They say that kids are brutally honest, but really, sometimes they’re just little assholes like I was. Valentine’s Day 1991 I learned something about myself, and the assumptions I was making about the world. I was eight, and yes, it involved a boy, but this had nothing to do with love.
I was a real fan of Valentine’s Day, but not because of the whole showing love part, it was more about the visual and tactile delights the holiday brought. That year, my mom had bought me some dope Tiny Toon Adventures cards, and I was stoked. That Valentine’s Eve I sat at the table and commenced the annual ritual; I ripped along perforated lines, wrote inky notes, ate chalky candies, and licked tiny envelopes. Every Valentine would have a personal message from me, I decided. This seemed like a good idea at the time until I got to those people that I didn’t like or know very well. As such, some of my valentines were as innocuous as yearbook dedications. I stretched to find gems like, “You’re so cool!” and “You make me laugh!” And everything I wrote carried with it an exclamation mark because I thought that would somehow make it more exciting.
I worked my way through my friends, the rest of my classmates, the teachers, and then I got to the very end of the list—Donald. The thing about Donald was that he was different in every way we could imagine. For starters, he was the only white kid in a virtually all-Latino classroom (this was South L.A. after all). He was chubby, blonde and blue-eyed, and silent. Being quiet amongst Latinos will get you nowhere, we don’t trust someone that’s unwilling to speak for themselves, it’s a cultural thing. We also assumed that Donald was quite poor, not that any of us were wealthy by any standards, but he frequently wore his same striped polo and jorts ensemble, even if they were dirty. We didn’t know what to do with him, so we generally ignored him and went about our lives. At that moment, I had a flash of humanitarianism, I would give him a card, I decided. I sat and thought about what to write. Here was someone I honestly knew nothing about, what could I say to bridge the gap? The pen took on a life of its own like the planchette on an Ouija board and out came this:
You have lice.
I sat and looked at the words. I wasn’t quite sure why I had written them, or for that matter, why I hadn’t added an exclamation mark. Maybe the punctuation would make it better, more jokey: You have lice! For only a passing second I wondered if this was mean, but I quickly batted the notion away. Well, he DOES have lice, I thought, it’s not like I was starting a rumor. Some weeks ago he had gone home with the letter from the nurse. He had gone away for a couple of days and come back presumably lice-free, but that didn’t stop us from using it as another reason to treat him like a social pariah. Surely he would find this funny too, I thought, he’ll laugh, he’ll flip me off, and life will go on.
Let me pause here to explain something about Latinos. Our culture is often misconstrued in part because of our humor, which can be perceived by an outsider as cruel or mean, but it’s how we show love! Our humor generally revolves around physical appearance, and the keener and more brutal your observations are, the funnier it is. In particular, the act of giving nicknames is one that’s prevalent in our culture. My Dad is a fucking God at this, with one conversation he can size you up and baptize you with a name. He was a monster in his old neighborhood in El Salvador. A kid with a pot belly? Tifus (Typhus). A kid has slightly slanted eyes? El Chino (The Chinese). Woman frequently comes in and out of the country? La Trafi (The Drug Trafficker). Even my mother got it, to this day she has always been, La Gordita (The Fatty). My father’s observational skills did not escape me, I inherited his quick wit and knack for clowning. I continued his legacy by terrorizing a whole new generation of kids in America.
This was our playground culture, it was all “your mama” jokes and mean-spirited jabs. But nobody took it to heart, it was all in good fun! At least that’s what I thought at the time. Shit, I had kids laughing at ME because I wore glasses, and I didn’t have any brand name clothes or cool snacks at lunchtime. But it didn’t bother me. Correction: It DID bother me, but I had found a solution. Every time someone thought they were funny or witty, I just hit them back harder, and nothing was off limits. Your face, your hair, your clothes, your unemployed parents, or cholo brother. You were going to feel my wrath, and learn not to fuck with me. And so it was.
When Valentine’s Day rolled around, I was feeling pretty good. I had long forgotten what I had written to Donald, never really having thought it through, to begin with. I was wearing a brand new pair of mint green shorts, I was looking and feeling my best. Half way through the day, the teacher announced it was time to exchange gifts. It was a frenzy of kids running around the classroom, dropping cards and candies into the makeshift mailboxes we had crafted earlier that day. I skipped around class dropping my cards off with a smile and a Sweetheart. When I pulled Donald’s card out of the box, I wish I could say I hesitated and thought twice about giving it to him, but I didn’t. I wish I could say I felt bad when I dropped it off, and his little white face blushed pink, and something approximating happiness crawled across his face, but still no. It wasn’t until I sat across the room and watched him as he opened it up and read the message that I had realized what I had done. He put his head down on his desk and started crying.
The rest of the story is a blur. I remember Donald told the teacher, I got in trouble, and I had to apologize, which I did with the utmost sincerity. I hadn’t meant to hurt or traumatize the poor kid, I just didn’t—and honestly sometimes STILL DON’T—know how to engage him in any other language than the language of mean humor. I thought that because I had learned to laugh about all my shortcomings and all the pain that I experienced, that everyone else could too. But I didn’t realize back then that there are gentler souls in this world that simply can’t handle it. Sure now there are entire campaigns devoted to bullying, and being bullied, but back then it wasn’t like that. We were just fucking around, at least it felt that way.
All future Valentine’s Days would be tainted after that. The card themes would change to Animaniacs, X-Men, and Batman, and other popular cartoons, but every time I sat down to write my greetings, I would remember Donald. I would try handing out blank cards instead, thinking this would bypass it, but the memory still poked at my heart. It hurt because, I had been so wrong to do it, but it hurt even more because I knew that I was still doing it. There was no great lesson learned that day, except to stay away from the visibly wounded. But in all other respects, I was still trash talkin’ first and asking questions later. This wouldn’t be the first or last time my mouth would get me into trouble, though. But it would be the last time I would enjoy Valentine’s Day. I just can’t engage in it in earnest, knowing what I’m capable of and what I will invariably do again. It’s just how it is.
As for Donald himself, he suffered greatly for his remaining years at our school, but then he went on to become the 45th president of the United States. LOL. Just kidding, that didn’t happen, but what a great twist to the story THAT would have been, right? I actually never saw Donald again after that year. He wasn’t in my 4th-grade class, and I don’t remember seeing him around the school. Maybe he transferred? IDK, but his disappearance only added to the significance of the exchange we had. He’s one of those kids from your childhood that you don’t forget. Not because they were so amazing, or because they’re such good friends, but because they hold a mirror up to you and it’s the beginning of understanding who you really are.
Sometimes you just have to own it. I’m a jerk, and I always will be.