It was the science fair at Mason Elementary School, 1982 and I knew exactly what I wanted to submit – a Lego Space Shuttle – It wouldn’t be until years later that the Challenger exploded. I would build it from scratch. Back then, there were no instructions for this shit, you had to build it yourself from white and black bricks. Hours and hours spent designing the shape of the space craft, the robotic arm that extended from the bay. I used almost all of my important Lego blocks to build it. This was high tech stuff and it had to be modeled perfectly. This was critical to a six year old’s brain and it was my chance to shine. Everyone would revel in it’s perfection.
Not quite – I had built my work of art, and submitted it to the science fair. It was accepted and on display at Mason Elementary School. It was on a typical four foot, folding table with the obligatory card board walls. I had a vague insecurity about it’s construction being actual “science” because it didn’t include math or chemistry but I was still proud nonetheless. I remember gazing at it that morning, reveling in all it’s beauty, before heading to class. The science fair table was sacred, and it denoted a thin red line, a social contract, which would keep my work of art safe from prying hands that might want to touch it. Not quite – somebody stole it.
I was heart broken when the teachers told me the Lego Space Shuttle was missing. They had no idea who took it – but I knew who it was. There was this kid named Leslie, and even to this day, I remember that we always had a little bit of tension. I don’t know how I knew it was him, but I knew! I immediately confronted him about it. In front of the teachers, he denied it. Once they were gone, he made some comment that didn’t admit that he did it, but challenged me to do something about it. The teachers weren’t going to help – the principal wasn’t going to help – there was nothing that my mom could do. We really didn’t have the money to replace my Legos, we were poor. I just wanted my Legos back – that’s really all I wanted.
At this point, it’s important to point out that I went to an inner city elementary school in the early 1980s, in Akron, Ohio – Rubber City – well, a failing rubber city where people had been losing jobs since before I was born. In fact, the economy shrunk pretty much every year I grew up. I don’t remember the exact demographics of the school, it was probably about 50% white and about 50% black, but on the playground, or walking home from school, I would often be a minority. On the playground, girls jumped rope and sang songs, boys beat boxed in big circles and did back flips off the outside school wall. I was friends with mostly black kids, but there were still racial tensions and everybody knew it – even at six years old, I had heard stories of white kids getting beat up, by groups of all black kids, etc. It was like mythos or legend. Every white kid knew, you didn’t try to fight a black kid, especially when he had three brothers, and you have no backup. It was madness, I couldn’t win.
I didn’t care – he took my fucking Legos, and I knew it! Besides, most of my friends were black too. It was a wash – I didn’t care. I was a scared kid, but there had to be justice.
I challenged him to a fight after school.
He gladly accepted. I was scared, really scared. What did I do? This was going to suck. His brothers and him were going to beat me up in front of the entire school – and I knew it. It didn’t matter, I had to do it now.
I remember watching that clock, waiting for the school bell to ring – like a fight bell in a boxing match. I watched the second hand tick slowly by on that old, school clock against that drab, tan, school wall paint.
The moment of reckoning had come. It was time to face my beating. I headed outside behind the school, to the grass field which would be my point of demise.This was like the first grade version of the Floyd Mayweather vs. Conor McGregor fight, people were talking about it. There was already a huge group of kids waiting and this was back in the 80s when elementary school included 6th grade, so some of these kids were big, really big.. I remember apprehensively pushing my way to the center of a huge crowd of almost all black kids. It was intimidating and Leslie was already waiting for me – it’s funny now, but I remember it like yesterday, he had a 1″ afro in the style of Gary Coleman. Existentially, we probably even looked cute, but this was serious business to us. It began pretty quickly and I have to admit, I was pissed. I just kept thinking about my Legos. If I couldn’t have them back, I was going to try to punish him. We fought and fought and fought. I remember flashes – the ground, the school building, the smell, our grunts and yelling from the kids around us. It felt like forever. It felt like 40 minutes. In reality it was probably only seven.
To my surprise, his brothers did not jump in. To my surprise nobody else jumped in. To my surprise, I didn’t get beat up – I didn’t win either. It was a draw. We fought and fought, but neither of us could score the defining blow, or make the other kid give up. The crowd was not pleased, but everybody dispersed, and I walked home. All in all, not too bad. It wasn’t until years and years later, studying Anthropology, that I realized that there are social sanctions – it was probably quite unlikely that the crowd would have allowed his brothers to jump in to beat up a six year old. But, those complex social interactions were way too much for me to understand at the time.
The story doesn’t end happily ever after though. For weeks, his brothers did chase me around after school, in the hall ways, and on the playground. The teachers and principals in inner city schools can never do anything about violence, it was a way of life. One time, they caught me in the bathroom, pinned me down and held my head down by the toilet. I remember feeling so trapped. I hated not being able to move and I remember the white porcelain of the toilet bowl like the Eminem song. But worse than any of that, I never got my Legos back, that’s all I really ever wanted. There was a hole in my heart that lasted for years. That was the first cookie in my cookie jar.