April 23, 1990
There was a clubhouse in the backyard next to the big shed. It was a veritable gold mine for our young imaginations; the possibilities were endless. It could be a spy headquarters or a meeting place for a game of cards or a quiet respite after a wild summer’s day. But most the time it lay dormant, filled to the ceiling with Dad’s scaffolding brackets, rolls of tar paper, piles of roofing shingles and crates of tools.
Dad was a packrat. After he filled his truck and the garage, he built two sheds and two stockyards for the rest of his equipment. He always needed more room for his reams of lumber, roofing materials, vinyl siding, latticework, attic vents, old bathtubs, toilets he found on the side of the road, unused windows, extra doors, dozens of empty spackle buckets, stacks of bricks and blocks, wheelbarrows, cement tubs, kitchen cabinets, crates of plumbing and electrical parts, garbage cans of aluminum scrap, and hundreds of jars and cans and containers of unsorted bolts and nails and screws.
Now he was invading our play space. He took the slide off the jungle gym so he could slide in more lumber to rest on the ladder rungs, and hung his extension ladders from the posts we connected our swings to. The spaces in between were filled with sawhorses and pieces of PVC pipe. The clubhouse was our last outpost in the wilderness, and now it too was taken over. I gave up trying to make room in there; everything was too heavy for me to move. My oldest brother Johnny usually emptied it for me, but he saw me struggling one day and decided to take matters into his own hands. He organized the entire backyard, stacking everything neatly in the Dad’s stockyard and removing everything from the clubhouse. We had space to play again!
Dinner time. We always tried to wait for Dad but he usually came home late, and never called to say he would be. He must have went into the backyard first because a few minutes later he stormed into the kitchen where we were eating. His eyes flicked over each of our faces in turn, finally coming to rest on Johnny’s.
“Did you move my stuff in the backyard?” he demanded. Johnny sat up straight and looked right at him.
“Yes I did.”
“Who told you to do that?”
“I did it because Tommy couldn’t play back there. It’s a clubhouse, not a warehouse,” Johnny said.
Dad took a step closer and jammed a finger at his face. “Don’t ever touch my stuff again…” he said. His voice was deadly. Then he turned and went back outside, slamming the door behind him. The next thing we heard were loud crashes as he went into his stockyard and started throwing things over the fence into the yard. We resumed eating dinner in double time so we could finish before he came back. By the time I went to bed, the swing set and clubhouse were loaded up with Dad’s equipment again.
The noise jolted me awake. What the hell was that?
I rolled out of bed and padded down the hallway in my footsie pajamas in search of the ruckus.
I went into the kitchen and the noise got louder. I was getting close. My mother poured me my morning bowl of cereal.
“Mom, what’s going on?” I asked, as a vaguely familiar-looking piece of wood soared past the window.
“Johnny’s taking down the clubhouse,” she informed me. WHAM!
“What!? Noooo – why?” I cried out. My mother only shook her head sadly and turned back to the sink. I ran to the window. Not the clubhouse! But sure enough, there he was smashing the hell out of it with a sledgehammer.WHAM! Occasionally he paused and reached into its shattered remains and pulled out more of Dad’s equipment, which he flung across the backyard.
By the time I left to catch the bus, the yard was littered with construction detritus and Dad’s tools, and what was left of the clubhouse sat in a sad heap at the curb. I paused on my way to the bus stop to gaze forlornly at that broken piece of my childhood, knowing it would never go back together. I didn’t know whether to be angry at my dad or my brother, but my worries were dashed when the bus arrived. I was on my way to kindergarten, where bigger problems awaited.
“Can I borrow a purple crayon?” asked the stumpy kid next to me. The hell you can, I thought. I looked at him. Snot hung out of his nose and it looked as if slugs had crawled up and down his sleeves. But I dutifully scanned my selection and saw one labeled “Violet (Purple)”. I handed it to him and he held as if I’d given him a worm.
“That’s not purple!”
“Yes it is,” I said impatiently. “It says ‘purple’ right there in parenthesis!” He made a face at me. The dumb kid probably didn’t even know what “parenthesis” meant.
“You’re stupid!” he said.
“I’m not stupid!” I shouted back at him.
The kindergarten teacher heard the commotion and came over to investigate. “What’s going on here?” she demanded.
“He gave me a crayon and said that it was purple, but it’s not!” he complained.
“Yes, it is!” I said, again pointing out the word “purple”. The teacher snatched the crayon up in her hand and examined it.
“It’s not purple. It’s violet,” she told me. I started to argue with her as well as she kept telling me I was wrong, and I whined in protest until I couldn’t take it anymore and started crying. The boy and the teacher simply looked at me with disgust.
I was disgusted too. Since day one, I had loathed leaving the comforts of my toy-lavished bedroom to come to this strange building filled with these dumb people I didn’t know and – quite frankly – didn’t want to know. Especially since they all thought I was the dumb one. The teacher was convinced I was slow and needed remedial studies. Remedial my ass. As soon as I could be propped up at six months old, my mother sat and read to me. Many times she heard, “Why are you bothering with that? He doesn’t even understand.”
My mother declared, “Yes, he does! Look at him!” as I followed every word on the page. None of the other brats in my kindergarten class could read. As far as I knew, I was the only child in that room capable of reading anything of consequence. And probably the only one there who knew his address, how to call 911 in an emergency, and how to write and spell. Regardless, within the first couple of months of kindergarten, the school district sent my parents a letter requesting permission to examine me for “special placement.”
In other words, they thought I was mentally retarded.
In the meantime, I had the clusters to worry about. Spring came and we were divided into “clusters,” or groups of students such as “the apples,” “the oranges,” and so forth. I was busy daydreaming about my toys back home while we were divvied up, so when the teacher asked me what kind of fruit I was, I responded with a blank look.
“I said, what kind of fruit are you?” Her false smile slipped a few notches. “Are you a banana?”
I was confused. “I’m not a banana. I’m a boy.”
“You’re a banana!” she snapped impatiently. “Now go sit down with the other bananas.” I started to cry again, and I went over to the other bananas and sat there with my arms on the desk and my head on my arms. I couldn’t face the other kids staring at me and whispering amongst themselves. I sat like that for a long time, ignoring everybody until I finally looked up and saw that the room was empty. The class was out in the hallway and the teacher was calling my name. It was story time in the Big Room. I got to my feet and trudged after them, staying half a hallway length behind the group. The teacher finally came and yanked me into the Big Room because I was taking my sweet time getting there. I sat on the floor by myself in the back. The other kids gave me a wide berth. None of them wanted anything to do to with me.
I don’t remember what the teacher read to us. Undoubtedly it was some silly shit about a dog driving a car or a mouse making cheese for his friends. I just sat there playing with the laces on my sneakers, staring at my classmates’ backs and willing myself not to cry again. The clubhouse, the crayons, the clusters, being called “stupid,” everybody ignoring me, the teacher looking at me like I was a bug – everything whirled in my head and burned at the corners of my eyes and seared my throat and boiled in the pits of my stomach until I finally couldn’t take it anymore and pitched forward and unleashed a torrent of bile at the class.
Out and out it came, hosing down those snot-nosed ignorant fucks who couldn’t even tie their own shoes or recognize a goddamn purple crayon. It spread over the floor like lava, and those whom I hadn’t puked on were scuttling backwards on their hands and feet like crabs on Ecstasy. The book read to us was long-forgotten, flung into the furthest corner of the room as the teacher jumped to her feet and screamed. I started a chain reaction as a couple of the other kids got sick and started puking on the floor too. The Big Room would never be the same again.
Dad came to pick me up. He found the teacher and two assistant principals standing around me in a semi-circle. He laid into them immediately: “You called my son a banana? Do you even know what a banana is? On the streets it means you’re a moron, an imbecile. Like you people. You’re all bananas,” he ranted.. I stood next to him bouncing on the balls of my feet, buoyed by happy feelings and wiping the last remnants of sick from my mouth with my sleeve. Finally we left, not before Dad called the assembled adults “a bunch of assholes.”
It was time to find me a new school.