Classroom assignment. Write a report about why your family came to America. Describe in detail the journey they took from the Old World to the New and explain to us what the American Dream meant to them.
Father Gianni, Bayside born, Howard Beach raised, seems to think, according to the history he studies, that everyone who comes to America comes to seek a better life and they immediately find it once they step on America’s golden shores. Europeans fled the Old World to seek a bright future under the loving gaze of the Statue of Liberty, he says. And all the others, and yes, this is exactly how he puts it, “All the others,” came to the States to escape the Third World conditions of their home countries, all those poverty stricken countries where people are like rats on a sinking ship, all of them desperate to find some piece of driftwood they can cling to that will, God willing, take them to dry land.
Most of the students are barely listening to him. They are looking at the clock, counting the minutes til dismissal. But I don’t care about the end of the school day. I am too angry to give a shit about anything except for maybe this prick of a priest in front of me. And so I’m ready for him.
It’s not bad enough that the school expelled my friend, Peter, for just trying to defend himself and only suspended all those guys from Bay Ridge who beat the shit out of him. I mean, what the fuck? They have been picking on him all year, calling him Chink every other day, fucking with him every chance they got and so he decides to stand up for himself. He shows them a knife and tells them to leave him alone. That was first period and by third period they catch him in the staircase, drag him down two flights, beat on him for good measure and then throw him in the Dean’s office talking about he threatened them with a knife.
I swear I hate this fucking school. School of God my ass. I bet if Jesus went to this school, they would fuck with him for being a Jew. I swear sometimes I just get so fucking angry thinking about how people can be such assholes to one another.
Father Gianni looks at me and says it’s my turn to discuss what I will be talking about in my paper. I smile as I step up to the front of the room to face the class.
One of the nice things about being a senior with all your credits and your college applications already submitted is that you no longer have to hold back your tongue with the teachers who have been pissing you off for four years. And since this is the same priest who told me on my first day of school that my accent was too thick for French and then to follow up, with his divine opinion, he added, jokingly he later told my raging mom, that maybe I needed more time off the banana boat before I thought about learning the complexities of such a civilized language, well since this is the same priest who said that, I am more than ready for him.
I ask him if it is okay to talk about people who come to New York only to discover that what they thought was going to be a better life is actually a worse one. “What if when you get off the plane and see the streets up close, they look and smell like shit? Can we use that word in our report? Shit? What if the house you thought you were going to live in is not even a house, but a tenement apartment with a view of a window where there is another kid like you looking out to see what all the fuss is about America? Can we write about that? What if you miss being able to see a clear sky or swim in a blue sea or climb a tree or just run around with your friends who never once talk to you about the color of your skin or say stupid shit to you like, “You don’t talk like other Black people.” What if in this report we report on the mice that climb up the radiator vents to get to your room or the addicts who stagger on the corner or the kids who tag buildings with gang signs? Is that allowed? Can we talk about how Better for you is back in that third world country you left behind? Can we say that the golden streets here that smell of piss and concrete are crap compared to the streets back in that Third World place where you can smell the sea or fresh fruit or just clean island air? Is that allowed? Can I say that no one ever called me a nigger in Jamaica but in the States, better yet, in this school, I have heard the word said more than once?”
Farther Gianni is fuming and his pink cheeks, that resemble giant pimples, look like they are getting ready to blow. If he could beat me down with the history book he is squeezing then I am sure he could, but since he can’t, he doesn’t. As for the three other brothers in class, they are smiling right along with me. The other guys, most of them pretty good guys, some of them even friends of mine, are just looking at me like I have lost my mind. And since I sort of feel like I have, I keep on going.
“And can I talk about young men who come up here with big dreams and get caught up in shit that leads them to drugs? Is that shit allowed or are we only supposed to talk about dreamy eyed European immigrants who go on all fours and pray to the Statue of Liberty, the same Statue of Liberty no one in my family ever mentions when they talk about their journey from the “Old World” to the “Fucking New”?! And what about our Third World women who have to clean the asses of old rich women up here in the States, because their kids don’t have time to take care of them or better yet, just don’t want to take care of them? Can I talk about how back in our desperate third world hells, people take care of their parents, and for the most part, also take care of their own kids?
And if none of that is allowed, then maybe we can scrap all of that and just talk about slavery. Let me know, Father, do you think the slaves were on all fours weeping for joy that they were finally here or simply weeping on all fours because they were finally here?”
I don’t even give him a chance to kick me out of class. I kick myself out and I don’t stop kicking myself out until I am completely out of the school. Let them call my mom. I don’t care, I swear I just don’t fucking care. After what they did to Peter and all the rest of it, I don’t care about this school and I sure as hell don’t care about their version of the American dream.
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