It had become such a part of my youth that I was shocked to learn during my first day in the ninth grade that I was no longer the Smallest Kid in the Class. That honor went to some kid named Eddie who had me beat by a good inch or so. Although I hated being so small, I was disappointed by having lost my title. I was still teased, but I’d lost the only thing that had set me apart since moving to Maryland two years earlier.
Being Puerto Rican—the strongest part of my identity back in Jersey—meant nothing here. No one at Stemmer’s Run Junior High had ever met a Hispanic, much less a Puerto Rican. “Are you Indian?” they would ask, a question that plagues me to this day. “Is that Mexican?” was the next question, followed by, “Do you speak Puerto Rican?” I tried not to let the questions, however absurd, bother me, and I answered them patiently. “No, I’m not Indian. Mexican’s are different. We all speak Spanish.” I also started using Freddy, my father’s nickname, because I couldn’t stand the twang they added when saying Fernando.
What did bother me were those who insisted on mocking my uniqueness with their own labels, like the kids at Hampstead Hill Junior High in Highlandtown that called me The Cambonian, or those in high school that refused to consider me anything besides Mexican or the immigrant. One of those kids, a boy of Italian descent named Tony, wanted to beat the shit out of me when, after months of harassment, I pointed out that my family, having been granted citizenship dating back to 1899 following the Spanish-American War, had been Americans longer, most likely, than his family.
He refused to accept the facts, even though I opened up a history book and pointed out to him the part where Spain gave up Puerto Rico as part of the treaty ending the war, and where all Puerto Ricans were granted citizenship a few years thereafter.
Being so detached from my culture, my size became the only thing that set me apart, as long as I could find ways use it to my advantage. As boys who, like me, grew up height disadvantaged know all too well, the tendency is to get picked on incessantly. I was no different, except that I was more game than most. During the Hampstead years, rather than fighting the inevitable I would ingratiate myself to my tormenters by playing the willing victim. “Sure, you can see how far you can lift/toss/bench press me,” just became part of my vocabulary. When someone suggested that I be placed in a gym bag and hung from a basketball hoop, I was the first to try to fit in the bag. And anytime they played their little macho games, like taking punches right into the sternum, I was always all-in, making sure they realized that I could take it with the best of them.
It didn’t take long before I was just another one of the group. What’s more, they decided that being their little guy, their French Fry as I was dubbed, I had to be protected. Anytime anyone outside our group tried to mess with me, one, if not all of them, would break in and scare off the offender. It wasn’t hard considering that my little gang included the biggest boys in Hampstead: Kirk, Russell and Stan. They were all nearly six feet tall by eighth grade. Kirk and Stan tipped the scales at close to, if not over, 2oo pounds. I once got to see Kirk and Stan wrestle each other near Patterson Park. Afraid of getting in trouble, we all scattered after Kirk picked Stan up and slammed him into a car leaving a huge Stan-shaped dent on the side.
There was a downside. I could never stick up for myself, even when I wanted to. I was seeing this girl named Bobbi Jo who I’d met on the playground in Patterson Park. She was one of the first girls to show an interest in me since I’d moved to Baltimore from Middle River. One day, when Bobbi Jo wasn’t around, her cousin Tammy came over and introduced herself. She also introduced me to French kissing. Jimmy, one of my not-so-big friends, was the only one I told about the experience. I told him not to mention a word; I wanted to be the one to tell Bobbi Jo so that I could break it to her as gently as possible. But when I saw Bobbi Jo the next day, she already knew. Jimmy had told her.
Furious, I found Jimmy on the playground and after a few choice words, punched him in the mouth. I wanted a chance to beat the piss out of him. He was eager for a little mano a mano, but Kirk and Russell weren’t about to let me get in a real fight. They stepped in and kept us separated. Granted, when Jimmy’s big brother Joe came around looking to exact revenge for hitting Jimmy so hard that he had to have the orthodontist separate his lips from his braces, the guys were there to stop that too.
Looking back, I’m grateful to have had them around. Kirk once saved me from a stint in Juvie. There was one idiot in my class, I can’t even remember his name, who just seemed to have it out for me. Coming in late for school one day, he took the opportunity of passing by my desk to knock my books to the floor. When I got my chance, I knocked his books across the room. Next period, gym, coming out of the locker room, I felt an arm wrap around my neck and yank me to the ground. The idiot was choking the life out of me, and the more I struggled, the harder he squeezed. Finally, just when I thought I would pass out, he let me go.
Once I caught my breath, I peeled myself off the ground and picked up the first thing I could find, an aluminum baseball bat. That bastard had his back turned to me chatting with some friends. I crept up close behind him and swung. The bat stopped inches from his head with a smack as Kirk caught it with his hand. “Freddy, are you nuts?!” I remembered Kirk yelling as he yanked the bat out of my hand. I felt nuts. I must have looked it too, judging by the fear in that kid’s eyes when he spun around to realize how close he had come to getting beaned by the little Puerto Rican. He didn’t give me any problems after that.
High school pretty much broke up our little band. I was able to get into Baltimore Polytechnic while everyone else was fated to attend Patterson High, their zoned school. Two plus hours of daily travel time and a heavy homework load made it nearly impossible to even meet up with the old crew, except for the occasional weekend. They were always excited to see me, but I could tell even then that they were getting used to not having me around. None of them felt the need to see how high they could lift me or how far they could toss me anymore. They didn’t need me. They’d never needed me.
I didn’t need them either, I would think in fits of anger. They never even let me fight my own battles. But that’s not exactly true. It’s not that they felt I couldn’t handle myself in a fight. The truth was that they knew that while I did hang out with them, I wasn’t part of them. They knew then what I’ve only realized recently. As violent as they could be, they could see I wasn’t. Not really. I just needed to fit in somewhere. They weren’t protecting me from getting hurt. They were protecting me from becoming like them. And now, I had outgrown them.
I ran into Kirk one chilly November night on Castle Street. He asked me what I was up to, and I let him know I had decided to take join Poly’s wrestling team. “Oh yeah?” he replied, all excited, “Let me see what you got French Fry!” He reached out to grab me in one of his crushing bear hugs. I ducked under, grabbed around his knees offering a hug of my own, and pulled. He fell on his back with a loud ¡fwoomp! and started laughing. I helped him up and he was still laughing, shaking his head. He offered me a friendlier, less painful embrace. “It’s great seeing you,” he said, still laughing, still shaking his head as we both continued on our separate paths.