Today, I received news that a friend took his own life this past Sunday. When I heard this I immediately said to my self, “That’s not my friend. It can’t be the same guy I grew up with. More than likely, it is someone with the same name.” It was not a man with the same name. It was not a coincidence. It was, sadly, my childhood friend. My friend and I had gone our separate ways in 1993, after I was accepted to a college prep school out of state. We never spoke again. However, while we were in the 8th grade, he taught me something that I have carried with me to this day- and he never knew it and I never told him “thank you.”
He and I grew up in a small town in Mississippi. We were in many classes together from 1st grade through our Junior year in high school. We both were in the same circle of friends in school. However, outside of school functions, we never saw each other except in passing. He was black and I am white. Black kids and white kids did not have sleep overs, attend the same birthday parties, or go to the same churches back then. When you are 11 years old in small town Mississippi you have “friends” and “school friends” – that isn’t a real term that was used, but it is accurate in terms of where you associate with the friend in question and how they enter and exit your life. My late friend showed me the hidden division in our society and he never knew how it changed my life.
In 1988, there was a indoor basketball court that was owned and operated by the Baptist church. This basketball court also had video games and a snack bar. It was opened on the weekends so kids could have a safe place to come play and stay off the streets. I had gone there Fridays and Saturdays for years. All of my “friends” were there every weekend. One Friday at school, I asked my now deceased friend if he wanted to go. He said he had never been and wanted to know if I though it would be cool if he went with me. Somewhat confused I said “Yeah, why wouldn’t it be?” I then pointed out that ALL of our mutual friends were going to be there. He said “Sure, why not?”
I picked him up at 7. (He gave me directions to his house because I had never been there.) We arrived and went in. After signing the little clip board, we started onto the basketball court- both of us greeting all the kids we had seen 4 hours earlier at school. It was just like being at school. As we were walking in, I casually looked back at the woman who was administering the clipboard as we entered. She was on the phone. I could not make out what she was saying, but she didn’t appear happy. Being 15, I didn’t care or make the connection to what could be the problem. My friend and I, along with the 20+ other friends, who we both had known for years, played basketball like friends do. Everything was fine. Everyone was laughing and pretending they could dunk like M.J. Out of nowhere, a voice boomed, “WHERE IS MATT HOWELL?” The entire building fell silent. I stopped dead in my tracks and looked back at the door. I turned around and walked toward 3 men in their 40s or 50s. The building was still completely silent except for shoe squeaks on the floor. The men were staring a hole in me as I approached. I remember that I could feel their anger before I got close to them. Wiping the sweat from my brow I said, “Yes sir?” A man showed me the clipboard as he pointed to a name “Is this your friend? Did he come here with you?” He was pointing at my friend’s name. “Yeah,” I said. “Well, you both need to leave. Just get your things, both of you, and go on,” was the immediate reply. “Why?” I asked. In an I’m not kidding around here tone he said “Son, I just told you you had to leave.” Before I could press this any further my friend put his hand on my shoulder and handed me my coat and said, “Come on Matt, don’t make any trouble. Let’s just go.” I looked him in the eye and could tell that he wanted to leave. He almost was pulling me out the door. As we made it into the parking lot I was livid and spewing every cuss word a 15 year old knows. My mind was reeling with WE DIDN’T DO ANYTHING WRONG and WHO THE FUCK ARE THEY TO KICK US OUT. The reason we were kicked out didn’t occur to me until we entered my 1984 Chevrolet Blazer and I looked at him as the interior light hit his face. That is when I knew why we were kicked out. It was because he was black. Something happened in my brain at that moment. I instantly became aware of racism. Real racism. I was mad and ashamed all at the same time. I think I was somewhat in shock and all I managed to say was, “I am sorry man.” His response, while smiling, was, “Dude, It’s ok.” I really didn’t know if I was apologizing for me or my race. I just felt I needed to apologize for something. My anger quickly sank into sadness. He saw my face change as I realized what REALLY just happened. He smiled and nodded as if he knew that was my 1st encounter with racism. I cranked up my car and we left- we went to my house (for the 1st time). We watched a movie and ate chips. We talked shit about people at school but not a word about what just happened. We were two 15 year old kids pretending that nothing happened a little while ago. I eventually took him back to his house later that night. When I got back home, I didn’t sleep. The events of that night still weighed on me. I was sad, angry, and confused. I didn’t know why they didn’t like him when they didn’t know him at all. All of those questions circled my head for hours on end. One thing I decided that night was that I am never going back to that place and I never did.
Now so many years later, I remember that day like it was yesterday. I remember the anger, and the forceful, pressing tone in that man’s voice. I remember how I felt- scared and unsure of what was going on. It was a foreign and unsettling feeling. On the other hand, my friend was born and had lived in a place where many of it’s inhabitants didn’t value him as a person for all 15 years of his life and he knew it. The realization of the fact that a 15 year old not only knew what was going on and was able to handle it without escalating the situation now makes me sick. A 15 year old should not have to be able to calmly deescalate racism so he and his friend can leave unharmed. Yet my friend, a 15 year old black boy, knew exactly what he and I should do to avoid any more abuse. It is almost surreal when I look back on it.
He and I, as well as the rest of our friends shared many times together growing up, but the one that made all the difference in my life, the single most important occurrence that happened to me that has shaped who I am today was the one that he responded to like it was just another day for him and that breaks my heart. My eyes were opened that day. I saw things that I had not on any previous day. I never told him about how that night affected me. I wish I could tell him how I have refused to turn a blind eye to any racism- passive or overt since then. Now, I will never have that chance and I feel true regret. The words “thank you” just don’t quantify the thanks I feel for the gift he gave me that night. I wish I could have told him face to face how he changed my world by simply being in it.