Crossing Division Street

How do white people learn what to think about race? It's best not to think about it.

When I remembered it, I laughed silently to myself. I thought, "There's your social emergency."

It would easily have slipped by my parents. My father was busy and my mother preoccupied. But it wouldn't have eluded anybody else at St. Andrews. I bet I set off 87 different varieties of racial alarm, phobic response and social panic when I showed up at Episcopal Sunday school talking like a black kid. Just as peasants from time immemorial have feared witches and gypsies, so Middle Westerners in the 1950s must have loathed the racial changeling.

In personal terms, speech therapy actually wasn't my big issue at Angell. The really big one was the fighting. I doubt that I wanted to fight. I was pretty puny. I'm sure the thing I had liked about being in the Eugene gang at Jones was that I didn't have to fight much anymore. All I had to do was look for Eugene, who looked for Mike. I don't think I was ever good at fighting, anyway. But at Jones, at least you learned to throw a punch and block a punch, no matter who you were. (I haven't had occasion to test those skills since my freshman year in college--an incident that involved drink--and I don't want an occasion.)

The Schutze brothers, left to right, Bill, Jim and Paul, with their parents, the Reverend W.R. and Peggy, circa 1951
The Schutze brothers, left to right, Bill, Jim and Paul, with their parents, the Reverend W.R. and Peggy, circa 1951

I do remember a few instances on the playground at Angell when somebody made a move on me, and I remember thinking it was absurdly easy to hit him in the face, like shooting fish in a barrel. I absolutely do not believe that I was a bully or a fight-picker. Maybe we don't remember that sort of thing from our own early childhoods, but I really think I was too small and too retiring. I was able to use my hands if I had to, but I don't think I wanted to.

One day in the water fountain line in the corridor at Angell, a boy behind me slapped me on the back of the head so that my teeth cracked against the stainless steel tap of the fountain, sending a quick electric shock of pain up into my forehead.

When something like that happened at Jones, it meant you had to stand and deliver. You had to start punching and hope you could last until Mike got there. So I wheeled around without thinking and shot my fist into the kid's mouth.

I don't remember him. But I do remember how he stood. He lifted his hand slowly to his lip, then held it out where he could see the blood. He stared at the blood in silence. And then he began to emit a scream that I still remember as being like one of those European police sirens, up and down, up and down, on and on, never fading in volume, echoing through the tile and linoleum hallways like a banshee wail from one end of Angell School to the other.

The other children in line took it up like a Greek chorus: "He has blood! He has blood!"

The school took it very badly. It was as if, finally having been admitted to heaven on a conditional visa, the first thing I did was walk over and coldcock an angel.

I hit him one time only. One shot. I remember that, because it came up in the inquisition. Two teachers, one on each armpit, hauled me down the long corridor and down the steps with my toes dragging behind me to Miss Buckley's office. I came to love Miss Buckley in the years ahead. She was very tough but very warm. I think she liked me, years later. That day, she made the teachers tell over and over again what had happened, and she asked me several times to explain. She called in other students. Finally she ruled that I had been technically within my rights to defend myself, and she said it was worth something that I had hit the kid only once and then stopped when there was no longer any threat.

She sent everyone else out of her office. When we were alone together, she touched my knee with her hand to make me feel better, and she told me in a gentle voice that the real problem was not that I had struck the boy. She said it was that, "You fight like a little colored boy."

Maybe we were still working on my speech problem at that point. I don't remember. But I do remember the moment, sitting in her office, when she told me in a very somber voice that if I didn't stop behaving like a little colored boy, she might have to send me back to the colored school. Maybe my response was ingratiating. I was a preacher's kid, after all. Maybe I said something--in second-grade vernacular, of course--along the lines of, "Miss Buckley, I want you to know how valuable I feel my experience here at Angell has been and what a fine institution this is..."

Maybe I just started grinning from ear to ear. I don't remember. But I do know how I felt. It was the impossible dream. I hated Angell. I hated being different from the rest of them. I could think of nothing more wonderful than going back to Jones, getting back with the Eugene gang and knocking over a few racks at my father's church. One way or another, I conveyed to Miss Buckley that I was ready to return to Jones right then, at that very moment, and that I would be careful not to let the door hit me in the backside on my way out.

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