The Whipping Boy

“Does anyone know what part of speech the word “above” is?” Mrs. Strickland was an awesome teacher. I had learned so much from her that school year. Third grade was tumultuous for me. My parents, whose relationship had been marred by domestic violence, were back together for the sake of my youngest brother who was still being formed in my mother’s stomach. I didn’t know how to address how I felt and even if I did I didn’t know who I could talk to about my thoughts. To distract myself from what was going at home I put forth all of my focus into being a good student. I especially loved reading books and studying English.

My parents also reinforced my love of reading and school. Although they seemingly fought as much as they loved each other one thing that they made sure was clear was that they wouldn’t tolerate mediocre to average grades. They came to this country to give their children a better opportunity in life than they had and the key to that opportunity in their opinion was through education. My mother gave up her career as a nurse to clean the homes of more affluent white families and my father, after losing his job as an accountant, drove a cab for a living. Despite their lowly station in life they always made sure that I knew education could take me a lot further in life than ignorance. Despite this I still didn’t receive the type of grades that my parents approved of.

My hand immediately shot into the air. I had studied the chapter on prepositions ahead of class the night before. When everyone in my family was asleep I used my flashlight to read my English book until I fell asleep. I couldn’t sleep because my parents told my sister, two brothers and I that since our family was going to be expanding we weren’t going to be able to stay in our 2-bedroom apartment. We were going to be moving into a house. I was excited yet scared of the transition. I was happy that we were going to have more space. I might even get my own room and my brothers and I would have a yard that we could play in instead of always going down to the park. On the other hand I didn’t want to leave my friends. I also didn’t want my parents to stay married. I hated who they were when they together. I’d rather have divorced parents than live in a two-parent household with parents who fought almost everyday.

As my hand stayed in the air I could feel someone kicking the chair behind me. “You think you know everything, African Booty Scratcher.” David was the class bully and apparently he didn’t like me because actually wanting to learn was blasphemous. As Mrs. Strickland looked around the room she purposely did not call on me although I was the only one whose hand was raised. “David, perhaps you can tell the class the answer.” David obviously embarrassed to be put on the spot replied “Ummm, four.” As the class giggled, Mrs. Strickland visibly upset retorted “No one likes a class clown David. You can spend your recess reading about today’s chapter. Femi, you had your hand up. Do you know the answer?” At this point I was torn between giving the answer I knew and upsetting David even further by showing him up. “Is it a noun? Mrs. Strickland?” I purposely gave the wrong answer. “No, Femi it’s a preposition. Now I want everyone to take their books out and turn to page 44.” I had avoided that dilemma but I still felt bad because I knew the answer and I wanted to show that I had read ahead.

David spent the rest of that morning kicking the back of my chair and throwing pieces of paper in an attempt to distract me from the lesson. What he didn’t realize was that my mind was already far away from that day’s lesson plan. My thoughts had wandered to my family, the fact that I’d be switching schools and what I was going to read that night.  I don’t know how much time elapsed before the bell rung for recess but it seemed as if someone had fit the fast forward button over the last three hours. When I looked up at the chalkboard it appeared that Mrs. Strickland had finished our math lesson for the day. There were division problems all over the board.

As all my classmates raced out of the classroom the boys were deciding who was going to go first in the tetherball tournament they had set up or who was going to be on teams in kickball while the girls were deciding between double-dutch or hopscotch. I reached in my book bag and pulled out a copy of the Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman. Once outside I went to my usual reading spot under this big oak tree I liked to sit under during recess. It provided a lot of shade in the hot spring afternoons and it allowed me a good vantage point of the whole playground. The book was getting really interesting because I felt like I was the protagonist in the book. Jemmy, a bright young orphan, was often punished for things that were no fault of his own. I was engrossed in my reading and I had just got to the part where Jemmy and Prince Horace came upon a girl looking for her lost dancing bear.  Out of nowhere a kickball hit me hard in my face causing my eyes to water profusely. By the time the shock and pain subsided and I managed to stand to my feet Jonathan, David’s friend and also a bully, was standing in front of me. “Why did you get David in trouble?” Jonathan asked with genuine inquisitiveness. “I didn’t get him in trouble. He got himself in trouble.” Jonathan didn’t seem satisfied with my answer but before he could retort the bell rung indicating the end of recess.

I was glad to get out of that situation. I was worried that I was going to have to fight Jonathan. It wasn’t that I was afraid of him or I thought that I couldn’t beat him in a fight. I had had my fair share of fights to that point but I didn’t prefer fighting at school. It was a high risk, low reward act. The fight would only last somewhere between 15-30 seconds before someone broke it up and then I had the deal with the possibility of suspension. That was not a risk I was willing to take. I would handle the David and Jonathan problem later.

When the final bell rung to signal the end of the school day Mrs. Strickman asked to have a word with me after class. “Femi, I think you’re one of the brightest students I’ve taught in a long time. You take initiative by reading ahead of the scheduled lessons, you know the answers to my questions and yet you’re B/C student when you could easily be a straight A student. I know it doesn’t seem like the cool thing to get high marks on your tests and report cards but trust me you don’t have to be like everyone else. It’s ok to be a good student. Its ok to be different.” I knew that Mrs. Strickman really cared about me. That she only wanted me to do well. I wanted to tell her how I was feeling about what was going on at home. I wanted to tell her that being a smart kid gets you picked on and ostracized. I wanted to tell her that she was at that point my favorite teacher and nothing would have made me happier than to do well in her class and make her proud of me. Yet, I could only muster an “Ok.” as I picked up my book bag and sauntered out of her classroom.   

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