He arrived when I was ten. Ten years, four months, and three days to be exact. Mom had told me he was coming and I’d lobbied hard against the idea. I didn’t even know him. Not only was he going to share my bedroom, we’d be sharing my birthday, May 18, although he was 78 years older than I was. He came anyway.
Shortly before he arrived, my parents bought bunk beds, insisting that the top was mine. I was a little afraid of rolling out of bed in the night, but they insisted that I’d be okay.
We had to have bunk beds because my room was small. In addition to the bed, there was room for my dresser and my desk and chair. That was about all.
My parents removed my desk and bed to make room for my great-uncle Alexander’s small chest of drawers and his recliner.
On Monday, when I arrived home from school, even as I entered the house I could tell he was there. The smell was different. Not a bad smell, I admit, just different.
Hesitantly, I walked into my bedroom, correction, our bedroom. He was in his recliner watching a baseball game on a small TV perched atop his chest of drawers.
He looked at me; I looked at him. Finally, I sighed, walked to him, held out my hand and said, “Hi, I’m Ben.”
He took my hand in a surprisingly strong handshake and said, “Alex.”
“Is that what you want me to call you?” I asked.
“But I’m not allowed to call adults by their first names.”
He thought a moment and then asked, “Uncle Alex?”
I agreed and from then on, that’s what I called him.
That was the way our conversations went for several days—very brief.
I shrugged and walked into the kitchen to make a sandwich—ham and Swiss cheese, with a milk chaser. When I finished my snack, I tried to figure out where I could do my homework, since my desk had disappeared.
Going back to the bedroom, I retrieved my laptop from the top of my dresser. “Laptop,” I said to my uncle, before returning to the kitchen table.
I didn’t have a lot of homework, although at 10 years old I thought it was too much. I knew my older sister, Laura, had a lot more. She also had a bedroom to herself. Why couldn’t my great-uncle Alexander have been my great-aunt Annie? I wondered.
Well, I was stuck. I figured since Uncle Alex was 88, I would probably get my room back fairly soon. Not that I wanted him to die. No, I didn’t. I just thought it was a statistical probability that he would in the not-too-distant future.
Everyone in my family was named after someone. I was named for Benjamin Franklin. Laura was named for Laura Ingalls Wilder, Dad was named for George Washington, and Mom said she was named for Eleanor Roosevelt, although her side of the family hadn’t followed that custom. Oh yes, my uncle Alexander was named after—guess who: Right!—Alexander the Great. Certainly, none of us had any of the traits of our namesakes. I’m sure I had nothing in common with Franklin, and I doubted that my uncle Alex bore much resemblance to Alexander the Great.
At supper that night, all five of us were at the table. Mom asked if Uncle Alex was comfortable in the room. He nodded. He didn’t say a word all through supper. At the end of the meal, he rose and went silently back into our room.
As I said, I’d never met Uncle Alex. He’d lived on the other side of the country, in southern California. I knew he’d never married. I wondered how he’d like the winters. To get here, he’d flown to Boston and Dad had met him at the airport and brought him back to our house, about two hours west of the airport.
Mom told me that Uncle Alex usually went to bed about 9 so I should plan to do the same.
What!? 9 o’clock? I never went to bed before 10. But there was no arguing with Mom. There never had been, although she was always kind and loving and caring.
So at 9 o’clock I went to my bedroom to get ready for bed. I took my PJs into the bathroom, removed my clothes, and put the PJs on. Well, you know, I wasn’t about to strip naked in front of Uncle Alex. I brushed my teeth, peed, and returned to the bedroom, where I got a shock. Maybe I wasn’t going to be naked, but apparently my uncle was. He walked past me, naked, and into the bathroom.
By the time he returned, I ‘d climbed into my upper bunk and was reading with my little booklight. He turned off the overhead light and climbed into bed, still naked. I’d never heard or thought of sleeping bare-assed before. Well, bare-everything really.
I read for a while, and by the time I turned off the booklight, Uncle Alex was snoring. Great, I thought, I’ll never get any sleep.
For the first few nights I didn’t get much, but I guess I eventually got used to the sound; from then on, I slept right through it.
I must have slept some that first night, however, because I woke up in the morning to hear coughing and gagging coming from the bunk below. Uncle Alex climbed out of bed and went into the bathroom, where I could hear him coughing and hawking and then spitting. Gross, I thought.
I decided that if he was going to be naked then I didn’t have to worry much about where I dressed, so I only took my underpants into the bathroom. I did my morning activities, which I’d rather not describe, put on my boxers, and walked back to the bedroom, where Uncle Alex was nearly dressed. I’d no idea whether he had shoes or not, because all the time he lived in our house he wore leather slippers that went slap, slap, slap on the wooden floor in our bedroom and on the tiles in the kitchen.
Mom had made breakfast as she usually did, although this was a special one. Usually, I had a banana, a glass of orange juice, and a bowl of dry cereal, except in the winter when it was hot cereal. That day we had pancakes and bacon. I wasn’t sure whether she was trying to impress Uncle Alex or to say she was sorry about my privacy loss. Either way it was good. I hugged her and encouraged her to do it again before I went out the door and walked to school.
Maybe sometime I’ll write more about school, but at that point in my life, school was just there and was where I spent my time when I wasn’t home. It was an ordinary elementary school and I was in the fifth grade. That’s all you need to know.
When I got home in the afternoon, I saw that Uncle Alex had a bell, like an old school bell. Mom had a bell collection, and I was sure Uncle Alex’s bell was from her collection. I changed out of my school clothes and put on a T-shirt and shorts before going back to the kitchen to get a snack. Mom was there and offered to make me a sandwich, but I told her I’d make my own. She never put enough filling in my sandwiches.
Then I heard the bell ring. Mom groaned, got up from the table, and went to see what Uncle Alex wanted. When she returned, she sat, sighing, and said in a low voice, “That damned bell has been ringing all day.”
Wow! I could tell she was aggravated because she never swore in front of me.
“What did he want?” I asked.
“Oh, just a glass of water this time. But all day he’s been wanting things. I wonder if maybe he’s just lonely. After all, his move from a three-bedroom house in California to a little room here must be a big change for him.”
“Doesn’t he ever come out of the room?”
“Just to use the bathroom and to come to the kitchen when we eat. I invited him to make use of the living room and the big TV set, but he just sits in his room and reads or watches TV. He also told me that he didn’t want to eat in the evening until 7 o’clock because he likes to watch the local and network news.”
“Why did he have to move?”
“Because he couldn’t take care of himself anymore. He’s not strong enough and, when he goes out, like to the market, he gets lost and can’t remember where he lives.”
“That’s kinda sad, isn’t it?”
She nodded her head. “It is. It must be hard to grow old. He looked into retirement homes but couldn’t afford any of them.”
“Well,” I said, “you and Dad won’t have to worry about growing old for a long time.”
She laughed, patted me on the shoulder, and answered, “Thanks for cheering me up.”
“I didn’t realize before that Uncle Alex’s coming here meant sacrifices for all of us. I guess I was just being selfish, making such a fuss about my room.”
“Your dad and I understood and hoped that you’d adjust eventually. I think it would be wonderful if you could sit and talk with Alex occasionally. If he’s lonely he might like your company.”
After my snack, I pulled out my homework and started in on it. I was using my laptop to do some research on Westward Expansion, which is a fancy way of saying the way the settlers to North America moved west, constantly opening up new land. It was kind of interesting. I never thought about the people who had lived there before the settlers. I always associated Native Americans, as we were now supposed to call them, with the west, far beyond the Mississippi.
When I finished my homework, I thought I’d see if I could talk with Uncle Alex a bit before the news came on.
Walking into the bedroom, I said, “Hi,” and sat on the lower bunk. He didn’t say anything, just nodded his head without looking up from his book.
“Whatcha reading?” I asked.
He held the book up so I could see the title. It was a biography of John Adams. I knew Adams had been a president of the U.S., but I didn’t know anything more about him.
“Interesting?” I asked.
He nodded again and went back to reading.
This was not working. He hadn’t said a word. I decided to try once more. “I’m learning about Westward Expansion.”
He looked up at me for a moment before asking, “Have you learned about the Trail of Tears?”
“What’s that? I’ve never heard of it.”
“Look it up,” he replied and went back to his reading.
Well, at least I’d gotten him to say something. I climbed up to my bunk and read some of my Harry Potter book until it was time for supper.
The next afternoon, when I was on my laptop, I typed in “Trail of Tears,” and found a lot of sites about it. I read that The Removal Act of 1830, backed by President Andrew Jackson, was passed in Washington and the government began moving tribes westward. Holy shit! I thought. I read on as I realized what a terrible thing the “Americans” had done to the native population, particularly in the Southeast, forcibly moving tribes such as the Cherokees, the Seminoles, and the Creeks among others toward the west with few belongings and little food. I read that thousands of them died before they got to Indian Territory, which was the area west of the Mississippi. They had been told the land would be theirs. Fat chance, I thought. Wait till settlers want that land.
When I finished reading, I went to our bedroom to talk with Uncle Alex. I told him what I had read and how unfair I thought the act was. He just nodded and said, “There’s more, if you’re interested.” He directed me towards articles that spoke of the setting up of reservations and of the land rush in Oklahoma in 1889.
I told my teacher about what I was finding, and she asked if I’d like to report to the class, so I did. Most of the kids were horrified at the way the Native Americans had been treated because of the growing population of White Americans and their greed.
As Uncle Alex began talking more, I became like a disciple at his feet. One day, I said, “I think you’re sad, but I don’t know why. Will you tell me?
He put down his ever-present book, sighed, and nodded his head. At last he said, “Ben, I know you didn’t want me here, I know I took your room and your privacy, and I know that your parents don’t really want me here either. In fact, I didn’t want to come here. Unfortunately, I had nowhere else to go. I miss where I lived. I miss the friends I had and the places I knew and loved. Now my life has contracted from being out and about and enjoying where I lived to pretty much being in this room. I guess I’m just waiting to die.”
That was the most I’d ever heard him say. I stood, walked over to him, and gave him a big hug. “You’re right, I didn’t want you here. I didn’t want you in my room. But I’ve changed since then. I love talking with you and learning from you. I don’t want you to die; I want you to be here forever.”
We said no more at the time, but through the winter Uncle Alex and I grew closer and closer. I couldn’t imagine him not being in our room, not walking around naked, not snoring, not hacking in the mornings, not reading. Several times I tried to get him to go into our living room, but he wouldn’t go. He said he didn’t want to be in the way, even though Mom had assured him that he wouldn’t be.
After one of those exchanges I said, “Damn, but you can be stubborn.”
He smiled, he actually smiled, and said, “Yup, maybe that’s why I’m still alive. I’m too stubborn to die.”
We both had a good laugh over that, but the thought of him dying always made me sad.
In May, we celebrated our birthdays together, I turned 11 and he turned 89. Mom baked a cake and she and Dad sang the happy birthday song to both of us while Uncle Alex and I sang to each other.
My mother also arranged a birthday party on Saturday for me and my classmates at a nearby indoor swimming pool. She and Uncle Alex came to watch. It was the first time he had left the house since he had moved in, and I had to laugh when I noticed that he still had his slippers on.
Through the summer, I was out and about with my friends a lot, but I always found time to talk with Uncle Alex. He was a wealth of interesting information, and I ate it up.
In the sixth grade we studied early European history, beginning before the time of the ancient Greeks. Uncle Alex didn’t know much about that period, so I let him read my textbook. He looked up resources listed in the back of the book, wrote down one of them, and asked Mum if she could order it for him.
A few days later the book arrived, a large tome all about the early people who lived in what is now Europe. Soon, he began telling me what he learned. I was fascinated. It was like having a beloved teacher right in my bedroom.
He still didn’t say much to Mom or Dad, at least when I was around, but he didn’t look as sad either, and Mom commented on that. She thanked me for talking with him, and I told her how much I was enjoying him.
February was Black History Month, and, as always, we studied about the African Americans in this country. Oh sure, I knew about slavery and how it had ended after the Civil War, but I didn’t really know any of the more recent history, except for Dr. Martin Luther King Junior’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which we watched every year. By then most of us could recite it word for word. There were no African Americans in my school, so I really couldn’t relate to what we were learning. I assumed that the problems the Black people were having were in the Southern States.
When I said that one day to Uncle Alex, he looked at me sadly for a minute and then said, “Let me tell you a thing or two.” He told me about prejudice a lot nearer home and how African Americans had always been oppressed by Whites. He taught me about White Supremacy, which he also related to our treatment of Native Americans.
As I listened, I began to feel very guilty. When he stopped, I told him that.
“You shouldn’t feel guilty, because you haven’t done anything wrong. But you should keep learning about the situation and, when you’re older, find ways to help change what’s happening. Black History Month is fine but learning that history shouldn’t be confined to one month when most schools don’t go beyond teaching about Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights actions in Washington and the South. It’s not just the South, Ben. There’s a reason why there are no Blacks in your school.”
I was shocked. I had always supposed that Black people just lived in their own communities. I took in all that he said and much, much more. One day in class I asked why there were no Blacks in our school. The only answer I got was that it was because there were no Blacks living in our town. When I asked why I was told that they’d rather live with “their own people.” Sure, I thought, I just bet that’s the reason.
In May, we celebrated our birthdays again as I turned 12 and Uncle Alex turned 90. My parents and I thought this was a special day for him, so we made a big deal of the gifts and the dinner. Mom had found a special candle that said ‘90’ to put on the cake. After he blew out the candle, he thanked us all for the gifts, most of which were books either he had mentioned or newer ones we thought he’d enjoy. I gave him a T-shirt which said, “How The Hell Did I Get This Old!?” He got a good laugh out of that and immediately put it on over his other shirt.
Nothing special was done about my birthday that year but I was okay with that. I got a couple of books and some new shirts for summer and that was about it.
Two things happened during the summer. First, I began jerking off and shooting. We’d had sex ed classes so I knew what was happening, but I hadn’t known how much I’d enjoy it. At night I usually read until Uncle Alex was snoring before I began rubbing and came on my bare stomach. I cleaned the cum off as best I could with an old washcloth and hoped Uncle Alex would never know. Later I realized, of course he knew; he just wasn’t saying anything.
The second thing that happened had to do with a house that was sold in our town. Neighbors who lived near the house began picketing the real estate office and the house. I had no idea why, until the new people moved in. They were African Americans, the first Black people in our town, and clearly some people were not happy about it. I read letters to the editor in our local weekly paper which complained of dropping real estate prices and even said some things about the new neighbors being “dirty and shiftless.” Why the hell do they think that? I wondered. When I talked with Uncle Alex, he reminded me of our earlier chats.
“But there’s a bigger issue here, Ben. We’ve talked about the treatment of Native Americans and African Americans, but the big problem, which nobody’s ever solved, is the power of money. Why do white people tend to be wealthier than many Blacks? Because the Whites have used their money to keep the Blacks and the Native Americans down.
“And in one way or another, wealth has always been like that, even long before the Europeans arrived in America. The wealthy people have always oppressed those who had less. The Greeks had slaves; so did the Romans, although their slaves could earn their freedom. Later, some Europeans figured out how to make money and they oppressed the ones who had less—the serfs in the Middle Ages, the factory workers and miners in the 19th century, and the people who lived in colonies which Europeans had established in other countries, like India. Frederick Douglas once said, ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.’ In other words, those who have power will never give it up willingly.
“Did you know that before the colonists arrived here, some of the tribes had slaves? And after the colonists arrived, the tribes sold captured men, women, and children of other tribes to the colonists. This was especially true in the southeast of the continent.”
“No, I never knew any of that,” I said in awe.
“Of course you didn’t. Schools haven’t taught about that. They’ve basically taught a sanitized version of European and American history. Policy makers in the schools have always thought that kids were too young to know about this. It’s only recently that schools have begun to teach about the real problems of the world and even then, only in the higher grades. Elementary school kids are still being brainwashed.”
I was disgusted by the name-calling in the newspaper. I learned that people were leaving threatening notes and signs at the new people’s homes, but somehow, nobody ever caught the culprits. I wondered how hard the police were even trying.
The first day of my seventh-grade year, I was immediately aware that there was a Black boy in my class. I also observed that nobody sat near him unless there was nowhere else to sit. At lunch, he sat at a separate table and nobody spoke to him.
That evening I commented to Uncle Alex, “You know, it’s like the old stuff about ‘separate but equal.’ The boy sat at a table by himself and I never saw him talk to anyone.”
“Did you talk with him?”
“No sir.” I was ashamed because I knew I should have.
“So what are you going to do about it?” Uncle Alex asked.
“What can I do? If I talk to him, I’ll be ostracized by the rest of the school.”
“Well,” he replied, “that’s what you need to figure out. You need to decide what your principles are and then live by them, even if it’s painful.”
I worried that night, but the next day in school, I deliberately took a seat next to the boy, whose name I didn’t even know. Reaching over to him I said, “Hi, I’m Ben.”
He paused for a beat or two before he nodded, took my hand, and said, “Nathaniel.”
Behind me I heard a voice say, “Better go wash that hand, Ben. You never know what diseases certain people have.”
I looked at Nathaniel but he was just staring straight ahead.
In gym that day the coach told us to “pair off in twos.” What other kinds of pairs are there? I wondered. It was obvious that nobody would be Nathaniel’s partner, so I walked over to him and we went through the soccer drills together.
At lunch, Nathaniel was again alone at a table. What surprised me was that none of the boys at my regular table would let me sit there. I went over to Nathaniel’s table and sat down. He didn’t say anything for a bit, but then he said very quietly, “Ben, you don’t need to do this.”
“Yes, I do,” I replied. “The way the others are treating you just isn’t fair or right. My uncle Alex said that I should do what I believed was right, so here I am.”
“You could get yourself hurt,” he said.
“I know, and there are a lot of kids in the school who are older and bigger than us, but I guess I’ll have to deal with that if it happens.”
After that we talked about where he had come from in Alabama and what the schools were like there.
At the end of the day, as I walked out to the bus, someone jumped me from behind and I went down, hard. By the time I got up, the person was gone. I brushed myself off and got on the bus, where nobody sat with me.
That afternoon I told Uncle Alex about Nathaniel and what had happened. He just nodded and told me I’d done the right thing.
“But how do I keep from getting beaten up?” I asked.
“Well, try not to be alone anywhere but you may not be able to avoid it. Are you any good at fighting?”
I had to laugh. “I’ve never been in a fight in my life. Basically, I’m a chicken.”
“You know, if anything happens, you can report it to the adults at school.”
“I’ve seen the looks on some of the teachers’ faces,” I answered, “and I’m not sure they’d be any help.”
The next day, when we were dressing in the locker room for gym, Peter, who was much bigger than I was, grabbed me by the shoulder, punched me in the face, and then walked away. Nathaniel saw the whole thing. He hesitated for a moment and then came over to me, sat on the bench beside me, and asked quietly, “Are you okay?”
“Do I look okay?”
“No. Your nose is bleeding. I’ll get you a towel.” He stood up, walked to the bin of towels as everyone stepped away from him, and returned. Handing me the towel, he said, “I tried to warn you.”
“I know,” I replied, “but I have to do what I think is right, even if I get hurt.”
At that point, the coach walked through the locker room shooing the last boys out onto the field. He stopped beside me and Nathaniel and asked me, “What happened to you?”
“I just get nosebleeds sometimes,” I answered.
“Do the nosebleeds usually also cut you around your eye?”
Nathaniel started to say something, but I put my hand on his arm to stop him. The coach looked at each of us, shrugged, and walked out to the field, Nathaniel and me following him.
By supper time that night my right eye was black and blue and Dad asked me what had happened. I looked at Uncle Alex and he nodded, so I told my parents about being hit in the locker room. Mom asked me about Nathaniel, and I told them what had been going on with him and how I tried to be his friend because I thought it was the right thing to do.
“Honey,” she said, “you can’t do things that you know will get you hurt.”
“So I should just be like the others and ignore what’s going on?”
“No, but Nathaniel needs to fight his own battles if he’s going to be there.”
“But it’s something like 900 to one. How can he do that?”
“That’s for the school to figure out.”
“Well, the school doesn’t seem to be doing a very good job.” I left the table and went to my bedroom, where I was soon joined by Uncle Alex.
“Have you told any of the adults at school what’s happening to you?”
I shook my head.
“Do you think the coach would help?”
“I don’t know, but then I’d just be labeled as a snitch and if anything, that’s worse.”
The next day at school, wherever I walked in the hallways, both students and teachers gave me a wide berth. As I walked into the gym that afternoon, I saw Nathaniel talking with the coach.
When Nathaniel joined me in the locker room, he just nodded.
Out on the field, the coach called us together. He talked about what had happened the day before but said that he had no idea who had punched me, as neither Nathaniel nor I would tell him. Then he said, “Boys, this has to stop, here and now. I won’t have this sort of thing going on in my gym classes. If anything more like this happens, you’ll be reported to the vice-principal, even if it has to be the whole class. Is that understood?” There was a reluctant nodding of heads and the class went on.
We were doing 2 on 2 soccer drills, and of course Nathaniel was my partner. Just as I passed the ball to him, Peter stuck his foot between my legs from behind and tackled me—hard. I fell to the ground. He looked around to see if the coach was watching and then kicked me in the head. I don’t know if I blacked out or not, but I guess I did, because the next thing I knew, the coach was standing over me asking what had happened.
“I just got tackled hard,” I said.
“I didn’t see.”
The coach stood, helped me up and then announced that the class was over for the day. As the other boys showered and dressed, he took me and Nathaniel to his office.
“What the hell is going on?” he asked, as he cleaned the cut on the side of my head and applied a bandage.
I didn’t say anything but finally Nathaniel told him what had happened, although he didn’t name any names.
“Okay,” the coach said, “we’re going to the vice-principal.” When the others had left the locker room, Nathaniel and I showered quickly, dressed, and walked with the coach to the school offices, which were just inside the front doors of the school.
Not even knocking, the coach walked into the vice-principal’s office and began to tell the vice principal, Mr. Hartley, what had happened the last two days.
Mr. Hartley didn’t look very concerned. He replied in effect that boys will be boys and left it up to us to sort it out.
“Isn’t there a rule about fighting in the school?” the coach asked.
“There is but a single punch doesn’t qualify as fighting.”
“So you won’t do anything until one of us winds up in the hospital?” I asked.
“Don’t be smart, Ben. You’ve made your choices, now you have to live with them.”
At supper that night, I again told the adults what had happened and what Mr. Hartley had said. Dad responded, “We’re going to the school tomorrow morning and get this straightened out. Nobody should be kicking you in the head or deliberately punching you.”
“I’m going, too,” announced Uncle Alex. My parents tried to dissuade him, but he insisted.
In the morning, my parents, Uncle Alex, and I all rode to school. Uncle Alex still had his leather slippers on, and they went slap, slap, slap as we walked into the office. Dad said to the receptionist, “We need to talk with the principal.” She said that the principal was busy but we could talk with the vice principal.
Uncle Alex pounded on the counter and said loudly, “That’s not good enough. Take us to the principal.”
The receptionist was startled but went into the principal’s office. Emerging she said, “He’ll be with you in about fifteen minutes. Uncle Alex glowered at her as we all took seats. Just sitting there, I grew more and more nervous.
About twenty minutes later, the principal’s door opened, a man left, and we were invited into the office.
After we introduced ourselves, the principal, Mr. Colby, asked, “What’s so important that you all demanded to see me?”
“Ben here is being aggressively bullied and we need it to stop,” replied Dad.
“That’s a matter for the vice principal, not for me,” answered Mr. Colby.
“Ben went to the vice principal yesterday but he did nothing,” Mom said.
Mr. Colby turned to me and said, “Why don’t you tell me everything that happened?”
So I did. I told him about befriending Nathaniel, being ostracized by the others, and then being attacked by a bigger player on the field. Then I told him what Mr. Hartley had said. When Mr. Colby asked me to name my attacker, at first I was reluctant to. He said that he could do nothing if he didn’t have all the facts, so I told him about Peter. Then Mr. Colby did two things. First, he sent for Peter and Nathaniel. Peter of course denied everything, but Nathaniel backed me up. The second thing Mr. Colby did was to call an emergency assembly.
My parents and my uncle Alex went to the rear of the auditorium to hear what Mr. Colby said.
It took a while for all the students to gather in the assembly hall before Mr. Colby rose and spoke.
“Boys and girls,” he began, “I have just learned that there is something going on in the school of which I had no knowledge. People are being bullied and ostracized, and that’s not what this school stands for.
“We have a new student in the school this year, Nathaniel Greene. His presence presents the school with an interesting challenge. I’m sure you know who Nathaniel is as he’s the only African American in the school and, as far as I know, the first one ever in the school. He and a boy who befriended him are now being ostracized and bullied. I have a feeling that you all know exactly what and who I’m talking about.”
He stopped speaking and just looked at the students in a way that each one felt he was looking at them.
“This is not what this school stands for,” he went on. “You have all had classes about racism in this country and how that affects people. Perhaps you consoled yourselves with the idea that racism was only a southern problem. Well, ladies and gentlemen, it’s not just a southern problem. It’s a national problem, and I’m sad to say that racism exists right here in this school.
“I want to make it very clear to all of you, including the faculty, that racism is not acceptable at this school, ever. If I see any signs of it again, there will be some immediate departures from the school. Is that very clear to all of you?”
Again, he seemed to look at each one of us. Then he said to the vice principal, “Mr. Hartley, please dismiss the students and then come to my office.”
We all filed out of the assembly hall in an orderly way and back to our classes.
Our history teacher, Mrs. Wallace, looked at us and asked, “Does anybody have anything they want to say?”
Finally, Nathaniel raised his hand. When he was called on, he stood, turned and looked at everyone. “I thought when we moved from Alabama to here that I wouldn’t experience racism. I was wrong. There were letters to the newspaper, signs placed on our lawn, and my family and I were clearly avoided whenever we went into a store. That was pretty much like Alabama. But it didn’t really hit me hard until I walked into school and saw the looks I was getting, the avoidance I was experiencing, and yes, the fear I was feeling.
“I don’t understand what is wrong with people who just can’t see that I’m a human being just like them. I have feelings just like them.
“Until today, Ben and the coach are the only people who’ve accepted me. I have a lot of faith in human nature, and I think most of you are better than this. I believe that probably a lot of you consider yourselves Christians. You tell me, how would true Christians act? I think you know but I think that things here need to change—a lot.”
He looked briefly at Mrs. Wallace and then returned to his seat. There was complete silence.
The bell rang and we left the room.
Throughout the day, most of the students were silent when they were near us, but a few reached out to shake hands with us and say they were sorry. At lunch, there were four others who sat at our table. By afternoon, more people were reaching out.
The next morning, on the daily broadcast over the speakers in the classrooms, it was announced that Mr. Hartley had resigned.
Peter never said anything, but he never did anything either. He just avoided us.
Within a week, most of the kids were treating Nathaniel and me like everyone else. There were people who liked us and people who didn’t, but nobody except Peter and his buddies avoided us.
Through the winter, Uncle Alex and I talked a lot. Nathaniel often joined us. At first I was a little jealous about sharing Uncle Alex, but then I realized that Nathaniel was becoming as fond of Uncle Alex as I was and that I was also becoming increasingly fond of Nathaniel. We talked not only about racism but abuse of gay boys and men and of kids with special needs.
The day after we’d talked about the abuse of gay boys and knowing that Uncle Alex had never married, I asked him if he was gay.
He looked at me and then nodded. “I was about your age when I figured out who I was,” he said. “When I was in my twenties, I found the love of my life, Martin. He and I were committed partners until Martin died not long before I moved here. We were often discriminated against and occasionally that turned to physical abuse. At one time or another each of us was in the hospital. When he died of prostate cancer, I was bereft. That’s when I sold my place in California and moved here. It wasn’t really that I couldn’t afford to stay in my home. It was just that I couldn’t bear to be there with all those memories, even though they were all good ones.
“And it wasn’t because of what your mother told you, that I was wandering off and getting lost. I wasn’t. But I had stopped taking care of myself. I wasn’t eating much, I didn’t clean myself, and my neighbors were becoming worried. It was they who called your parents.
“So I took over your room on false pretenses. Your parents have known for years about me and Martin, and they invited me to move here. I’m sorry I wasn’t honest with you, Ben.”
“That’s okay,” I responded. “I don’t think that, when you first came, I could have handled the truth. I’d have worried every night if you were going attack me. But of course you never did. What I’ve never told you is that I now think I’m gay, and I’m very fond of Nathaniel. I don’t know if that’s love because I don’t know what that’s supposed to feel like, but I do know that he feels the same way about me and that we feel incomplete when we’re apart. Is that love?”
“I don’t know. Maybe you’re still too young for that kind of love. I do see that you and Nathaniel are very, very close, and I think that’s wonderful. I believe you should just go slowly and enjoy what you have and not worry about putting a label on it.”
I thanked him and we moved on to other subjects.
In May, I turned 13 and Uncle Albert turned 91. The family party was special for me that day as I’d officially become a teenager.
Three days later, when I arrived home from school with Nathaniel, Mom met us at the door.
“Ben, I need to talk with you.”
“Okay, I’ll just go change my clothes and come back.”
“No, Ben, we need to talk before you go into your bedroom.”
I froze. Somehow I knew that something had happened to Uncle Alex. I sank down onto the sofa.
“Ben, your uncle Alex is gone. He died this morning.”
“How? What happened?”
“In the middle of the morning, I heard his bell. When I went into the room, he said he thought he was having a heart attack. I quickly called 911, but before the ambulance arrived, he had died. The only thing he said was, ‘Tell Ben I love him.’”
Nathaniel said that he should go but I asked him not to. I needed him. So he sat beside me until I was ready to go into the bedroom.
When I was ready, we went into the bedroom together. I could feel the emptiness, although nothing had changed other than that Uncle Alex wasn’t there.
I burst into tears. Nathaniel hugged me but I could see that he was crying too, so we hugged each other.
“I loved him, Nathaniel.”
“I know. I guess I did too.”
“What are we gonna do?”
“I don’t know, but I think he would want us to go on taking care of each other and doing what we believe is right. That’s really what he stood for.”
I just nodded.
The funeral was four days later. There weren’t a lot of people there because no one in town really knew him but us. There were some of my parents’ friends and Nathaniel and his parents were there. I asked Nathaniel to sit in the front row with me, where we held hands.
Uncle Alex had asked to be cremated. A few days later my parents received an urn with his ashes in it. I asked if I could keep it in my room. I wondered if that was sort of ghoulish, but I felt that if I had it, he would always be with me. And he was.
He is still with me, 20 years later, in his urn on my dresser. Is that morbid? I don’t think so. Neither does Nathaniel, who is also still with me. After we graduated from college, we married and have since adopted two children.
When they’re old enough, we’ll tell them about Great-Uncle Alexander—who he was, why he lived with me, and most of all, what he taught us. That is his legacy.
I hope you enjoyed the story. If so, I’d love to hear from you. I want to send special thanks to my faithful editors and to Mike, without whom this site would not exist.