1984. I made it to high school! It was a challenge getting through the last few years. But, I made it! Leaving a small private school 2 years ago to attend an over-sized public school with all white people – culture shock. Moving to a school with mostly Black people was comforting. And, scary. It felt good to be around people I could relate to; but it also made me uneasy. Our community can be a little heavy-handed in their ”tough love” towards its own.
I was worried that I might get jumped. Or, laughed at. In eighth grade, I was the new kid. This year, everybody in my grade was the new kid – a freshman, or fresh woman. Most ninth graders were worried about getting punked in some way by an overzealous upperclassmen. I probably felt braver on the inside than most. Maybe it was my faith that everything would work out for me. Or perhaps, I was used to navigating bullies.
Last year started off smoothly enough. I was asked the usual curious questions: Where did you move from? What sports do you play? What do your parents do? Do you have a girlfriend? Do you like…? The attention of curiosity in a new school was always intoxicating. Everyone, wondering and buzzing about who you are, or might be.
The girls giggled at the prospect of a new cute boy. The boys sized up what sports u might be better at than them. The teachers all smile at you right before you both find out just how much you’ll annoy each other. A “new kid pass” usually lasts at least until after Halloween.
Right before Thanksgiving, the untouchable status that my “new kid pass” afforded me – went mute. A boy in my grade named Oliver Cartier started throwing daggered looks from across the hall. His fifth period woodshop class was diagonal to my chorus class. I didn’t know many people, but I had seen and heard of Oliver Cartier.
Oliver Cartier chained smoked cigarettes by the eighth grade. He was the muscular younger brother of infamous twins, Romeo and Romao Cartier. The hood knew them for selling crack rock and robbing old people. They looked out for their mother though, and bought her a nice home, no mortgage. The Cartier Twins had been in the Daily Newspaper a few times. After they were arrested and sent to prison, Oliver, his mother and little sister were on their own. Their father had been a big-time heroin dealer back in the day, and had mysteriously overdosed.
Back at Anglerock Middle School, there were five Olivers in the eighth grade that year. Oliver Blanco was invisible to almost everyone. The “genius nerd” liked it that way. His father taught Advanced Biology at the local college. Blanco’s mother was an international translator who had the gift of gab. Oliver B. was quiet and usually hung out with the Asian kids. The hippest thing about him is that he secretly knew the recipe and process for cooking crack.
Oliver Wyndam. The tall, dark, and handsome football jock. His mother was popular in local Black society and an active volunteer for local charities. She thought her son should focus on getting a law degree. OW’s dad was the superintendent of schools, and would LOVE to see his son play in the NFL. OW. didn’t mind what his parents thought. He actually has never expressed an original thought of his own.
Oliver Brighton was square. Class president. Everybody called him “Oliver Bright One,” or “OBO” for short. His broad shoulders and pigeon toes give him the look of a cube. He came from an economically impoverished family. Both of his parents had become victims of heroin. Then, enter the crack epidemic. They left him with his paternal grandfather when he was 7. He was always studying – trying to be the great leader his grandfather said he could be.
Then, there was Oliver Cartier, the resident thug. Same story, harder breaks. And me, Oliver Sixx, “the whatever man.” Dad gone. Moms strung out on religion. Except what they could assume, no one knew enough about me for there to be any juicy gossip. For some reason, Oliver Cartier was focused on me in the most negative way.
“I’ma kill you! I hate you, you fckin’ faggot!” were the words he mouthed to me one day from the door of the woodshop, as I entered chorus. He was holding a rubber mallet, and there was a fire in his glaring look. I was shocked. I had never even spoken to him. The only thing I could think of was people may have teased him about our sharing a name. He certainly didn’t want to be confused as me. Whatever, man.
Part of me feared turning a corner, or going into a bathroom, where I might find him standing there. Another part of me, secretly, enjoyed the quiet power I seemed to wield. Oliver Cartier was a ghetto celeb who felt threatened by my presence. In my imagination – by simply being – I’d aroused inexplicable feelings within him.
Back on planet Earth, I was keeping my but, unkicked. Most people left me alone. Except, when it came to Gym Class, where they laughed at my lack of athletic swag. I really WAS in great shape. The anxiety kept me from performing well. In other classes, I was adapting to new expectations, adjusting to reduced teacher attention, and larger than life personalities.
Enter: Basic Reading. Anglerock Middle School meant well, but they had no idea of who I was academically. If they did, they would have never placed me in basic reading. I’ve been helping kids older than me with reading and comprehension since I was 5. I knew they’d catch on eventually, but I decidedly kept quiet for the sense of adventure.
I was partnered next to a powerhouse-in-a-small boy body, named Langston Lewis. He was a good-looking kid, with a great smile, and a lot to say. He asked me all about myself with a charmy kind of “I’m sizing-you-up” swagger. He’d go on about his clothes, his friends, and his girls. The teacher was always ‘shh-ing’ in his direction. He’d always flash a killer smile her way in defiance – and continued talking.
Right before Thanksgiving, Langston and I came into class wearing the same new Jordache shirt – in different colors. Langston wore his with Jordache jeans tucked into platformed boots. I wore mine with the pin-stripped Lee jeans and Pumas I managed to convince Moms to buy me.
Langston was offended that I would have the same shirt as him. He asked me where I bought mine, and I referenced a store in New York City. That made him grow even greener with envy. “So you think you can dress, yo? You shop in New York?” He baited. “No, I just know what I like.” I coolly responded. “Nah, you think you fly. You think you can dress. I’ma show you who can dress better. Let’s have a competition.”
“I bet you I can beat you in a clothes battle.” he spat. “Okay,” I said nervously, knowing full well, I didn’t have the budget, or the clothes choices to compete with him. “Aiight, bet. Starting Monday, we’ll go outfit for outfit. I’ma give you that ‘school boy’ look. I’ma give you player-player. I’ma give you B-Boy… Then, we’ll see,” he scoffed with a look of disdain. I went back to my reading assignment, dreading the mess I’d gotten myself into simply by getting dressed that morning.
All weekend I scrambled for clothing. Five super fly outfits that would save me from public humiliation. Perhaps, they would even propel me to the new heights of grade school celebrity. I recycled old clothes as creatively as possible. I altered pants by hand. I even borrowed some of Mom’s unisex clothing for an ‘avant-garde’ look.
By Monday morning, I was supermodel ready. I was gonna give ’em somethin’ sporty on Monday; ghetto fabulous, on Tuesday; “hip hop VJ the hard way” on Wednesday; Ebony Magazine business casual, on Thursday. I’d finish strong on Friday with something “avant-garde.” I may not win, but I’ma go down looking good.
I had 2 classes before Reading. I received a few nods and compliments on my look. As the time drew near to meet my fashion nemesis, my palms grew clammy, and I felt light-headed. Langston would mercilessly roast me in front of the class, no matter what I was wearing. Then, the news would travel all over school and I would lose all assemblances of a promising social life. The anxiety was paralyzing. Soon, it was time for Reading. One Puma in front of the other in the direction of class was all I needed. I would be brave; courage was my only option.
To everyone else, it was a typical Monday. Kids came into class gossiping and joking. Our teacher greeted everyone as she prepared the board for the lesson. Were they secretly waiting for Langston to arrive all dapper and social-squash me? Was he delaying his arrival to class for dramatic effect? As the bell rang, and everyone took their seats, it became apparent that Langston might miss class. As it moved on, he never showed up. I’d made it through class looking AND feeling like a winner. Word in the halls was that Langston was working on a movie.
Whaaat? A movie? “Yeah, a movie!” a girl from my homeroom was explaining to her friend. Langston Lewis was an actor. Plus, he was the little brother of Master Gee, member of the pioneering rap group The Sugarhill Gang. I hadn’t recognized him, but I was reminded of a cereal commercial he’d done as a young kid. Now, his confidence, out-spokeness, and popularity made total sense. Sylvia Robinson, who was responsible for the first recorded rap single and founding Sugar Hill Records, had a son in my History class. Redhead Kingpin was in the grade below me, running through the halls. Kwame was there with his polka dots. Members from Blackstreet were my other classes. Anglerock was a hotbed of would-be Hip Hop artists and young music moguls in the 80’s. Leo O’Brien was part of that legacy.
I never saw him in class again. I was transferred out of the class into college prep English by the end of the week. His stardom had him attending school sporadically. By the time the movie was out we were high school freshmen. Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon would be culturally iconic for Black Americans.
Bruce Leroy Green (Taimak) was the pure-hearted martial artist from Harlem who liked to meditate on the roof, eat with chopsticks, and dream of being Bruce Lee. His family uncharacteristically owned a pizza shop called Daddy Green’s Pizza. (“Directa your feetza to Daddy Green’s Pizza” in my best Italian accent.) His pint-sized, wisecracking younger brother, Richie Green, was played by Langston, and cute little sister played by Keshia Knight Pulliam (The Cosby Show).
The feature also starred Vanity (the artist formerly known as Prince’s girl) as the love interest, Laura Charles. Laura is in need of a bodyguard to protect her from shady music industry dealings. The late Julius Carry as Shonuff, The Shogun of Harlem, was the perfect antagonist to Bruce Leroy’s heroic character. A diverse cast of other actors and comedians, who were “on the verge” at the time, made the film even funnier and more culturally relevant.
The soundtrack was laced with music from Vanity, DeBarge, Stevie Wonder, and the legendary Mr. Smokey Robinson. Although, ‘The Last Dragon’ was a Taimak/Vanity/Motown vehicle – Langston stole the show at every opportunity. The wise-mouthed, funny kid with the confident swagger who cut up in our Reading class, exploded with a similar energy on screen. Shonuff!
Off-screen I’d managed to avoid my arch nemesis, Oliver Cartier, for most of the year. He still scowled every time he’d see me in the hall. My shyness, or social anxiety evolved into a desire to make myself invisible. Walking through the crowded halls between classes was most stressful.
At any moment I expected someone to call me out about whatever: my nerdy, undersized clothes; my manner of walking, my “big” lips and nose, “Oliver Homosixx,” or worse. Traveling through the hallways meant distance from people and staying close to the wall lockers. A cloak of invisibility had become my superpower.
There were those magical moments when somebody would breakdance, or uprock battle between classes. A boombox would mysteriously emerge from someone’s locker, and it would be on like pop-de-popcorn.” Windmills, backspins, moonwalking, electric boogie were all fair weapons in the battle of love and hip hop. Then, the period bell would ring, and you remembered you had a class.
I longed to be in those dance circles. I longed for the nerve to stand proud in front of everybody and do my special thing. The spirit was willing, but the heart was shook. I had been raised to dance to no music, but Gospel. However, I could feel my protective shell cracking. Oozing from within me was a prisoner, too long suppressed.
Ironically, as I was seeking my own freedom, Oliver Cartier lost his. Allegedly, he was arrested. Officially, I never knew what happened. Folks just said he’d be gone for a while. Allegedly. I felt empathy for him, but I rejoiced at the prospect of finishing the year without conflict. Allegedly.