By MIKE HANCOCK
Special to the PRESS
“Speaking of racism, as a boy, I used to love poetry.”
Larry paused, a trickle of sweat inching down his brow. We sat in the kitchen of his apartment, but like mine and everyone else’s in the complex, the only air conditioning was in the bedroom.
And like me, Larry is an expat. That’s short for expatriate, a person living outside their native country. With his children grown and himself unmarried, he realized he could run his marketing company from anywhere in the world. So, at 51, he packed his luggage and laptop, and from Dallas to the Philippines he went. That I’m his neighbor also from Texas seemed like fate. We made fast friends.
“I grew up in Shreveport,” he said. “In seventh grade, my English teacher was Mrs. Miley. Older white lady. Always dressed formally. Strict. Want some water? Agua?”
He knew I’d spent the last six years on the Mexican border and tried throwing in some Spanish when he could. Even though I’m white, and not fluent.
“Nah, I’m good.”
“We had an assignment one week to write a poem. Could be about anything, any form. Friday came and I turned mine in with the rest of the class.”
“Larry, I need you to stay after school,” Mrs. Miley said, an eyebrow cocked, arms crossed. What did I do wrong, I thought. She’s never asked that before. The bell rang, and all the kids scampered out of the room. Immediately I could feel the tension. I glanced out the window, willing myself to be somewhere else. She had my poem in her hand.
“Who wrote this?” she asked.
It was a question I wasn’t prepared for. Why would she even think someone else wrote it?
“Me,” I said. “I wrote it.”
Her face flushed crimson.
“Of course you didn’t. Of course you didn’t.”
As he was telling me this story, his eyes were focused on the wall, his mind somewhere way back in the crevasses, bagged up and hidden in an attic. But then he zeroed in back on me, lasersharp.
“And, right then, all of sudden, like lightning, three things hit me, hit me so fast it was sensory overload, and it took years to realize the wisdom of what Mrs. Miley had given me in that moment. For that, I was grateful.”
“Grateful? Man, she accused you of cheating,” I said, a little taken aback.
“Three things. One, there are people really like that, see a child’s skin color, and assume what they’re capable of…or not. Two, most bigots are bigots only in private.”
A blaring siren roared past the apartment building on the adjacent street, punctuating the incessant traffic of pedicabs, motorcycles, and scooters, honking, streaming by. A rooster crowed in the yard behind us. Larry took a long sip of water.
“And the third thing?” I asked.
“Yeah, the third thing.” A hint of a smile appeared. “I realized I was really that good.”
Editor’s Note: Mike Hancock taught dual credit English courses at Port Isabel High School from 2013-2019. He abandoned his beloved tacos for a university post in China, where he’s working on a second novel, due out from Force Poseidon Books in 2021.