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
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.