Although I wasn’t a good student, I wasn’t exactly a troublemaker. When the other kids clowned in class, I stayed quiet and enjoyed the distraction. The social studies teacher—Mr. Patterson, whom we called “Mr. Patterpuss” behind his back—grabbed boys by their collars, pinned them against the wall, and lifted them until their feet dangled. In math class, there was old Mrs. Gilbert, who used shaming to control her class. I was totally lost in math, so I stared at the girl who sat in front of me: a full inch of her butt crack peeked above her hip-hugger jeans. I’d never seen anything like that before, especially not from a “fox,” which was what we called good-looking girls. Mrs. Gilbert snapped me out of my trance by commenting on my behavior; the fox twisted around and gave me a disgusted look as she hitched up her jeans. I hadn’t yet learned to hide my lasciviousness well enough. I didn’t want to be known as the icky guy who stared at chicks’ butt cracks that peeked above their jeans. Was I a pervert? I didn’t want to be labeled a creep, so after class, I confronted Mrs. Gilbert. In retrospect, I’m amazed at my assertiveness.
Mrs. Gilbert told me to pay closer attention in class. She demoted me to dummy math, and we never had to look at each other again. I never saw the fox’s bare butt crack again, except in my long-term memory, which still refuses to let it go.
There were fights at the bus stop most days after school over such things as broken pencils, spit-in milk, and red eyes. Someone shouted, “Fight!” and we spilled out of the school bus and into the mesa, whether it was our stop or not. A couple boys would fight in the ring we created with our bodies. It was a blast, providing I wasn’t involved.
With brawls at the bus stop and at school, I saw fistfights more days than not. There were risks to a boy in Albuquerque in 1971. I thought it was normal to be on high alert, to look straight ahead at all times. I awaited sudden violence on campus, in the classroom, at the bus stop, and at home. I never knew when someone would take offense at my presence. The world seemed dangerous, and I felt so skinny, four-eyed, and weak.
The school-bus driver didn’t appreciate our squirrelly behavior any more than the teachers did. She wrestled the steering wheel and shouted over her shoulder, “C’mon, guys. Sit down, or I’ll have to ban you from the bus!” The boys wobbled down the aisles anyway. I admit that I joined them, sitting on the seatbacks. It was a lot easier to stand up to the Man when I was one of fifty boys doing it. For me, it was a breakthrough. To be included, to rebel against authority, made me feel powerful, as if I were in a gang of runaways in a homemade galleon or a badass inside a juvenile-detention facility.
The bus driver tried to get on our good side by racing through the intersection at Indian School Road and Juan Tabo. There was a large dip, and if we went through the light fast enough, those in the back of the bus were bounced out of their seats. Boys hit their heads on the ceiling and came down to smash their lips on the metal seatbacks. It was great fun, and we shouted belligerently at the bus driver to speed up or slow down in order to time the light just right.
Now, imagine a guy like me, wanting to connect in an aggressive world, sitting on that bus as it rolled home. We didn’t get the bump we wanted, so we were all a bit pissy. When we passed the bus stop of our rival school, Kennedy Junior High, the guy who liked to chase Blanco pressed his bare butt against the window. “Red eye!” he shouted.
A Kennedy boy flipped us off.
“Rumble!” the Blanco chaser announced. There was a chorus urging the bus driver to pull over. She still wanted to placate us, so she stopped the bus. The boys crowded the aisle and streamed off, eager as all get out to kick some ass. I thought we were just having a good time—you know, bantering. Should I bail out of the double doors and whup some Kennedy butt, too? My body went numb.
As the bus pulled away with only a few other boys and me on it, the frightened Kennedy kids sprinted away. My peers seemed enthusiastic to fight. They were not even scared. I figured that I should be that way, too. I just wasn’t. I looked forward to graham crackers, milk, and I Love Lucy on the couch, the sooner the better. I didn’t care to walk the rest of the way home, either. I wanted to hide my cowardliness, believe me, but it seemed obvious to me who didn’t get off the bus. There were five of us, and three of us wore glasses.
The next day, it became clear that it was notobvious who’d gotten off the bus and who’d stayed on. Hmm. Was I the only one who noticed such things? Apparently, I didn’t take any blows to my fragile rep. But later that evening, Mom stood next to our wall phone, her arms crossed, and said that she’d received a call from my school. School never called to say I’d won awards or elections, so I knew that it couldn’t be good. I steeled myself for the approaching battle. Mom said the bus driver had been fired, and I said, “Oh.” Then she asked if I’d gotten off the bus, and I said no. I imagined how ashamed she was to have such a coward for a son. But she said, “You’re a good boy,” which was like flinging acid in my face, because what I heard was, “You’re a pussy.” I didn’t want to be a good boy. Good boys got their asses kicked. When a good boy bent over in the locker room to pull up his tube socks, he was at greater risk to straighten up right into some tough boy’s red eye. For sure, it was better to wear thick, tough-boy skin; of that, I was certain.
Eventually, it was my turn to fight at the bus stop. Some guy thought that just because I looked like a pussy, I actually was one. He ended up in the stickers in a tearful fetal ball. I’m not gloating. But what would you do if some guy literally kicked your butt for missing a lay-up in PE? I got huffy, and he challenged, “At the bus stop!” Was I supposed to talk about it? Walk away? That would’ve earned me the pussy label, for sure. No matter how many adults might’ve said that the right thing to do was to ignore it, I still would’ve had to live all day, every day, as a pussy in the eyes of my peers. Life was just harder as a pussy, scavenging for scraps dropped by the alpha males. So my best bet was to jump on the boy’s back after he curled up and then clobber him with my fists until he declared beneath his armpit, “I give!” I walked home with my arms swinging by my sides as if I carried buckets of sand. But once locked inside my room, I sobbed in my closet with my face in my hands. An hour later, my family sat at the dinner table and ate pinto beans, cornbread, and honey. Mom asked how my day was.
“Fine,” I said.