My junior high school was an anonymous brown brick school, built in the 1960’s just when Queens was growing as a borough. The schoolyard was enclosed by a metal fence, like a prison, and considering that that 1/4 of the students at the time were dealing in some sort of illegal drugs, the yard was symbolic of where many of these youngsters would eventually find a permanent home.
At 3PM, we would play basketball in the school yard — four Jewish kids, one Italian kid, and one black kid. We were all in the “gifted program” class, which was a desperate attempt for this particular New York City public school to plug the leaky hole caused by fearful parents and their kids pouring out of the city school and into the safer private religious schools. Without some action on the school’s part to keep the brainier kids, the neighborhood junior high would be known as a place where students were more likely to get stabbed than learn algebra.
There were three basketball courts in this schoolyard. We played on the half court the furthest away from the crowds, near the water fountain. All six of us were shitty players. I was tall, so I was good at blocking the ball. Unfortunately, I couldn’t dribble or shoot. I stood around with my hands up, trying to block the shots. Luckily, no one else could shoot the ball either.
Depending on the day of the week, between fifteen minutes to an hour into our game, it would always happen. Six tough-looking dudes would show up, the tallest doing tricks with his ball, and tell us to leave. He was not a polite guy. If I remember correctly, he tended to use the term “fucking white faggots,” at five of us, and then torment the one black guy in our group for being an “oreo.”
This might seem quite dramatic to you, even traumatic, but at the time, it didn’t seem so, even when we physically chased off the court, shown a knife, or forced to give them money. We would run away and make fun of these idiots, laughing at our crazy adventure that we would never dare tell our parents.
I’ve hardly thought about these incidents in years. It was the power politics of the schoolyard. During the day, we were safely roped off in our “gifted program.” What else was there to do?
But how has this affected me today? Or has it? I still tend to cave in during a conflict, although I have gotten much better about standing my own ground. I am the antithesis of the Israeli army and Hamas in the schoolyard of the Middle East, or the U.S. and Soviet Union of the cold war years, where neither gives an inch because that would convey weakness, and enemies always take advantages of weaknesses. Sadly, history does not have many examples of the weak writing the history books!
We all know the movie/TV version of this schoolyard story. There would be a moment of transformation. At some point, I would have had enough with being pushed around, and I would become a leader.
“We need to stop those bullies. We need to keep our ground,” I would tell my friends.
Of course, just as the bullies arrive, telling us to leave the court, all my friends would wimp out, running off, leaving me alone, having to face the six toughs alone. I would nervously “put up my dukes,” like in some John Wayne Western, and promptly get the shit beaten out of me.
Yet, and this is a BIG yet — the bullies would have learned to respect me. I took it like a man. We would negotiate. We would compromise, taking turns using the court. We would even learn to play together, in mixed teams. The guy who did tricks with the basketball like a Harlem Globetrotter would show me how to play ball like a pro. I would teach him algebra. I would grow up and play center for the New York Knicks. He would become a Harvard Professor, a Nobel Prize winner in Mathematics.
I love Hollywood. Maybe the weak can’t write the history books, but they can rewrite history in screenplays!
OK, you’re a parent. Your son comes to you and tells you what is going on at the schoolyard. What do you tell him to do? Fight or flight?