I am the white boy at the Martin Luther King Middle. Well, one of two. Kev, my oldest friend and the biggest dick I know, is the other. But if you had to pick just one, it’d be me.
There is a public middle school in Boston that white kids actually go to—the Timilty—but me and Kev lost the lotto to get in there. I begged my parents to put me in a private school instead of the King, but they wouldn’t budge. They “believe in public schools,” even when they’re mad ghetto.
The first day of school starts in an hour. If I had a best outfit, I’d be rocking it, but my closet’s a disaster of secondhand pants, free tees, and sale-bin sneakers. Kev has an arsenal of stonewashed jeans and silk button-downs. He cops a fresh pair of kicks every couple months and he’s debuting some Air Force 1s today. I’ll be carrying a toothbrush and a travel shampoo in my pocket so I can scrub spots off my year-old Filas.
Pops is in his pepped-out morning mode. He harmonizes with the folk music blasting from the stereo as he makes me a sandwich consisting of my least favorite cheese (Swiss) and last-ranked veggie (sprouts). He fishes my insulated L.L.Bean bag out of the cupboard. It’s got the initials of my extra-white name, David Alexander Greenfeld, stitched into it.
“I told you I’m done with the DAG bag,” I say.
“How else are you gonna keep the ice pack frozen?” he says.
“Forget the ice pack,” I say.
“You want warm yogurt? Do it your way.”
I repack my lunch in a brown paper shopping bag, throw some extra gel on the dome, and grab my Walkman. Everyone follows me to the porch. Ma kisses me on my head, my little brother, Benno, shoots me a peace sign, Pops squeezes my shoulder and holds up his hand. I five him reluctantly. Then I head down the steps, turn left, and walk slowly, waiting for them to go back inside. When they do, I’ll turn around and take the scenic route.
The thing about my house is that it’s on top of a hill. At one end of the hill, there’s a park—probably the nicest in the city—called the Arboretum. It’s huge, manicured, owned and operated by Harvard U. Pops says it has one of the biggest collections of tree species in the world. You can see the Arbs from my attic—endless green, spilling into the horizon. But from the opposite side of my attic, you’ll see steam rising off the tops of dark towers. Those are the projects at the other end of my block, the Robert Gould Shaw Homes. Even though it takes me twice as long to get from my crib to Centre Street, where all the stores—and my bus stop—are, I’ve been looping past the Arbs all summer to avoid the back of the Shaw Homes. I’d take the direct route, but practically every time I walk past the PJs these days, someone stutter-stomps toward me, shouts, “Fuck you lookin’ at, white boy?” and I end up jetting all the way back home. My first day at the King’s gonna be bad enough. I’m not trying to get jacked before I even make it to school.
I wave bye once more and my parents finally close the door. Then I backtrack toward the Arbs. Minutes later I’m strolling under the shade of maples, listening to Geto Boys.
My bus stop is in front of a bodega, right across the street from the main entrance of the Shaw Homes. There’s another dude waiting there, a black kid about my size. Thankfully he looks pretty soft: creased khakis, pilled-up flannel, boxy black shoes, and a short, unkempt flattop, more like a clumpy cloud. His chipped leather backpack is way too full for the first day of school. I tilt my head to get a better look at the magazine he’s flipping through and see it’s the Boston Celtics 1992–93 Preseason Report, a newsstand special I’ve been meaning to buy myself. I’m a little surprised he’s reading it in public, because no one openly admits they feel the Celtics anymore. He catches me clocking him and doesn’t look happy. I brace myself for a fuck-you-lookin’-at.
Instead, he raises his chin and says, “King?”
I nod and he turns back to the C’s mag. A few minutes later, the bus comes and he gets on with me.
I head for the most prestigious real estate: the back of the bus. By the end of elementary school, I was rocking the rear pretty regularly, and I want to kick things off proper at the King. There’s a seat next to a hulk in a smock-sized X hoodie, who’s resting his head on the window. Dude looks voting age. My guess is he’s been to the Barron Center—where they make brawlers go before they get kept back—at least once. Still, it’s the only opening near the back, and I’ve come too far. I start toward the seat. He opens his eyes, stares out the window, and yawns, “Nah.”
I smile and start to sit, like I’m in on a joke with him. He stiff-arms me in the chest and repeats, “Nah.”
“My b,” I say. “You saving it for someone?”
He closes his eyes again and says, all matter-of-fact, “Get your ass to the front of the got-damn bus.”
I head back up the aisle toward the bench right behind the driver. Kev’s already up there, shaking his head. I read Nintendo Power over his shoulder, while the usual bus ruck—pencil fights, seat hurdling, dropkicks—breaks out behind us. At one point our driver, a fat, crinkle-haired white lady with a wack neon windbreaker, pulls over, turns off the gas, and shouts, “Stawp it—all a yuz!”
“Stawwwwp it,” someone squawks back.
“’Scuse me?” says the driver.
“Shut up and drive,” snaps another voice from the rear.
The driver turns to me and Kev—like all white people are a team or something—and we bury our faces in the Nintendo Power. She turns back around, sighs, and starts the engine.
We walk through the front doors and I take a whiff of familiar funk. The King smells just like elementary did: a sour blend of mop juice and soft beans in murky water. A cane-carrying black dude in a brown corduroy blazer shakes everyone’s hands as we file past him. He greets the seventh and eighth graders formally, by last name, and he even pronounces the Spanish ones with decent rolling r’s. To the sixth graders, he says, “Welcome to the King. I’m your principal, Dr. Jackson. And you are?”
“Dave,” I say.
“Oh yes. David . . . give me a second . . . Mr. Greenfeld?” he says, enunciating the shit out of my last name. “Had a nice chat with your parents last year at the open house. You ever need anything—anything—you come see me now, okay?”
I nod, eyeing the student-painted mural on the wall behind him. It’s supposed to be Martin Luther King standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, but the way they drew him—wide-open mouth, bugged-out eyes, stiff raised arms—makes it look like he’s trying to step to someone instead of uniting the races. The quote bubble bursting from his mouth says, “What’s YOUR dream?”
“Let’s make sure you’re all in the right place,” our homeroom teacher, Ms. Ansley, a small black lady with a helmet of dark, dyed reddish hair, says. She calls attendance, hands us star-speckled nameplates, and assigns us to our seats. To my right is Carmen Garcia. She has big pink glasses and shiny black hair, and she’s wearing a flowery dress with ruffled shoulders. The outfit makes her look like a substitute teacher, but beneath all that she’s kind of cute. To my left is Kaleem Gunderson, a tall, light-skinned kid with faint freckles and a high-top fade. He’s got the phattest gear of anyone in the class: a Chicago Bulls tracksuit, matching red Jordans, and a thick gold chain with a roaring-lion piece. For once I’m happy about my last name; I’m gonna be sitting next to this don all year.
“Why I gotta be next to the white boy?” he grumbles to himself.
The white boy—see? Kev’s in our class, too, but he’s half-Armenian. He has spiky black hair and lip scruff and sometimes people mistake him for Puerto Rican. I have curly blond hair, pink cheeks, and pale blue eyes. No one mistakes me for shit.
Ms. Ansley walks to the chalkboard and slowly writes the word why.
“My favorite word in the world. A three-letter word—a three-letter question! Why. Why? Why!”
The class stares, confused. I assume this is some kind of motivational speech. When you come up in the public schools, all you ever get is motivationally spoken to. Our classroom is covered with the same inspiring posters we had in elementary, too. One of them shows a hyped-up white kid ski-jumping off a mountain of books. Another says, ambition: it’s contagious!
“Why are we here?” she finally says. “Let’s see some hands. No right or wrong answers to this one.”
“We got no choice,” says Kaleem.
Ms. Ansley smiles and says, “True enough.”
“So we can get our diplomas,” a girl behind me says.
“All right,” says Ms. Ansley. “Anyone else?”
The kid from our bus stop, the one with the C’s mag, raises his hand. I glance at his nameplate. marlon wellings.
Kaleem snorts into his fist.
“Okay, Marlon, and why learn?”
“To get smarter.”
“Why?” she says.
“So we can, like, choose better?”
“Why’s that important?” she asks, her grin getting bigger.
Marlon pauses. His big eyes roll upward in thought.
“So we don’t get tricked as easy?”
“See, now we’re onto something. That’s a good answer, especially with the election coming up. Took some whying, but we got somewhere. Whying. That means playing your own devil’s advocates. Not just thinking, On the other hand, but On the other other hand, too. The good stuff, the worthwhile thinking, usually doesn’t come till at least the third round, the third why. My number one goal is to get you to start whying on your own. My number two goal is to get you out of here.”
She starts passing out fat test prep books.
“You’re my advanced class, and as far as I’m concerned each and every one of you should be aiming for Latin. Don’t think I don’t love you all, but I prefer not to see your pretty faces in these halls come seventh grade. Unless, of course, you want to come back and visit and tell everyone how you’re doing at Latin.”