the heart of roseland: meatball.
the one thing i always hated about grammar/elementary school was when the teacher would step out of the classroom. it would be even worse if i was given the responsibility to write down the names of those who couldn’t keep quiet. i didn’t want to snitch but even back then i disliked noise. i wasn’t a “shusher”. remember those kids that would shush louder than the other kids talking. i was the kid that didn’t say much. the teacher would come back upset at the condition of her class. i’d still be quiet, even when she demanded that we rat out our classmates. the teacher used to say, “if you don’t tell me who did, i have to punish everybody.” even if i was innocent there was a good chance i’d be writing lines like everyone else. If they were creative they looked for a long bible verse like Psalms 119. the loudest kids when the teacher was gone were the quietest ones when she returned. i wanted to be like them. they would run around and yell, consequences be damned. instead of being like them, i was stuck being me.
i’ve been short and light skinned since i could remember. when i was a little, i told my parents that i was dark white. i didn’t “act” black so for a moment i thought i wasn’t black. slang escaped me as a shorty but a couple days at summer camp in englewood fixed that. i heard kids curse like adults. my only memories from that time involve me standing on the other side of the playground and watching. kids were saying,” shit, bitch, nigga,” like vets and i only managed to learn the words that sesame street taught me.
englewood was like a home away from home. its where my parents grew up and where my grandparents still live. i stayed in beverly and my block was full of older people. the only children on my block were white. there was another black kid but he was more on the other end of the spectrum. i didn’t hang out with them after tee-ball practice. maybe my parents withheld all my invites to the white kids’ birthday parties because i never went. the kids in englewood and roseland looked more like me. i didn’t talk like them yet but i was learning.
if you grow up around black people, you will have a nickname. its inevitable that someone finds out something about your personality or your physical appearance. sometimes its just a recurring habit. white kids get nicknames like chip or sparky. those names are harmless and don’t really affect a kid’s confidence. my nickname didn’t affect my confidence at the time i received it. my nickname was meatball. i was a round kid. my grandfather’s friends called me meatball when i came around. to them i was chubby but i honestly couldn’t tell. it took me a while to catch on. i wasn’t comparing my body type to others as a child.
as i got older i wanted attention from the girls in the class. i was no longer worried if they knew i liked them or not. i wanted them to know. i was so good at being the dad when playing house, i assumed i was a hot commodity. until i was about 7, girls helped me tie my shoes before and after gym class. i was nice to girls and they were nice to me. that was the problem. they were nice to me. everyone knows that when you like somebody, you have to pretend like you don’t like them in order for them to like you. they would help me tie my shoes but why wouldn’t they hit me when i wasn’t looking? after all i thought i’d be poppin’ on the 7 year old dating scene.
when i was 11 years old, i remember shopping for picture day. picture day had never been a big deal before but i had a crush in every grade above mine. maybe several in each. i had people that i wanted to impress. we went to chicago ridge mall and i think it was j.c penney’s. the whole family was in the boy’s section looking for clothes. my mom found this light sweater and a pair of khakis to wear. the sweater was ok but the khakis were too small. even though i tried on the largest pair in the section, they were too small. my mother asked an associate for more sizes and our wish was granted much to my chagrin. she directed us to the husky section. i was so upset. i guess the nickname didn’t register until now. i went into that dressing room and cried as i put on the pants one leg at a time. what made more upset was that the husky pants fit. it was official, i was meatball. my dad laughed as my tears turned to rage. he always thought it was funny that i’d take things so seriously. the next day some teachers told me how nice i looked. maybe my mom told them how upset i was, maybe she didn’t. i took those pictures with a smile on my face. i look back at that picture and laugh like my father once did.