When I Look Back At My Life, This Is What I See.
by Jay Winik
August 28, 2018
When I look back on my life, I see my two loving boys, the bestsellers I've written, the culture I've enjoyed, the friends I've made, the many places I have visited and the fascinating circles in which I've traveled, and the comfortable suburban existence I've lived. Life has been good. But if I look far back enough, my memories take me back to middle school in New Haven, Connecticut. And here, I may not know the Women of Watts, but I know "collateral damage." In the early 70s, I was bused from my suburban household to a school that was 98% African-American. To this day it has helped shape and define me, and given me insights into the challenges of race in America.
It was like yesterday when I went to my first day of school at Sheridan Junior High School. I remember taking my seat in the auditorium – the principal was going to speak – and as I looked all around me, I felt a sense of wonderment. We were a noisy, raucous crowd, awaiting to hear what was in store for us the rest of the year. I remember being nervous on that day.
I was a small, scrawny kid, as I hadn't yet reached puberty. Most of the boys were much bigger and stronger than me. Several days later, I walked into my homeroom, and this kid named Milton said to me, "white boy, you don't have hair, you have horsehair." I just ignored it. But then he wouldn't let me sit in my seat. The last thing I wanted to do was get in a scuffle with a kid who was twice my size, so I just found myself a seat in the back of the room and stayed there. Milton was at least 6 feet tall, strong, broad shouldered and muscled.
I quickly learned that there was a code to the school, to the rhythms of how kids interacted. This was not a school where academics flourished. The kids were tough, and rough. Mostly everyone cussed, including me. It's just the way it was. And to survive in this environment, I learned you had to project toughness. Never show fear.
As time went on, I thought of myself as just one of the guys –-not just a guy with horsehair. In those days, I was a pretty good basketball player; basketball was the sport of choice at the school, and the sport which most of the kids I knew enjoyed playing. We played it on the streets, and we played it in the school. We played it during the day, and sometimes at night as well. I had a hoop at my house, and spent hours practicing “around the horn,” and working on my jumpshot and dribbling. I was a good athlete, and was among one of the better basketball players in the school. That was a good thing. In the hierarchy of the social pecking order, it made me somewhat cool.
One day I was on a streak, and sinking shots from all over the court. I was a guard, since I was small; but I was fast, and I earned the nickname of “Pistol Pete,” after Pete Maravich, who had long floppy hair, and was one of the great basketball players of the day, and was, as it happens, white. All of a sudden, a kid pushed me – I had no idea why. Was he having a bad day? Did something happen back at home? Was a teacher leaning on him about something? I had no clue. But it hurt. He pushed me again, harder. I winced with pain. At that point, all the other kids surrounded us in a circle. I was trapped. The kid called me "motherfucker," and said he was going to "kick my ass." He pushed me again. Then he put up his hands to hit me. I had no choice but to fight back, even though that was the last thing I wanted to do. Now he pushed me again. My adrenaline was racing. I was getting angry, and for sure I was scared. But I was also a good boxer, and at one point I just couldn't bear being pushed around anymore, and punched him back. Now we were in a full-scale fight. In the end, I got the better of him, to my surprise. And thank heavens, the gym teacher showed up, as well as another teacher, and they broke up the fight.
The kid was shouting at me. "I'm going to get you." My voice shaking, I shouted back, "we are done."
Little did I know. For the next two or three weeks in school, I was prey. A group of kids informed me that they were going to “show me.” One day I walked into the bathroom; this group showed up and delivered a rain of blows upon me. I went home that day, bruised and hurt and sweaty and scared. So scared in fact that I never told my parents. I still to this day don't know why.
The next day at school I was walking down the stairs from the second floor, and the same kids showed up again. They formed a wall. Then they pushed me under the stairwell, and rapid-fire each took an opportunity to hit me. Once again, I stumbled home, aching and terrified.
I learned not to go into the bathroom, but to wait. I was careful around stairs. I was careful around corners where I could be hidden from view and where it would be easy to beat me up. It never occurred to me to tell the teachers, in part because I was convinced they couldn't do anything about it.
I had no idea when this was going to end. It was terrible. And I was worried. Every day carried its own perils, or so it at least seemed to me.
Then one day, they showed up again. The leader, I have long forgotten his name, put his hand on my shoulder. Then in a soft voice he said, "We've been kicking your ass for weeks now, and you haven't told anyone." I was wondering what was that all about. Then he said," from now on, we are going to take care of you."
At that, the beatings stopped. I was now a protected kid.
This was not the case with everyone. One afternoon after school, as I was carrying my books, I looked over to the outdoor basketball court. I saw Milton. He was surrounded at a wall by a knot of at least twelve kids, each of whom were hitting or kicking Milton so hard that I could swear they were breaking his ribs or his knees. He would get hit, and buckle over. They would let him run for a few feet, then pushing him back against the wall, hit him more. I actually worried that they were going to kill him. Milton, who I thought was invincible. Scared, I walked around the other side of the school and left. Milton didn't come back to school for at least two weeks.
I can't tell you how many times my friends and I would talk about this kid or that kid, who ended up incarcerated in “juvy.” This kid or that kid who dropped out and simply stopped going to school – for it was just as often girls as boys. I remember loving the Jackson 5. A lot of the kids did drugs, although I never did. A lot of the kids smoked cigarettes. They were already having intercourse. Many kids carried switchblades. Violence in the school was appalling, and difficult for the authorities to control. Once, a girl stabbed another girl on the school bus, and killed her. The entire school went into mourning the next day; they announced the death over the loudspeaker. It was not uncommon for 13-year-old girls to bring their babies to school; they had nowhere else to take them.
I often wondered about these kids, where was the hope? How do they get themselves out of the cycle of poverty and lack of a solid education? I think a lot of these kids quietly despaired; so many came from broken homes and tough economic circumstances. A number had no fathers. A number seemingly had no parents at all, in which case grandparents or older siblings sometimes filled the breach. There was no easy path for so many of these kids, and little hope.
And yet. There was one kid named Michael, whom I became very friendly with. He was tall and handsome, with shorthair and brown eyes, but eyes that were sad. He was soft-spoken. We just kind of hit it off with each other, and before I knew it, he was coming to my house every day. I would usually make him a sandwich, peanut butter and jelly or turkey, and we would wash it down with a glass of milk. Then we would spend hours playing basketball, or taking a walk in the woods across the street from my house. He would sleep over my house on weekends as well.
He and I never discussed it directly, but I always had the sense that he was trying to escape what some sociologists would view as the pathologies – or perhaps better put, the challenges – of living in an urban city. At a certain point, I moved on to playing tennis and other things, and my invitations to Michael largely ceased. We stopped hanging around with each other.
I am now 61 years old, a prominent historian, with an ample life. I keep in touch with a few friends from high school, and some from Yale, where I went to college. But in truth, I do think about Michael still. I've tried to get in touch with him a number of times over the years, never successfully. He wanted out. He wanted a better life for himself. I wanted that for him too.
In my mind’s eye, I'd like to believe that his dreams came true.