I often tell a story from when I was a very young boy, probably no more than four years old. I don't know what compels me to tell this story to so many people, as it paints me in a negative light, but I keep telling it.
I was near my front door playing. There was another small boy there from the neighborhood. He wore jeans without a shirt. He was pale and blond with blue eyes.
'I'm an Indian,' he told me.
'No you're not!' I said. 'You have white hair and white skin!'
The boy, with the same noble determination informed me, yet again, 'Yes I am. I'm an Indian.'
I still didn't believe him. Already hating lies at that delicate age, I resolved myself to teach him the measure of worldly consequences by throwing gravel into his eyes. He put his hands up and squealed. We were promptly separated, me confused that any adult would defend such deception (and paltry deception, at that), him blubbering and wiping the dirt and pebbles from the snot and tears which had gathered under his nose and on his cheeks with the help of whatever potato-shaped adult had come to his aid. His piety had proven itself to be mere posturing. Not even an imaginary tribe would honor his feeble gesture of courage on my watch.
While the story certainly paints me in a negative light as I said, it almost invariably incites my interlocutors to accuse me of prepubescent racism. Wrong though my violence was in that instant, I often countered that I was certainly not racist as it was my intention to defend Native Americans against imposters. This is usually met with skepticism as to whether or not I could have properly known that he was referring to himself as a Native American and not, in fact, an Indian from the nation of its namesake. To this I always answer that in either event, the nature of my action was justified as it would have arisen from the same intention, in that the boy, had he been from India, would still not have 'white hair and white skin.' To this my interlocutors usually tell me that I am racist all the same. There seems to be no remission for precisely those sins committed when we couldn't have known better. I suppose it is because I often tell the story without blushing or making great pretenses to heartfelt shame over something I obviously have no feelings about anymore save different shades of tickled-pink. I often have to warn my audience after the occasion of this tale that I obviously wouldn't do something like that today, which is precisely why it is worth telling. No explanation is good enough, which often brings me to question why I told it in the first place if no one can see the humor in a four year old boy bringing it upon himself to defend various nations of people through such a sorry gesture. It would be my first and last attempt at activism. I can, however, boast that no bricks or bike-locks were used, nor did I out him to the other neighborhood children as an imposter. If anything, it was an honor-hazing. I don't regret it and do hope that the boy grew up to be more prudent concerning his relationship with the truth.
My childish exploits were never so violent as that of someone like Henry Miller, whose reminiscence of a neighborhood rock war which resulted in the death of a young opponent shocked me far more than any of the brazen carnality for which his books were known. Me and my friends were content to imitate the film Stand by Me; at least the first part which precedes the harsh reality of their actually witnessing a dead body in the woods.
I'm convinced that if one doesn't have the world figured out by the time one is twelve years old, one is wholly lost. To be twenty-one is only a weird inversion of twelve, by which time every adult ten years your senior and beyond find it within themselves to tell you that you must learn responsibility, which almost invariably amounts to monetizing some soulless, shit-stain of a shadow of your innermost desire.
As for myself, I had the world figured out at ten. Our fourth grade class would go on nature walks, on which lessons were ignored and the oddest specimens were collected for the sake of perturbing little girls and little boys uninitiated into boyish ways. There was one good-natured, if mischievous fellow named Matt who was in the unfortunate position of collecting a dying, though quite beautiful leaf nearly the size of his young face, but which I happened to think it worth crushing. He didn't cuss me, for cussing was out of the question. He did, however, give me an earful.
A few days later I, rather unshrewdly, found my own large, half dead leaf to gaze at in wonder. As I watched the sun filter through its river-like veins, a hand came and crushed it in mid air. My leaf had been replaced by Matt's resentful sneer. 'Now you know how it feels!' He barked and ran.
I was upset, though not surprised. I realized, by that age, that he was justified and that this is basically how the world works.
I have no memory of the transition, but within a few days, we were best friends. In a few months, there were rumors that we were some kind of adolescent gay couple, and that we'd kiss in the shadows at recess on spring days. Such rumors could only be dispelled with time as any denial, just as any affirmation, only seemed to confirm the convictions of our peers. I was all the more disgusted by these accusations due to my friend's excessive phlegm and the ropey quality of the spittle he all too often utilized for effect and let fall unwittingly from his mouth during moments of enthusiasm (not that this was, by any means under the circumstances, the most of my worries).
One's childhood is filled with these sorts of inconsequential instances of shame, in which the smallest misstep could amount to the largest social humiliation, only to be rectified once more by something so small compared to those features of adult life which we run after and crave in our endless quests for affirmation; something we didn't require as children since we were often too busy in our shamelessness.