. I did a quick sweep of the room. I tried not to look at anyone in particular, but it was hard. I could feel my blackness; it wore like a woolen overcoat after a downpour, ponderous and itchy. I walked past a sea of probing eyes and chose an aisle seat near the front.
Finally, a teacher called the place to attention and began rattling off a list of names. One by one they stood and lined up beside their assigned teacher. When they called my name, I heard it but I was so caught up in it all, I couldn’t react. Then, with more emphasis, he repeated by name. Even my name sounded different for some reason.
We headed down the hall in single file. My presence drew leers and cruel comments from the upper classmen lining the hall. Their remarks intended for me to hear.
“Another nigger,” one said, looking around in disgust as if looking for someone to complain to. “Next they’ll be serving watermelon and fried chicken every day for lunch,” one joked. And, some of them were as big as Willie. I felt much safer once we were in the classroom. At least in there, I was surrounded by kids my own size.
As the teacher seated us according to her chart, I surveyed the room and the kids who I would spend the next six years of my life among. They were different than the kids at Overlake. Some wore old clothes and some were down right scruffy looking. See, I had seen white folks who dress messy on purpose. But, some of these kids looked poor, not destitute, just plain poor. It was on their faces, in their speech and in their crude manners.
Jay Connors was the first white boy to break the ice. He was tall and stocky, but seemed harmless enough. He asked if I was going out for the basketball team. Then, there was Charlie Farmer and his fraternal twin, David. They were country bumpkins who lived just down the road from me. There was Gary Loomis, a short, skinny kid who they called ‘Looney’ Loomis. I pegged him for the class clown right away.
While the class focused their attention on the teacher, I studied them one by one. I was in the back of the room, so I had a bird side seat. This wasn’t going to be so bad. There wasn’t a boy in the room who I couldn’t knock on his ass if it came to that. It was clear that most didn’t see me as a threat, but a novelty.
Unlike at Overlake, we changed classes every fifty-five minutes. Back in the hall, my feelings of insecurity returned. I probed the halls for any sign of Chris or Lytle. They were nowhere to be found. I had never opened a combination lock before. It wasn’t a big thing, but my every move was being scrutinized. Suddenly, I was the whole of the black race.
The tattooed farm boys who mulled round their lockers, tee shirts sleeves rolled up, packs of Marlboros in their breast pockets ignored me, for now. To my relief, the morning, including lunch, passed without incident. During my afternoon gym class, I got a glimpse into my future.
The ‘Bear’ was the Physical Education Director, the boy’s gym instructor and head coach of the boy’s varsity basketball team. One look at him, and I could see why they called him a bear. Even his knuckles were covered in hair. And, when he spoke, he exhibited all the appeal of a fresh blister. We assembled on the bleachers to hear his first day of school speech. He laid down the rules while eyeing the next crop of potential ball players. After dismissing the class, he stopped me on my way to the locker room.
“You play,” he asked, glancing down at my Chuck Taylor All Stars
“Yes, I said,” enjoying the attention. “Well, sign up. The tryouts for the junior high team are in a couple weeks.”
With that, he abruptly turned away. When I entered the locker room the boys were already changing. Jay Connors and Charlie Parker had overheard the coach’s personal invitation and were impressed. It didn’t take much. I was feeling good right about then.
Then the word “Nigger” pierced the air like the sound of a car wreck. Without so much as a thought, I rose and headed straight for hillbilly central. In the middle of the crowd sat Joe Torvill. He looked older and bigger than any of the seventh graders that I had seen thus far. He was powerfully built with thick sideburns down the sides of his face. And more than a trace of a facial hair had taken root on his granite chin.
From the beginning, I was certain of two things. First, I wanted no part of this Torvill character. And, secondly, he wasn’t in the lease intimidated by the black male bravado. Nonetheless, I couldn’t let show my swirling trepidations. Equally important, I couldn’t let anyone use that word without consequence, not if I was going to survive that is.
“If anybody got something to say, say it to my face,” I announced to the locker room, but gazing directly at the big white boy. I hadn’t thought of what to do next, but it looked good. His fellow red necks cleared a path as Torvill stepped forward to meet me head on.
“I wasn’t the one who said it, but if I did…” his eyes set with anger and his granite jaw clamped tight.
“What’s going on, here? You boys cut out this horsing around,” the coach ordered, arriving not the least bit too soon for my taste. “If there’s any more of this, you’re all going to Mr. Dodge’s office. Is that clear?”
I don’t think that he expected an answer. After all, he prized toughness in his players and he probably appreciated what he saw in his newest prospect. For me things could not have gone any better. My stance was enough to establish my ‘rep’ among my peers.
News of the black kid challenging big Joe Torvill to a fight quickly spread. In the seventh grade, Joe and I were it, the toughest kids on the block. Everyone knew that eventually we would have to settle it. But, for now everyone called it a standoff and let it go at that. I ran into Chris and Lytle in route to the bus.
“Yo, Jim, I heard what happened. That’s right; if they fuck with you, kick their ass. We got yo back. Nobody is going to jump in. That’s the way it’s gonna be. You take the junior high and me and Chris will handle the high school.”
I found out later that Lytle had a couple of fights since arriving and had won them handily. No one at the school could match his hand speed. His hands were fast even for Harlem. Though most of them were big farm boys, they didn’t quite know what to do with someone who knew how to box.