MY FIRST NEGRO

On this young writer's first day in boarding school there was a Negro sitting next to him in class. At first he wasn't even sure the boy was a Negro — but as it turned, out, it was lucky for the Negro that he was

Peter Gzowski April 22 1961

MY FIRST NEGRO

On this young writer's first day in boarding school there was a Negro sitting next to him in class. At first he wasn't even sure the boy was a Negro — but as it turned, out, it was lucky for the Negro that he was

Peter Gzowski April 22 1961

MY FIRST NEGRO

Peter Gzowski

On this young writer's first day in boarding school there was a Negro sitting next to him in class. At first he wasn't even sure the boy was a Negro — but as it turned, out, it was lucky for the Negro that he was

I FIRST ENCOUNTERED the Negro problem in what I was just beginning to call fifth-form English. His name was E. Abelard Shaw. It was my first day at boarding school and I still wanted to call fifth form third form, or grade eleven, as we had at the Galt Collegiate. That first morning had been all strangeness to me, from the act of brushing my teeth with eight other boys lined up like grinning Rockettes before a mirror, to having to sneak into a gully behind our dormitory to have a cigarette—I hadn't yet even learned to call it a “butt”—between breakfast and chapel. It had been stranger for me than for most new boys,

I imagine, since 1 had entered in the middle of the school year. So the fact that there was a Negro sitting next to me in class just seemed one more in a series of somewhat baffling events.

At first I wasn't even sure he was a Negro.

I wasn't sure he was a problem until years after I had graduated. I'm not sure yet exactly what his presence there and my encounter with him meant.

Let's call the school St. Edward’s. I’m not giving it its real name—or giving any of the people in this story theirs — because someone’s sure to say I’m trying to embarrass it, or them, which I’m not. This story is true. St. Edward’s is one of what easterners call the Little Big Four independent schools in southern Ontario, which base themselves more or less on the English system. They were, and are, quite expensive and their students are sent there by, generally, one of four kinds of parents: wealthy Canadians who feel there’s a certain amount of prestige in graduating from a Little Big Four school, which there is, or whose sons arc having some difficulty in the public schools; old boys of the school and clergymen, whose sons get special financial consideration; traveling Canadians, who are either away from home a great deal of the time—as was, for instance, the carnival-owning father of a classmate of mine who’d been enrolled at St. Edward’s at the age of five and a half—or who are out of the country all the time; and South Americans and citizens of the U. S. who feel that the Ontario schools are a perfect (and relatively economical) compromise with a British public-school tic.

I’d known a few St. Edward’s boys before I went there. They were sure of themselves, sophisticated (compared to me and my Galt Collegiate friends anyway) and gregarious. They were all, also, what are now called WASPs— white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. I had thought all St. Edward’s boys were like that, which is why I wasn’t really sure that E. Abelard Shaw was a Negro.

His features were Negroid all right. He had tight curly hair and a wide, fiat nose and full lips that were almost always curved in an enigmatic smile. (The smile, of course, had nothing to do with his being Negro, but it was certainly the first thing you noticed about him.) His skin was not black. It was more the nice rich brown the crook of your arm gets after a summer in a T-shirt. And since

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My first Negro

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there had been no Negroes at the Galt Collegiate (or in all Galt, as 1 remember) 1 wasn’t really certain.

In a short time I had made a close friend—at first because he was the only other fifth-former in my dorm, but later because we realized we could talk together. He was an American, from Detroit. We called him Red Wing. Soon I knew' him well enough to ask him outright if Shaw was a Negro.

“Hell yes." he said. I said how come he got into St. Edward’s. Red Wing said there wasn’t any rule against it. I said sure but it seemed a funny place to find a Negro. (I realize now that must seem like a pretty callous thing for a teenager to say—I’d never say it now, if that makes you feel any better—but please remember that I’d never actually seen a Negro outside of the movies and I’d always thought they were poor and drawled, which Abelard Shaw wasn’t ami didn’t.) Red Wing said he’d wondered himself at first, since thcre’d been no Negroes at his school in Detroit, but that he’d heard how it happened. He told me what the theory was among the boys: Many parents applied to St. Ed w'ard’s by mail. The application contained space for the candidate’s religion, father's occupation and that sort of thing, but it simply wouldn't occur to the Board of Governors to ask about a boy’s race. So when E. Abelard Shaw, who was the son of an Episcopal dentist in Brooklyn. N.Y.. showed up at the school, it was just too late to do anything about it. That seemed to make sense. It still does, although I’ve since thought that St. Edward’s w-as the kind of school that might have accepted a Negro from Brooklyn just because he was a Negro, as long as he was the only one. There was a Jew there, a year behind me.

Anyway, knowing that Shaw was a Negro brought me up short. I was just beginning to look on him as one of the least likeable of my classmates.

“Likeable" and its opposites meant something different—or meant the same thing in a different way—at St. Edward’s from what they did at, say. the Galt Collegiate. Almost all St. Edward’s boys liked almost all other St. Edward's boys better than they liked almost everyone else. Part of that was simply esprit de corps — or d'école, if you like. Another part was the same thing that makes men in prison form a tightly knit society of their own. Not that St. Edward's was a prison. But cut ofi from girls and mothers who spoiled us, and other comforts of home, we banded joyfully together against the world.

The leaders of this band emerged in two w'ays. One was athletically; athletics were compulsory at St. Edward's, which meant everyone was measured by a common yardstick and the boys who measured up best became leaders. The other way was through a unique kind of rebellion. which I can best describe by saying you had to excel at the kind of mischief we all practised to a limited degree — smoking, sneaking out after lights, evading classroom assignments

and being respectfully fresh to the masters. In this context, it was a mark of great honor to have been caned and the stripes on our behinds marked our achievements the way stripes on the sleeve do in a different kind of regimentation. Good scholars — provided they didn’t study too hard and were willing to help a football player with his nightwork—achieved distinction of another kind. But leadership—and popularity—belonged to the athletes and the hellraisers.

1 he converse was true too. Nonathletes without the courage to break the school rules, or the intelligence to explain why they didn't, were at the bottom of the scale and. though better than anyone not at St. Edward's, untouchable within the school itself.

E. Abelard Shaw fitted that category. In spite of his considerable bulk (he weighed about ISO. I'd guess) he was a very movable middle on the C-squad football line and an almost certain double-duck at cricket. Vet he didn't smoke or join the afternoon excursions to a store where there was pinball. His passion was photography—which on our scale of values as a pastime was about one above crocheting. He didn't take

enough showers, either. And when he needed some help on an exam he took it not through some prearranged conspiracy (which could be annoying

enough, if you'd been boning up. but which you couldn't refuse to take part in) but simply by looking over your shoulder. Cheating in class was one thing, but you had to do it our way. And when you broached this subject with Shaw all you got was that damn leer.

I remember that later our class got into two wholesale scrapes. One was an ink fight in astudy period supervised by an aging and nearsighted master. It started as a two-man duel. It ended in mass warfare, so violent that at the cessation of hostilities you could see the profile of anyone who'd been sitting next to a wall, in institutional green silhouetted by mottled blue. Shaw refused to fight. He even kept his inkwell covered so that no one else could fill up at his desk. And. worst, he told the master who broke it up that he hadn't fought and was excused from the punishment (a half-holiday we spent with scrub brushes). The other scrape occurred the next year. Everyone in the class took his monthly movie leave the same Friday evening. We chartered a bus and went to a nearby towm where we could drink. We came back late, broke and singing or broke and sick, but full of beer and satisfaction and comradeship. Even the brains went on that one; we thought we’d be safe in unanimity. But Shaw didn’t. He wouldn't. And when, two days later, the entire class (except Shaw) was summoned to the headmaster and caned one by one (a remarkable effort by the

If he hadn’t been a Negro he certainly would have suffered in our primitive boarding school society

head, who gave 341 strokes, miscounting on a boy named Lizard and giving him eleven), there was a groundswell of rumor accusing Shaw of the unmentionable sin of squealing.

How much of Shaw’s failure to fit in was due to his being a Negro, I'm not certain. I—and I imagine I was fairly typical on this score—had been brought up in a home where prejudice

was what other people had. Not that my family in Galt ever had to put its liberalism to the test, but whenever the subject came up I was reminded that people of other races were just as good as I was. My first reaction to Shaw’s presence at St. Edward’s was simply curiosity. And when that wore off I was no more convinced that Shaw wasn’t fit to be my friend than I would have been

if he wore crutches. So I think that any chip there was between him and us started on his shoulder. Perhaps he had suffered indignity in Brooklyn and when he came to Canada he decided to take every advantage of his equality.

But what he enjoyed at St. Edward’s was a good deal more than equality. If he hadn't been a Negro he certainly would have suffered, if not some form

of physical retaliation for his failure to join the ink fight or the drinking party (particularly when there was some suspicion he’d told on us) then at least a kind of vicious social ostracism for, for instance, his failure to bathe. It’s surprising that neither punishment was exacted anyway. For St. Edward’s was a very primitive society and a boy who went there suffering from anything from big feet to acne was almost certain to be reminded of his peculiarity daily and cruelly. Racial origin or nationality was fair game, and wc mimicked the Spanish accents of the South Americans mercilessly and called boys with European names Wop or Polack automatically—until we could think of a more personal name.

But all Shaw was ever ribbed about was his Christian name with its dangling initial. We didn’t even do him the honor of rechristening him and he was invariably referred to as E. Abelard. Wc had a collection of private jokes too, but Shaw either didn't get them or wasn't interested. There was one master we called Willy Woo—I’m not sure why—and it became great sport to screech WOOOO when his back was turned. But Shaw wouldn’t join the general snickering and would just sit there when Willy turned around and smile that enigmatic smile.

I suppose Shaw's failure to share in the class jokes is the perfect symbol of how he stood apart from the rest of us. Whenever I run into a St. Edward’s classmate today we fall into yarning. There is always something to share: if he wasn't there when we moved the history master’s little English car up to the second floor of the classroom building, or when Old Cush walked on his hands to the end of a creaking bough hanging over a river in spring flood (what ever happened to Cush anyway?), we can laugh about the mass caning after our drinking excursion. But if 1 ran into Shaw now, I really don't know what I’d talk about.

I know I wouldn't talk about the only time I ever saw him have the whole school’s attention. I’m not even sure I like to think about it.

It was the night of the boxing finals. Boxing is, or was, not compulsory at St. Edward’s, but instruction was available for boys who wanted it. Classes were divided by weight. After a series of elimination bouts held in a small room in the gym, the best two boys of each weight fought before the school and interested visitors on a Saturday evening late in spring.

In our final year, E. Abelard Shaw was one of the heavyweight finalists— or one of the heavyweights, since only he and one other boy big enough to qualify had signed up. I remember seeing Shaw in the boxing room of the gym one day, slugging away at a heavy bag, grunting and puffing and looking for all the world like Joe Louis, except his great soft stomach was wobbling with every punch. It was the first time I'd ever seen him not grinning.

The finals night was an exceptionally good one. There are few crowds as enthusiastic—or as much of one mind— as the boys of a private school, and that night wc were really howling. Two or three of the early fights had been good and fast and clean. Thcre’d even been a knockout—a rare treat—so by the time the heavyweights came into the ring we were in a frenzy.

Shaw’s opponent was a boy called the

Hog. He was a clergyman’s son. a firstteam halfback, a prefect, and very popular. He was a calm, quiet boy, with a shy smile, but he had a tender nose; 1 remember one football game when he was punched in the nose during a pileup and for the rest of the quarter he was tearing into the opposition like a Fuzzy-Wuzzy charging the thin red line.

The fight, set for three rounds, started slowly, with each boy testing the other's reach and poise. The crowd was silent. Late in round one there was a brief flurry. Between rounds the carnival owner’s son gave me six to five (quarters, not dollars) on F. Abelard.

Early in round two there was a clinch and the two boys bumped heads. The Hog must have got his nose bumped. Suddenly he was an angry red from the neck up. He waded in like a man possessed. giving as good as he got. and the crowd was roaring. We roared right through the rest between rounds, while

the Hog sat in his corner and glared. E. Abelard—I can sec this as if hp were across the typewriter from me— looked out into that lake of faces and he smiled that enigmatic smile. I think he liked the fighting.

Round three was slaughter. The Hog came charging out of his corner and landed a wide, full, right hook flush on Abelard’s ear. Then he dug into that soft belly. There was a roar of “get him” from the crowd. The Hog switched to Abelard’s head. One, two. three solid punches. Shaw’s guard was down, but he stood there taking it, bleeding from his nose. The rest of the round, while we roared like Romans at a fight between lions and Christians, the Hog butchered him.

Shaw never went down. He did not appear in danger of being seriously hurt. He was staggering by the bell.

He won a trophy as the gamest boxer. We cheered the announcement, but 1 remember feeling guilty even then—or at least feeling something that I know now was guilt. The next day we congratulated E. Abelard in class, but he just grinned without really seeming to enjoy it. For the rest of our time at St. Edward’s, things were the same as they had been. ★