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The other day I had a tough conversation with my middle-school students. It was lunch time. They again complained, with food lingering in mouths, about Social Studies and their dislike of learning history. There were whines of “boring” and “waste of time.” There were nods of agreement and chocolate milk droplets splashing the table. I teach English but I used to teach Advanced Placement Human Geography, which means I have a soft spot in my heart for Social Studies.
The middle school where I teach comprises ninety-eight percent students of colour, so I asked them about the Confederate Flag.
“What’s that?” a student said.
There were shrugs and acknowledgements of unknowing. I pulled out my computer and showed them the flag.
“I’ve seen that before,” another student said.
“There’s one by my house,” a different student said.
I asked them about its history. I asked them about the Civil War and symbolism and if they could infer meaning from what I was telling them.
“Is that true?” a student said.
I explained how if they didn’t know history they wouldn’t understand how things affect them today. They wouldn’t know that their neighbor might have racist tendencies or might be outright racist. I then asked my students where the reference point starts when we say East Asia: “Asia’s not east of the United States.” I asked them: “Why is the US considered western?” None of them knew that everything was either east or west of England. That we still use colonizer language in our everyday speak. That we are unwittingly perpetuating racism and discrimination and colonization and such and for that reason, we must learn history.
The lunch dialogue inspired me. I thought for a moment that I should return to teaching Social Studies, but then the conversation veered into learning to dance the Jerk and TikTok videos. My moment of Zen dissipated and the reality of a twelve-year-old’s attention span reared its ugly head. What did I expect? I failed to recognize the signs of colonization when I was their age.
It was Thanksgiving. I was twelve. We lived in England. My white father was in the military. We were stationed at RAF Woodbridge. My Filipino mother had been up since three in the morning cooking and cleaning. It was my family’s turn to host the Filipino party. Potluck-style. Pinays would bring their fare: sinigang, pancit, Bistek Tagalog, siopao, and other dishes. Mother agreed to provide lumpia, dinuguan, and sticky-white rice. She also had to cook the turkey and stuffing, enchiladas, fried chicken, lasagne and other favourites. Our holidays were always a hodgepodge of cultures.
My father slept in. He missed the vacuuming, the wiping down of toilets, the dusting of shelves. He also missed the raking of leaves and the sweeping of the walkway. When he woke then came downstairs, he ambled by the aligned shoes in the foyer, the dusted curtains, the coasters strategically placed to prevent watermarks on furniture. He landed at his bar, which he kept stocked with brown and clear liquors and fizzy sodas. And in his minifridge, the finest, chilled Budweisers and Bud Lights.
The tssSSS kr-POP proceeded: Did you do this? Is that done? Where did you put…? What about behind doors…? And so forth. After every question we – mother, my older sister, and I – answered: Yes, sir. It was always “yes, sir” because the to-do list was created the night before and we knew our roles. And, we knew the punishment – an in-your-face spit-filled scolding, a backhand, a balled fist – for failing to complete it in a timely manner. The tssSSS kr-POPs also proceeded breakfast and lunch and guests arriving. By the time the first partygoer showed up, Father needed a nap.
That Thanksgiving I was dating – however you want to define dating at twelve-years-old – Samantha. She had blonde hair and blue eyes. She stood about my height. Her father was in the military and her mother was English. She, too, lived in base housing and we had been dating for a year. I often went to her house to play video games with her younger brother or she would come over to my house to help me – sitting at the kitchen table – with my homework. She had wanted to become a lawyer when she grew up. I wanted to be in the NBA. Sometimes we visited our friends and danced to hip-hop or played “Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board.” Samantha and I interlaced our fingers. We wrapped our thin arms around each other’s shoulders. We pecked on the lips before going home. We were in love.
No matter whose house – Ate’s, Lolo’s, Kuya’s – my friends (Brad, Miguel, Patrick, Eric) were welcome. Sean, my best friend, would already be there because he too was Filipino. They often brought their girlfriends if they had one at the time. They enjoyed the chicken adobo, lechon, and kare kare. They laughed at the pinays bock-bocking their gossip in the kitchen and sat with the pinoys – slapping high fives – in front of the TV while watching football or basketball or some other manly event. My boys also would become my accomplices – my James Cagneys or Al Capones – against our age-related alcohol prohibition.
“No, you put it in your jacket,” Patrick would say, trying to shove the can into Eric’s jacket.
“I’ve got to distract them,” Eric would say.
“I’ll do it,” Miguel always volunteered, reaching for the can.
Then we would sit at the playground sipping and passing our one beer, shouting and celebrating as though we had hair on our chests.
That Thanksgiving everyone had come over. Samantha and I followed each other from kitchen to living room, from upstairs to outside. When she went to the restroom, I dawdled six feet away. When I had to help my mother with plates, Samantha asked, “Can I help too?” The pinays oohed and ahhed and said, “Ang cute nila together,” because we did look cute together. We were in love. My boys went outside to toss the football. They watched the Cowboys lose to the Seahawks. They devoured the food.
When Father woke up, the tssSSS kr-POPs increased. Clinking of ice against glass and the glop-glopping of brown liquor began. The TV was turned off when the radio was turned up.
“Have another beer,” Father shouted.
“Drink up,” he tossed a Budweiser to someone.
TssSSS kr-POP. “Chug it,” he encouraged.
My father, though only five-foot-nine, towered over most everyone at the party. He had salt and pepper hair that he attempted to cover up with boxed dye every six months. His white skin had begun to glow red the more he drank. He guffawed as chunks of turkey and gravy or lemon meringue pie threatened to fall from his mouth. He slapped backs. Bent forward to tell jokes. Gesticulated like one of those waving inflatable-tube guys. Then his hands started to touch: a woman’s shoulders, waist, hip, the inside of a back pocket.
“Where’re you going?” we all heard him say.
“Get over here,” he shouted as he motioned for some pinay to come near.
My boys and I knew to stay away from him during parties. We knew to watch our loose arms or open necks or exposed guts. We knew at any minute an arm lock or chokehold or uppercut could collapse us.
“Didn’t see that coming, did you?” he would say in celebration, standing over us, hands on hips, as we gasped for air.
Sometimes he would twist our arms then push our elbows in the wrong direction saying, “It takes sixteen pounds of pressure to break an elbow. This is what fifteen feels like.”
“Stop, please,” one of us would shout.
“Be a fucking man,” he would say then sling that person across the room.
We boys ignored him as best we could. We distracted ourselves by playing card games. By planning our beer heist. By nonstop eating. Samantha and I held hands under the coffee table. We sat knee to knee. We drank soda from the same red plastic cup.
“I’m going to throw this away,” Samantha said.
“Okay. I’ll be here,” I said.
When she got up, I held onto her fingers as she started to walk away. She jerked back a bit, but she smiled at me as I smiled at her.
“I’ll be right back,” she said.
Samantha scooped up some abandoned plastic plates and paper napkins. She stacked empty cups into empty cups. Then she left the living room.
“Okay, when your father goes into the kitchen,” Brad said, “I’ll follow him.”
“Then you go around the bar,” Sean said, pointing at Patrick.
“I’ll go with him,” I said.
We were all smiling, rubbing our hands together. We felt like geniuses.
“Let me go,” we heard someone shout. “Get off of me.”
My boys and I immediately looked at the bar. Father was nowhere in sight.
“Leave me alone,” we heard Samantha yell.
We all sprang to our feet. We headed toward the bar. I noticed Brad turn into the hallway. Then Patrick and Eric and Miguel followed. I trailed behind with Sean.
“Let go of me,” Samantha yelled again.
Brad, who played offensive guard on our football team, grabbed hold of Father. Miguel helped push Father back against a wall as I went to Samantha. She was holding her elbow.
“He tried to make me go upstairs,” she said.
I balled my fists. The chatter in the kitchen had stopped. Music on the radio echoed throughout the house.
“I just wanted to talk to her,” Father slurred.
“Why were you trying to make her go upstairs,” I shouted.
“I just wanted to talk,” he said, “I want to make sure she treats you right.”
No one knew what to say. We all glanced – eyebrows crinkled – at each other. No one understood what that meant: treat you right. Brad and Miguel continued to hold Father against the wall. Samantha had started to cry. Patrick, Eric, and Sean looked stunned and confused. They had their arms held out wide, standing between everybody, as though they were separating boxers.
“He kept pulling,” Samantha said. She was cradling her arm close to her chest.
“I just wanted to talk to her,” Father said.
I stood up. I walked toward him.
“What’re going to do?” Father said.
He began to shove Brad and Miguel.
“I wanted to make sure she treated you right,” Father said, then he twisted and turned and dislodged himself from their grip. “I was just going to talk to her.”
He staggered over to me. He looked into my eyes and smiled. He shoved me into Samantha who was sitting on the stairs.
“I can do whatever I want,” he said. Then he walked away.
I helped Samantha to her feet. I shepherded her toward the door.
“Let’s go,” I said.
As we all exited the house we heard tssSSS kr-POP. No one said a word as we walked along the cold streets of our military base.
I didn’t tell my middle school students this Thanksgiving story. I could have used it as a Social Studies teaching opportunity. I could have told them about the Latin phrase jus prima noctis or “right of the first night,” which gave rulers the right to bed any female subject on her wedding night. But no one knows for sure if this “right” actually took place. There is mention of it in the Epic of Gilgamesh. There is evidence of it in Italy: the Etruscans and their abuse of their female population. But no one knows for sure if this took place.
I could have also used it as a teaching moment about the memories of those who have historically been linked to racism and discrimination and colonization. I could have told them that people associated with horrible acts tend to forget (much like my father has) or tend to deny (much like my father does) the evidence of such ways. I have asked my father about that day. I have told him that I could call Brad and Sean and the others to verify my claims. But he continues to deny it and all evidence of that Thanksgiving.
I could have connected this moment to English class and had my students write a five-paragraph essay. But one of my middle schoolers had challenged me: “I bet you don’t know how to do the Jerk,” she said. There were oohs and ahhs. There were laughs and mouths full of food.
“Okay,” I said, then stood up.
Everyone was watching me. There were smiles on faces. Students huddled around each other. I spread my arms out to make room. I thought about my father for a couple of seconds. Then I did the best Jerk they’d ever seen.
James Morena earned his MFA in Fiction at Mountain View Grand in Southern New Hampshire. His stories have been published in Defunkt Magazine, The Citron Review, Orca, Forge Journal, Pithead Chapel, Rio Grande Review and others. He also has published essays and poems. You can interact with him on Insta: @james_morena.