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Crossing the Line

by Rich H. Kenney, Jr.

Smokes called them retards, those kids in the special class.

Told us to stay away from them, that they were contagious:

“Touch one of them, you’re fried - end up just like them.”

So I kept my distance. Some made me uneasy like Roland

with his stiff fingers and limp. At recess, wise guys

mimicked him, waving their wrists and dragging their feet,

their stinging laughter caging the schoolyard. Norman

was boney and blinked a lot, an easy target for water

balloons and firecrackers. Another, Gilbert, had eyes

that pointed to the sky and tiny ears, broken like the ones

on my sister’s doll. His smile always made me feel good

but he was a freak, a mongoloid, Smokes said. Each year,

we moved up a grade and changed classrooms. Kids

in the special class did not. At recess, they were told

to stay within the white lines of the concrete basketball

court. Teachers said it was for their protection but to me

it made them bulls-eye invitations. Sometimes they played

kickball, but mostly, they huddled on the hill overlooking

the rocky wall in left field to watch us play baseball. I’m not

sure when I realized they were not contagious, that they were

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more like me than not. It could have been the time I saw Roland

laughing as only a friend could do when his buddy, Gilbert,

tried out a hula hoop. Perhaps it was the day I watched Norman

reach out his hand to help a heart-broken friend struggle

to his feet after being blindsided by bullies. Or maybe it was

the time I crossed the line to their part of the playground with

an idea long overdue. As I handed out gloves, Gilbert slipped

on a mitt, pounded its pocket, and motioned for me to throw...

Note: Rich H. Kenney, Jr. is Social Work Program Director and associate professor at Chadron State College in Chadron. Recent publications include articles in Faculty Focus and poetry in Plainsongs and Cloudbank.

Crossing the Line was originally published in The New Social Worker Magazine in August, 2017. Permission has been secured from the magazine’s editor, Ms. Linda Grobman.

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