The boy sat transfixed away from the white board. Mrs. Howard’s third grade class today was learning about 10th century A.D. China, in a way that was both progressive just by sheer fact of the subject and regressive by the sheer fact of the subject. She had little interest in the subject; none of the children had any context for the material and this being the class before recess only compounded the issue. No topic could really keep their attention and certainly not one that was halfway across the world and didn’t have an immediately relatable video game tie to frame it for them.
“Alright class, it’s time for recess,” said Mrs. Howard.
The class darted for the door and lined up in alphabetical order, anxious for the teacher to release them outside. The child that was so previously transfixed away from day’s lesson stood on the opposite end of the line of the child his gaze. His name was Jamal Augustine; he wore a small unkempt afro, smiled with two missing front teeth, and kept looking back at another young man in the class line. This young white boy, Drew Warren, was wearing a knitted mustard scarf, a Technicolor wool sweater and black mittens. Jamal’s head was so crooked back and mind so wrapped up in the detail of Drew’s outfit that when the teacher said to follow her outside, he missed the instruction till a boy behind him gave a slight shove.
“Let’s go outside kids, and I hope ya’ll are bundled up, cause it’s approaching winter time,” said Mrs. Howard.
Once stepping outside the kids spread into various directions with some heading to the swings, others the basketball court or the rest to a back lot to play football. Jamal went to that back lot to go play football, which was typically two-hand-touch variety except when older kids joined in, get overexcited, and made it closer to a full-contact sport. Jamal wasn’t particularly skilled on the offensive side of the ball of the game, so he preferred being on defense and trying to disrupt the opposing team’s passes or impeding a running play. But today he was struggling to defend any passes thrown in his direction. The sun was too bright in his eyes was his reasoning, which prevented him from making a good read on the passes being thrown by the other team’s quarterback. Passes kept being thrown over his head, and the rest of his team got on him for continuing to allow so many completions.
“What are you doing over here?” shouted one child.
“This game wouldn’t be close, if you just did your job,” blurted another teammate.
"I know, I know," said Jamal.
“Stop the next one, recess is almost over,” said Jared, a white boy, with a deceptively lanky body for being one of the oldest kids on the field. Though not a physically imposing figure, he always had a comment for any player that he felt wasn’t pulling their weight, and he always had something to say to Jamal, whether that he wasn’t running fast enough or jumping high enough. The defacto coach on whatever team he was on, Jared was ready to open his mouth to tear down Jamal even if they were on the same team.
The other team was about halfway down the dirt field with eyes on scoring just before the half was over. The ball was snapped and it was immediately apparent the play was a pass head towards Jamal. He leapt for the pass and his hand slammed the ball in the dirt, giving his team the victory. Jared and the older kids on the team, hurried off the field without a “good job” or “nice play.” The kids from Jamal’s third grade class were more celebratory and gave him his much deserved props on the excellent play.
Heading from recess into lunch was always a bit of a letdown. The children from kindergarten to 2nd grade pour onto the playground after lunch and the older students having just expended their energy were being served the most middling of private school lunch. Today it was pasta with garlic bread, which most kids prayed would eventually stopped being served after their first battle with stripe throat and memory having to down the faux-Italian flavors never left their mouth’s taste buds. Jamal and the kids he ate with didn’t dread this meal like others and in fact sought out any leftover food they could find from others.
Nixon, a brown-haired child with a pension for talking, saw that Drew didn’t eat his garlic bread and asked if Jamal to go ask for it. Jamal looked at Drew, who hadn’t entered his mind since standing in line for recess. Reminded of the boy, Jamal all over again got lost in the details of Drew’s outerwear: The red, green and yellow horizontal stripes on the back; blue, purple and orange diagonal lines going across the crest with the sleeves being a marvelously woven brown. Jamal’s eyes followed every little thread he could see, which just the grey sweatshirt he was wearing feels even more basic. Off in his own little world, Nixon threw a spoon at Jamal to remind him of the mission.
“Are you going to do it?” asked Nixon.
“Yeah sorry,” said Jamal.
Getting up from his seat, Jamal walked over to Drew, who was sitting with group of guys and a couple girls. He looked past Drew in asking for the bread, as he struggled to make eye contact or direct his face in the same direction as this young boy. The other children at the table were giving Jamal odd stares, but his vision was so narrowed in on not focusing on anything that he paid them no mind. After a second to consider it, Drew said sure and handed the food to Jamal, who then quickly scurried off muttering thanks after already being a table too far for Drew to hear the gratitude.
Nixon gave a perplexed look at his friend, unsure whether to laugh at his face or just wait till he was able to enjoy the situation sans company. He held back his enjoyment and started eating the bread that Jamal had gotten, but noticed his friend’s appetite dissipated. Jamal was just drinking some water and staring off in the distance, so Tyler who was to his right gave a slight shove to have him rejoin their world. Jamal shook back in the conversation about a computer game they all recently started playing in the last week. Lunch came to an end, and Mrs. Howard’s class went back to the classroom.
In the back row of the classroom, Jamal quickly zoned out. Math was a subject for this afternoon and he felt he understood the topic well enough to check out of the lessons unless the teacher announced a new concept. Today they were just reviewing shapes, so his attention went to scribbling within the wide margins of his paper.