When I was very young, my dad, brother and I left Jamaica and moved to New York. My parents were divorced for about a year and a half but the wounds were as fresh as if it had happened the day before. My dad tried his best, but his meals couldn’t compare. Way too much of this or not enough of that. Homework wasn’t checked. Christmas morning was spent pretending to like poorly thought out and terribly wrapped gifts and for Christmas dinner, we separated the burnt parts from the under cooked and washed them down with tears. In our family, mom was the glue. She was the cook and the organizer and the shopper and the clothes layer-outer. She was the homework warden and the did you brush your teeth checker, the Christmas dinner fixer, and the present wrapper.
Then, one day, we were in a new country. In Jamaica, I was a husky, slightly nerdy bookworm with lots of friends. I had a big yard to play in, bikes to ride, trees to climb, rivers and beaches to swim in. In Queens, I was a fat nerd, living with his dad and brother in an attic, sleeping on a box spring. We were three men together, lonely and licking our wounds. Where we should have come together as a unit to face our adopted city, we stayed apart, battling our individual demons alone, each coming to terms with our new surroundings in our own way.
On my first day at Andrew Jackson High School, I met my new music teacher, a short, stout Italian man with the most pronounced New Yawk accent I’d heard up to that point. It was the first day of school and at a loss for something for us to do, he gave us the assignment to write out the words to the Star Spangled Banner. My stomach fell. I’d been in New York for all of a week and was ashamed that I didn’t yet know the words. I stared at my paper and at my classmates happily scribbling away and I fought the tears as I wished that I were anywhere else but in this strange school, in this strange city, in this strange country. The teacher must have noticed my distress because he came over and quietly asked what the matter was.
I cried when he asked, although I tried not to. I tried so hard, but it hit me all at once. I was the new kid. I had a weird accent, I didn’t have cool clothes, I hated where we lived, our landlady was mean, I didn’t understand this new school with its tough-talking kids and gangs and police helicopters overhead every afternoon. And I missed my mother. I didn’t say any of that. All I said, in my Jamaican accent was, “I don’t know the words.”
He gave me the look that Americans often gave when they didn’t understand something I’d said and their brains were working to lengthen the vowels and smooth out the rough, bumpy syllables of my Patois. A second later he got it.
“Oh, you don’t know the words,” he repeated.
I thought he was going to be mad. He would kick me out of his class and the big, mean looking security guards would escort me to the Principal’s office, where they would demand to see my papers. None of that happened. Instead, that man did something that I will never forget. He put his hand on my shoulder, gave it a squeeze, and smiled.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said, in that casual American way. “Just write something. Anything.”
Now that I could do.
He smiled and walked away but suddenly turned back to me and said, “I love your accent, by the way, it’s cool.”
I smiled. Then I wrote.
I wrote about a boy who was lonely and fat and had no mother but had powers that no one but he knew about. He kept his power hidden because he thought once he showed them to the world, the people he loved would also leave, just like his mom did. But then one day he had no choice but to reveal his powers and to his surprise people loved him. His dad stopped telling him that he was too fat, and it didn’t matter that he wasn’t as athletic as his brother. They hoisted him up on their shoulders and the kids on his block liked him and didn’t make fun of his accent or his clothes. He made new friends and his mom came back home and they were a family again.
The bell rang for the end of class and I quickly wrote my last sentence. My classmates slapped their single pages down on the desk then spilled out into the hall in a flood. I removed twelve pages from my notebook and handed them to my teacher. His eyes opened wide in surprise.
“Wow, you’re a writer I see.”
It was the very first time anyone had ever called me that and it made my day.
I wanted to thank him for his kindness, but I didn’t have the words. Instead, I nodded and left to go to my locker. A few minutes later, I had to pass the music room on the way to my next class and saw the music teacher at his desk, reading my story with a smile on his face.
His advice stays with me to this day, it’s served me well.
Just write something.
I don’t know what happened to him. I’m sad that I don’t remember his name. Wherever he is, I hope he is happy, and I hope that he’s had the kindness he showed to me returned to him a thousand fold. You see, it’s the little things we do that sometimes have an enormous impact. It’s the hug at just the right time. It’s the reassuring words when someone is at a low point. It’s saying I love you, and meaning it.
I need that.
We all do.
That kid that wrote the story is still here, but he’s older and hopefully wiser. He still sometimes keeps things hidden because he thinks no one would care to read what he feels but he’s getting better at that. One thing will never change, he still misses his mother. She’s passed a few years ago but lives on in his heart and in her granddaughter’s smile. Oh, and the accent is still there. If you listen carefully, you might hear it. It doesn’t show up much but occasionally it creeps out when he’s tired, or upset or he wants to make his little girl laugh or maybe occasionally in the random blog post.