Monday, August 17, 2009

My Bad

If you walk up the hill from Wahiawa Intermediate School, after four or five blocks you end at California Avenue, the main street through the “country” town of Wahiawa, Hawaii, near the center of Oahu. California Avenue is itself a long hill leading about five miles into Wahiawa Heights. That four or five block trek to the main drag was a daily one for my three eighth grade friends and me.

Some days, we would part ways as soon as we reached California. John Imperial, a Filipino and Mark Faulkner, a white guy would head down the hill to their homes. Ron Nagasawa, a Japanese guy would head home straight through the Wahiawa Botanical Gardens. I began the long (maybe two mile) journey up the hill to the Heights. The journey was worth it, even in the Hawaiian sun or rain.

The four of us became friends simply from having signed up for Newswriting as our one elective course. As eighth graders we shared and rotated editorship of The Lance and Shield, our school newspaper. Later in the year we also worked on No Koala, the school’s literary magazine. The projects kept us after school many a day, and I loved it.
Wahiawa Botanical Garden
I also loved the days when we got out early enough to walk up our first hill and then to tarry before going in our respective directions. We would walk into the Botanical Gardens, rest on the bridge and talk. I remember the day I told them about Donna, the girl at church who I liked but was too shy to tell. This was my first group of confidantes. I had had a couple best friends in the past, but never a whole group like this.

By the end of the school year, we felt like we owned the school and we were well aware that our ride was about to end. We were headed to Leilehua High School, where we would be bottom-of-the-heap freshmen.

Our last gathering together was actually not the “proper” group. It was my 14th birthday in July.
By then my family had moved on Schofield Barracks, the Army post near Wahiawa. My parents let me invite whomever I wanted. John couldn’t come, so I added Lance and Lance, who were both Japanese, to replace him. I had gotten a stereo for a birthday gift, and Ron says he remembers my dad playing Bill Cosby records for us. I remember sitting on the porch talking. We were anticipating high school. We were guessing about where we would be hanging out and what we would be doing together.

And then at my birthday party I laid it on my best friends: I would not be hanging out with them at Leilehua. I tried to explain that my brother Carl and my sister Marcia were already at Leilehua and I would be expected to hang out with the other black students like them.

True to my word, I ignored my friends at Leilehua. Like most of the other black students, I arrived by bus from Schofield Barracks each day and headed directly to the front of the cafeteria, our area. I usually sat on the stage and looked out at everyone else. When the opening bell rang each day, most of the girls went to class, most of the guys disappeared. I went to class.

We started an official school club called the Soul Society. Marcia was the secretary, I was the treasurer, which meant that I held the dues after they were collected. I don’t remember if we ever used the dues for anything.

The black students were like family to me, but I had no close friends, no confidantes. My Leilehua experience was that sharp distinction between that social situation and my academic time. There were black students—most, but not all of them were girls—who negotiated those two worlds much better than I did.
More to the point: I was attempting something in my innocence, timidity, and ignorance that was unnecessary. I was afraid that someone would label me a “Tom”—in those days we left off the “Uncle” (If those imagined people could only see me now!) And I was afraid of embarrassing my siblings. Marcia and Carl both revealed to me years later that they had no expectations of me other than that I be Tony--that I do what Tony does.

And had I stayed at Leilehua more than two years, maybe I would have matured to the point of feeling more comfortable in my own skin (I don’t mean skin color), and maybe I could have merged my worlds better.

But we moved again. I looked for a new school and ended up at a school where “black community” was not much of an option. There I met a (half) black guy who years later would encourage America to “eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.” While we’re at it, let’s also work on the assumption that says the only way to be “authentic” is to only hang out with people who look like us.

That mistake is not the fault of my multiracial group of friends, my African American group of friends, or my siblings. That mistaken assumption is on me.

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