“That which is hateful to you do not do to others. All the rest is commentary. Now go and learn.”


The Casio Digital Watch

Two months into first grade, our family moved from northeastern Pennsylvania to Montclair, N.J., which had just integrated the school system with busing and magnet schools. I had never met a Black person before.

We moved to a stately, spacious home in a mostly white neighborhood, directly across the street from Edgemont, the “basic skills” elementary school. At the other end of town was the “gifted and talented” elementary school, Nishuane. I started school across the street at Edgemont.

At recess, I point out my house to a friendly kid. We climb the hill through the trees to get a better look. My new friend admires my watch, a new Casio digital watch that Dad gave me. He asks if he can see it, and I say sure. He asks if he can hold it, and I take it off and let him hold it. He wants to show it to someone else and he’ll be right back, and he’s gone for a minute and then he comes back and tells me he fell down and lost it. We look for the watch but cannot find it. I go home without the watch. Dad notices that I’m not wearing the watch. He asks what happened to the watch.

—I lost it.

—How did you lose a watch?

—I took it off to show someone and I slipped and it fell into the leaves and we couldn’t find it.

—Why would you take your watch off to show someone?

Dad acts it out, flailing and jerking his arms around with an imaginary watch in his hand. —Look at my watch! I have a new watch! Oh no, it’s gone!

I stuck to my story.

Devil Dog

Lunchroom, Hillside Elementary School, 4th grade. Unprovoked, a 5th-grade bully smushes a Twinkie in my face. He lumbers on to another target. He doesn’t expect retaliation from the likes of me. I run over and smush my Devil Dog in his face. He chases me. We’re circling around tables, I exit to the playfields. I run past the courts and a group of kids come to my rescue. They grab him by the arms. They’re holding him back. “Hit him!” I hit him. “Hit him in the face!” I hit him in the face, over and over. A groundskeeper comes over and breaks it up. “This isn’t a fair fight.”

It’s near the end of freshman year of high school. I’m heading to the movies with a childhood friend and a few of his private school classmates. We’re walking through Anderson Park. Someone puts his arm on my shoulders. It’s the 5th-grade bully, now even bigger. He’s been drinking. He wants to talk with me, alone. He pulls me away from the pack. I don’t make a fuss. He’s got a tight grip. “You remember what happened at Hillside?” I remember. I break free, run home, and burst into the house. My parents want to know what’s going on. I tell them. My dad calls the kid’s mom, they have a nice chat. He’s not a bad kid, just going through a rough patch, she says. There wasn’t any more trouble.

My private-school friend asks me what happened the night I disappeared, and I tell him. He’s disappointed with me. He and his school pals were more than ready for a fight. It wouldn’t have been fair. I’m glad I ran.

Reader questions

  1. Did you imagine the race of: (a) the Edgemont kid? (b) the Hillside bully? (c) the kids at the courts? (d) my private-school friend?
  2. How would the stories read differently if you imagined the races differently?
  3. How would the stories have turned out differently if:
    (a) instead of the idyllic, integrated suburb of Montclair, we were in a NYC high school? A yeshiva school in northeastern Pennsylvania? A public school in Pennsylvania?
    (b) If the schools and parks had been heavily policed?
    (c) If any of the kids involved had access to weapons?
    (d) If video of any of the incidents had been shared on social media?
  4. What kind of child was I?
    (a) A simple child, easily fooled, easily manipulated
    (b) A silent child, trying to avoid embarrassment
    (c) A wicked child, seeking revenge and indulging anger
    (d) A wise child, ready to run
    (e) All of the above
    (f) None of the above