Before middle school, Bill Cosby was every black man to me, then came Mr. Brawley.

Some of the memories I have of Mr. Brawley might get him fired, but I think he’s been retired a few years now, so I won’t worry. This was a guy who was almost as wide as he was tall and somehow a gym teacher. I guess he was from the “do-as-I-say” school of gym instruction. For some reason, bright red jogging pants and a grizzled gray beard keep invading my memory as I think about him, sort of like Santa Clause without all the velvet. He also often sported a tight blue pocket T-shirt, his belly begging for freedom.

 

 

My older sister had told me about this trick Brawley played on 6th graders as a welcome to middle school: We all filed into the gym and were instructed to stand arm’s width apart. Mr. Brawley showed us all the steps of a jumping jack, according to the way he had done them in the military years before. I think we had four steps to memorize, and our bodies were to be in a different position at the exact moment each number was dealt out… “ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR.” Well, old Mr. Brawley took his time making sure we all understood how to do the jumping jacks just right. He then told us that if everyone in class did the jumping jacks perfectly, we’d all get automatic A’s. Excited at the prospect, I began spreading the news as to how to defeat Brawley’s trick. Unfortunately, word did not spread fast enough, and Mr. Brawley bellowed out, “Are you ready? Now, you get it right and all of you got A’s, but you’ll never do it right. Ready, set, ZERO!” About half of us were able to stand perfectly still, but too many students had been conditioned by the practice and were expecting a loud “ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR!” It seemed kind of unfair.

 

Mr. Brawley called us Big Dummies for the first time at that point. We went on to earn that name at every opportunity, and he always reminded us of our inferior intellects. During Eighth Grade, I can remember one day when Mr. Brawley was particularly angry at the African American kids in our class. He was himself black, and he was very honest when it came to assessing the problems he felt existed within his own community. Some kids were misbehaving a bit this day, but for some reason all the white kids seemed to be sitting on their numbers on the gym floor, as was the rule. Mr. Brawley, identifying the offenders as African American, decided to have all of the black kids run in a circle around all of the white kids. Talk about an uncomfortable feeling in class! All ten of us white kids being circled by 30 or so black kids, like a Milwaukee middle school version of Custer’s Last Stand.

 

Mr. Brawley had been in the military 100 pounds ago. Supposedly he was a boxer, and he didn’t pull any punches when it came to us getting into altercations. He didn’t like the way guys would lean into one another and act as if they were going to fight, while talking trash and waiting for a teacher to break it up. He called us all a derogatory name I won’t repeat and said that if we were going to fight, we should fight-- right there in gym, but if we were going to stand around and threaten one another, he was going to rumble into his office and throw his chair at us. We believed him, and gym-class fights were pretty much non-existent, at least compared to the rest of Wilbur Wright Middle School. Well, there was that one time Orlando Tassara told me that he and his 85 pounds could beat me up because he knew karate, but that’s a whole other story.

 

I don’t know if Mr. Brawley was a great teacher. He certainly couldn’t show us how to climb a rope or do a sit up (though he could hit three pointers from the corner like nobody’s business). I don’t know if Mr. Brawley was a great person. He did make poor little Emily Schultz* cry because she couldn’t make a lay-up during the basketball unit, and he was a bit brash. I do know, however, that Mr. Brawley affected me in many ways. He gave me stories to tell and taught a class in which I had fun participating. He insulted us with the desire to change us. He was fun to rip on because he could take it, and we all wondered what he might say or do next, and that’s entertainment for a middle schooler. Above all, Mr. Brawley dealt with race head-on and honestly. He was honestly surprised when Arthur or Jamelle would choose me first to play on their basketball team because I was a white guy. He was honest when he accused our school basketball team of being bad role models when we had to disband because the rest of the guys, who were all black, had lower than a 2.0 GPA.

 

Though many of us are afraid to discuss race at all, we must also realize that when we’re conditioned to ignore the obvious, we allow others to control us, and turn us into a bunch of “Big Dummies.” Maybe we aren’t all given a fair shot, but it helps to know when the odds are stacked against you, and Brawley liked to let us know, all except for that first day in 6th grade.

 * I had originally remembered the story with Bekki Schnoll crying whene she couldn't make a layup. Bekki, however, assured me via social networking site that she had not cried because of this. For now, I'll believe Bekki. Besides, I have a fun story to tell about her, anyhow.