I was obsessed with black girls. I could stare at them all day, and often did. There was, in my eyes nothing so beautiful, nothing so exotic, and nothing so powerful as a black girl. I told one once that I thought she was pretty. Very sweetly, she thanked me then walked over to a group of black boys, spoke to them for a few seconds, pointed at me, and they beat my ass.
I learned that the black girls of 20th Street School were off limits, but that fact did nothing to change my attraction to them.
If you were very careful, if you positioned your face just so, and you made yourself look as bored as possible, then you could sit within sight of one of their circles. And I tell you, there was nothing like it. The girls would gather in a great circle of between six and eight girls. Often there was a teacher who would join them. They played a form of patty cake that was beyond my imagination. They would clap the hand of the girl beside them in a complicated pattern as they all sang songs in rhythm. Each day the song was different. They spun every now and then. A girl, without warning or sign, would spin in a circle, dancing as she continued to slap and clap the hand of the girls beside her. They would sing and they would laugh, and I would do my best to look bored as I studied every move they made.
I have never seen one of these circles anywhere else. No movie, no show, no book has ever shown one before. It is a small spark of a lifestyle and culture I was allowed to witness from afar. I have never forgotten the joy it brought those girls, or how beautiful their performance was.
My sister had Mr. Schwingle the year before. My parents loved the man. He was one of their favorite people on earth. So when it came time for me to go to fourth grade and I was given to a different teacher, my parents stomped their feet and yelled and, through pure manipulation and rage, got me switched from my first fourth grade teacher to Schwingle.
I have never in my life met anyone like him. If God ever made another of these men, reality would fold in on itself, for no one in the world thought, acted, or taught like the man, the myth, the legend, Mr. Schwingle of 20th Street School.
He was an odd-looking man. Not ugly. I would never say that. There was nothing ugly about him. But he had a face. It was as if his face was busy doing something no face in the world had ever done before. As if some part of him was moving differently than any other person on the planet. He was completely unique, a man with no match.
I cannot say things like this without an example, so here you go. I will provide you with a simple glimpse at him. He dressed well. All the teachers did, but he was prone to wearing suitcoats and ties when they were not required. He gave us all a work page and saw I was done with it early, so he walked to stand beside me. I looked up to see his silk shirt, black with odd brown shapes on it. I leaned forward, stared and examined, until I realized the strangest thing about his shirt was that it looked as if it had mushrooms on it.
I laughed. No business would make such a shirt. No sane person would wear it if they did. I looked again and he laughed.
“You’re looking at my mushrooms.” He grinned and his eyes flashed brown flame.
“Does your shirt have mushrooms on it, Mr. Schwingle?” I asked.
He unbuttoned his suit coat and opened it slightly. Within his silk-lined coat was a print matching the silk shirt on his chest. “Not just the shirt, my boy,” he said with a wink. “I’m the mushroom man today.”
He taught us BASIC. We had a curriculum. Math, social studies, English and science, we had reading to learn and spelling, and while he taught us all that, he taught us the computer system BASIC and gave us time and inspiration to write and execute our own program. He had cast his eye into the future and he knew computers would one day be a big deal. It was the voice of the future, and he wanted us to have conquered it at least once in its infancy so none of us would be intimidated by what he called a perfect machine.
“A computer,” he said, “will only do what you tell it to. It will not add anything extra. It will not subtract anything, either. If there is a problem with a computer, it is an operator error. Only you can limit the things done with a computer. Your own ability is your limitation.”
He had a computer in his class he named Chips. Gregory Romeo was in charge of caring for Chips, and the boy was good at what he did. He wrote a program that would randomly choose a number between 1 and 100. That does not sound like much to you, but Gregory was a fourth grader and this was ’85.
My program was not as impressive, but I loved it. It was a maze. A very simple maze, and at its entrance sat an arrow. When you hit the enter button, the arrow would run the course of the maze and make it to the middle. It is, to this day, the most impressive thing I have ever done with a computer, and while I am not gifted on my iMac, I can tell you it does not scare me or in any way put me off thanks to Mr. Schwingle.
One day Mr. Schwingle sat in front of the class with a children’s book. It had a brown paper cover on it that he had made himself. He read the story out loud to us. It was about a man and his son making pudding for a pie. When he was done, he closed it carefully and told us to get out a scrap of paper. He said to write on the paper the race of the man and boy in the book.
There were about 25 of us in the class. He gathered up our answers and marked tallies on the board. When he was done, 22 kids were positive that the boy and the man were white. Three said they were black. I looked around the classroom I was sitting in, seeing seven out of every ten of my classmates were black.
When he turned the book around and showed us the inside, and we could all see the black man and his boy, I was shocked. I had never seen a black man and boy in any commercial or book. I had never seen a black super hero, had never seen a black leader.
This white man in a mushroom suit taught us all about the value of representation and equality with a story about pudding. He said if the children of minorities never see themselves being heroes, then they would have trouble finding the hero in themselves. It was 1985.
Mr. Schwingle was the only person besides Char to ever meet the alter named Shush. Had he known what he was looking at, he would have breathed fire to keep me safe. He could never tell that within me was a shattered mind. Could never have known that I had suffered such horrible abuse. He had been told about the court case. Had been told about my sister’s abuse, but mine was still hidden. He could never have imagined that day he was looking at a rape victim so broken by his trauma that he was incapable of speech.
It all started with a bathroom pass. Had to pee, and he sent me with a friend named Roddy, a little black boy with wild hair and a goofy laugh. The bathroom was in the basement, and though we were on the fourth floor of the school, it was still the closest place to go.
We ran down the stairs, laughing and tossing the little plastic bathroom pass back and forth. When we got to the bathroom, we broke out into different directions. I hit the stall, he hit the urinal. That is all I remember. That is all I can call up. I do, however, know how that story went.
Shush came out when Roddy walked past the stall. Shush stood, terrified, his pants down, his body exposed, and he froze. He could not move. Could not speak. He stood in that stall a long time, and when he finally could move, he pulled his pants up and sat. He sat on the toilet, staring straight ahead, afraid and unable to call for help.
My friend called for me. He knocked on the stall door and it popped open. He looked inside and saw me sitting, blank face, staring ahead, slowly crying and unable to focus on anything or anyone. He saw me staring in wide-eyed horror as Shush waited for Char.
Roddy waved his hand back and forth. He yelled at me. Even slapped me, but I was catatonic. He finally left, running to get help.
As the sound of the boy faded, Shush realized he was alone and he stood. He had no idea where he was or what had happened. He didn’t know what corner Char was hiding in, or where his grasping hand would reach out from. Shush walked the stalls and the urinals slowly. Trembling and terrified, he stepped gingerly, fighting to be as quiet as possible as he tried his best to escape a man who was not there.
He made it to the mirrors and caught his reflection. Red face, slow silent tears, mouth agape, he saw the image of his terror and could do nothing but stare at it. He had no idea what he was looking at. He had never seen his own face before.
To his right, he heard footsteps and he turned to see Mr. Schwingle in the doorway staring. Mr. Schwingle, concern and dawning horror on his face, as he stared at a shattered little boy trembling, on the verge of loss of control.
“Jesse,” he said. “Are you okay?”
The traumatized wisp of a boy slowly moved his hand to his mouth, placed his finger on his lips and said, “Shh.”
Horror. I can still, as I sit here, see the look of horror on the man’s face. He moved fast. He rushed in and wrapped me up in his arms. I screamed, and then I went slack. I collapsed in his arms and he hefted me up and carried me back to class.
“You’re gonna be okay,” he said, “You’re gonna be alright.” He repeated those words over and over, to me or himself I still don’t know, and when we got to his classroom door, he opened the door to the immediate right and we went into the tiny room off of his classroom where we all hung up our coats. He set me on a bench and sat beside me, straddling the bench and studying me.
“Do you want me to call your mom and dad?” he asked.
Fresh sobs. Frantic, gyrating legs and emphatic shaking head.
“Okay, okay, Jesse, just you and me, then. That is okay. Listen, do you have anything you want to tell me? Anything at all that you can’t say to anyone else?”
And Shush looked at him. He stared at Mr. Schwingle and held his finger to his lips. “Shh,” he said as he shook his head.
Mr. Schwingle wept.
“Listen, Jesse, I have to say something. You need to hear it. No one else in this building is going to say it. Not your teachers next year, or your teachers from years past. No one will tell you this because they don’t have the nerve. But I don’t care what happens to me, so I want you to listen. I love you. I want to protect you, and if you ever need me, I will be there. You are not alone. You are loved by at least one person.”
That was the first time Shush ever heard the word love.