My amateur-boxing career lasted the duration of one lunch period when I was in the fifth or sixth grade. A gloved fist came up along the side of my face and folded my ear in half. “OK, let’s stop,” I said and that was it.
I don’t remember much about the kid who threw the punch, not even his name. He was about my age and lived close to the school. I think he had blond hair. The boxing gloves were his, as was the idea for my abortive attempt at pugilism. He was nice about my bowing out, but I didn’t see much of him after that. We weren’t in the same class and I only knew him from recess. As far as I could tell, he was a normal kid who went to that school because he lived nearby.
That was not the case for me or a lot of other kids there. At some point during the fourth grade, we were given a Scantron sheet and a No. 2 pencil for standardized testing. There was probably some cultural bias skewing the results. It was hard for me to tell how much because I was nine years old. The results were tabulated and one can assume they formed some kind of bell curve.
The majority of students, whose scores were neither very good nor very bad, would continue to attend the same school with the other average kids. The outliers on either end were loaded onto short buses and sent off to Rose Avenue school on the east end of town.
I lived in Oxnard Shores, miles away from my previous elementary school. Rose Avenue was about twice the distance. If memory serves, the half dozen fifth and sixth graders on the coastal-communities short bus all tested high.
There were a couple of older kids on the bus who attended E.O. Green Junior High School. It had a program set up for the visually impaired. Of the two middle schoolers, I mostly talked to the girl, whose name I can’t remember. She was friendly enough so I didn’t mind that her eyes seemed capable of pointing in any direction other than straight ahead. Larry, the other middle schooler, had marginally better sight, but lived too much in his own world to engage in conversation. He was our local paperboy who, more often than not, was able to hit the house he was aiming for when he made his deliveries on his bicycle. There were no serious complaints about him, not that he would have noticed as he was too busy reciting dialogue from “Bewitched,” either directly from the show or an improvised heated exchange between Mrs. Kravitz and Dr. Bombay.
It is perhaps worth mentioning that decades later, an LGBTQ student at E.O. Green was hate-crime murdered by one of his classmates. Neither the victim nor shooter was blind, which would explain why only two rounds were expended during the killing.
Rose Avenue School was a collection of prefab buildings situated between a nondescript tract-home development and a large lemon grove. The students fell into three groups. There were the average pupils like the one who helped me learn that boxing wasn’t for me. Then there were the supposedly smart kids like me. Our group was called ATC (Academically Talented Children) when I was in the fifth grade and MGM (Mentally Gifted Minors) when I was in the sixth. Bringing up the rear was the MR (Mentally Retarded) group. The R-word was not officially an ableist slur back then though it was often used as one.
The three groups were kept away from each other except for recess and lunch. Maybe the school administrators worried prolonged exposure to each other would lead to conflict. I cannot say they were wrong. I remember one time a boy I didn’t know punched me and made me cry. A teacher told me “He’s an MR,” as if that explained everything. I don’t know if her intent was for me to pity or hate the kid, so I did a little of both.
To be honest, I was picked on most often by members of my own ATC/MGM group. Just because you scored high on a standardized test, that didn’t mean you were immune to the influence of playground politics and its pecking order and I was a suitable outlier among outliers to bully. I was small for my age, bad at sports, mouthy, and weird. Maybe not paperboy Larry weird, but weird nonetheless.
This one kid Donald was the worst. I would’ve hated him even if he weren’t a bully. He had a single freckle on the tip of his nose and stuck out his tongue when he thought he was being clever. He never was. I did a lot of eye rolling, which was probably why he was so hostile toward me. “You wait,” he’d say and mete out punishment during the next recess. It was usually pretty mild, more shoving than punches thrown. Unfortunately, I was a total wuss and crumpled pretty easily.
This was old hat by the time I reached the fifth grade. Bullying was a fact of life and there was no justice to be had. The best you can do is find those even more marginalized than you are and let them have it. In my case, the options were limited, but I made do.
There was this one kid Javier. He wasn’t much of a misfit, but he was fat and jolly like Santa Claus. I figured I could do whatever I wanted to him without anything that bad happening to me. One day, he was wearing this ugly new shirt and was very proud of it. That wouldn’t do. During recess he was trotting past me so I stuck my leg out Bugs Bunny style. That sent him flying and he landed elbows first, destroying the sleeves of his new shirt. He chased me around the playground a couple of times, but he was too fat to catch me.
The other kid I picked on was Wendy. She was Edith Bunker reimagined as an 11-year-old so everyone gave her a hard time. She was in high demand for abuse so my contribution to the cause was usually limited to saying “Ew” whenever she was within earshot. One exception was when we had a class talent show and she decided to sing. Her voice wasn’t bad, far better than mine, but she pantomimed holding a microphone during the number.
“Nice invisible mic,” I said, which was overheard by our teacher. He made me wait outside so I didn’t get to hear the end of the song. Boo hoo.
There was more to life at Rose Avenue School than just being mean to each other. We had a special curriculum to challenge our gifted little brains. It was harder than what the average kids had to learn and I’m guessing a lot harder than what was expected out of team MR. Did they bother to even teach those kids or just lock the doors and let the classroom turn into Lord of the Flies?
I would have envied that. I was not OK with being challenged. As far as I was concerned, my high score on that standardized test meant that I passed. I was already smart enough and deserved to be rewarded with free ice cream and class field trips to Disneyland.
The Oxnard Elementary School District disagreed. Among other things, it was determined that we should learn Spanish. There was nothing in the budget to supply us with actual textbooks so we were given semi-legible mimeographs of the material instead. The teacher insisted we learned the proper conjugations with vosotros, even though nobody uses that west of the Canary Islands. At the same time, he didn’t seem to care that one of my classmates pronounced “Don Roberto” “dawn ruh-burr-toe.”
It was OK. I didn’t care either.
We also learned that pollution was bad, drugs were worse, and there was a brand new-country called Bangladesh that used to be East Pakistan. We were also taught the importance of safe driving by watching an educational film called Mechanized Death. I liked that part. It’s a much better movie than Red Asphalt. I know this because I’m gifted.