Here is a high-school incident that either transformed me into someone else or revealed my real self. I'll never know which.
Beatty (as I will call him) was a junior at Madison High School. He lived just east of town on the main drag, Highway 90, just past a dying shopping plaza, once home to Setzer's grocery store, a bakery and a bowling alley. Beatty's neighborhood was made up of dilapidated wood-frame houses, the wood turned gray from age.
They couldn't possibly have had indoor plumbing. Some had crooked, jury-rigged TV antennas, giving license to the more fortunate passers-by to cough up the old saw, "They ain't got a pot to piss in, but they sure got to have them some TV."
Beatty walked to and from school, typically wearing an old short-sleeved, threadbare shirt that was too small for him and missing a button or two, and a pair of dark greenish work pants that were too large, kept up by a tightly knotted rope.
He never wore jeans, and apparently owned only two pairs of work pants and no more than three shirts. He wore the same scuffed and weathered loafers every day and never appeared freshly showered or right out of the bath.
He was in my English class and it was hard for me to keep my eyes off him. He sat next to the wall and would often lean his large, narrow head against it while he pondered God knows what. He always had a pencil in his hand and another perched behind his left ear.
He kept an old-styled zip-up, fake-leather notebook open on his desk, and when Ol' Lady Faught said something he deemed significant, he'd write it down, or write something, anyway.
Beatty conducted himself like a scholar. Quiet and respectful in class, he always appeared thoughtful and engaged and he carried a load of textbooks with him on his daily pilgrimage to and from Shanty Row. He resembled "the Studious Young Man" so much it was as if he were playing the role of one. This is not the kind of company most high-school kids seek.
So yes, he kept to himself, because all the other students kept away from him.
One of the few things I ever heard him say was "No, ma'am," in a flat, bass voice, when Ol' Lady Faught asked him if he had done his homework or if he could answer a question. He hardly ever turned in anything. I once saw a quiz he had taken, and the paper seemed to have been wadded up before its use, his writing, in smudged pencil markings, tiny and illegible.
He made all F's, with perhaps a mercy D tossed in occasionally from a generous teacher. His scholarly persona was pure theater, but why choose such an unappealing role?
So, even though he was a muscular young man -- I'd guess 5"11, 180 pounds -- he was prime bullying material.
And he was black. And it was Madison High's second year of integration. And he was segregated from both blacks and whites.
One day after Phys. Ed., the last class of the day, he was in the locker-room changing back into his grubby wardrobe. He was by himself in a small enclave of lockers with a lockable gate. It resembled a jail cell.
Some kids decided to make it one. They locked him in. One of them scribbled on a sheet of notebook paper "DO NOT FEED THE MONKEY" and taped it to Beatty's cell.
The alpha punk howled for his henchmen, and they gathered round him, making ape calls and monkey screams. Some threw playground balls and wadded paper against the gate.
Beatty said nothing. He looked at them with neither surprise nor outrage. His eyes said "I see you," and that is all.
I would like to lie and say I heard about this outrage second hand, but I was there when it happened, the middle part of it anyway. I didn't see them lock him in and I do not how he got out.
I was sickened by it, literally. I felt lost, like I had fallen into a bad movie. Of course I didn't participate, because I wasn't friends with this particular pack of rabid hyenas, and I wasn't friends with Beatty -- no one was. I was just a bystander, doing nothing about his misery.
But Beatty's public humiliation did something about me. I witnessed firsthand prejudice, difference and fear commingle to form an elixir of cruelty, and that elixir's shelf life extended by cowardice. I saw who we are.
The last time I saw Beatty, I was sitting on the porch swing of our ratty little rental on Marion St., less than a block from MHS. It was the last day of school, and Beatty was trudging past the house on his long, long walk back home.
A classmate, riding his new firetruck red scooter, pulled up next to Beatty, stopped, and leaned toward him with one foot on the ground, the engine still running. Time for a chat.
"Go home, nigger," he said, "and don't come back next year."
And as if he really were in a bad movie, Beatty pivoted slowly toward the shit-head and said, like a young James Earl Jones, "Oh, I'll BE back."
But had it been a bad movie, I would've broken character, been brave, leapt off my porch, run out to the road and spoken the truth: "God, I am so sorry, Beatty. I hate them, too."
Instead, I sat on the swing and watched him walk back to Shanty Town, the fumes of that fucking scooter still in his nose.