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Sometimes We Fall as Boys, but Rise as MenThe Healing of a Purple Heart Iraqi Veteran
By Thomas Green III
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2009 Thomas Green III
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Beginning
* * *
The first thing I remember about school is sitting in my second-grade class, terrified that the teacher would call on me. This day was like any other day. Something to be feared.
Standing in front of her desk with the book in her hand, Ms. Martin paused in her reading and looked around the room. Behind her thick glasses, her eyes scanned us, searching for the next victim. Someone would be asked to read.
I felt myself break into a sweat, convinced that she would call on me. There was nowhere to hide. I avoided her gaze and searched for a distraction.
I spotted a balled-up piece of paper on my desk and grabbed it. Aiming randomly, I fired. The missile hit the head of a girl with long dark hair, one row over.
Ms. Martin's voice rang out. "Thomas!"
I was being called on, but not to read. I was in trouble. Oddly enough, I felt relieved.
"Thomas, go to time-out." She pointed to the back corner, where the chair of shame waited.
Although I felt embarrassed, a weight lifted off of me because I knew I'd avoided having to read. I preferred being the class clown over the class dummy.
By this time, I had discovered that I didn't do anything in school as well as theother kids. Whether it was reading, spelling, writing, or math, I struggled. Sometimes the teacher asked me to read aloud, and nothing was more embarrassing than stumbling over words. If I came to a word I didn't know, that word became a monster, the biggest word I had ever seen. I couldn't pronounce it even if I tried.
Now I would do almost anything to avoid getting called on. I didn't want to say the wrong answers, because I didn't want the other kids to make fun of me.
I was already a goofy-looking kid, with very dark skin and big feet. Children in school could be very harsh and called me all kinds of names. I think they called me every name in the book-"chalkboard," "midnight," and the famous "ash black." Let's not forget "tar baby." I can't believe we used to call each other names like that.
"You so black, you look purple," they liked to say.
I never forgot the kids who picked on me. But I never thought the teasing would affect me in so many ways.
It happened like clockwork. It began while I walked to school, continued during the school day, especially at lunch, and followed me home when the bell rang. It was like the kids had a Let's-Pick-on-Thomas alarm clock, and every time the bell rang, there they went. Can you imagine what they did when they found out I didn't learn as quickly as they did or couldn't read or spell certain words? It was pure hell.
"You're stupid," they teased. "That's why you can't read. That's why you can't spell."
If I stuck up for myself, they would say, "If you aren't stupid, then why they got you in those slow classes, then?"
Tell me, how do you answer that question?
* * *
My journey started when I was born to Thomas Green Jr. and Deborah Green on August 16, 1982, at Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg, Florida. Who knew that the events that would transpire in a child's life would touch and change the lives of others?
When I first began attending elementary school with my two older sisters, I seemed like a normal student in many ways. Although I was shy, I played and laughed like the other children and engaged in normal childhood activities. Unfortunately, I didn't learn like the other children. That was the beginning of a nightmare.
When I realized I wasn't learning like the other children, I withdrew into a shell. When it came to reciting the ABCs or doing simple math, I fell silent. I stared at the teacher as if she were speaking another language. I started to act out in class. I began talking out of turn to keep my name from being called. When I didn't understand the lesson, instead of asking the teacher, I said something silly so she would change the subject. Most of the time, she didn't; she just put me in time-out and asked another student.
I was trying so hard in my classes, but still not doing well. I had that weighing on my shoulders, and I had kids picking on me at the same time. Staying focused became that much harder.
I expected the teachers to make it better, but they didn't. They only seemed to add fuel to the fire. Sometimes they were worse than the kids. Some teachers were young, some old; some had glasses; some were thin, some well-rounded. Some smiled all the time, while others were always in a bad mood. But they had one thing in common: they looked the other way when it came to teasing. They never pulled me aside to tell me not to listen to those kids. Their philosophy was that as long as it didn't break into a fight, they were happy. It was just words, after all. They didn't realize how easily words could tear a kid down.
To me, they were the authority figures, the adults. They should have done something to stop it.
* * *
In third grade, my parents and I were officially told that I was not learning at the same pace as the other kids. I can't help but remember that day, because it changed my life as a boy.
The school had begun giving us tests on every subject, and I got sick of them real fast. They all started to look the same after awhile, and I didn't know if I did well on any of them. Afterward, the teachers started to single kids out. We were either "normal" kids, "gifted," or "slow." That's right, slow.
The day came when I found out the teacher had called my mom and wanted to meet with her. It turned out my test scores were well below average.
My mom came home that day and talked about something privately with my dad. Then they sat me down in the living room. As usual, Dad let Mom do the talking.
Dad was the old-school type, not too talkative. He worked at Derby Lane, the dog track, and wore his Dickies work pants nearly every day. He had played football when he was younger and was a big man. His booming voice could be intimidating. He was definitely the head of the household, but he knew Mom had the finer touch when it came to difficult subjects.
Mom was a churchgoing woman with a positive attitude, always dressed in vibrant colors. She sometimes had a temper, and she could be tough. She would set us in our places if necessary. But she was loving when we needed loving. When I faced difficulties in school, she showed me understanding and never made me feel stupid.
Now Mom looked at me and asked gently, "Do you know what Ms. Goodman talked to me about?"
I shook my head, but I knew it couldn't be good.
"Well, Thomas, she thought you might have a learning problem, so they want to continue some more tests."
I groaned. The tests would never end.
A few days later, Ms. Goodman called me over to the side of the class and said, "The counselor would like to see you, Thomas."
I walked out of the room by myself while the rest of the kids stayed in class. I felt as if something was definitely wrong with me.
Ms. Johnson, the school counselor, took me in a room by myself and asked me to take more tests. She tested me on my reasoning, memorization, and spelling. Some answers had to be written, while others were oral. I looked at pictures while she asked me to tell her what I saw. The pictures were similar to those shown during psychological evaluations. They wanted to test how my brain was working; at least, that's what they told my parents. I had to read a word and try to remember it or spell it back to her later. I had to add numbers on a timed test. For a child, it was just too much.
Apparently, I didn't do so well. They labeled me with a "slow-learning disability," otherwise known as SLD.
I didn't understand what was happening. When my parents explained the results to me, though, they were very understanding. Their first concern was to do what was best for me. Still, I felt out of place. I knew my sisters, Kearson and Quantal, were intelligent. Kearson, my older sister, had been diagnosed with a learning disability, but as soon as she started middle school, it went away. I wanted to be like my sisters. I didn't want to be a disappointment to my parents.
Once we had our labels, we began our classes. It seemed as if the school officials had predetermined the course of our lives based on the labels they had given us. If you were "gifted," you went into special classes. If you were "normal," you stayed in the normal classes. If you were an SLD student, they put you in a whole different wing of the school. I felt isolated from the world. I only saw my friends at lunch, if then.
Around this time, I began acting out even more, talking, throwing paper, and shooting spitballs. With all the testing and the SLD label, the teachers had made me feel like I was dumb after all, just like the other kids said. In fact, after awhile, some teachers started to sound just like the students. I was goofing around and talking in class one day when my teacher said, "You aren't going to make it this way. You'll never amount to anything."
I pretended like I didn't hear her, but inside I felt crushed. I couldn't help but think she must be right.
After the teacher told me that I would never make it, my whole world started to fall apart. In a sense, I gave up. Most of the teachers thought the black students would never succeed, anyway. A few of the teachers I considered second mothers and fathers, but others made me feel like shit.
My parents supported me fully during this ordeal. All they wanted was for me to do well. After every challenge, I talked to my parents to get strength to keep going. If it hadn't been for them, I don't know where I would have ended up.
"Look at life as if you can accomplish anything you want to," Mom would say. "We believe in you. We're not going to give up on you, and we're not going to let you give up on yourself."
One day during this time, Dad looked me square in the eyes and said, "Don't listen to them. They don't know nothing. They don't know what you can do. They haven't given you a chance to see what you can do."
Getting that amount of conversation from him was a pretty big deal. When he looked at me deeply like that, I knew what he was trying to say.
* * *
After all the tests that year, my parents were faced with a decision of what to do. The school I attended didn't have a good program for handling students with special needs. They made it sound like I was messed up in the head. My loving parents gave them the go-ahead to send me to another elementary school.
In fourth grade, I transferred to a school with a program better equipped for kids with learning disabilities. For the first time, I was separated from both of my sisters. This was a challenge for my parents, because all three of their kids were now attending different schools. They were being stretched a little thin.
It took me a few weeks to adjust to the new school, but eventually I did. I started to make friends who were just like me. We had all been placed in a class where no one was smarter than anyone else, and we were all learning at the same speed. In these SLD classes, all the students had disabilities, including physical and emotional, so the challenges weren't limited to learning.
Just when I finally felt at home in the new school, though, I was shuttled to another school across town, because the school zones had changed. It seemed like I just couldn't get a break.
* * *
Fifth grade introduced me to my new passion: football. At nine years old, I began playing football for the Azalea Bulldogs. My parents considered fifth-grade football a time for teaching, but the only thing on our minds was to win, and win big. I was playing with the Bulldogs because I truly wanted to learn the game of football.
Playing the game at nine years old was the highlight of my little life. I was a small kid on the field, barely ninety pounds soaking wet. I was a slow runner. One of my coaches used to say, "What happened? Did your tire go flat again?" Not only did I move as fast as a flat tire, but I couldn't catch. I bet you can guess my other nickname-that's right, "Stone Hands." I could not catch the ball for anything in the world.
Luckily, I had a good dad who knew a lot about football. He and I often played catch. He showed me how to not be afraid of the ball and how to focus on the tip of the ball so I would always know where it was going. I also got a chance to watch him coach the local high school football team. Even though I was only the ball boy for the Friday-night games, I still learned a lot.
My mom usually kept us in church all day, but when I didn't go, my dad and I watched football all day. I grew up watching the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, back when they had orange uniforms. My favorite teams were the San Francisco 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys. I wanted to be like Jerry Rice. He had it all: the speed, the hands, and the ability to make defenders miss. No other receiver out there was like him. Joe Montana and Jerry Rice together was like a long-distance hookup. As soon as Montana let the ball go, all we could think was, Touchdown!
My other favorite team was the Dallas Cowboys. Emmitt Smith was the man. The way he would bowl over people and hit the sideline-how could I not like him? I can't forget my number two receiver, Michael Irvin. I thought if I could have the hands and the speed of Jerry Rice and the bad-boy attitude of Michael Irvin, I would be the toughest thing on the football field.
I did turn out to be a tough little guy, even in Little League. I played all over the field. I played wide receiver and defensive end. I played on the kickoff team and the receiving team. I was the punter on offense. I wasn't the best player, but I had a lot of heart and a won't-quit attitude. I was never good at that whole quitting thing. If I was, my dad wouldn't have let me stay at his house. He liked to say, "I don't raise quitters. If you're going to start something, then you will finish it."
He was a tough father. Talk about tough love-my dad displayed it abundantly. I know now that he had my best interests in mind, but at the time, it felt like I couldn't get him off my back. I thought, Man, I am never going to please him. If it wasn't for my mom breaking it down and explaining why my dad did what he did, I don't know where I would be. All in all, though, I love him for being hard on me.
* * *
Once my parents allowed me to play football, I started performing better in school. In my fifth-grade year, I was mainstreamed for science class. That meant that instead of sitting in SLD classes for all of my studies, I would take science with the normal kids. Who would have thought I would be good in science, of all subjects? When I thought about my best subjects, I was thinking more along the lines of gym or lunch. But to everybody's surprise, including mine, I earned a B in science. The rest of my classes in the fifth grade remained SLD classes.
That year, the school's main goal was to get all fifth-grade students ready for middle school. In case I didn't mention it, these SLD classes included students in different grade levels. Each classroom had more than one teacher, so if our class had a special-needs student, we had an extra teacher to handle that student. To me, none of the students in my SLD classes had serious problems. I considered them normal. I remember one kid who talked slowly and maybe acted a little funny, but he was a smart kid. He could take anything apart and put it right back together. He had a gift for fixing things, because that was what he liked to do. He wasn't interested in much else besides taking things apart and putting them back together.
Another kid liked to draw. He drew all day and didn't pay attention to anything the teacher said. When the teacher called on him, he always had a blank look on his face, like "Huh?", and stared at her as if she were the crazy one. I had fun in those classes. I thought that there was nothing wrong with us. I guess the system thought otherwise.
Excerpted from Sometimes We Fall as Boys, but Rise as Men by Thomas Green III Copyright © 2009 by Thomas Green III. Excerpted by permission.
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