The 9 Lives of Oliver 6: MY NAME IS NOT ‘FIDO’

By the time I moved back to my hometown in 10th grade I’d attended 6 schools in 5 years. We’d been living in Slowdie, NJ. In 1983, it was a Euro-centric town. The girls barely spoke to me. A couple of the boys thought I was cool ’cause I looked like one of their favorite athletes. Most everyone else substituted whatever my name was interchangeably with nigger (not often), faggot, or Fido (the gentlest of the three). Not to mention the variety of ways words like, “brown,” ”dirty,” “slave,” and “black” can be used with enough micro-aggression to cause chronic anxiety.

This beautiful smiling Indian boy named Simmy started “Fido”. He was a cocky sports jock – good at everything; loved by all. He was the other brown meat with perfect teeth, feathered hair, and a feathered nest. He was the heads to my tails, and it seemed the coin was always flipped in his favor. It hurt to look at him. It hurt speaking to him. It hurt to speak to anyone for fear of rejection. 

One day, in gym class, Simmy made a remark about my puffed out curly hair looking like Fido Dido, a popular eighties clothing company logo featuring an animated character with an white afro. I knew he was attempting to seem friendly, but he was also, on the low, picking fun. There was condescension in his tone. Suddenly, all attention was on me. I broke into a sweat and could already feel the “knappy head jokes” coming. I wondered why Simmy singled me out in that moment? Was I supposed to feel lucky he spoke to me at all? 

In truth, I actually did. I didn’t care about the nickname. I thought he wanted to be friends. Until, some of the other kids turned it into, “Here, Fido! Good boy, Fido!” Worse than that, Simmy laughed, too. That’s when it hurt. Now, that the most popular boy in the 7th grade had re-named me “Fido,” everyone else followed suit. 

I was the only Black American boy in the whole grade. I was new to the school. I was usually alone. I was kind of shy, didn’t know much about sports, and was afraid that girls would think me queer.

My teachers were still predominately Caucasian by 7th grade. I never had a schoolteacher of African descent. Of course, Moms was my first teacher at home, and the best Sunday school teacher ever. Pastor Holden gave us lessons on Sunday. My grandmother offered her wisdom in her firm, but loving, way. My father sent letters of love that I may have misinterpreted as excuses, or madness.

Black TV had lessons to teach, too. Even if Black shows like “The Jeffersons,” “Good Times,” “Sanford & Son,” “Different Strokes” were written and produced by the white psyche’s idea of the Black psyche. They inspire us to laugh at ourselves, to reflect, and to find love within ourselves, regardless.

Sherman Hemsley (aka George Jefferson) reminded me of my father. Perhaps, it was the way he danced. Maybe, he was the man I wished my father to be. A quick-witted straight-talker that confronted prejudice, made us laugh through it, and brought home the bacon on cue – all at the click of a button. I never quite learned how to tolerate racism, homophobia, or sexism. Elder Nesto never quite learned the George Jefferson.

By the end of 7th grade I had had enough of my life. I didn’t love my mind or body. I was obsessed with obtaining diet pills. I decided I was too fat. Being 125 lbs. at 12 years old freaked me out. I was too self-conscious and hated my changing body. I was growing out of my clothes and Moms didn’t notice. I was preoccupied with my widening hips. I needed new pants. From behind, people would sometimes mistake me for a girl. Passerby’s, on the street would sometimes call me out, trying to get their flirt on. Then, gasp, after seeing I was a boy.

I admired the women in my life, but I never wanted to be a girl. I was offended at the term “pretty boy” because it was usually a way for haters to feminize me, in a bad way. I had always been pointed out for being “a bit too feminine,” and I’d grown sensitive to it. It was a compliment. I love the women in my life. I believe they love me. However, I still absorbed the impression from some that something about me was wrong. Ugly. Inappropriate. I was dismissed and defined as “gay” “confused” before I was old enough to know what sexuality was. How can we ever feel appropriate in a world that doesn’t see us? We have to accept ourselves through eyes of love.

Currently, we have much more insight on the body dysmorphia so many have felt – and feel. I never felt that I was in the wrong body. I felt that others thought I was in the wrong body, and I was supposed to feel wrong about it. Who I was, seemed to never be enough. I internalized that hate into self-loathing. Where do you turn when you feel invisible and alone? When you feel no one is listening?

I pressed kitchen knives to my chest to see if I could take the pain of stabbing myself in the heart. It hurt too much. I tied one end of a scarf to the shower curtain rod and the other around my neck. I jumped off the side of the bathtub, but the shower rod came crashing down. 

I had heard that a person could commit suicide by needle. Somewhere, on the streets, I happen to find a syringe. I brought it to school, but kept it to myself. Until science, which was actually my favorite class. I figured people might notice me, if I died in the middle of class. I wondered if the school would allow paramedics in for a Black kid. 

While our class explored science equations, I experimented with my own biology. It amazes me, now, that even though I sat towards the front of the class, no one noticed me sticking a syringe in my arm. Or, they didn’t care to notice. The moment I saw that needle standing up in my arm – knowing all I had to do was insert air and the pain after the pain would go away – I was awakened to the truth that 12 years old was too young for me to die. 

A previous user could have tainted that needle. I could have actually succeeded in having a heart attack in Ms. Fielen’s science class. No one knew how much I’d internalized the abandonment I felt. I swallowed the self-hate of others. I felt guilty for being me. I felt that I had to hide my brilliant colors in order to please others. I didn’t think I would ever feel free.

I was tired of being an outsider. It felt like no matter where I went, I didn’t seem to fit. It was one of those lies we adopt from people who don’t always have our best interest at heart. In truth, I’m liked wherever I go – mostly. 

Being my kind of different can sometimes draw out the hate-kind-of-love from people. They really admire you, but dislike themselves for not being where they think you are. Seeing you inspires reflection on what it is that they wish to be, and haven’t mastered, yet. They sell it hiding their inadequacy with a confident smile, and party with a huge circle of followers. All the while trying to convince you that you aren’t as cool as they secretly think you are.

Conditions in our home were unique due to my hyper religious family culture. Holidays, birthdays, and academic accomplishments mattered less. Community mattered more. We weren’t permitted to curse, dance, sing, or flirt, – unless u could find a Bible passage to support it. 

Service to others was paramount. “Witnessing” or spreading the message of love and living a chaste life, was the prime directive. I believed in this sacred mission as a child, however, I noticed that most people don’t practice what they preach. As I grew older, I was less and less satisfied with others’ interpretations of these spiritual philosophies. 

There was something in the way that I moved and spoke as a young kid that inspired some folks to laugh, point and mumble under their breath. I must admit, I knew they couldn’t help but to respect my character. I was blessed. Most folks tried so hard to ignore my light, one had to see through the facade. It still didn’t feel good. 

Our English teacher, Ms. Jones, was an extremely pale woman with jet black-dyed hair and coke bottle glasses. She was also our homeroom teacher. One day, as she wrote on the chalkboard, she directed a question to me about the assignment. Before I could respond, one of the boys from the back coughed ‘Fag!’ in a wimpish voice. Then, “Here Fido!”

Ms. Jones never turned around. More kids giggled. She never said a word. She stopped writing, yet still faced the board. Her head was bowed, almost touching the chalkboard, and her shoulders were shaking. Wait, Ms. Jones was laughing! 

How was I supposed to succeed in school with this kind of macro and micro aggression? Without parental support? I’d been playing Coronet for 5 years, and I wanted to continue. Moms was too busy in her church-mind to pay attention to my pubescent desires. 

We’d moved away from the only town I’d known growing up. Any familiar, loving, brown face was two towns away. Academic survival/success was a priority for me. However, the anxiety I faced made it hard to focus. I had to stop my music lessons because we couldn’t afford them. I was struggling academically and socially. I don’t think Moms even noticed. 

The fear that I might fail was smothering. By the close of the school year, I’d hustled to be promoted to the 8th grade, by the skin of my teeth. I managed my own academic career. If my teachers asked to meet with my mother, I would tell them they would have to deal with me. Moms made no effort to meet with my teachers. I have no vivid school-life memories of any family member ever going to a parent-teacher conference, or advocating for me as a student after the third grade. 

I let Moms know that Slowdie wasn’t going to work for us any longer. I was one year from high school. I longed to have friends that looked like me, to find a girlfriend, and go to dances that actually played music I could rock to. She found us the sweetest situation in Anglerock Hills. By the time summer came around we’d moved to the kind of Black town I was looking forward to. Another new start.

Intellectual property of ML. King, House of Aleijuan, all rights reserved, 2019


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