This week we reach the end of this mini-arc within Brown Boy Problems. A nice little dash of racism before we move to the last couple of episodes of the season.
Did you miss Episode 7? You can catch up on it here.
As a heads up, this episode's word count runs a little longer than the average episode. You'll need to budget an extra 5 minutes to get to the end.
Without further ado ...
Where racism for me was the worst was in the class you probably wouldn’t expect it: band class.
I had band every other day as one of my elective courses. Even though my interest in playing the trombone was waning, I kept on with it in the hopes that it would help my college applications.
My band class sophomore year was only a handful of students—maybe eight or nine. While this class was one of several band classes, generally speaking, the music program at Indian Hills High School wasn’t a particularly strong one. Out of all the high schools in the area, we were the only ones without a marching band.
At some point early on in the year, I started to become the target of a continuous stream of racist insults from three of the band members. Tyler was the leader of the bunch, who was backed up by Rick. Two, yup you guessed it, white males. They were joined by Craig, who was Filipino, but nevertheless played a supporting role.
The three of them were seated together while I was off on my own to their left. That’s where the brass instruments were usually seated, and in this case, I was the only brass musician.
I can’t recall how or why they started, but it got to the point where every single class I expected to be on the receiving end of racial abuse both at the start of class and between songs. Some days they would more or less compete to see who could come up with the best insult. One would go. Laughter would follow. The next would go. More laughter would follow.
I would do my best to just stare at the sheet music in front of me and pretend as if these insults weren’t hurting me. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Not only was I getting ganged up on, but I was getting openly dehumanized in front of the band teacher and other students in the class who were acting like nothing was out of order.
Sometimes I’d look directly at the band teacher trying to silently communicate, “How are you not hearing this? They ain’t whispering. Am I going crazy here?”
I’m sure that his hearing was damaged from 30 some odd years of teaching music, but not to the extent that his ears never picked up at “camel jockey” being lobbed over in my direction.
I wasn’t really sure where to turn to for help with the constant racist bullying in band class. My parents weren’t what you would consider to be empathetic human beings, so they didn’t seem like much of an option.
My mom wasn’t around much at that time because of how much she worked, so there was never a deep level of trust there. On my father’s end, he really could care less about whether or not any of his kids were happy. I can’t even recall him ever asking a question inquiring about our state of mind on an emotional well-being level. All that mattered to him in relation to our existence was our GPAs and SAT test prep. Feelings be damned. (Although I do think if I said racism was hurting my ability to study, he would have cared.)
I can’t even recall why, but one day I started flipping through the school handbook that we’d get at the start of the year. It’s what we used to keep track of the homework that was due the next day. (Random non sequitur: do high schoolers in 2022 use their phones to keep track of homework due dates?)
At some point, I found a section that concerned what to do when you’re having trouble with other students. It directed you to speak to a teacher you trusted. I thought that seemed like a potential solution, but what teacher would I talk to about getting bullied?
I thought for a week about who I should confide in. While I was well-liked by a handful of teachers, I couldn’t say I was particularly close with too many of them; you have them for a year, and then you move on to the next set of teachers.
Eventually, I settled on one of my phys ed teachers: Coach Jones. He was my gym coach both my freshman and sophomore years, which created more continuity than say a math teacher that you only have for geometry. He also appreciated my hustle and gym athleticism. To be clear, I’m not saying I was an elite varsity athlete, I just had that type of athleticism that helped me excel at random gym class activities that you only partake in for three weeks a year.
(Side Story: Come to think of it, I had Coach Jones for health my freshman year when we focused on sexual health & wellness. I distinctly remember in English class we were all reading “Of Mice & Men.” For the many of you that read the book in high school, you may recall there’s a discussion about the glove full of vaseline that Curley [the antagonist] is always wearing. It’s theorized that he does it to keep his hands soft in order to please his wife.
We had downtime at the end of one of our health classes, and I was discussing with several classmates how this seems like a whole lot of effort to finger someone every now and then. On behalf of our group, I asked Coach Jones how many things can you do sexually with one soft hand? He replied, “Well, there’s a whole lot of things I can think of that you can do with your hands.” He declined to go into further detail with the room full of virgins. [If you want to spend five minutes reading about someone trying to figure out the vaseline glove, this is a great read.])
Coach Jones was also in charge of the high school’s intramural basketball league. Every winter you’d team up with four of your friends and compete against other squads. (And yes, we all spent way too much time at lunch laying out game plans.) While offensively challenged, it’s fair to say I was one of the better defenders in the league.
Unfortunately during my freshman year, the intramural basketball game one week conflicted with another obligation I had. At the end of gym class that day I passed Coach Jones on my way out.
“Are you ready for your game today,” he inquired.
“Actually, I can’t make it to intramurals today.”
“Why can’t you make it?”
“I have a debate club competition. It’s right after school, so I’ve got to head to that instead.”
“Debate club,” Coach Jones asked out aloud confusedly. He took another beat to try to put together the pieces that he knew about me being mildly athletic with the new information I presented to him. Then he belts out, “WHAT ARE YOU? A NERD?”