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“Wow, you had your dad come down here to tell on me? That’s such a nigger thing to do.”
It was the day after my father, a six-foot-four, two hundred and fifty pound Black man, came down to the neighborhood pool to have a friendly chat. Speaking very politely with the tanned, blonde white mother of the summer bully boy, my father laid out a perfectly reasonable case for why “nigger” should no longer be part of her son’s vocabulary. Particularly when it came to me, his Black and innocent daughter.
“You’re not supposed to call me that anymore.” Was it my naiveté or foolishness that brought those words to my lips? Maybe a bit of both?
Tom Forest and his good friend Dave just laughed at me and walked away. Tom was Meadow View Pool royalty, the son of one of the private pool’s founding families, his father did most of the management and landscaping around the property and held a few of the swim team’s records for fastest times in different events. Dave was also part of a rich and founding family, but seemed to hold sway only because of his connection with Tom. None of it mattered, really. I was the lowest on the totem pole: Part of the only black family that belonged to the pool.
The day before had been the major incident. We were having the swim team picnic and games, and all of the team was gathered to participate. After games were played and trophies for participation were handed out, it was time for the big water balloon fight. It didn’t take long before we were all soaked head to toe, laughing and enjoying yet another summer night. As people were winding down and packing up, I found myself still being hit.
“What are you doing? Stop that!” I screamed at Tom and Dave. They were unrelenting. The game, it would seem, was still on.
A few of my friends found a leftover cache of water balloons and we took up the chase. We ran and eventually surrounded the two older boys, pelting them and laughing hysterically.
Tom became upset. “Stop it, you stupid nigger!”
I stopped. We all stopped. “What?”
“You heard me! Stop it, nigger!”
I cannot correctly recall how old I was—still a girl, old enough to know that the word he was calling me was wrong. The two other girls who were with me also understood that there was something wrong, but not quite sure what, exactly. I know that I was old enough to be angry. So I threw another balloon at him in anger.
“Don’t call me that!” I screamed at him, throwing the rest of my balloons at his head.
He ran to the pool office and got to a lifeguard. One of the older brothers of yet another established pool family. He used to be the coach of the swim team, and as I recall, I had a huge crush on his brother. Everyone knew each other. Everyone was supposed to be part of the same group.
The boys went into the pool office while I went around to the front desk, which was at the entrance of the pool. I wasn’t allowed in the office. No little kids were, I was told.
“She keeps hitting me with balloons and she won’t stop. I told her to stop, but she won’t,” Tom complained. Dave corroborated.
“He called me a bad word, Coach Kyle,” I defended, alone. My two other friends had faded away as soon at the former coach and manager, likely a college junior or senior, a man who we all knew, showed up to save the day.
“No, I didn’t,” Tom simply shrugged.
“But did you hit him with the balloon after he told you to stop, Kyra?”
“I mean, yes, but he started it and he called me a bad word!”
“You need to go home,” Kyle looked at me sternly. The boys behind him put on vicious smiles. “It’s time for you to walk on home.”
“Kyle, he called me a bad word. He did it twice! He can’t call me that!” Hot tears came to my eyes.
“Go on home, Kyra,” Coach’s command was non-negotiable. The boys, still in the office, snickered.
“You’re going to just let them do that? I threw water balloons in a fair fight, and he called me a bad word and you don’t even care? Well that’s crap!” I screamed the top of my lungs. I know that I was young because “crap” was the strongest word in my cursing vocabulary. My tears and frustration gave those two boys so much pleasure. I see their faces vividly.
My parents had to explain to me what the word “nigger” meant that night. They had to explain why I had a right to be mad and they explained why I was right to ask for better from the boys and the coach who had dismissed me. Father insisted that he be the one to have the conversation with Tom’s mother. The next day, he forced me to go down for swim team practice. I was’t allowed to listen to the conversation, but I saw my father shake hands with his mother, so I thought that would be the end of my troubles.
Tom made it a point to call me a nigger as early and often as possible. There were so many witnesses to the insults—adults that I knew and respected. Peers who I knew to be teammates—children who I’d summered with since I was 6 years-old and joined that swim team. Tom’s mother always looked the other way, and his father, Lawrence, was so proud of his son. Lawrence had accused my family of stealing a pile of wood from pool property in the winter before. When he found that the elementary school up the street was the one that took it, he didn’t even so much as breathe an apology. His mother would bring the youngest boy, little Larry, to the pool and I was forbidden from speaking to him or touching him. And three summers later, when little 5 year-old Larry called me a nigger, too, I quit swim team for good.
I never looked back at Meadow View swim team when I left it. When I was old enough to tell my parents I wouldn’t be participating in swim team anymore, they were sad, but they understood. I have and had little good to say about the pool, the team, or the people who were part of that community. I simply walked away from it. I graduated from high school with one of my former teammates, and so when she friended me on Facebook in college, I accepted happily.
Three Saturdays ago, I got an e-mail. “Alice tagged you in a photo on Facebook,” the subject line read.
“Oh, Lordy,” I said under my breath. I’d received the email on my phone, but I decided that such things should be managed on my computer.
A 1996 portrait of that swim team had showed up on Facebook. Alice was so good as to tag me in it. There I was, extension braids and goofy smile, tanned from a summer in the sun.
“Shit.” The last thing I wanted or needed was to remember or be remembered by any of those people. How do I untag myself? How do I untag myself?
I sent Alice a message: “Hey girl, can you do me a favor and untag me from that photo? I don’t have very good memories of Meadow View and I’d rather not have to think about them in my adulthood.”
Curiosity set in as I started to look at the young faces and the other people tagged. Could I find the guy who I had a total crush on? (Yes, and he’d only grown more beautiful!) What about the stair-step sisters who lived down the street who I used to play with? (One was married, another traveling the country with a dog and a boyfriend.) What about those cool guys who used to be lifeguards? The ones who had the crazy muscles? (One is an art school teacher. Another runs a business….)
And then the curiosity really hit. What about Tom? What about Dave? The vindictive, evil, petty, small voice got to me. “Don’t you hope that their lives suck?”
“Yeah, I kinda do,” I decided.
I tried Dave first and was pretty disappointed. He became some sort of environmental scientist or something. Regular joe, regular life. Nothing to sneeze at. At least he wasn’t a crazy billionaire or something.
Tom? Well. The pictures indicate that life didn’t end up so peachy. He ended up at a pretty crappy college, he seems to have a not so awesome job, and he’s got a wife and a kid, but the pictures don’t show any glamorous life.
I admit it: I felt pretty good.
Who is the nigger now?
I went through the bath-time routine with my two beautiful sons and my wonderful husband and our not-so-perfect but certainly not that bad life. I was a small woman in that hour. I even told my husband what happened and how good I was feeling about it.
Bed and bath routine over, I went back to my computer hoping that I’d been untagged. I got a message instead, which I skimmed:
“Oh sure. So sorry! I have very positive memories of YOU from the Meadow View days… I can’t seem to untag you, but I think I know how you can do it on your end…”
I went through the procedure she listed and then went back to write a reply.
“Thanks,” I wrote, “Meadow View was a mixed bag for me. You’d be surprised, but there were a lot of families that just straight up called me the N word every summer of my childhood. The Forest family was especially awful to me. That’s why I quit as soon as I got to high school…”
I went back to read what she’d written just to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. I had, and it was huge.
Her full text was actually: “Oh sure. So sorry! I have very positive memories of YOU from Meadow View days, but I also have not-the-best memories of Meadow View in general, other than the Forest family (did you hear that Lawrence killed himself a couple of years ago… so sad).”
My jaw dropped and my stomach went tight. How smug had I felt just 15 minutes before? How good I was feeling about being vindicated?
Tom and his family, really most of the people at Meadow View, are not my favorite people on the planet. I would never wish death upon any one of them, though, no matter how cruel they were to me. To know that Lawrence’s family had to suffer in such a way brought a sincere sadness.
“Augh,” I wrote, “now I’m sorry that I sent that. I didn’t read that part before I wrote earlier. I didn’t know that Lawrence had killed himself (why?). That’s very sad.”
“Really, the Forest’s weren’t great people, or even above average, but they were good to me so that’s mostly what I remember. I don’t know why Lawrence killed himself specifically, just that he suffered from depression for a long time and I guess just did not get the help he needed, unfortunately,” Alice replied.
Childhood is vicious, mercurial, and for a fortunate few, filled with more joy than sorrow. For some of us, the projected joy of a happy childhood are actually the elaborate masks of something far darker and more dangerous. While each of us suffers our own burdens, carrying our crosses as best that we may be able to, there are many of us who eventually succumb to the weight. It isn’t always about strength of will or character—sometimes it is about luck, community, and the ability to seek help if help is sincerely available. I don’t know what failed Lawrence and his family by proxy. I’m sorry that Lawrence decided to commit suicide, and I’m further sorry that Tom’s life is burdened because that decision. As much as I suffered under that entire family’s racism and general cruelty, I understand that it was nothing as compared to what they have gone through and will probably continue to go through for the rest of their days.
I’ve never been a paragon and I’ve had my small moments, but of this I’m particularly ashamed. I’m not responsible for any of the decisions that other people make, but I am responsible for my feelings and actions. I should never have gone looking for something to make myself feel bigger than another , and I certainly should not have been so elated with the answer that I found. All of the dignity and self-respectability that I grew for myself over my post-Meadow View life wilted a little bit when I decided that I was so much better than Tom. That he deserved his crappy little life. I’m never deserving of being called a nigger, but in those moments of feeling better than Tom, I was certainly a little less than the lady I’d been raised to be. It’s easy to decide that “Facebook is the devil,” but it is better to consider that a bit of the devil is in us all and Facebook is good at drawing it out. We have to take responsibility for the smallness that lives inside of all of us.
I can only be better than the woman I was three Saturdays ago by consistently resisting the small, undignified actions of a person seeking vindication. I’m better than those small moments, just like I know Tom was better than his cruel moments.