You listened to this poem just now. Did it make you feel some deep silence after it was done? Did it leave you needing to think about that time Virgil called you ‘dirty underwear’ while you tried to ignore him on the big swings. You liked the big swings, you tried to think, while Virgil continued to shout, because the chains went higher and you hung in midair for just a little longer before it was time to fall down again. But Virgil was still shouting when you fell back and forth, back and forth.

It was hard to concentrate on the swings, though the wind of it lifted your beautiful brown hair, because Virgil was spouting his vile message for everyone on the playground to hear. Virgil’s deafening shout crushed the sound of your hair across your ears, that sweet ‘shush, child, shush’ sound it made. ‘Shut up!’ you wanted to say, but you didn’t because you were only in third grade and Virgil was in fifth, already broader and taller than almost everyone in school. ‘Shut up!’ you wanted to scream at him, but you didn’t because you were still little and you were afraid that if you did, a crowd might form to try to hear the words he was saying. ‘Shut up!’ would only amplify the nasty words he called you as you pictured the big dirty underwear that the lady down the highway in the whitewashed gray house used to hang on the clothes line. Didn’t she know that you could see them there, with their yellow stains taunting you? Dirty underwear, dirty underwear.

You swayed in the swing, the sound of his words ringing in your ears until tears nearly sprang from your eyes, until bile nearly rose in your throat. You swept your feet back and forth as hard as you could, but still, Virgil wouldn’t go away. You thought you might just explode in fear and anger until all at once, you let go of the chains.

You let your body sail through the air, flying higher than you’d ever flown before.

You knew it was going to hurt when you landed, but you didn’t care.

Somehow, you landed on your feet, though the nerves in your ankles and feet rang up to your knees like a bell. Kids turned toward your spectacular fall, hoping to see blood, crying, maybe a broken bone bent in the wrong direction. But instead, you stuck the landing and stayed on your feet, even though it took all of your courage to do it.

You may have wobbled just a bit.

You distracted the crowd by putting your hands on your hips and very carefully, with a loud and firm voice, without a single tear escaping, you said, “Yeah, that’s me, dirty underwear. That’s my name. So what?”

And you walked away, each step clanging the pain in your ankles and feet. You didn’t look back as you walked into your classroom with the teacher who hadn’t heard the name, who hadn’t wanted to hear, who would have done nothing to stop it if she had.

From then on, you stared Virgil in the eyes until he looked away, as if to say again ‘So what?’

But it was on the way home from school, when you could walk through the cool of the trees, when you were alone, that you cried because of what you had done, because it seemed you had taken down those big white and yellow underwear from the clothes line and you had put them on in front of the whole school and the teachers and your parents, because they had become yours.

Because Virgil said so.

Thank you for listening, jules


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