Emma waited patiently for her teachers (my sister and I) to stop chatting. When we looked at her and asked her what she needed, she broke. To save her the embarrassment of crying in the middle of a classroom, my sister ushered her into the office and closed the door.
Two boys had bullied her on the bus, just like they had last year. They called her “dark,” called her ugly, repeated the insults of their parents or whatever corners of the internet confirmed and appreciated their racist views. The front office was called. Emma was sent with a friend to report the incident with explicit instructions to give every detail. Every name. Every insult.
A few hours later, I was in the hallway with a group of seventh grade violinists. I was grading students one by one on their “sticker tunes,” foundational songs and skills they have to pass in the class in order to achieve basic competency at their instrument.
“I don’t have my book!” Griffin announced. This happens frequently in seventh grade.
“Does James have his? Maybe you could borrow it?”
“Nope! Should I go get one?”
“Do you have the song memorized?”
“Yes, please go get a book.”
As Griffin ran back into the classroom to rustle up the required materials, a few other boys shuffled into the hallway. It was a rare moment in orchestra, particularly for a group of violinists, where my gender isn’t the majority. While we waited, I chatted with James about a movie that had come out recently.
James is a boy who exudes middle-school-ness—snot running out of his nose like an elementary school child one day, arms and legs a little too big for his body the next. He’s smart but not sure how smart he’s allowed to be because other students laugh at different jokes than he does.
I suddenly noticed James was being more awkward than normal. All of my students are awkward, a little cagey and unsure. They’re in seventh grade. The ones who aren’t unsure, haven’t reached middle school maturity levels. Or they’re faking it.
On October 11 his shoulders were hunched and he hugged the wall as he waited for Griffin to come back with the book. When he played the song for me, the nail polish on his fingers stood out against the black fingerboard and the pale white of his shaky hands. I chalked it up to the normal awkwardness and odd decision-making that takes place in a middle school. Probably sharpie, probably got bored in class and probably—
It’s October 11.
That’s a rainbow.
Drawn by a shaky hand on every single fingernail.
My body went hot, my hands shook with James’, and I felt again for the first time in over a decade what it really feels like to fear your peers. I shuddered at his bravery, marveled at his willingness to stake his territory and name himself. I was inspired and terrified.
I wondered at his support system, hoped he had a loving family, and dared to imagine that maybe his peers wouldn’t tear him apart the way mine would have if he had come out back then.
Emma and James attend a middle school that is roughly equal parts black, Latino, and white. There are a lot of strands of masculinity to keep track of, every moment a time of “race relations” enacted by twelve- and thirteen-year-olds. Every moment something new is happening, firsts are being born—the first time being bullied, the first time he said who he was or who he stood with—
And the first time I’ve watched young people be so brave and really understood the strength that it takes.