It was third grade. A boy named James who resembled Beaker from the Muppets had thrown up big orange chunks two rows over and two desks in front of me. A boy with a weird cowboy accent had moved to “the big city” of Long Island, New York and we all asked him to repeat everything he said. It was the first year I heard Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech in its entirety and listened to the words and looked at the solemn and inspired faces of my black classmates and wished with all my heart I too was black. It was the year my teacher drank Tab and ate a Krackel chocolate bar everyday. And it was the year I learned that you find kindness in the strangest places.
I don’t even remember his name, really, but I think it started with an L. He was taller than the rest of us. And bigger. And for those reasons alone, we were all scared of him. He had street smarts and was always whispering things to us we shouldn’t know. Even my twitchy, nervous teacher seemed twitchier and more nervous when she addressed his behavior.
Anyway, this kid would rat you out in a heartbeat, maybe for the pleasure to see somebody other than himself in trouble. And he could turn the class on you in a minute. I saw the way he shook his head in disgust at poor James as he walked the walk of shame to the nurse’s office, covered in vomit, and how the rest of us quickly followed suit. I saw how our class cowboy’s accent went from a novelty to a total joke each time L asked him to say something and then shook his head and offered a Grinch-like snicker when he did.
So, it was no wonder why in the brief seconds of a winter day, I saw my third grade life pass before my eyes. It was cold. It was gloomy. It was wet. And I was sick.
I was in my reading group with about five others and all of their eyes were on the page. Everyone else in the class sat at their desks, occupied with a worksheet of some sort. It was the kind of moment everyone is doing what they are supposed to be doing and you look around and time almost seems to stop. That’s when it happened. I sneezed. And the most perfect bubble came out of my nose. It was large, so large I could actually see it looming in front of me. If it wasn’t so gross, it would have been beautiful, the way it glistened. But nobody saw what happened.
Nobody but L.
I saw the Grinch-like grin spread across his face. I saw the hint of disbelief in his eyes. I waited for him to point, for him to laugh, for him to draw everyone’s attention to the grotesque, glistening mucus bubble hanging from my nose. I was paralyzed. I waited for the inevitable.
And then it popped.
And L shook his head, offered me a disgusted but crooked smile, and looked back down at his paper.
Maybe he thought no one would believe him. Maybe he had once been the victim of a booger bubble and knew its hardships. Or maybe he was just very impressed. In any case, he never said a thing.
And it was one of the first times I realized, sometimes even those we think are the worst, those we fear the most, can be merciful and kind. I stopped thinking of L as just a horrible person and instead realized there are many sides to all of us. It’s a lesson I carry to this day, and most likely, one of the biggest ones I’ve ever learned.