by Joseph Stephens
I grew up a Smith and I’ve always been a Smith. That’s all I’ve ever known. Everyone I knew was a Smith, because they were my family. Brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, distant cousins, everyone was related and that’s all I knew.
So I never understood why we had SMITH written on our forehead. It didn’t make sense. Obviously, everyone was a Smith.
Then my parents brought me to school. I remember it happened in first grade. I met lots of people, they were all interesting, and yet the same. Everyone else had names written on their foreheads, interesting names like NG and HUYNH. They all had big families like me, and it was funny to see the different names on their heads; it made it easier to tell people apart and what family they were from.
It was nice to learn everyone was part of something larger. I was a small part of the Smith clan and I did my part to represent them well. My best friend in first grade was Mae Ling Ng. She was part of the NG tribe and did her part to represent her family well.
I liked Mae Ling, and I liked her family. I felt we were exactly the same, a small part of a large family structure, and she even looked like me. I could have sworn we were twins, separated at birth. She was super cute, if I’m being honest. The only part that was different was the name on her face, NG, I couldn’t judge her for that. It’s who she was. And Smith was who I was. I hoped Mae Ling wouldn’t judge me for that. Just because of my name.
But then trouble started. We met kids who weren’t a Smith, Ng, or Huynh. I didn’t know where these people came from or how they could be outside such large families. They had names like LANCASTER and EVENRUDE.
These kids were weird and they weren’t like the rest of us. Sure, their faces looked like us, but their names told us they were different. They also wore raggedy clothes and they smelled funny. I never knew my family had money or was considered rich until I met those poor kids. I didn’t know there was such a thing as poor.
I had to ask my mom.
“Don’t judge them, honey,” Mom said. “Just because they live differently than you or don’t have as much money as you doesn’t mean you have to pick on them. They’re people like you and me.”
Mom was always nice when explaining such things. I liked how Mom sugarcoated the world for me. She made everything taste sweeter.
Dad, on the other hand, had a different opinion. “Don’t you be talking to no half-breed,” Dad said. “I like that Ng girl you been hanging out with. But don’t be crossing our lines with none of them Lancaster folk.”
Dad talked like it was fifty years ago. He also liked to chew a long piece of wheat hanging from the side of his mouth. He said it was an ode to his ancestors. Then he would drive to work in his expensive suit, shiny shoes, and rocket-fast car. He said the wheat brought him “down to earth.” Whatever that meant.
* * *
I tried to take my parents’ advice in stride. I returned to school and played with Mae Ling. We liked to hang upside down on the monkey bars. One day, Carrie Shoemaker climbed up to our space, hooked her knees on the bar and hung upside down next to us.
I smiled at Carrie because it was fun to hang upside down.
“I have to leave,” Mae Ling said. “I can’t play with her.” She sat upright and jumped to the ground. “Are you coming with me or not?”
I looked at Mae Ling. She scowled, but her face looked so pretty and cute with her hair tied in a double pigtail. I wanted to style my hair like that. I wanted to be like Mae Ling.
Upside down I looked at Carrie. Her skirt had fallen over her face, and I could see her underwear. Her bare legs were dirty and so was her hair; it was all knotted and splitting at the ends. It looked like she hadn’t had a haircut in her entire life.
I didn’t know why, but I felt I had to choose between Mae Ling and Carrie. Mae Ling was pretty and looked like me. Carrie was gross and different. She was dirty.
“You’re gross,” I said to Carrie. “Take a bath.” And I dropped down from the jungle gym. I held hands with Mae Ling, and we skipped together over to the fence where the other Smiths and Ngs had gathered.
“Did you see Carrie Shoemaker?” I asked the group. “She thinks she’s one of us but she’s so stupid and her name is so long it takes up her whole face. I’m surprised they even spelled it correctly.”
The group laughed at my joke and I felt smart. It was fun to gang up on someone different, and Carrie Shoemaker was an easy target.
“Hey,” Mae Ling said, “why don’t you take this dirt and rub it on her head. Her face is so dirty the name will disappear.”
The crowd laughed more. One of the boys suggested I should erase her name and leave the “Shoe,” then maybe she’d be accepted as one of us.
I thought it was a good idea, and I liked my friends and I wanted their acceptance.
Carrie Shoemaker had climbed down from the bars, but had fallen and skinned her knee. Apparently she wasn’t very coordinated either. She sat on the ground nursing her wound.
“Hey, Shoemaker,” I said, holding a handful of dirt. “Does that hurt? Rub your boo-boo in this, since you like to clean with dirt already.” And I threw the dirt at her.
I thought Carrie was going to get mad. If I did that to one of my brothers, they would have pummeled me, but she didn’t. She stayed seated and let the dirt spray all over her, getting her dress more soiled. Her face turned pouty like she was going to cry.
“It’s not your fault for being a Shoemaker,” I said. “If you were a Smith, you could be cool and you’d be one of us.” I stepped forward like I was going to help her up. “Let me fix that for you.”
Instead, I took the remaining dirt and scrubbed it on her forehead. I rubbed out the words so that only “S” remained. She looked ridiculous with dirt all smudged on her face. But, honestly, the S looked super cool.
Laughter erupted from behind me. The gang of Smith’s and Ng’s were bent over crying they laughed so hard. Mae Ling rushed to my side, skipping as she came.
“You look super cool,” Mae Ling said. “So trendy.”
Carrie Shoemaker knew enough to know she was being mocked. She stood and cried and ran over to the teacher.
The teacher already had a group of different last-namers clawing at her skirt. They were all dirty and stupid, and all misfits.
Our teacher, Evie Smith — the traitor — canceled recess early and held a meeting. She scolded us, telling us that no matter how different we were, we needed to respect one another as we were a class, and she wouldn’t tolerate discrimination in her class.
* * *
“All names are equal,” I said to my dad, quoting Evie Smith.
“Well, if that ain’t the rootenist-tootenist darndest thing I ever did hear. What in the Sam Hill are you learning at that dang school of yours? Honey,” Dad yelled to my mother, “can we yank our dearest here outta that school? We can get our money back, can’t we? I ain’t paying for this horse manure of an education.”
“Probably, dear,” Mom replied. “There’s that nice Smith school up the way. It’s further, but only Smiths. I could take her if that’s what you want.”
I didn’t know if I liked that idea or not. I liked meeting the other mega-families. The Ngs and the Huynhs were fine, it was those darn odd-ball families that got me in trouble. They were just so different.
Dad made sure of my teacher’s first name. He said he was going to tell his brothers about it, and they were going to fix her up right. I didn’t mind. My teacher didn’t know what was good for her.
After that I got pulled out and went to the all-Smith school. I liked it fine enough. I could concentrate and learn about school, without having to worry about poor people like Carrie Shoemaker. I did learn, too, that the odd-named people weren’t as smart and they really did need to be treated differently. It was something about their genes.
I kept in touch with Mae Ling, though, and our moms became best friends. Even Mae Ling had an older brother, and they said I was going to marry him. He was handsome, and I wouldn’t mind. Dad said he wouldn’t mind either. A Smith-Ng marriage was fine. It was those odd names that drove him crazy.
Copyright © 2016 by Joseph Stephens