Due to the loss of my first race, it was vital that I would be the victor of every race that
would follow. When the finish line became definitive in sports, the motives became blurred with that feeling. Every touchdown, every medal, and every victory became one step closer to that old burgundy pickup, none of which erased that word from my childhood. As I set my blocks down in my designated lane or get in the position to await the hike of the ball, I close my eyes. I imagine a truck. A small but loud burgundy truck taking off away from me. The truck has something I want, I don’t know what it is, but I need to capture it. Yet on the line, I’m frozen. I have to wait for the quarterback to say “hike.” I have to wait for that starting pistol to go off.
Thinking back, I’m not sure what that day meant to Jaylen. I would ask him, but somewhere along the way, we lost touch with each other. He had athletic motives too, but I’m unsure if it is the same. That day molded my life, giving me new purpose and a very reasonable method for looking at things. Every opinion I have and every decision I make somewhat reflect what happened on that day in fifth grade.
I always assumed that you can never learn something if you have to be told. Rambling lectures and talks are inefficient, as the lesson will not be retained the day after. When it is time to absorb information, it must be done through your own methods of acquisition. The more traumatic, dramatic, or painful the lesson is, the higher the level of understanding. Whether the lesson is benevolent or malicious, it must be comprehended on your own.
The weather was getting warmer as my fifth grade year of elementary school was drawing to a close. As I stood there, I thought of the sky getting too warm, so I took my shirt off to expose my white tank top underneath. Then I equipped my illuminated yellow safety patrol sash back over my partially bare chest. This was my first year doing the job, safety patrol being the student crossing guard battalion employed by the school to teach the students responsibility, while allowing them to acquire community service hours as well.
My job as an elder student in the school was to assist younger kids with crossing the street. I would go out there in the middle of the street, raise both of my arms, and beckon other students to cross while I was out in the road. The premise was a bit flawed, as the idea was to have older students sacrifice themselves for the younger ones. If a car flew down the street at top speed, at least I’d get hit before the car would reach them. That made all of the difference.
My friend, Jaylen, was also in the safety patrol crew. He had taken his shirt off as well, with a similar white tank top under it. We had the same post, every morning before school and every afternoon after it. We were stationed adjacent to the school’s parking lot. The post was a big rock in front of a quaint house on the corner of a block where a main street meets a side one. We sat on this small boulder in between guiding people across. Jaylen’s mom and my own had made an agreement that my mom would drive him home every day after we were finished with our duties. Walking out there, I didn’t think much of it. Another day, another kid across, and another empty pocket (we didn’t get paid). We were simply public servants.
We volunteered to do this. The school certainly appreciated us doing such a thing, and I know the kids did too. They smiled at us as we let them across. They hung out at our post, talked to us, and laughed with us. Whatever station we were assigned to in a day was automatically the best by default, and that big rock certainly added to our safety patrol swagger.
On this hot day, nothing outlandish occurred. A routine school day was once again being capped off by my safety shift. It was rolling around to the true end of the work day for me: 3:30 p.m. At this time, we were directed to leave by the principal of the elementary school, due to us still being a safety liability ourselves; yet we had one more student to get across the road.
Jaylen led the way into the street and I followed behind. He stood on one side of the lane and I stood on the other, both of our arms properly extended as we faced each other, accurate to how we’ve been instructed. The student we were helping across was in fourth grade and he lived right down the street, a friend of mine.
As he safely made his way to the other street corner, I heard a loud car ripping down the main road. It was an old burgundy Chevy pickup truck, blasting a type of rock music from its aged stereos. It must have been a group of teenagers, according to the mascot’s logo stickered to the passenger side window and the parking pass on the windshield. They were kids too, slightly older than us by no more than 5 years. They’ve just been dismissed from the same high school that I would be attending 2 years in the future.
They must have had a good day at school to be feeling so energetic. I’m sure it was a Friday and they now had the whole weekend to themselves. I was envious of them and their freedom. After all, they did get to drive themselves home everyday. As they tore down the street, the speed limit was 35mph, they unexpectedly slowed down near our safety patrol post. The pale and skinny teenager in the passenger side seat rolled down the window, leaned out of the truck, and shouted “Niggers!”
As I stood there, frozen,
I tried to comprehend why he would do such a thing. To him, it may have been fun and bold, but to me, it was unnecessarily abhorrent. I paused, choked on my emotions, but I would not cry because at that particular moment, I did not know how. Unlike me, Jaylen took off running to follow the truck. I’ve never seen someone accelerate so fast. Once I saw what he was doing, I snapped out of my paralysis and followed him. We both raced to get a glimpse of the truck’s license plate or any concrete detail that could identify the truck and its owners.
I could not hear Jaylen. I could not hear the thundering engine of the truck. I could not hear a sound. I had become deaf, enthralled in a trance of utter trepidation at the sound of that word. I could only make out the looped sound of those seven hateful letters leaving that teenager’s tongue. I thought of the word; it had taken a new meaning with me. Not one of pure hate but one of ignorance. That teenager did not know me and I would refute the idea that he knew Jaylen. If he had never met us before, why did he choose to spew such an insult at us? Had he already made up his mind about us? Was our appearance enough of a first impression for him to reach that conclusion? What did I do wrong?
The fear was not in what he would do to me or what he would like to do to me. The fear was in the mystery of the predicament; did everyone see us as he did or was he the anomaly? I did not know the answer specifically but I knew what I wanted it to be. A stranger proclaimed I was less than human and the danger was that at twelve years old, I actually believed him.
Tears gradually made their way from my eyes to my ears as the rushing wind escorted them. Soon, Jaylen began slowing down and I caught up to him. The race was over, not due to a finish line or exhaustion, but because the winner had been made too clear. Jaylen and I turned around back to our post to see that we had blindly sprinted well over a mile. As we breathed heavily, we journeyed back to our post, in silence, well aware of our defeat. It was a silent car ride home. Our teary eyes of irritated fire had returned to their natural colors as we sat side by side in the back of my mother’s black sedan, too stunned to carry conversation.
As a result, we became the fastest people in our school. We took on all competition when it came to a foot race. We both went to the same middle school and retained our reputation. When high school rolled around, we parted ways. We both played football and I ran track in the spring season. I became the fastest player in the D1 conference, as well as an All-State track athlete. In addition, we both received scholarships to play football in college.
Jaylen and I never spoke of that day. I never told anyone at all of that event, not even my parents. That day was sacred, the day that our environment confronted us with what we are to them. The day that we raced against discrimination, and lost; it was the race against race itself. We learned valuable lessons that day. In all of my years of schooling, I’ve never retained information as impeccably as I did then.