My american Dream: 4. American Hero
Still in Maryland, this one is about a lunch table hero.
Nothing makes the chasm of social status more obvious than lunch tables. The popular kids sit in the best table, be it defined the view over the domain that is middle school cafeteria or the artisanship which so carefully crafted the table to be suitable only for people who know they deserve the best in life.
That is not the table I sat at.
My table was the table by the beginning of the lunch line, loud, crowded, and immigrant. As it was pressed against the corner, it didn’t get much light. It never sat right either, so whenever someone sat down or got up, everybody felt the “clunk” of shift in balance.
I couldn’t care less about the bench. And for the most part, all the kids ate the same food. The best part was that the food was free. Because my family didn’t make enough money, we qualified for free lunch vouchers. I didn’t really think much of it because all my friends at the table had lunch vouchers. Sometimes other kids whose parents gave them lunch money wanted to buy the tickets for a discount price.
“No way,” I learned to say that pretty quickly.
It was one of my first American dreams, the lunch ticket. Nobody was going to cheat me out of it so they save lunch allowance for another Nike shoes when my Payless shoes squeaked like desperate plea to let them retire with each step.
That one day, I sat down with Mario, whose family was from Mexico. We were just eating, and talking about matters which are of life-and-death matters to 14-15 year old boys. Probably about some pubescent girls.
Mario would say, “Kimberly.”
And I would go…. “Hmmmmm……. Kimburrie, Kimburrie……”
“English class,” Mario would hint.
I now make the connection. Somewhere in my brain, some neurons would fire and a bit of neuroexcitation. Kimburrie was the one whose mother needed to go bra shopping with her.
But I couldn’t say much. I didn’t know how to express amazement or appreciation for the developing female body or for that matter other things which are due amazement or appreciation (note for the astute and litigious: not objectifying, merely figure of speech).
Didn’t matter. Mario knew, by the way my eyes opened, that I was thinking what he was thinking. He’d get this smirk on his face, which would only distract me from Kimburrie’s image. You see, he’s one of these guys who have a lot of facial hair even before puberty hit full force.
So we were sort of going back and forth with names of girls, when all of a sudden, a lanky pale-faced guy sat across the table and stared at us. We looked up. He was a guy from the table near the water fountain.
“Hey. What’s your name?” he looked at me.
I was kind of apprehensive and happy that someone new was talking to me, “Hi. I am A RAM.”
“Your name is Maram?”
“My name is… Aram.”
“Well, my name is Cory.”
“Yeah. Colly. Whatever. Hey, you speak English?”
“Cool. Can you say, “hi, hello, how you doing?”
“Hi, Herro, Who yo doing?”
Naturally, Cory started laughing at me like many other kids. But he didn’t laugh long because Mario shut him down quickly. I don’t remember exactly what Mario said to Cory, but here is my mind’s re-enactment.
“Yo, why you making fun of him? You have no fucking idea what it’s like to come to a country where you don’t know a single goddamn word of what people are saying. So unless you tried to move to a new country and learn a new language, I suggest you shut the hell up and eat your goddamn apple pie back at your table.”
He had a hint of Latino accent to it.
This gathered some attention, and a wave of silence propagated through the cafeteria. More and more people looked over towards our table. It was as if they were birds chirping happily in a tree and were interrupted in unison by a loud noise. People seemed to realize what had happened. That Mario actually made apparent the ridiculous nature of what everyone was doing to everyone else in order to be accepted by everyone else.
Gradually, the cafeteria returned to its chatty equilibrium, but a small part of it, our table, remained quiet.
One was in shame. He had woke up and found himself to be the asshole he never though he would be.
Second, in anger. For whatever his true nature is and who he became fifteen years later, for that one moment in distant past, he was standing against injustice – if you could see that as injustice. It might seem a stretch to you.
Third, in gratitude. Realizing that I was actually not alone in my daily challenges and struggles, I saw not the Mario with pimples and massive bodily hair for a 14-year-old (especially from the perspective of a relatively hairless Asian boy) but him who shared my struggle and spoke a relative truth to the occasion.
I never got a chance to thank Mario that day. Or until my family moved from Maryland to Charlotte, North Carolina.
Thanks, Mario. You were a hero. I hope life has been kind to you.