In Sept. 1988 Hurricane Gilbert was in Jamaica; I was in junior high school, and the Olympics were in Seoul Korea. American swimmer Matt Biondi had been defeated by a swimmer from Suriname the night before. During a discussion of this in my homeroom class I said quite know-it-all-ishly “Biondi isn’t competing in the breast stroke.” Ms. Suarez started snickering “Breast stroke? Hahaha! It’s the breath stroke!” The class erupted in laughter that lasted an eternal half minute. I was humiliated; I hid my face while the room spun.
I couldn’t concentrate all day as that moment kept replaying itself in my head with the phrase “breast stroke” reverberating. The sight of the red faces of classmates in hysterics looking at me, the breast sayer, was all I could think about. Stanley Adams, the kid behind me, poked me in the back of the head with his index finger, the physical manifestation of the word “dumbass.” I couldn’t stop going over the lineup of girls I had crushes on in my homeroom class who openly laughed in my face: Rene Putnam, LaTisha Green, Jessica Harver, and how the “breast stroke,” where I was concerned, would remain an Olympic event.
School let out that night and I managed to get the embarrassment out of my head until I turned on the tv after dinner to see an Olympic swimming pool. The sight brought back all the heart-dropping devastation and embarrassment from homeroom that morning. I noticed while watching the breast stroke event that…it was called the breast stroke! I had been ridiculed unjustly. Ms. Suarez is the one who was wrong. I got laughed at because she’s dumb, not me. I showed up early the next day with a copy of the Olympic edition of People Magazine which profiled American athletes, and the breaststroke was mentioned several times. I couldn’t wait to rub it in her face.
Miss Suarez was my homeroom and Social Studies teacher. She was a beautiful 23-year-old Cubana with a large chest and thick, long hair. Since 6th graders were between 11 and 13, I imagine she was the object of quite a few other boy’s maiden masturbation fantasies as well.
When I got to school the next morning, Miss Suarez hadn’t shown up yet. We didn’t have assigned seating in home room, but everyday that year I was sure to get there early to get a seat directly in front of Miss Suarez’s desk. When I got to my desk that day there was a set of books that were not mine sitting on it. I put them on the desk in the next row and was quickly informed of two things. The books belonged to Stanley Adams and Stanley Adams does not like it when you move his books. Stanley grabbed me by my Spuds Mackenzie sweatshirt and said “Put ‘em back mother fucka!”
Our school was part of a desegregation program that bussed kids from less fortunate parts of St. Louis. When a teacher or school administrator referred to a student as "deseg", it was a passable way of inquiring about race. Stanley was a deseg student who'd failed a year and was a bit older than I. He was over six feet tall, the size of my father. I had yet to undergo puberty and still had the size and appearance of a child, but after the embarrassment of the day before, I figured I had to stand my ground. These people had heard me call an Olympic event a woman’s body part; I was determined to keep them from calling me a different one. I sheepishly said in a voice loud enough only for Stanley to hear “No, this is my seat” as I puffed out my chest, maybe to appear bigger than I was.
He yelled again “put ’em back on the desk mother fucka!” as he knocked my books, Lamborghini Trapper Keeper, and the Olympic edition People Magazine to the floor. I noticed that most of the class, including Miss Suarez, had arrived. I had to redeem myself in front of this audience, which now included my first imaginary lover. I pushed Stanley, which did very little but give Stanley an excuse to push back. I flew over the seat I was standing in front of and landed on the next desk back which collapsed beneath me.
I looked up and the whole class was looking at me with jaws dropped in disbelief. It was those faces that made me give up on holding back my tears. I bawled with a wailing moan stopping only to take deep, stuttering breaths. Miss Suarez grabbed Stanley and I then walked us to the office. I was paraded through hallways filled with arriving students sobbing, gasping for air and sucking back snot.
The guidance counselors at our middle school were in charge of discipline. The one that was assigned to both myself and Stanley was named Miss Bence. Miss Bence was pale, thin, about thirty with a mushroom bob haircut and a face permanently frozen in indignation. She was a pill by definition and I imagine she had somebody do something terrible to her in her life because every transgression was handled as if the offender had wronged her personally.
The report Ms. Suarez gave Miss Bence simply said I pushed Stanley and he pushed back, which was true in essence. My account involved a little more drama. Miss Bence asked Stanley if he threw my books on the floor and he told her he was trying to throw them onto another desk. She replied “were you trying to throw Mr. Osborne into another seat?” She looked at both of us with pained eyes slowly shaking her head, seemingly on the verge of tears and said “What were you two thinking?” Since we both pushed, we both got punished.
We got three days in the Alternative Learning Center (ALC) which was, and still is, euphemistic for in-school suspension. We were made to sit next to each other in a class room full of desks with blinders facing walls. I thought it was a little unfair to give us the same punishment since I had already suffered the humiliation of getting dwarf-tossed onto a desk.
All of my schools growing up were deseg schools. We had about a 33% black student population. The racial divisions weren’t really made apparent until we all got to middle school. For some reason, that year was the year white and black kids stopped sitting together at lunch. People pretended not to know each other.
I always admired black kids because they were confident and animated. White people stifle their emotion like it’s a show of childishness. I thought whites were stiff and boring.
I listened to hip hop but didn't dare identify with it like so many Wafrican American youths of my generation. Acting black, while at the same time not being black was frowned upon at my school. It was perceived as phony. I think that the suburban, all-white schools without real black students in them were the breeding ground for the Vanilla Ices and Marky Marks of that age. Those dudes would’ve had a tough time at my school.
Stanley and I were the only two out of ten in the ALC room who weren’t eighth graders. I was one of ten who was white. They knew Stanley. They didn’t know or want to know me. They blew spit wads at me and took my pencils when the teacher left the room. I was visibly afraid, and knowing what I’ve come to know about bullies, I’m sure that my apparent fear was what made them treat me that way in the first place.
Looking back, it was stupid for me to be scared. It was middle school and there was always a teacher present and most importantly, we were kids. Still, I was an 11-year-old, fresh from the 5th grade now in a room with mean, man-sized kids, some of them old enough to drive who wanted to hurt me or at least wanted me to think they did.
When the 3 o’clock bell rang that day I was sure to be the first one out the door which only gave the second kid out the door the opportunity to knock all of my books out of my hand and across the hallway full of students. My only response was to stand and wait for all of the ALC students to leave before gathering my things. I was done with dignity.
I looked down at my books being kicked, all of my papers sticking to shoe soles of hall-traversing students being carried in every direction.
I noticed the Lamborghini Trapper Keeper my mom bought me at T.J. Maxx on clearance at my feet. My whole self was now called into quesion. I stared at the stupid picture of the car driving off into a storm just as a bolt of lightning struck in the distance. .
Did I think I was someone people wanted to be friends with because I had a picture of a sports car I'd never actually seen in real life on my notebook? Did I think that stone washed jeans and a “spike” haircut with blond highlights were actually tricking people into thinking I was cool or something?
My mom grounded me to my room that night. I was kind of glad. I listened to Run DMC’s Raising Hell album and cried in my pillow. I was comforted by a lucid dream of pulling up to school in a limo with Run and Darryl Mac. They’d get out and give me high fives in front of all of the ALC kids who would all want to be my friend and apologize for being so mean to me the day before.
I showed up the next day on the school bus without anyone famous. I reported to the ALC classroom which was right next to the office for my second day of punishment. A kid took my pencils from me the second I put them on my desk. Stanley Adams witnessed this and handed me a brand new one. Wow, Stanley turned out to be a human being after all.
While I was at the mounted sharpener by the doorway a big deseg kid with a Jheri curl in the hallway approached me. He was standing to the side to avoid being seen by the teacher. He smiled at me, and thanks to Stanley’s gift, I was in a good enough mood to smile back. He handed me a note then walked away. I put the note in my pocket and turned around, noticing that the teacher had not seen the exchange, then walked back to my desk with all of the intrigue and curiosity reserved for birthdays, Christmas, and free clinic results.
There was a particular origami-like note folding style that was popular in the late 80’s and maybe still is. The note is folded into a rectangle with a flap exposed where the word “pull” is written (see above). At the time, it didn’t register as odd that I was getting a note like this from a boy.
The note said:
Hi my name is Cedrian. You look like you can use a little help. I heard Stanley beat you up. I’ve seen you walking around the hallways. My friend Nikki thinks you’re cute. You should call me. My number is 314-whatever. Call me tonight and we can talk to her on three way.
The 3 o’clock bell took an eternity to ring that day. I was too curious and excited to wait for my bus so I walked home at a determined pace. I got home by 3:30 and picked up the phone before I put down my bag. I called and there was no answer. I waited a painstaking 3 minutes before I called again. Forgetting that deseg students live in a different part of the city and take a while to get home, I repeated this for an hour until about 4:30 when Cedrian finally answered.
I thought his name was pronounced Cedrian with the emphasis on the first syllable but with Cedrian's flare, it turns out the emphasis is on both the first and last syllable. We talked about girls and sex. Cedrian talked big about sex. I knew black kids usually started having sex earlier, but he made it sound like he'd been fucking for ten years. He told me that the girl Nikki that he spoke of in the note would “be perfect for your first time.” He asked me about what happened with me and Stanley. I told him my one-sided account. Cedrian got angry and said “He ain’t nothing but a nappy head boy and I will take care of him!”
The next day Cedrian walked up to Stanley White in the hallway outside of the ALC room and said “If you put your hands on this man one more time I’m going to fuck you up.” Stanley said “I didn’t do nothin’ but push him!” Cedrian replied, “Now, you ain’t gonna breathe on him.” Stanley was shaking. I felt half vindicated and half remorseful, worried that Stanley might regret giving me that pencil the day before.
Cedrian and I had daily note exchanges. His signature was elegant with dramatic arches. Maybe he was hoping to divert attention from his unsightly face and body with a glamorous signature. I called at exactly 4:30 everyday and we talked on the phone for hours.
'What are you going to do after school?' 'Did you see Terrence Trent D’Arby on the Grammy Awards?'..etc.
Cedrian talked like a black girl when black girls were around: wagging his finger and head for sassy emphasis. His Jheri curl was more of a greasy, tight-curl perm holding a consistent shape like a helmet. He had wide-set hips and a large ass and though he was quite unattractive, he was charismatic, funny and warm. He had a lot of friends, and being Cedrian’s friend meant that I had a lot of friends.
Cedrian was from a different world entirely. He lived with his grandmother in a seedy part of South St. Louis. She would often interrupt our phone calls to make quick calls on the third line, telling me I don’t need to hang up because it was only going to take a second. I would sit and eavesdrop on her conversations which were always much longer than a second. I imagine she never knew I was white.
I overheard her making a hair appointment with a black beauty parlor, in telling the receptionist why she goes to them and not other salons she said “The honkys'll have you out in the field before they give you whatchou pay for”.
My mother is a self-described “fag hag.” I had gay men around me my whole life so it wasn’t lost on me that Cedrian was gay. I wasn’t the only one it wasn’t lost on. One day a bus load of deseg, high school students started yelling “faggot” at Cedrian as their bus headed back to the South Side passed us walking. I looked over at him for a reaction, he was pretending he hadn't heard while looking in the sky like something suddenly caught his attention. We both heard.
I went to five different Junior High/Middle schools in my student career and in each, the worst possible mark one could attract was that of a “faggot.” Even Cedrian would call people faggot, because a faggot would never accuse someone else of being a faggot, no doubt.
I didn’t even care if people thought I was gay for hanging out with Cedrian, he was the best thing that had yet to happen to me at my new school. I had eighth grade friends and people were afraid of me. I wouldn’t have traded that for anything.
I had power which I abused with every opportunity. When Stevie Harten tripped me on the way to the back of the bus, I said nothing to him or anyone else until 4:30 when Cedrian got Stevie Harten on the phone for a personal apology. Stevie never bothered me again. No one bothered me.
Cedrian and I were inseparable. My English teacher, Mrs. Becker, pulled me aside after class one day and said, “I see you with Cedrian a lot. Does he ever make you do anything that you don’t want to do?” I knew what she was suggesting but I still played dumb. “What do you mean, we’re just best friends,” I said.
My mother agreed to pick Cedrian up to spend a day at our house one Saturday. The two of us were sitting on my bed listening to tapes when my mom came in to remind me to keep the door to my room open.
We dropped Cedrian off early that evening and we talked about the situation. Upon finding out he was the person I spent so much time on the phone with my mom said “Don’t plan on having him over again.” I asked “Why, because he’s black1?” I knew that that wasn’t the case. I said “Is it because you think he’s gay?” “No, not because I know he’s gay, but because I think he’s dangerous.” she replied. I yelled “He’s not gay!”
My attempt to turn my mother into a racist homophobe was, I’m sure, because I was in denial about the possibility that my new status at school might not be because I deserved it but simply because a guy who could beat up all the the other students wanted to fuck me. I was banned from talking to him or seeing him.
I hid my notes from him and hung out with him at my neighbor Ryan Penser’s house. Ryan lived close and his parents were never home after school, so Cedrian would just ride the bus home with us. We’d play Nintendo, eat Ryan’s parents’ food, and talk about kids at school. Cedrian liked hearing what girls we thought were cute; he’d even talk to the girls for us.
On days that Cedrian couldn’t come over the three of us would talk from 4:30 to 5 on three-way. My mom got home at 5 so I had to get off the phone while the two of them continued the discussion without me. After a good month of this, it was Ryan who started getting the origami notes, not me.
Eventually they both stopped answering my calls at 4:30. Cedrian would make up excuses for why he couldn’t talk to me when I knew he was talking to Ryan. He’d tell me he would call me back and never would. I got usurped by Ryan Penser.
Ryan Penser turned out to be a far worse power abuser than I. If anyone even said something Ryan didn’t like, they got threatened. Cedrian beat up a 6th grader-Jake Reed in front of the school after telling everyone that Jake called him a "nigger". In the racially sensitive climate that was my middle school (the year ended with a cafeteria race riot) that word gave anyone carte blache for ass whooping. Jake swore he'd never said "the 'n' word", but Jake was a notorious bully who tormented Ryan Penser and was quite free with the accusation of 'faggot'ry.
Eventually, 6th grade ended and Cedrian went on to high school. The 7th grade saw a lot of students not forgetting what a tyrant I had been the year before. I got beaten up by a group of 8th graders who were friends of Stevie Harten’s in front of my girlfriend on my 13th birthday. Ryan Penser got it a lot worse than I did. He got depantsed in the hall before a school assembly. One afternoon a few weeks later Jake Reed forced Ryan to eat dog shit in front of the grocery store next to our school. I watched.
I moved away the next year and forgot about Cedrian and Ryan. That’s until I was traveling through St. Louis when I was twenty three. I was headed to the Arsenal train yard on the city's southside and walked by a Taco Bell on Grand when a big black drag queen yelled my name out of a moving car “James Osborne!”
She stopped, got out and gave me a big, bossomy hug. “I always knew you would be famous someday.” Cedrian saw me on a cable news show about freight train hopping. I had to explain to her that I wasn’t famous at all and she told me “Well, you’re the most famous person I ever known.”
We sat on Cedrian’s car and looked at the photo album she pulled from the trunk while I ate a bean burrito. She showed me pictures of her nephews, mutual friends from school and herself dressed for prom. It looked like high school wasn't so bad for her after she came out; it looked like she’d really found her place.
But I don’t care about any of that. In the haze of confusion from the incident with Stanley Adams, I forgot to prove Ms. Suarez wrong about the breast stroke. I didn’t think about it until years later. I know nothing will take back their laughter and my tears but I still feel the need to redeem myself.
I’m sure she’s figured out by now that it is in fact the breast and not the breath stroke but I would like her to publicly apologize. I’ve looked everywhere. If anyone knows an Ana Suarez who taught in St. Louis city schools in the late eighties and early nineties, please let her know that James Osborne is looking for her and can be reached at (469) 248-6527. Thanks.