Watching it all on TV took me back to my own private memories and to a man who made a huge change to my life. He’s gone now. Too late, I came back home hoping to look him up and to explain what I had done with my life.
My first year in high school. Mostly new people and new classmates. Whole new school. New teachers and new rules. In walks this huge Black man who fills the doorway. He’s my homeroom teacher. Later, I find out he’s also my English teacher. I’m a skinny Mohawk kid in a sea of white with this big black dude at the front of the class.
In bits and pieces, we begin to learn about him. He’s a musician. Piano. Upright bass. Who knows what else? Played at various times with the Count, Ellington, Oscar. This cannot be my high school in southern Quebec.
I learn more from his example, from his quiet strength. He rarely raises his voice, but when he does the windows rattle. Some kids test him, try to push his buttons. He knows what they’re doing. Somehow you know that he’s been through a helluva lot worse than anything these dumbass kids can throw at him. I watch and learn.
As for me, I’m an arsehole too but of a different kind. I am taunted, insulted, bullied. Mostly, I walk away. Every now and then, I turn to confront and fight if necessary. One day, one of the kids who has been on my ass from day one shoots a piece of chalk at me. I duck. It hits the door frame just as the Homeroom walks into class. He spots me but I’m not sure he’s seen the kid who threw the chalk. I get detention. The other kid doesn’t. I get steaming mad at the unfairness of it all.
In the next class, I react. I act like a jerk. The teacher here has a penchant for using her yardstick. She walks up to me, asks where my homework is, and gets a smart mouth from me. “Put out your hand,” she orders. “No,” I reply. “Put… out… your… hand,” she repeats. “No.”
She is fuming. Why, she asks this skinny little Mohawk kid, won’t you put out your hand? I reply: “Because I’m federal property of the government of Canada. You can’t touch me.”
I can’t believe it when she walks away, her face beet red. The story, I guess, spreads. This uppity little Mohawk kid says we can’t touch him because that would be defacing government property. Who ever heard of that one?
In English class the next day, with my homeroom teacher, we are given a piece to read. I zip through the assignment then start to doodle on the cover of my notebook. I doodle and doodle, unaware that my teacher is looming up behind me. I continue fooling around with my pen and notebook until – SWAT! He’s slapped me upside the back of my head.
I put down my pen, and look up to see this mountain moving past me. I swear I can see a smile, but I can’t be sure.
I look at the the cover of my notebook to what I was doodling: “Black is beautiful, but Red is divine.”
I grow to admire and respect Mr. Patrick. His love of music, the stories he tells us in class, his quiet strength. These are his gifts. On days like the ones when Mandela walked out of prison, when Madiba became president of South Africa, and when Obama wins and later is inaugurated. I can’t help but think of Mr. Patrick.
Then I think to myself: Funny, how so many of my heroes are Black.