Once A Boy: A Closed Window, Open Eyes

My brother and I shared a room in the first house known to me as ‘home’.  It was a medium sized room with pale white paint covering the walls.  Our bunk beds sat in the middle of the room; my brother manned the top bed and usually slept with a tattered sleeping bag while my bed was the bottom bunk covered with Sesame Street sheets and probably, boogers.  (Hey, a kid’s gotta fall asleep somehow.)  Unbeknownst to my brother,  sharing a space like this gave his little six year old sibling great comfort knowing his big ninja brother was in the top bunk and would protect him should any dark and dangerous force come through the bedroom door.  

There were two drafty windows on either side of the west wall, facing the city side street in front of our house.  I would often sit at one of them and either look into the friendly maple tree that towered over our house, or watch the cars and people that made their way down our street.  I would occasionally yell out the window to a lawn mowing neighbor or old lady walking to the grocery, and then immediately duck down behind the windowsill as they looked up, searching for the source of the idiotic sound.  My adrenaline rushed as I sat there thinking about the confused look on their faces and how my clever prank had completely changed the outcome of their current activity.  I was testing unknown waters.  A part of me knew I was being a brat—that it was wrong—but another part of me needed to push the boundaries to see what might be beyond my safe little realm.

One day while sitting at my window perch waiting for my next victim, I noticed a group of teenagers walking up the street.  Okay, here we go!  They won’t know what hit ‘em! I began with a few bird sounds, which didn’t seem to have much effect, so I moved to a few basic Hey you!yells.  

They stopped.  I ducked down, suppressing a mischievous giggle, heart beating out of my chest.

After a minute or two thinking they had surely continued down the street, I peaked up over the windowsill and noticed them still standing there…STARING RIGHT BACK AT ME.  

Their eyes lowered and I watched as they proceeded up the steps to our front porch out of my sight. I heard a knock on our door.   

I gasped and my stomach sank.  I thought I even saw Bert and Ernie hide behind Big Bird on my Sesame Street sheets.  

I heard the door creak open, followed by an exchange of angry muffled voices.  The door closed and moments later my mom called me downstairs.  I guess I shouldn’t say called, it was more of a demand.  I stood and walked out of the bedroom and met my mom’s eyes as she stood at the bottom of the steps.  Her face held a look that confused me.  I couldn’t tell if she was angry or hurt; disappointed or sad. 

“Have you been yelling out your bedroom window at people?” she asked.

Shoot.  Where was this going?  Who were those guys? Why did they talk to my mom? I’m only six… please don’t come back and murder me and my family! 

“Uh…yeah,” I meekly replied.

“Those boys out there said you called them…” 

Her voice fell into a soft beleaguered tone as she sighed and finished the sentence, 

“Niggers.”

I immediately recognized that something strange was happening.  I had yet to hear that word in my short life, but as my mom uttered it, a sense of confusion and fear fell over me.  A new fear, one that made me realize that maybe life was not as simple as I expected it to be.  The word was new and foreign, and it made me feel uneasy.    

“Wh..what? I don’t know what that word is, mommy.” I stammered as tears began to fill my wide eyes. 

“Those boys said you were yelling at them from the window and calling them that name.  I know you may not understand, but that’s a terrible and hurtful name to call a black person.”

I could tell my mom hated having to reprimand me for something she knew I didn’t do, furthermore to have to teach her six year old son such a difficult lesson about life, so soon.  But she was no stranger to hard lessons, and she knew it was necessary in order to help me successfully navigate this situation.  

I nodded and she told me to return to my room and close the window, perhaps sheltering me from certain inconvenient truths my mind had yet to fully comprehend.  Maybe all a six year old needs to grasp is that his family loves him, and that the outside world can—at times—be a confusing and complex space. For the time being, security could be found in my bunk beneath my ever vigilant brother.

Later that evening, as I was getting ready for bed and gathering my stuffed animals, my mom hugged me a little longer than usual. 

I never yelled from that window again.

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