Fast car to the coast, he said. Standing around in the schoolyard, we imagined a big black car, maybe with running boards, like you see in the movies.
The boy didn’t say anything more. He just kept picking up chestnuts and looking them over for possible use as conkers. Maybe you don’t know, but for a conker, you make a hole through one of the hardest chestnuts you can find. Then you put it on a string or a shoelace and whip it fast, like a slingshot under control, against another conker. We took turns beating each other’s conkers to see whose was strongest. That’s what boys did in recess during the fall months.
Most of us were nine years old that year, and after a few weeks the new boy blended in with the rest of us Grade Fours. I say blended in, but he had the deepest black skin I had ever seen, except for the inside of his palms. That was interesting, but we all came from disparate backgrounds at that school and nobody worried about those kinds of differences.
How did you get here, we were asking him, you can’t cross the water in a fast car!
Fast car to the coast, he said again. And quietly added, soldiers shooting at us. And now I am here.
That seemed to be as much as he was going to tell us.
He didn’t even tell us his real name. The teacher called him K and that’s what he wrote on his work. But that was just an initial, and she said it was okay because he was special. Of course, pretty soon all of us were calling him Special K.
I didn’t mind the teacher. She was strict in an old-fashioned way, lots of standing up to answer questions and saying yes, teacher and no, teacher, singing God Save the Queen and reciting the Lord’s Prayer and doing our work real neat. But she never shouted at us, and I never heard of anyone getting the strap from her.
One day, about a month after he arrived in our class, the teacher said it would be good for K to stand up and tell us about his family, the way everybody else had already done.
I don’t know, ma’am, K said.
Don’t know? The teacher raised her eyebrows and pretended to look surprised.
Standing in the aisle, the boy put his head down and gripped the top of his desk.
But the teacher was not going to give up.
You have a mother and father, she said, don’t you? I met them. Tell us about them.
I can’t do that, ma’am, K said quietly.
I could see the teacher was running out of patience.
Well, let me, then, she said, and you can add what you want.
Boys and girls, she said, you have to understand that K came to us from a dangerous place, a country where our Queen — and she pointed to the portrait above the blackboard at the front of the class — gave the Africans the chance to run their own country. That was the same year that K was born, and he was named after the leader of the new country. He was a handsome man, and the Queen even danced with him.
Isn’t that right? she said, looking at K.
K said nothing, just kept his head lowered and watched the teacher suspiciously.
They had many new ideas about how to run the country, she continued, and our government tried to help them in every which way. We sent money to make our mining companies more successful, and we sent officers to train soldiers to protect them from foreign influences.
Isn’t this right? she asked again, glancing over at K but not waiting for an answer.
Unfortunately, their leaders started to forget their friends, the people who had raised them up from a backward colony to a higher stage of civilization.
By now it looked like K was getting embarrassed, maybe even angry. I could see he was clenching his fists, and there were bluish purple streaks starting to show on his face.
That’s when the army had to chase them out of the country, she said.
But it was all for the best, all for the best, she added, looking around the class as if she was responsible for this triumph.
And our very own K is lucky to be here with us today, she concluded. He is a special boy, isn’t that right, boys and girls?
We were saved by the bell. Class dismissed for recess.
Back in the schoolyard, K seemed to be wandering off by himself. But five or six of us went after him and led him down to the end of the schoolyard, where the teachers parked their cars.
That’s the one, somebody said, pointing to a big white car with four doors, a fancy grill and giant fins.
We took out our conkers and gave that car a pounding, all along the sides, so that it looked as if it had just driven through a low-level hailstorm, or maybe even some rounds of gunfire. K just stood by the fence and watched in amazement.
Then he put his arms around our shoulders and led us back into the schoolyard, saying, Come with me, boys, I want to tell you my story.
Morris Alexander is a Canadian writer.