A Smart Kid
by Tony Lindsay
When Mr. Pratt called his name last week, Walter thought it was a mistake. At best he has been a C level student. All the names Mr. Pratt called, besides his, were Honor Roll students: the A, B students, the smart kids. Walter Smith had never thought of himself as smart: a quick learner yes, but not particularly smart.
Smart kids are different than him. They get As all the time, they speak well, they like doing homework. This trip, this competition, is for the smart kids. But somehow he is on the short bus with them going to represent The West Side Academy in the state’s History Bowl finals. His area is to be African American History. Mr. Pratt told him that without a doubt he was the student body expert on African American History. Initially, Walter thought Mr. Pratt was making a racist joke because he is one of The West Side Academy’s ten African American students. But he soon saw that the statement wasn’t a snipe at him, but a need for the school. During last year’s competition the only area where the school fell short was in African American History. Had there been a student in possession of a minute portion of the history, the school would have fared better and possibly won the Bowl. They lost last year’s competition by fourteen points. The African American history questions totaled twenty points; of that twenty the West Side Academy received none.
Walter doesn’t think his knowledge of African American History is that extensive. He knows the few facts his papa insisted he know, and the stuff he looked up because of the facts. When his papa told him that Malcolm X was murdered by other Black Muslims in 1965, he did an internet search and learned about Malcolm’s birth place, his parents, Elijah Muhammad, and the Black Muslim movement.
While in American History class with Mr. Pratt, Walter pointed out that the book they were studying from erroneously listed Malcolm X’s date of birth as 5-19-35. When he pointed out the error, Mr. Pratt argued that perhaps he was wrong and the book was right. The next day Walter brought in a full report on Malcolm X with the correct birth date of 5-19-25. The report, along with the three different sources he found for Malcolm X’s correct birth date brought him to Mr. Pratt’s attention.
For Walter, looking up information about Black people is fun. It is just like finding out about Mixed Martial Arts fighters, or cars with V8 engines and big blocks, or throw-back gym shoes. Finding out about stuff doesn’t make him smart at least not in his opinion. That evening after boarding the bus to the competition Walter begins to feel that he isn’t the only one doubting his academic abilities. The smart kids have all clumped together in the center of the short bus sitting next to each other, and thereby leaving him sitting alone behind Mr. Pratt and a sleeping Coach Williams.
He doesn’t mind sitting alone because he can think of nothing he and the smart kids would have to talk about. Walter is a Mixed Martial Arts fight fan. Jason, who Walter thinks is the leader of the smart kids, said the caged martial arts bouts were all fake. Walter and Jason had had two loud arguments about the sport’s authenticity last week.
The first argument ended in the lunchroom when Jason informed those sitting at the table that only stupid people like trailer park white people and Black people believe that the “pseudo” sport is real. Walter wanted to go across the lunchroom table and show Jason just how stupid a young Black man could be, but he didn’t. It was obvious that Jason was trying to goad him into a fight. Jason started the first argument the same day Mr. Pratt announced that Walter was going to the History Bowl.
The announcement was made over the school’s P.A. system, and Walter was shocked to hear his name mentioned with Jason’s and his bookworm crew. When he went to lunch, pink haired Mindy called him to the smart kids’ table very excited, “Hey Walter, come eat with us!” He would have ignored the call except for Mindy was alright with him; they had a history. She traded Pokémon cards with him in sixth grade, and she always gave him her pork entrees when she was served the non-kosher meat for lunch. Because of their history, he maneuvered through the crowded lunchroom to the smart kids’ table.
He put his lunch tray on the end of the gray slate table next to Mindy’s and sat in the empty space on the plastic bench next to her. Mindy leaned over and hugged Walter and said, “I screamed when I heard your name! I told everybody here that you and I have been friends since kindergarten, and that we took naps together.”
He returned the hug and the smile and remembered that they had napped together as kindergarteners. They actually slept on the same mat because there was only one Big Bird mat, and they both wanted it. He had gotten to it first but to stop her from crying he shared it with her, and from there their kiddy age friendship sprouted, but now in high school they traveled in different circles and barely spoke to each other. She had her friends, and he had his.
That was why he was a little surprised by her sudden and open intimacy. After her initial hug and greeting, long seconds of uncomfortable silence passed at the lunch table. The lunchroom buzzed with kids, but the smart kids’ table was silent. He watched Mindy looking into the other four faces at the table. He realized that it was only her who was excited about the announcement of him going to the competition, and it was only her who had extended the invitation for him to join them at their lunch table. The other four stoic faces refused to make eye contact with him.
Looking to break the ice, and to assist Mindy out of the blunder of the invitation he attempted a conversation.
“Did y’all see that Ultimate Warrior Challenge last night? Dude from Korea was off the chain!”
It was half a pineapple faced Jason who quickly answered with, “Only idiots with extremely low IQs watch that pseudo sport of buffoons.”
“Huh?” Walter questioned.
“You heard me,” Jason answered unsmiling.
Walter looked to Mindy who looked down at her lunch tray.
“So what… you don’t like cage battles?” Walter asked Jason.
“No. I’m not a moron so I don’t enjoy broadcasts for the intellectually challenged.”
Walter chuckled, shrugged his shoulders and said, “It’s a sport dude, like boxing or kickboxing. Mixed Martial Arts is the next real thing. You should check it out.” Walter lowered his eyes from Jason and picked non-existent lint from his yellow rugby shirt.
“It is as fake as Hollywood wrestling, and only trailer park white people and Black people believe its authenticity.”
Windy blew a throat deep breath and said, “Jason that isn’t necessary,” she pushed her tray to the center of the table, “it really isn’t.”
Jason pushed his tray across the table bumping Mindy’s, “Yes it is. He should be made aware of the caliber of people he will be traveling with. That is if he decides to attend the competition.” Jason looked hard at Walter with challenge filling his gray eyes.
Walter returned Jason’s hard stare. He was not surprised by what Jason said, but he was shocked by the openness of the statement. Usually stupid kids say such things under their breath or while passing by in the hall. Overt racist statements were seldom heard in the school.
Forcing a smile on his face Walter said, “Dude, I was really thinking about not going. But now, you and a thousand other red necks couldn’t stop me.”
He thought about spitting on Jason’s chicken sandwich, but he didn’t want to risk suspension and not going to the competition.
“I’ll talk to you later Mindy.” Walter said standing with his tray.
“Yes please depart. Perhaps cartoons are playing on the television monitor,” was Jason’s snide remark.
“Yo’ mama,” Walter said with the forced still smile plastered on his face. He turned and left without another word.
The second argument happened yesterday, and Walter started it in gym with the majority of the wrestling team present. The class had just dressed for gym and was exiting the locker room into the open gym area when Walter asked Jason, “Hey man, who did you say believes Mixed Martial Arts is real?”
Jason was at the front of the line filing into the gym. When he got into the gym he came into the presence of wrestling team practicing on the mats.
Walter yelled, “Jason, didn’t you say only stupid people like Blacks and trailer park white people believe Mixed Martial Arts is real?”
Walter having wrestled his freshman and sophomore years knew the racial makeup of the team and the coaches: majority white, followed by Mexicans, and then Blacks. And he knew that all of them were Mixed Martial Arts fans. He expected his loud statement to get the attention of the gym, and it did.
“Didn’t you say that Jason? Jason Wilson, didn’t you say only stupid people like trailer park white people and Blacks believe Mixed Martial Arts is real?”
The students in line behind Jason faded away from the knock-kneed, rail thin Jason leaving him standing alone with a yelling Walter behind him and the wrestling team before him. The gym quieted with all eyes on Jason. Students were waiting for his answer. The Black wrestling coach, Coach Williams, blew his whistle and yelled, “Drills!”
That command forced the gym into an uproar which saved Jason from answering. Walter ran past Jason and hip checked him hard enough to send him tumbling to his buttocks. Walter and the others that had lined up for drill exercises laughed at Jason on the gym floor. Jason stood, dusted himself off and gave them all the bird.
Nope, Walter didn’t have much to say to Jason and his crowd. He settles down into the bus seat and pulls the blanket his mother insisted he take with him up around his neck. He looks out into the darkness made less by the city’s street lights and decides to join Coach Williams in sleeping.
He doesn’t feel as if he had slept long, but the sun is up and their bus is coming to a stop in a large group of buses in a Days Inn parking lot. Looking around he sees no neighborhood houses, stores, street light post, parked cars, or passing traffic. He sees only vast fields, one with little stubby green plants, and another with rows upon rows of green corn stalks. On the far horizon behind the Day’s Inn, he sees a house with five fenced in horses.
Walter knows he is no longer in the city. The only street he can see is a highway, and the tallest structure he sees is a satellite tower. He knew it was going to be different down state, but he wasn’t expecting it to be almost empty.
Mr. Pratt stands from his bus seat clears his throat and says, “Ok students this is the list of roommates. It is non-negotiable, so save any grumbles and whines for your mommies and daddies when you get home. Ok, first we have Smith and Wilson…”
Walter hears no other room assignments after his and Jason’s names are called. He looks toward the middle seats and sees Jason’s mouth hanging open. By the disgruntle look on Jason’s pimpled narrow face, Walter is certain he will complain to Mr. Pratt about the assignment. He decides to leave the protest to him. If anyone is going to look like a complaining cry baby, he decides to let it be Jason not him.
Once off the bus with his bookless book bag on his shoulder, Walter is walking towards the doors of the Days Inn when pink haired Mindy swings her book bag into his. He notices she is rolling a suitcase behind her.
“Hey Walter, I just wanted to apologized for what you went through in the lunchroom with Jason. We all don’t feel as he does. Most kids are glad you are here.”
He slows down and blows his breath into his hand. He doesn’t want to talk to her with morning stank breath; he smells no fouls odder in his palm. He allows her to catch up and walk alongside of him.
“It’s cool,” he says, “it’s only for two days and one night. I think I can handle the cold shoulder that long.”
Mindy walks right alongside of him saying, “But that’s what I’m trying to tell you, we don’t want you to feel like we are all giving you the cold shoulder. You see Jason is a senior, and the Captain of the debate team, and the unofficial leader of the History Bowl team. Kids follow him even if we know we shouldn’t. I should have said more that day at lunch, and I just want you to know that.”
They pause at the double doors of the inn and Walter says, “Mindy we been cool since we were shorties that ain’t gonna change because you got into a clique with a red neck, and besides most of my buddies don’t like white people, but you still my girl.” He opens and holds a door for her allowing her to enter while pulling her suitcase through.
Inside the busy bright yellow and beige lobby she asks, “Really Walter? You have friends that don’t like white people? Do they go to our school?”
Looking into her startled brown eyes he says, “Blacks are not excluded from prejudice thoughts Mindy.” Eyelids rapidly blinking she asks, “But you’re not prejudice are you Walter? No, you’re not. We’ve been friends a long time. I would know if you were prejudice. How silly I must sound. Forgive me please. Hey, where is your suitcase?”
“It’s on my shoulder?”
“Then where are your books, journals, and notes?”
“I didn’t bring any. What I know I know. What I don’t, I don’t.”
Standing at the reception desk of the Days Inn’s lobby pulling on a strand of her pink hair Mindy says, “That is a mighty cavalier attitude mister. I could never be that confident.” She smiles and adjusts her book bag on her shoulder.
Walter doesn’t view his lack of books and notes as confidence; stuff he likes he remembers, and he likes knowing stuff about Black people. A group of girls passes them and Mindy says, “Well I going up to my room, see you later. Don’t be late for the bus: 11:45 sharp. I always try to get there early just in case.”
She rolls her suitcase by him to the elevators.
He watches her and the group of girls board the elevator, and he thinks about her question.
Was he prejudice? Did he prejudge people based on their color? Did he expect white people to act a certain way just because they were white? He thought about Jason, and he remembered not being surprised by his statement at the lunch table, nor was he surprised by the displeased look on his face when he found out that they were roommates.
Walter wonders if his expecting Jason to be prejudice makes him prejudice. Was he prejudging Jason by expecting him to be prejudice? Instead of boarding the elevator with the next group of students he walks further into the lobby and sits in one of the empty flower patterned couches. His papa told him that prejudice people were closed minded people who learned very little.
When he looks toward the opening front doors, he sees Jason struggling through the doors with a lap top, two book bags, and a roller suitcase.
Forcing himself up from the couch, Walter rises and goes to the doors to assist Jason. He holds one of the double doors open and picks up one of Jason’s book bags from the floor of the doorway.
“Are you still in 318 with me?” he asks.
“Yeah,” is Jason’s dry reply.
Walter hoists Jason’s book bag on his free shoulder and follows the group of boys to the elevator. He decides he is not going to prejudge Jason, and he is going to treat him with the golden rule Papa taught him: do unto others as you want them to do unto you.
In the bathroom of the room, all he pulls from his book bag is his deodorant, toothpaste, and toothbrush which he places on the sink. He goes into the sleeping area of room and stretches out on the twin bed closest to the window while Jason unpacks his books.
To Jason he says, “Hey, don’t let me sleep past bus time, ok?”
Jason doesn’t answer.
“Did you hear me, man?” Walter asks.
“We are roommates. I am not you alarm clock. If you oversleep that is on you,” Jason doesn’t look up and continues to unpack his books.
Maybe going back to sleep isn’t a good idea. Mindy did warn him not to be late for the bus. Walter picks up the television remote from the nightstand between the two twin beds and turns on the television. He begins searching for B.E.T. When he finds the channel he is pleased because a video review show is on, and they are doing the top ten Rap videos.
“Yeah, this will keep me woke,” he says out loud and turns the volume up on Lil’ Wayne.
“Oh my God! Are you serious? Don’t you want to review something?!” Is Jason’s response to the increased volume of the television, “Don’t you need to check or verify some fact or date? Read something, or write something? Do something to prepare for the Bowl? Could you please turn it down?”
When Walter looks from the television to Jason, he sees his reddening cheeks and ears and his trebling lips and hands. It is obvious to Walter that Jason is truly upset. He turns the television off.
“All you had to say was you needed to study man. I understand. You are not as ready as you would like to be, my bad. Go on and get you cram on. I’ma call down to the desk and get me an eleven o’clock wakeup call. Good luck with your cramming.”
Walter picks up the phone from the nightstand and makes the call. After, he rolls over to face the window and closes his eyes for a nap.
He hears, “Thank you,” from Jason.
The competition is held in the town’s high-school auditorium. The auditorium seats are filled, and people are standing along the back and side walls. Walter wasn’t expecting a crowd, nor was he expecting to be on stage behind a podium. There are seven students on stage, and a moderator presenting the questions on an overhead screen. On each podium there is an electronic panel with the letters A, B, C, and D lit up. They have been instructed by the moderator to push the letter that corresponds to their choice for an answer. They will be asked ten questions worth two points each. There are four schools represented on the stage, and each school was to have two student panelists. He alone represents The West Side Academy.
From the stage he is able to spot Mindy, Mr. Pratt, and Coach Williams. He waves to Mindy, and she waves back smiling. All the students on stage and the moderator are Black. The moderator has black and grey dreadlocks and tortoise shell glasses. He clears his throat and informs them again that only the first answer will be registered and tallied.
He begins, “The first questions will center on Supreme Court decisions. In what year was the Dred Scott decision handed down?” Walter doesn’t hesitate: the answer is B - 1857. His papa had paid him ten dollars to find out about the man Dred Scott, the Black man who sued for his freedom, and while researching the man he found about the Supreme Court’s decision. Walter is not only the first to answer but his is the only audience board that is lit. The others didn’t even attempt an answer.
“Correct! Student number three from the West Side Academy of Chicago. Two points to your credit.”
Walter quickly winks at a smiling Mindy.
The moderator says, “Question number two: what practice among some of this Nation’s public schools was overturned due to Brown v. Board of Education?”
Fast as greased lighting, as his papa would say, Walter pushes A for segregation.
“Correct! Student number three.”
Walter sees that all the other students answered, but he was first, and thereby he earned the points. He notices Mr. Pratt and Coach Williams grinning from ear to ear in the audience.
The moderator looks in each student’s face then he says, “The next two questions will center on African American first in sports. Who was the first African American Heavy Weight Champion of the World?”
Without hesitation Walter presses D for Jack Johnson. Two students pick Joe Louis, two Joe Frazier, and the other two pick Muhammad Ali. Walter chuckles at their answers. From his papa telling him to find out about race riots in America he learned about Jack Johnson and the race riots of 1910 that occurred because Johnson won the Championship.
The moderator smiles at Walter and says, “Congratulations student number three from The West Side Academy, your answer is correct.” Walter doesn’t want to look up at the score board on the overhead but he does, and he sees only the West Side Academy has points.
The moderator pushes his locs from his forehead and glasses and says, “The second question from the sport’s history regarding African American first is from the arena of tennis. Who was the first African American woman to win the notable Grand Slam?” Althea Gibson, he presses B, but he does not get the points.
“Congratulations student number one from Rockford. You answered correctly and first.”
Walter looks to his left at student number one and sees a chubby round face on a large framed girl with her hair pressed and gleaming. Only he and she answered correctly, the others all picked either Venus or Serena Williams.
When Walter looks to the audience he sees Mr. Pratt looking at the score board, Coach Williams is still grinning like he is at a wrestling match, and Mindy is moving down a seat making room for Jason.
The moderator clears his thought and says, “We will continue with African American firsts; however, we will switch to literature. Question one: Who was the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize?”
Walter pushes B for Gwendolyn Brooks with no hesitation and gets the point. Out loud he says, “1950 for her book of poetry titled ‘Anne Allen.’” He hunches his shoulders and adds, “Being from Chicago you know, I gots to know that one.” He flips the collar of his white Polo button down and grins.
He looks over at the student who beat him on the Althea Gibson question and winks. She sucks her teeth at him and sets her eyes straight ahead.
The moderator observes their exchange and chuckles, “Shall we continue in the vein of awards in literature: Who was the first the African American to win a Noble . . .” before the moderator could complete his sentence Walter’s nemesis pushes A for Toni Morrison. She gets the credit and the points.
Walter laughs. The moderator nods and says, “Congratulations student number one. Your answer is correct and first. Bully for you. That was a bold move indeed.”
“Oh it’s on now,” Walter says.
“It has been on. I thought you knew,” are the muffled words he hears from his challenger.
When he looks to her, he sees her eyes set forward on the overhead screen.
The moderator says, “I think you young scholars will appreciate this next category. We continue with first. No, allow me to clarify, not first but the oldest. The subject matter is Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Which is the oldest Historically Black College or University, or HBCU in America?”
With little interest in going to college since college is for smart kids, Walter has done no research with regard to HBCUs, and he doesn’t have a clue to the answer.
His nemesis however does. She answers A for Cheyney University.
“Correct student number one!” The moderator nods and smiles in her direction. To Walter he raises his bushy eyebrows and tilts his head.
“The next question in this category states: Which was the first HBCU owned and operated by African Americans?”
Again Walter is clueless, his nemesis however isn’t. She picks B for Wilberforce University.
“Correct student number one. My, my, my, we have quite a competition brewing here. Let us review the scores: Chicago’s The Westside Academy has earned eight points and so has Rockford High. We are at a tie with only four more points remaining. With the competition heating up, I feel the next category is quite fitting: commerce, or the Capalistic arena of business. Question one: Who was the first African American CEO of a Fortune 500 company?”
Walter pushes B for Franklin D. Raines and knows he has the points. His nemesis pushed A for Richard Parson.
To her Walter whispers, “Your guy was 2001 Time Warner; my guy was 1999 Fannie Mae Corporation.”
“Whatever,” is her reply with eyes forward.
Last year Walter had to do a paper in Civics about the moral responsibilities of CEOs. While researching the topic he got curious about if there had ever been a Black CEO. He found out about Richard Parson and later Franklin D. Raines.
“The tie is broken. Congratulations student number three!” The moderator’s nod and smile go to Walter.
“All right, let’s go Walter!” comes from the audience.
Surprised at the outburst but happy to hear it, Walter looks to the audience and sees Coach Williams standing alone and clapping. “Let’s get it done!” He yells while clapping hands in the air.
Walter can’t help but to laugh as Mindy pulls Coach Williams down to his seat.
“Final question young scholars: What was the first publically traded African American controlled company?”
Walter pushes A for Black Entertainment Television but doesn’t get the point. Student number one from Rockford High has pushed her button first.
“Oh my, my, my! This is the first time in the Bowl’s history that we will split the points evenly, and the first time in ten years that all the questions have been answered correctly. And this is the first time ever that we will have to award first place medals to two different schools. Outstanding young scholars, simply outstanding! Congratulations!”
The moderator steps around his podium to center stage and applauds both Walter and his nemesis. The audience comes to its feet and joins in his applause.
Walter hears whistles and loud yells from both Coach Williams and Mindy. He sees Mr. Pratt giving him the thumbs up and mouthing, “I told you. I told you, you could do this.” He sees Jason stand and walk towards the exit.
The moderator pulls both him and the Rockford student from behind their podiums to center stage. The applause feels good to Walter, and so does center stage. He looks to Rockford student and sees her round eyes tearing. He looks away because he doesn’t want his eyes to tear. The moderator holds both their hands up, and the crowd cheers. Walter thinks he could get use to this.
Walking down the stairs exiting the stage, the Rockford student who is front of Walter turns her head to face him and asks, “What colleges have you applied to?”
“None,” is Walters reply, “College is for smart kids.”
“And what are you?” she asks once she gets to the bottom of the stage steps facing him.
“I’m just a regular kid who likes to do a little stuff on the internet.”
“Doing stuff on the internet is called research which is a scholarly activity, and smart kids enjoy it. I am an honor roll student and have been since the sixth grade, and you almost shut me down. If I were you, I would consider applying for college because you are a smart kid.”
He is about to thank her for the compliment, but she is pulled away by her teammates and supporters. He walks up the aisle to the exit.
When he gets into the corridor, the moderator of the Bowl approaches Walter and hands a card and says, “I recruit for Howard University. We would be very interested in beginning conversations with such an astute young man as you Mr. Smith.” He raises one bushy eyebrow, nods his head, and turns to walk away.
While looking at the back of the recruiter’s tweed jacket with the card in his hand Walter asks, “What does astute mean?”
The moderator looks back over his shoulder and answers, “It means smart.”
“Hmm,” is Walter’s reply.