The Schoolyard Chase

Francis DiClemente

I once used the n-word as a weapon to achieve a goal.

It happened when I was in fifth or sixth grade at DeWitt Clinton elementary school in my hometown of Rome, New York. During recess on a cool sunny day in early spring, I started playing a game called Catch the Fly with my friend Mike. The shouts of kids congregating on the school grounds mingled to form a cacophony. Weeds, broken bottles and scattered bubble gum and Now and Later candy wrappers lined a chain-link fence that separated the schoolyard from an alley.

In the game, two players took turns throwing a tennis ball or one of those squishy pink balls against the brick facade of the school building. The person throwing the ball acted as a hitter in baseball. The goal was for the fielder to make three outs and retire the side while the thrower tried to get the ball past the fielder and thus move imaginary runners around the imaginary bases.

I was playing the field, and Mike tossed the ball against the building. I can’t remember if it was a pop fly or a grounder, but as I raced to catch the ball, Cassie Donaldson (name changed), a tall black girl, stole it from me. She either snagged the ball in midair or retrieved it after it skirted by me toward the chain-link fence.

“Hey give it back,” I yelled to Cassie. No recess monitors or adults were stationed outside to enforce fair play. Cassie stood a few feet away. She flashed a smile, almost begging me to give chase. And so I did.

I took off and rushed after her as she bolted, cutting through a crowd of kids gathered in the middle of the schoolyard. Her long legs pumped with fluid motion, and she outran me easily.

Cassie was one of the fastest and most athletic students in our class. She beat most of the boys in the 50 and 100-yard dashes timed in gym class, and she was often one of the first players chosen by captains when dividing teams for kickball or soccer games.

As the chase continued, Cassie circled the building, running on the sidewalk along Ann Street. She opened a wide gap as I pursued her. We were then alone near the front of the school. She was galloping away, and the futility of the chase became obvious. My short legs failed me; I grew tired and gave up.

After I stopped running, my eyes focused on her back, and her figure appeared smaller with every passing second. I recall she was wearing a long-sleeve green shirt. I caught my breath and screamed, “Give it back, you nigger.”

She broke stride, pulling up instantly. She did not turn around; instead, she hurled the ball over her shoulder and walked away, heading in the same direction she had been running.

The ball bounced toward me and I picked it up. I walked back to the schoolyard with a tightness building in my stomach. By now Mike had found some other kids to play with, but once he saw I had the ball, we picked up where we left off.

But I lost my enthusiasm for the game. While I felt vindicated because Cassie had taken the ball without provocation, I knew what I said was wrong and had stung her. Yet despite the viciousness of the n-word, I realized its usage had produced the desired result: I had reclaimed possession of my ball.