#FridayFlash: Shirts and skins

Shirts and skins

by Tony Noland

The boys finished their laps and returned to the center of the gym, Hamid shuffling up last, as usual. Amid the T-shirts and shorts, he wore faded blue slacks and a grubby, long sleeved dress shirt. He always dressed that way, even in gym class, as though H. T. Farnell Middle School had a formal uniform requirement. Hamid was 12 years old, and his body odor announced that, even if bathing were a regular practice in the Saustrahaimaini household, soap and deodorant were not in common use.

Having received thorough instruction in the school's anti-bullying policies, as well as a series of two-hour lectures in diversity appreciation, community respectfulness and cultural tolerance, the other boys did not call Hamid a greasy Arab freak where any of the teachers could hear them. It was likely that Hamid's command of English was good enough to understand what the boys said to him and about him, but he never responded. He was clearly an idiot and a coward, besides being a greasy Arab freak.

Assistant Coach Wills had discussed the matter with Coach Carhehan. They both agreed that if Hamid left another gym class with his shirt soaked in sweat, they would both hear no end of it from all of his afternoon teachers. Instructions to the boy, even a meeting with his parents to let them know the school's policy about appropriate gym clothes met with an uncomprehending refusal to let the boy wear a T-shirt. The parents spoke hardly any English, and all Wills could get out of them was that they wanted Hamid to look nice.

It was Coach Carnehan who had suggested the solution.

"Alright, guys, settle down," Wills said. "We're gonna divvy up for basketball. All of you -" he indicated the side without Hamid "- are shirts, the rest, skins. Danny, Nick, Antoine, go get some basketballs from the locker and come right back. The rest of you, get your shirts off and let's play."

He deliberately turned away to look at his clipboard. Boys at this age were often body shy and it was always easier to get over the first awkward moments quickly. Gym class taught more than basketball and personal health; men needed to be able to take their shirts off among other men. After a moment, Wills turned back. All the skins had thrown their shirts into a pile and were standing bare-chested, more or less self-consciously as they waited for the games to start.

All except for Hamid, who had not removed his shirt. He had an strange, blank look on his face. Wills went over to him. "Hamid," he said, "you're playing skins. Go ahead and take your shirt off."

Hamid looked at the other boys, then said something that Wills didn't catch.

"Come on, Hamid," Wills said, using the gruff coach voice that he always used during difficult moments. "All the other boys are shirtless too, so it's no big deal. It's just part of how we do things in this country."

Hamid stood quietly, then said, "Must I do this? Truly?"

"Yes, Hamid, you must. Get going."

The boy drew a deep breath through his nostrils, and said, "I do not want to do this, Assistant Coach Wills, but if I must do this, then I shall do it like a man." He undid the cuffs of his shirt, then unbuttoned the front. He took the shirt off and revealed a mass of scars that covered his chest, back and arms. Long, wide welts, puckered and shiny and deep pink on his coffee-colored skin, obviously extending down below the line of his belt.

"My God." The gym had gone silent and Wills involuntarily took a step backward. "I... my God."

Hamid looked Wills in the eye. The man flushed and had a terrifying thought that Hamid would accuse him of deliberate humiliation, but the boy did not look humiliated at all. He looked courageous and yet serene.

"What happened to your.... I mean..."

"Our neighbors back in my village did not like Christians, Assistant Coach Wills. They knew we would be gathering at Easter to celebrate the rising of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. They found out where we were meeting, and they attacked. Many of us escaped, but I did not."

"They... did that to you?"

"I was whipped with ropes and wire cables, yes. My family moved to this country not long after, to escape persecution." Hamid paused, his face clouding. He continued, "We are able to worship in peace here. Everything else... is not important. This is my new home, and I must fit in if I am to be a success. I am trying to fit in, Assistant Coach Wills. Please believe that."

Hamid turned and crabbed over sideways to pick up a basketball. In the silence of the gym, he dribbled it slowly down the court in his shuffling half-run, the mass of scar tissue flexing and stretching tightly across his shoulders and back as he passed the ball awkwardly from hand to hand.

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  1. I hope those boys leave him alone after all of that.

    Beautifully done, sir.

  2. You never cease to amaze, Tony. Peace.
    Adam B @revhappiness

  3. I just want to give poor Hamid a hug.

    Excellent, sad story, Tony.

  4. I love that your twist questions the beliefs we hold about others and ourselves, in that even though we try so hard to be open-minded, we can still fall prey to stereotyping.

    We try to judge a person on who they are, not their race, religion or any other identifier, but that doesn't mean we can't try harder, or put in more effort to know them as people, and not that identifier.

  5. Hamid the Brave.

    Beautiful story, and reminder that people are not always who they appear.


  6. Such a powerful piece, showing how shallow and petty we can be, and at the same time the bravery and resilience of the human spirit. Wonderful work.

  7. This one is a keeper, Tony ... Tugged at me a little.

  8. I was cringing at the coach and some of the other characters and then the end punched me right in the gut.

    Really nicely done.

  9. "Gym class taught more than basketball and personal health; men needed to be able to take their shirts off among other men."

    What kind of school is this? I'm 29 and have yet to find a situation when I needed to strip in front of dudes. Tony, what was your childhood like?

    On second thought, after those scars, I don't want to know.

    I've had to go and be funny because this is my way. But I like the route you took this, Tony. I read sympathy into the future of his interactions, though he may be stiffed with intolerance. Regardless you sheathed it in a prickly revelation that feels thoughtful, for us and the gym class.

  10. I was struggling with this until the reveal which knocked the breath out of me as if I'd been hit by a medicine ball. Great switch.

    Marc Nash

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  12. Wow! That's all I can say at this late hour. This story took my breath away in a very good way. Excellent work, Tony.

  13. Very powerful ending, really well done.

  14. A moving tale - I'm curious if it was based on something that happened. It certainly reads like parable, of the thoughtlessness of our time.

    Beautifully done.

  15. Hamid may be learning how to "fit in" and strip in front of other men, but I think the other boys, and the coach are learning something a little more important. Excellent story, Tony.

  16. That was a kicker twice over; I've been deeply concerned about the Persecuted Church for a long time. It's not only his experience, but also his composure and strength about what he had been required to do; no shuffling, no embarrassment, just composure and acceptance.

    I hope the others learned from him, and maybe found the ability to accept him; maybe also that he could live with the scars being seen in the future.

  17. I think this is a wonderful story - it actually reduced me to tears.

    Hamid is a brave character, even if he isn't a fan of the soap.

  18. Wow. I'm not a crier, but I came damn close. I knew a Chinese family with a similar story. They moved to America to practice Christianity openly and have a large family. It's funny the preconceived notions we carry, even if they aren't malicious.

    I also liked the introduction involving the BO. VERY believable. ; )

  19. Wow. Shifting gears from surprising to Surprising/moving?
    Definitely a pretty powerful story you've got here.

  20. Was not expecting that. Felt a bit like I got smacked upside the head. Absolutely excellent.

  21. Beautiful and moving. Well done Tony.

  22. I definitely agree with the other commenter; I think the others probably learned a lot more than Hamid did.

    What a moving story. Well done.

    This shows so clearly how so many have such slim tunnel vision when it comes to others. It's so sad. It just shows, you never know where another has been.

  23. I agree with Mr. Wiswell above. If teachers--even gym teachers--especially gym teachers?--tried to get the shirts off their students like that, they'd be sued for sexual harassment, methinks. At the very least, they'd be reprimanded for encouraging dress code violations.

    Unlike John, I'm not using humor to deal with anything. I don't think I got out of it what everyone else did. You said Hamid was Arab, I pictured him as Arab, nothing more; his religion wasn't mentioned early on, so it wasn't even on my mind. Coupled with the fact that there are so many Christians around the world, it didn't strike me as surprising that he was one, though it looks like it was meant to.

    Still, I did get out of it some great commentary on the state of religious/cultural affairs these days, and of course the eternal struggle of outsiders trying to fit in.

    It was very well written, as your stories typically are. All in all, I think it's a job well done.

  24. ...And about five minutes after I wrote that, I realized it could be read the wrong way. Unfortunately, I had to be away from the computer for a while.

    I don't want anybody to think I'm saying I'm above preconception. We all have our prejudices; I know I've got quite a few--and quite likely, many of them are incorrect. I'm just saying that I try to go into a story without judging the characters by anything but the facts available in the text. Also as a student of religion, in my mind Arab does not automatically equal Muslim, which I think is the notion you were challenging here, so I guess that's why this one went over my head.

    Like I said though, I did get other things out of this story, so it didn't fall flat. You managed a great multifaceted story here, Tony.

  25. Sorry for the long delay in responding, everyone. I was meeting with the Queen and doing damage control in a mass at Westminster.

    @Icy: Thanks!

    @Adam: My mission statement as a writer is, "I will always leave you wanting to come back for more."

    @Gracie: Sad, but I find it a bit heartening. There's so much they don't know about this young man; in many ways, he is so much better than all of them.

    @WA_side: Spot on, thank you!

    @Linda: Too true.

    @Jax: Thanks! I think the Coach was trying to work through a tricky situation, and was taught a lesson about the world outside his own experience.

    @Anthony: I'm gratified that it moved you. Hamid is a tough kid, doing his best under difficult circumstances.

    @Benjamin: The twist was a killer for a lot of people. I'm glad it worked for you.

    @John: I like to think of myself as a pretty funny guy. That makes me sometimes wonder why my stories can take such a bleak and sad turn. Tony, what was your childhood like? My childhood was not so much Darwinian as it was Malthusian. I went to the library a lot.

    @Marc: I was worried that the reveal, coming after a fairly conventional set-up, would read too harsh & forced. I'm glad it worked for you!

    @vandamir: Thank you! Have a brown paper bag to breath into: |_|

    @allisonwells: Thanks!

    @dijeratic: Things like this happen all the time, both the initial prejudice and rejections and the ultimate reveal that the world is a far harsher place than many of us realize.

    @Laurita: I certainly hope so!

    @Janet: Hamid's composure and strength of character puts him several rungs higher than anyone else in the room. He's going to be a remarkable man.

    @Rebecca: Thank you! Adapting to local cultural norms re: soap and deodorant are easy. He's already gotten the hard lessons learned.

    @Monica: I helped a Mesketian Turk refugee family settle in our area a few years ago. An Iraqi refugee family arrives in 4 days, and I'll be helping them as well. People here don't often realize what our freedoms really mean. Oh, and the B.O.? Well, if you've ever spent any time near a 12 year old boy...

    @JW: Thank you!

    @Four Part Land: I wanted the twist to be a shock, but not a cheap one. I'm glad it came across that way for you.

    @Tina: Thanks!

    @Crystal: Thank you! I forget who said that everyone you meet is the leading figure in a tragedy. Empathy is too rare of a commodity.

    @Travis: You raise some interesting points here. What kind of assumptions are engendered in the reader by the kid's name, his body odor, his grubby clothes, his ethnicity (or at least, what the other kids perceive his ethnicity to be)? In any story, plot twists are based on establishing an idea in the reader, then revealing it to be incorrect. Sometimes authors give misleading hints or incomplete information from which we draw incorrect inferences. Sometimes we have a character lie, misrepresent a situation, etc. The goal is to get that shock.

    Done poorly, it looks like the author set loose a school of red herrings. Done well, it can reveal something about the nature of the cultural baggage we all bring to any situation, and deeply engage the reader. From you second comment, I'm thinking that this story falls more in the latter camp than in the former, although imperfectly so.

    I did get other things out of this story, so it didn't fall flat. Well, I do what I can, you know? Not every story is going to work to the same extent for everyone. Still, if you come back for more, then I'll consider my work tolerably well done.

    @Thom: I'll offer one word in return: thanks!

  26. An amazing story, beautifully told. Great job, Tony.

  27. Tony,

    Having taken into consideration the questions you pose in your response, and having come back to this story again, I'd hardly say "imperfectly" is the right word. You did what you set out to do, and you did it quite well. Any failure here was on my part as the reader, as it was I who interpreted your descriptions as the other children's aversion to Hamid simply as aversion to an outsider, and it was I who didn't make the leap, especially given the current state of world affairs, that religion would, of course, enter into that judgment.

    Of course I'll come back for more; your work is consistently more than merely "tolerably" well done. I'm not sure if you're aware, but I have a list on my blog of #fridayflash writers whom I read on a weekly basis; of the nearly one hundred who submit each week, fewer than twenty have made that list, and your name is on it. I enjoy the vast majority of what you share with us here, this week's offering included.

  28. Beautiful and sad, Tony. I'm crying. This is everything I believe that people should treat each other with dignity and respect, no matter what they believe or even if they believe at all. I've been in poor Hamid's shoes. It's not a good place to be, but, surprisingly it makes you stronger. Great story!

  29. Please forgive any grammatical or punctuation errors in my post, Tony. I've had about 3 hours sleep in the last 32 and writing a lot for school stuff. I'm almost (I said, almost) tired of writing!

  30. Jeez, Tony. Just... jeez. In a good way.

  31. Absolutely brilliant. I love the way it seems I lost count of the number of times I had expectations of exactly where this was going... and you spun those expectations upside-down and inside out.

    Bloody brilliant.

  32. Beautifully done, Tony. I really enjoyed this. And by the way, you're a gracious host here.

  33. What saddens me the most about this story is that if Hamid had in fact been Muslim, then he wouldn't have had the "redeeming feature" of being a mistreated Christian and the harassment by his classmates would probably continue.

  34. This was quite the interesting read, both the story and the comments it generated. I do agree with what the poster above said-- the saddest part is that if he were a Muslim, he would have continued to get picked on.

  35. We had mixed PE at school for one of the two sessions a week and were all in the same sort of area so could see the other gender anyway for the other.

    After that he'd have had to fight the girls off even if they hadn't seen it.

    And I don't think there would have been any issue with teachers demanding the boys take their tops off like that. Swimming was mixed and the boys in trunks anyway - there were also no curtains on the showers.

    The UK is also quiet strict on children's safety where this sort of thing is concerned by topless guys are normal in gym and stuff. (or at least were)

    I sort of wondered if it was going to be a Crash Test Dummies style so I was sort of expecting scars, or burns or maybe a tattoo of some kind :)

    Thanks for the read


  36. Great story Tony, thought provoking and touching.

  37. @Danielle: Thanks!

    @Travis: I've heard it said that fiction is an intricate, shared dance between author and reader. This is like other emotionally freighted dances, except that in this case, the author goes first. I'm glad you keep coming back. What I put up here is a varied lot, with different resonances with each story.

    @Maria: Thank you! There's some analogous experiences here that I think many people could identify with, although I hope that the actual whipping with wire cable isn't too universal. Also, you make me glad I'm not in school anymore.

    @Valerie: Well, jeez... thanks!

    @Chris: Kept you on the edge of your seat, then, did it? Nice!

    @Pamila: Thank you! I try to run a clean place. Rough and tumble fun with differing viewpoints is fine, but when it stops being fun, I start tossing people out on their ears.

    @Helena & misshalleluja: That's a really interesting perspective. I meant for there to be an implicit set of assumptions in the reader that was overturned by him being articulate, wiser, more experienced, Christian, etc. I wonder if you are correct, that this was an unconscious bid on my part to set him up as a sympathetic character, with my own assumption of him being Christian fits that. Very interesting... this is why lit crit is worth doing. It helps to examine the framing worldviews of the author as well as the readers.

    @Sarah: My own experience in grade school was well over a generation ago, so may not have much relevance to how things work today. However, I know that there are plenty of places where things don't change all that much.

    @Mari: Thank you!

  38. Tough story. I always hated when school demanded such a thing from us. Great work as always Tony.


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