Thursday, June 28, 2007

What That's For

What That's For

As I lay on the ceramic tile floor, grasping my ribs and trying in vain to force my collapsed lungs to suck in air, I saw through my tears a face from my past. Jimmy Brown leaned down close to me and hissed through his clenched teeth, "You know what that's for!"

Yeah, I guess I do know what it was for, but sitting here in the nurse's office it is hard for me to believe that it really happened. You see, the last time I saw Jimmy Brown I was only seven years old. He was an older kid, two grades ahead of me, and a notorious bully. I was a scrawny second-grader, the same way I'm a scrawny seventh-grader now.

When the vice-principle, Ms. Batise-Brown, who is in charge of discipline, asked me who hit me, I lied. I said I didn't know. I'm not sure why I lied. I guess there are a lot of reasons, really. For one thing, by the time she arrived on the scene, Jimmy Brown was long gone, along with any potential witnesses. That means that it would be just my word against his, which is the same as nothing at all. Besides, the way she asked me was more of an accusation that anything else. She stood over me with her feet wide apart and her hands on her hips, no trace of sympathy in her expression. Her attitude told me that I was in trouble, and that helped remind me of the law of all junior high kids: the kid who squeals on another kid is a dead kid. I've never really taken that rule to heart, but one look at Ms. Batise-Brown's cocked eyebrow and surly grimace told me that naming names would get me less than nothing. It could get me beat up for real.

Now that I've had some time to sit here on the green vinyl couch in the nurse's office and think about the whole mess, I've come to the conclusion that the real reason I didn't tell on Jimmy Brown is not that I fear being labeled as a stool-pigeon, or that I'm afraid of being "rubbed out" for breaking the code of silence. Actually the reason I didn't rat Jimmy Brown out is that I don't really blame him for what he did. No, now that I've had a chance to turn the whole event over in my mind, I guess I'd have to blame my second grade teacher, Mrs. Hartstein, for what happened. Either her or a boy named Chin who did nothing more than get picked on by a bully at recess one day. That bully was Jimmy Brown.

The first day that Chin came to Mrs. Hartstein's class, she introduced him as a boy who had come all the way from China to go to our school. "Chin does not speak English," she said, "so we must help him in any way we can." He was seated directly in front of me and without so much as a word passing between us, we became fast friends. "Since he is different," Mrs. Hartstein went on, "the older bullies may try to pick on him. It is your duty," she told us, "to band together and protect him." Having been the victim of bullies myself, I took her instructions to heart. No one would pick on Chin if there was anything I could do about it.

Later that week I say Jimmy Brown pushing Chin around on the playfield. He was laughing as he alternately shoved Chin away and then pulled him back by the collar of his jacket. I was halfway across the asphalt schoolyard, but that was close enough to see the look of confusion and fear on Chin's face. I looked around and saw kids everywhere playing and laughing the way little kids do. No one seemed to be aware of the scene I was witnessing. There was no one I could turn to for support. I stood there, heart in my throat, unable to do more than to clench and unclench my fists. Slowly, everything on the playfield dimmed except for Jimmy and Chin. I saw them as through a tunnel, and as my anger and frustration grew, the words of Mrs. Hartstein rang out in my head: "Protect Chin!"

Suddenly I was running. I wasn't sure what I was going to do, but for the first time in my short life I felt the exhilarating freedom of doing something. As I approached the struggling pair, I thrust my arms out like a linebacker. Jimmy Brown never saw me coming. When we collided, Jimmy's feet left the ground and his body slammed against the school wall. He crumpled into a heap and lay there. Chin looked at me with an expression of shocked relief. Just then the bell signaling the end of recess rang and in the confusion, I slipped inside, escaping any consequences that my actions might have brought about. Until today, that is. As for Jimmy Brown, I didn't see him again until his hissed those words at me, "You know what that's for!"

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