I begin with myself. I am a pale, slight, semi-bright white boy from a nice Baptist family. I am a 5th grader at Frances E. Willard Elementary, a two-story brick pile of a building in the heart of the city. It is 1949.
Jerry is a mongoloid. Notice, it is not that Jerry is mongoloid (the adjective) – that is, of a major human racial classification including peoples indigenous to central and eastern Asia. No. Jerry is a mongoloid (the noun). An idiot. A fat pussy with slanted, squinty eyes. A pudgy, flat-footed clown with a moronic giggle and a goofy grin that owns his whole face when he’s happy, a face that contorts itself into a clenched, red fist when he’s frustrated.
Jerry is our mongoloid. Willard School’s own mongoloid. He is in a class called Special-A, where they gather all the dummies, spastics, and oddballs. But Jerry is our only mongoloid.
What fun when Jerry entertains us, before or after school, the only times the Special-As mix with the rest of the kids. Hey Jerry, show us your thing, someone taunts. Jerry, take it out, show us your peter, and Jerry is happy to oblige, giddy in his obliging, fumbling down his fly, pulling out his wee-wee, about the size of his thumb, and wagging it back and forth, grinning that goofy grin, giggling that moronic giggle. I watch, uneasy, from the fringe, but Jerry seems to be having fun, making his audience whoop and holler until authority comes along and we scatter, like crows from roadkill at the approach of a car, the feast, the fun, over for now.
School is out, and I meet my friend Najeeb. He has not been part of the gang watching Jerry’s performance. We walk part way home together, Najeeb turning left at the corner, toward the shabbier streets where the Negroes live, and I turning right, toward the neater neighborhood where the whites live.
Najeeb is a Mohammedan. He is tall for a fifth grader, and very black, and his nose is narrow like mine, rather than flat and wide like most of the other Negroes at Willard School. His father and mother are tall, dignified people, and very black like their son. I have met them at school functions.
Najeeb tells me his family comes from somewhere in Africa where everyone is a Mohammedan. There is a pull-down map in our classroom, and Najeeb points to the place. The country is colored blue, and is near the equator, which is something I know about – the belt around the center of the earth. At our Baptist church we support missionaries in Africa. Sometimes they visit us and show their color slides of smiling African children learning about Jesus.
Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world, we sing in Sunday School. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. I am sure of this. There is a picture in my Bible, little children of all colors gathering at the feet of Jesus. But there are no Negroes at our church, and no mongoloids in my Sunday School class.
I sing, Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.
Jesus loves me; me, the semi-bright boy from the nice Baptist family. Loves me, the boy who watches – yes, watches with guilt and shame, but watches nonetheless – when Jerry pulls out his wee-wee to entertain us, to please us, to make us happy. Loves me, the boy who goes home one direction while his friend Najeeb goes home another direction.
The boy eventually learns better, that love is not universal, but specific. That someone must have loved Jerry the mongoloid, and Najeeb the Mohammedan, and someone must have loved me, but it was not Jesus, who had been dead for 2,000 years.
Sometimes, now, I dream that I myself am the mongoloid, not mentally retarded or physically queer, but a freak nonetheless. I am the man in the center of the crowd, the object of ridicule, the unwilling clown, embarrassed and exposed. I dream that I myself am the Mohammedan, not of an alien faith, but an outcast. I am like the man from the blue country on the other side of the world with no hope of return, a displaced person in a hostile land. I do not belong.
But at Willard School, in 1949, I am merely myself, a boy trying to fit in.
George Dila’s short stories and personal essays have been published in numerous journals including North American Review, Palooka, Literal Latte, Fiction Now, Cleaver and others. His short story collection “Nothing More to Tell,” was published by Mayapple Press in 2011. A born-and-raised Detroiter, he now lives in Ludington, MI, www.georgedila.com.