Prior to moving out to the middle of nowhere in the fourth grade, I didn't even know that normal people were ever racist. I was shocked to hear people actually use racial slurs. By seventh grade, I had grasped the fact that racist attitudes were very widespread, but I hadn't yet caught on to the idea of white people being racist against each other. When a teacher casually called me a Polak, I had no idea what it meant, and had my friend not caught it, I'm sure I wouldn't have even remembered the incident.
Mr. Bayling was my seventh grade music teacher. He was a douche, to be sure, but I was also an incredibly obnoxious kid. I would laugh at any spoken word that could be construed as sexual in any manner, and that was probably a nightmare to deal with for a teacher who needed to talk about beats all day long. I don't remember what other sorts of shenanigans I used to pull in his class, but I recall being in trouble in his class basically every day. He would make me sit in the back of the class in a desk facing the wall, and while I was sitting there I would have to copy a letter he had written specifically for the purpose of punishing students. It was a letter to the copier's parents, explaining that they were a rotten trouble maker in class. Mr. Bayling, being the douche that he was, would make me write it over and over again until it looked nice enough. Supposedly, if I got in enough trouble, the letter would be sent home. It never was, despite being written nearly every day.
"This looks like hieroglyphics!" he told me once, crumpling up my copied letter and throwing it away. "You're going to have to copy it again!"
I copied it again, this time taking great care to make sure it the whole thing was printed immaculately. When I was finished, I drew some hieroglyphics along the margin. He crumpled it up and made me write it again.
This continued for the majority of the grading period. Music was one of the classes we were rotated into briefly during 7th grade, so I think I only had him for six weeks. For probably four of those weeks, I spent a good deal of time in the corner. During the last two weeks, though, things changed dramatically.
I was being bussed into the school district from another one, and that meant I had to leave a few minutes early so I could catch my bus. Music was the last class of the day, so it was Mr. Bayling that had to dismiss me when the time came.
One day, as I was leaving, somebody asked why I got to leave early.
"If he wants to ride the Polak bus, that's none of my business."
Polak is the Polish word for "Polish man," but is usually used as a derogatory term for anybody who is Polish. In high school I would wind up hearing a lot of Polak jokes, all of which had a punchline suggesting Polish people are all complete idiots. I'm not Polish, and in seventh grade was not aware of the slur or the stereotype, so I didn't even notice what he said.
My friend Gordon, however, did notice.
That night, Gordon told his mom what he had said, and she had called him.
During the rest of my time in Mr. Bayling's music class, I didn't get in trouble even once.