A movie flickers on the screen set up in front of the chalkboard, but almost none of the twenty-eight eighth-graders pay attention. Under cover of darkness, they talk about the plan for tonight, in restless teenage voices that bounce around the second-floor classroom at Gregory Heights Middle School in Portland, Oregon.
Their teacher looks up and clears his throat as a warning. The conversations continue at a whisper. Only one student, sitting in the last row--at five feet and eighty-three pounds the smallest in the class--remains silent. Sam Lightner never draws undue attention to himself. He moves like smoke. Perhaps it's because he didn't speak until he was four years old. He had to learn how to force air through the hole a doctor cut in his throat when he was born. All his life, people have assumed his silence meant he was retarded.
Sam's an excellent student, an honor student, already tackling high-school-level geometry. He's a keen observer, listening to conversations but not joining in, letting people forget that he's there. Over the years, Sam has learned that people often don't listen to what he's saying because his face distracts them. He was three years old when he realized he was different. He'd been running in a hallway at home when he saw his reflection in a full-length mirror. He touched the left side of his face, almost to prove whether he was in fact that little boy. And then he sat down on the floor and cried.
Sam stares at the screen from his one good eye, and takes notes on the making of the U.S. Constitution. He always takes accurate notes, and shares them willingly. Other students can count on him when they do projects together. Although the desk swallows his frail frame, Sam is in the best shape of his life. Yet whenever the bell rings and other boys stampede to the door, Sam stands to the side so he doesn't get trampled.
Today, his class is consumed with the open house that Grant High School is holding for the city's eighth-graders, incoming freshmen, the class of 2004. Sam figures his classmates feel the way he does--a bit nervous with the move from the warm cocoon of this middle school to the rough-and-tumble world of hormones, dates, and competitive popularity. He knows his homeroom teacher, Mr. Hartinger, is worried about him, concerned that Sam might not survive at inner-city Grant, Portland's biggest high school.
Most adults worry about Sam. They can't help pitying the boy. When he was a baby, strangers asked his mother if she'd taken drugs while pregnant. Once a girl called him an "ugly baby." As he grew, people told him they'd pray for him. Others shook their heads and turned away. Adults see themselves in Sam. They remember the children they once were. They wonder where he finds the strength to deal with his life.
Sam just gets up each day and goes out into the world and learns to ignore most of what he hears. When his parents sat down and talked with him about the facts of life, it had to do not with sex, but with him. They told him that this thing on the side of his face made him look different, but that inside he was like any other boy. They told him to never forget that truth. They have always treated Sam as they do their other children. When he doesn't listen, he gets in trouble. He has chores. His face has never been an excuse for him to be lazy or to feel sorry for himself.
But it's the little things, the things people around him take for granted, that Sam longs for. To be able to walk into a room and not have anyone stare at him. To be able to play dodge ball at the end of Boy Scout meetings and not have anyone really throw the ball at him out of fear of hitting his face. As much as Sam hates being stared at, he despises being pitied.
When the movie is over, Sam hears two boys near him talking about trying out for Grant's basketball team, and that makes him sad. Sam knows he will never play sports. He will always be a spectator. Some girls to his left are talking about what they will wear tonight, and how they hope their outfits will impress the boys. He wishes people would notice what he wears.
From Sam: The Boy Behind the Mask by Tom Hallman, Copyright © October 2002, Putnam Pub Group, a member of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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