When I was in third grade I was bused to a new school, together with most of my friends in the neighborhood, where I was introduced to something unfamiliar: whiteness. All the teachers, administrators and guidance counselors were white; even the janitors. Boy, was this different.
A long string of buses was parked in front of the school, way too many for me to count, with about thirty kids on each bus: all of us black. When we got off the bus, we had to line up. The first person was signaled by a teacher to a spot in front of the school building, and then each kid lined up behind that spot. Then we were marched into the cafeteria, seated around lunch tables and called up by name, one by one. The new line formed was headed to the classroom. I was so nervous, so confused, all I could remember were the lessons my parents had taught me: “calm down,” “respect adults,” “don’t talk back,” “be kind to your new friends.” I had a fleeting thought that I would never see my old teachers again.
We were led down the halls and around corners to the entrance of the classroom. When Ms. Smith greeted us at the door, the white kids were already seated. We each moved anxiously to the desk we had been assigned, where a card had our name displayed.
The classroom was set up in pods of four or six desks pushed together. Brian Ship sat in my pod: a small-framed white kid with very bushy hair. I don’t remember him ever talking much. One of the first assignments we had was creating a collage: they gave us magazines to cut up and put a big tub of glue in the middle of the pod to work with. No one said much to each other, but I remember Brian spat into the tub of glue. He would also talk about pissing into it. He got in trouble for that threat.
I think Brian must have been one of the nastiest people I’ve ever met in my life. I used to think to myself “You’re a white kid, you should know better.” I don’t remember meeting any white people before, TV had been my only introduction to other cultures. Our relationship went steadily downhill.
There was one specific incident that has defined my lifelong relationship with Brian. It was recess, we were all playing softball. Brian and I had a confrontation, maybe about whose turn it was to bat, one of those things kids argue about. He picked up the softball and threw it as hard as he could into my face.
As soon as it hit me in the mouth, blood was dribbling down my chin. I reached for Brian; but he ran out of my grasp. The kids around us scattered, leaving just Brian and me. I forgot about all the black and white stuff. I just wanted to get my hands on him. When the bell rang, calling us back from recess, I stayed outside, focused on Brian. Every time I got closer to him, he ran further away. Every time I tried to corner him, he maneuvered and kept his distance. I was blocking him to make sure he couldn’t get back into the school building, because I knew I wouldn’t be able to confront him there. I could only take my revenge in the playground.
I remember thinking “This is the most racist guy I’ve ever seen in my life.” But I also knew that I would be the one in trouble for intimidating a white kid, even though there was blood running down my face.
Eventually our teacher realized we hadn’t come back into the building. She came out of the classroom, saw us there, and sent us to the principal’s office. But nothing ever happened, my parents never even found out.
Neither of us got punished for that incident, even though he had attacked me, there were no consequences for either of us. I think that’s when I realized that Brian didn’t count. I’d seen white people on TV who had privileges and opportunities, but Brian was poor, raised by a single mother. If I had got into a confrontation with a kid from a privileged family, I know everything would have been different. I would have got into big trouble and labeled as a disturbed kid. The principal would have convinced my parents that I was a troublemaker. It was so easy to do: I had been intimidating a white kid.
It was then that I realized that all white people are not the same. There are a lot of white people who don’t matter.
Years later, when a mutual friend, who had been at elementary school with us, told me that Brian had died, it got me thinking. Brian and I had hardly spoken to each other since elementary school, we would see each other in high school, but we didn’t have many words.
Back then, at that young age, I was in rage; hate on steriods. Hate has no perspective, no rationale. It leads to silo-thinking: you zero in on one person, and then there’s nothing outside of that. Looking back, I realize that kind of hatred makes you feel very alive. It’s fabricated, but it creates meaning, as though it gives you a sense of purpose: “I exist to destroy.” We all know the healthy euphoria you have from feeling love, but there’s another kind of euphoria that we feel in the midst of hate. It gives us focus and meaning. It’s the dark side of love, like the negative we used to create in a film camera. Hate is the negative image of love.
After he died, there was a vacuum where my hate used to live. When someone is dead, there’s no longer any object for your emotions to vent on: it’s just empty. You no longer have an imaginary person who exists in your mind, you can no longer justify spending time thinking about retribution. When that person dies, it becomes useless. Looking back, the whole idea of hate just becomes a waste of time. It accomplishes nothing. Death dulls the sharpness of pain. Running scenarios over and over again in your head becomes meaningless. When death comes, you forget what the anger was all about. It leaves an emptiness.
Although we were very different, Brian and me, he is part of my story. When I heard he had died, despite all the pain he had caused me back then, I felt deep sorrow, like a part of me had died too. Everyone who remembers that incident between Brian and me with the softball knew that we had a thing, some kind of strange bond between us. Maybe I was telling myself a story that at some point I would prove myself to him, that I’m better than him. It was like I was still trying to win a fight with him in my head years after we had both left school.
Back then, I saw him as a racist, but I understand now he was way too ignorant to hold any fixed views. He didn’t even realize that he also didn’t count. He was doing his best trying to resolve his life in the way he thought he needed to.
For all names you could call him: a racist, a white supremacist, even an idiot, I could never make him part of any “them.” He was never a “them” or a “they” to me. He was Brian.
I knew Brian.
Everybody wants to be part of the collective, and make everybody else they know into an iteration of “they” and “them.” But I’ve never met any “theys” or “thems.” “Them” doesn’t have a soul. “They” are all caricatures, composites. “They” are not human.
We twist and twirl in our minds to say that we like certain “thems,” and we dislike other “thems.” But actually, life is not like that, is it? Even within any group: white people, black people, Liberals, Republicans, there are some people we like and there are some people we just don’t want to be around. When it comes down to “you” instead of “them,” I can wrap my arms around each of us being human, imperfect, neither good nor bad, sometimes doing bad things with good intentions, trying to live our lives and understand as best as we can. We’re each dealing with our own demons, dealing with whatever life has dealt us.
When we think about “they” and “them” it creates stories of victims and demons. It creates a class of people who should be saved and another class who should be punished. But Brian wasn’t like that. He was just somebody I had an encounter with, someone who didn’t count any more than I did.
Brian wasn’t a racist. He was too young for all that. He was just repeating what he thought he was supposed to repeat. He was just being what he had been told to be.
Looking back now, I wish I had reached out to him. Even when we got older, there was something in me, maybe a kind of immaturity, that put it off. I wish I had gotten to know Brian better: this person who took up so much mental space in my head. I don’t even know if he was aware that he had such significance for me. For anyone to occupy so much real estate in your brain, whether it’s through like or dislike, it’s worth getting to know them.
I don’t want to romanticize Brian. He wasn’t a good person. Back in high school, I didn’t trust him. The point is that he didn’t count, and that’s the narrative that a lot of people live under. There are so many people we put into groups: we make them representatives of a group and then they don’t count. I don’t see Brian as the enemy. I knew Brian just trying to figure out his life as best he could. He didn’t get far.
I knew you, Brian.
I knew you as a person.
You were never a caricature to me.
You were just trying to figure out your life.
You never had the opportunity to go to college.
You were lost.
You were never a racist.
You were just trying to fit in,
Trying to protect yourself from even more emotional abuse.
Maybe even physical abuse. I don’t know.
Looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing.
Thank you for being part of my life.