I got a brief reprieve two weeks later. We headed back to Northern Virginia for the NVSL All-Star meet, and I got to see all my old friends for a single, glorious weekend. It was wonderful, but we all knew that it couldn’t last.
|First Presbyterian Church, New Bern, NC. (via Wikimedia Commons)|
The meet itself proved to be a bigger stage than I could handle. After not swimming for almost two weeks, I placed a miserable twelfth out of twelve—dead last—in the 50 Butterfly. An enormous kid named Seiku Williams dominated the finals, towering over the field physically and winning a relatively short race by two full bodylengths. My parents and I simply could not comprehend what we'd just seen him do. This was the first time that any of us had ever seen real, year-round swimmers in serious competition, and none of us was ready for the realities of my sport at the next level. I headed back to New Bern humbled, with tears in my eyes and a fistful of addresses and phone numbers stuffed into my pockets.
Though I’d promised to try to keep in touch, I felt miserable on the long car ride home. We were leaving a place where I’d been happy, where I knew that I belonged, to move to what suddenly felt like a whole other country. Maybe if I learned to skateboard quickly enough, I thought, things would turn around. But skateboarding seemed a weird and unnecessary pursuit for all that I knew that I was going to have to learn to do it. Worse, I’d already learned that New Bern didn’t have a swim team. I had no idea how I was going to continue in my sport.
And my folks wanted to stay there for the next six years!
* * *
Chris and I walked into the courtyard at H.J. MacDonald Middle School together, but as we got closer to the other students, Chris started edging away from me. What the Hell? I looked around, took in the tan brick facing of the school, the concrete sidewalks, the stone benches, and the worn grass of the common area, and then looked around at all the other students. Most were gathered in clumps, segregated strictly by race, about half white kids and half black. The black kids were loud, but they seemed happy and outgoing. The white kids stood mostly in a single large knot, huddled together like a football team drawing up plays. There were maybe thirty of them, and they stood literally shoulder-to-shoulder, physically blocking outsiders from joining the central conversation. Other white kids stood or sat in a loose orbit around that one central clump, most staring at this knot of obvious Cool Kids with either open longing or rapt attention.
“Dude,” I said to Chris, “what is that?”
“Man, that’s The Clique,” Chris replied. “That’s who you want to be friends with.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said. I looked at Chris. “So are you gonna introduce me, or what?”
A look of panic flashed across Chris’s face, but he was saved from answering by a commotion behind us. I turned and saw two huge black kids hurtling across the common area, fists flying, their momentum scattering the other students in every direction. They went to the ground just as I started backing away, but the crowd surged towards the fight, pushing me into a rough circle around these two kids who were beating the holy Hell out of each other while the rest of the school looked on. Then the bell rang, and the crowd started to disperse without the school administrators ever having intervened in the fight in any way. I looked up, saw Chris heading into school with a couple of the kids I’d noticed standing on the periphery of The Clique, and just like that, I saw how things were going to be.
Oh man, I thought. This is gonna suck.
* * *
Weeks passed, and I slowly settled in. I made a few friends, but my new school had a definite social hierarchy, and I couldn’t break it. I literally could not sit or even stand with The Clique. When I tried, I got called names like “Eagle Beak” for my nose or “Big Ears”. Sometimes “Forehead” or just “Head gimme head!” When none of that stopped me, The Clique did what they’d done that first day, turning inward on themselves as a way to physically keep out the unwanted. I tried to make introductions, but these went ignored. In the lunchroom, there was somehow never room at any of the Cool Kid tables. The Cool Kids flat weren’t looking for New Kids, end of story. Having been a Cool Kid myself back in Camelot, I understood. I had no idea how to get into the group, though.
My folks felt it, too. Our house stood some forty-five minutes’ drive from both Cherry Point and Camp Lejeune, and if the roads were mostly open, they were also monotonous two-lane affairs that made daily driving an endurance test. Dad disliked the commute intensely, and as a career Marine infantry officer, he disliked working with aviators even more. The aviators didn’t talk like he thought Marines ought to talk, nor did they think in terms that he readily understood. When they went on field problems, they went with portable buildings, and sometimes they even took air conditioning! My infantryman father found the practice abhorrent. Mom, meanwhile, took an instant dislike to Mrs. Carswell, and soon their relationship became a source of misery for all concerned.
I’d moved to another planet. The more the Cool Kids excluded me, the less I wanted to be anywhere near them. I knew how to walk into a room like I owned the place, but I would still find myself almost entirely ignored. I made one decidedly uncool friend named Christian, and I met a few of Chris’s friends locally around Riverbend, but mostly I felt like a pariah. My parents bought me a skateboard for Christmas, and I dutifully learned to skate, but even that didn’t change very much. It gave me another hobby, but it was one that I mostly practiced alone or with Chris and Jax.
After a few months, my folks cornered me one night at the dinner table. “Are you ever going to swim again?” they asked. “Or is that it, and your swimming career is over?”
“I want to swim,” I replied, excited for once. “I definitely want to swim.”
I stared back at them. How should I know?