We all met on the soccer field. We stood across from each other, hands and feet jittery, cartoon T-shirts hanging from our bony, prepubescent frames. With our dirty fingernails and scabbed skin we were ready, if not desperate, for those precious, short-lived minutes to play, to breathe in the swampy Florida air as we fumbled and crashed on the grass. We were ten-year-old Americans, the sweet musk of our uncertain brown, Black, and white bodies thick in the air. I had a hangnail sense of self; a teetering, uncertain suspicion of who and what I was. The worth of my brown skin, the onset of puberty and power, the formalized testing and grading, the filthy homes and the clean suburban houses — these were all daily questions I hoped to find answers to on that field.
We divided ourselves up until the teams were formed correctly, evenly. In other words, until the white kids were satisfied. No one had declared them the leaders, but, like most enduring traditions, the rule had become quietly understood, rooted in our fledgling muscles and minds. We knew little of the histories of Black and brown kids versus white kids. What we had was the field, and most days we were happy just to be there outside our elementary school — Lake Como, “Home of the Comets!” — on the outskirts of downtown Orlando. Poor, middle-class, and even wealthy families all lived within a couple of blocks of one another. Businesspeople, realtors, firefighters, police officers, teachers, janitors, landscapers. Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Blacks, whites.
We were the children of a new millennium, the early 2000s. We were the post-9/11 kids, neither cynical nor hopeful. We’d grown up committed to our country’s desperate belief in unity, to the postracial erasure of differences. We were the products of a No Child Left Behind education — the push to fix the disadvantaged kids, the low-income kids, the Black and brown kids, and to lift them up to proper standards, both in and out of the classroom. We would come to believe in American unity, though many of us could not afford its costs, as we would learn on the sunny, sprawling field at recess.
As fourth-graders we were now allowed to play on the “big field,” while the younger kids had to stay by the jungle gym. We drifted as far as possible from the watchful eyes of our white teachers, relishing our newfound freedom to run and sweat and fight as we pleased. We kicked the ball, juggled it, guided it downfield while a Confederate flag flew from a nearby house. We shouted, laughed, and spit while a drug dealer parked his car three blocks away.
For me nothing made as much sense as those twenty minutes in the sweltering heat, where the sun-scorched grass and the white chalk lines and the orange cones all existed to explain an otherwise confusing world — my brownness and poorness, the color line that we all danced along, a history as scuffed and dirtied as our clothes and shoes, and the daily rituals of unity, a rigged contest, its outcome as inevitable as the victory of whiteness.
In my Catholic boy’s mind, recess was the real place of worship, and our catechism was the games we played — the wins and losses a way of counting our blessings and confessing our sins. And I believed I had so many sins — chief among them that I was not supposed to be attending this school.
A few months earlier my family had surrendered our dirty, roach-infested home to the bank, a foreclosure that resulted in my mother declaring bankruptcy. But she didn’t want to take me out of the school that I had known since kindergarten.
“It’s a good school,” she had told me on our last drive out of the suburbs. “You’re staying there. We’ll figure it out.”
She said this calmly, looking straight ahead at the road, passing our neighbors’ pristine lawns and driveways, decked in scarlet-and-gold school-spirit and holiday ornaments. I nodded and quietly watched that world reel past, then morph into busy, potholed city streets cluttered with low-income apartments and dollar-store strip malls.
We had just been kicked out of my childhood home, the house that my mother’s father had bought and died in. But whatever combination of grief and disappointment my mother was feeling, she didn’t show it to me or my brothers and sister. It was only from careful observation that I could guess what she was really feeling — how tightly her bony hands grasped the steering wheel; how scratched and chewed her fingernails were; the dark shadows beneath her brown doe eyes. I learned from her to carry disappointment and grief silently, to hold it everywhere in my body except on my tongue. As my mom drove, I watched the crucifix swaying from the rearview mirror. Every so often she pinched it between her fingers. Then she peered at me in the mirror and smiled tiredly. Both gestures strike me now as a kind of question and answer: my exhausted, single mother wondering whether God loved us as much she loved me. And God’s sole reply was the never-ending sounds of the city we drove through.
We did figure out a way for me to stay at Lake Como: I rode the city bus back to that neighborhood each day in secret and snuck onto the school grounds at dawn before the teachers and the other kids arrived. Roaming the empty hallways in the dawn light, I pulled on the locked doors and peeked through the classroom windows. And after school, when the yellow buses were long gone and I had only vacant red benches for company, I would finally catch a city bus home.
I became good at dodging and deflecting adults’ questions.
“Who’s coming to get you?” teachers would ask, looking around the parking lot.
“My mom has a new job,” I’d say. Or, “They’re coming. Their car broke down.”
A janitor or lunch lady might spot me roaming and ask, “It’s late. What are you doing? Where do you live?”
“I’m waiting for soccer practice,” I’d say. Or, “I just finished tutoring. I’m walking home now.”
The questions and the answers changed, but my days always started and ended the same, with the sound of wind whistling through an abandoned schoolyard, a haunting reminder of the lies I told each day to my teachers, my friends, and even myself. But the longer this went on, the less haunted I felt. Instead I began to feel as if I were the ghost, misplaced and unwelcome.
Recess offered a kind of absolution, because if I won at recess, I was saved, whereas losing meant another day of damnation in which everyone was aware of my flawed, fallen nature. We quietly pointed a finger at the losers with sorry soccer skills. We snickered at how dumb they must be. We sneered at how a family could raise such an inadequate competitor. We punished the losers as if prepubescence were its own kind of standardized test, a chance to spot the maladies we all suspected in one another — and in ourselves.
Even though the teams were integrated, somehow the white kids seemed more often to be on the winning team and therefore saved from the judgment of scoreboards. The same was true in the classroom, where we focused on Standard American English, on white American history, on the rational, analytical wonders of math and science. And if we didn’t abide, there was the looming threat of end-of-year tests, through which we would be evaluated and diagnosed. Teachers pushed the Black and brown kids to close the widening racial gap in test scores.
We never thought to question any of this.
I see now how recess drew out our American anxieties about our lives and the Central Florida neighborhood we grew up in. Those realities didn’t disappear during recess; they drew closer. Every shot on goal, stolen pass, or slide tackle served as confirmation of our creeping hatred and shame. I never hated my brown skin or Puerto Rican family more than when I was on that field, and I never had more hope that I could escape it all.
Did the white kids not feel some pressure, born of historical traditions, to assert themselves, to be confident and powerful? Did the Black kids and the other brown kids not feel a bitter resentment at such assertions, and yet a powerful desire to acquiesce — not so much to the white kids as to whiteness itself? This push-pull seemed to be the hard cost of unity. We never spoke of it, much less complained. The year before, after 9/11, we had all heard President Bush ask that “Americans from every walk of life unite.” Wasn’t that what it took to be an American?
If we felt this question in our child bodies, we could answer it only with our red-faced cheeks, our kicks in the dirt, our pushes and shoves on the field. And after recess was over, we walked back to class quietly, processing the lessons we had just learned, as if the outcome of the game had divined something deep-rooted and true about us.
I ruminated on those wins and losses every day, hoping they could tell me why I had been kicked out of my dirty, ruined home; why I needed to lie and hide in order to attend this school. I became convinced there was a connection between my white friends’ winning streaks and their clean, suburban houses. I hoped that recess would bring me closer to being truly American. I dreamed of victory one day being a foregone conclusion for me, too.
On the day I was made a team captain, I knew it was in name only, but I didn’t care. It was a small detail compared to the towering relief I felt to have some morsel of power.
My classmates all looked at me in anticipation — which meant they weren’t pointing and laughing at the dirty, bug-infested home that bordered our recess field; the home that they’d made fun of in years past, staring through its cyclone fence at the backyard overtaken by weeds and snakes and roaches, the pool a murky swamp with frogs and mosquitoes living in it; the home that until recently had been mine. I’d never admitted this. Another secret kept. Instead I would join my classmates in their ridicule of my family home, pointing and laughing alongside them while counting the seconds until it ended.
But I was a captain now. I stood soaking it in as long as I could: my twenty minutes of sainthood.
“Hurry up and pick!” Connor shouted at me, his whiny voice ringing out. Connor was white, but his commands always had an air of uncertainty about them, a plea almost, whereas Max never seemed to betray any hesitance. We all knew it was Max who was really in charge. We knew because of how he crossed his arms and wore a knowing smirk, as if he had finally learned some secret about that field. We had come to openly respect and quietly resent him.
I scanned the group of kids, deciding who my first pick would be. My best friend, Diego, stared right at me with his chin in the air and his bowl-cut red hair flopping into his face. He was eager for me to pick him first despite the fact that he was one of the worst players on the field. I could hear in my head how the white kids always made fun of him after recess. I stared right past him at Jalen, who was half-scowling, as if he knew I would never be brave enough to choose him first. I glanced at Pat, who kept his eyes pinned to the ground and seemed intent on simply surviving this ritual with as little conflict as possible. They were both more skilled at soccer than I was. But they were my Black friends. I didn’t choose either of them.
I need a white kid on my team.
The thought was a command to myself.
“Will!” I shouted. Then I pointed just to be sure.
Without a word we all looked over at Max and Connor to see if my choice was approved. They didn’t say anything, which meant yes.
At lunch that day in the cafeteria, among the long rows of tables and banging trays and chattering kids, Diego, as always, wanted to unpack what had happened at recess.
“Why didn’t you pick me to be on your team?” he asked.
“I did,” I said, not looking up from my food.
“Yeah, last. I’m always last.”
I shrugged. I could have told Diego that he was slow and uncoordinated, clumsy to the point of embarrassment; that I was ashamed he had not yet graduated from English as a Second Language classes like me. But I wasn’t that good myself — at soccer or Standard American English. I didn’t even like soccer much. In truth, most of the brown and Black kids didn’t care for it. We played soccer because it was the game the white kids wanted to play, and because of the unspoken promise that if we all played together, maybe we’d accept one another and feel more affirmed in our identity as Americans.
Once, this strategy had even worked for me. My white friends had invited me (and only me) to join their YMCA soccer team. But my family couldn’t afford the commitment, in time or money. After I told my friends no, they never invited me to anything again. Having to decline their invite made me so ashamed that for days I stood outside my cousins’ apartment, where everyone in my family now lived, crammed into a handful of rooms. I spent my afternoons kicking the stucco walls over and over, hoping to raze my home to the ground.
“It would be weird if I picked you first,” I said to Diego, jamming a straw into my juice box and scooting away from him.
Diego’s questions always annoyed me. His red hair annoyed me. The fact that his skin was lighter than mine and that he could still speak Spanish, while I had forgotten it, annoyed me. Really the most grating fact of our friendship was that my best friend was Mexican, and I wanted nothing more than for my best friend to be white and American. But annoyance was a surface-level emotion, one I latched on to to avoid my deeper feelings. Was it anger I felt? Bitterness? Maybe what I was really upset about was the realization that I, unlike Diego, had never thought to question the rules of recess. Maybe I hated Diego because he was still enough of a child to reject the ideals that haunted me most days.
“Max and Connor are better than you,” I told him. “They know the rules. They know how to play the right way.”
“You’re just afraid,” Diego said quietly.
“Shut up! Leave me alone,” I said.
I said it less as a command and more as a wish, a desperate need to push away not just my annoying best friend but the unrelenting memory of a childhood I no longer had.
He folded his arms and looked down. We were quiet until lunch was over.
Diego seemed unable to understand what was blatantly clear in my mind: we needed the white kids on our team — not because they were better than us at soccer, though they were, but because they made the game possible. The magic of recess worked only if our white friends were there. And if they weren’t picked first, they might get upset and refuse to play with us. This was as unthinkable to me as denouncing church. I needed my white friends to continue to play with me, because recess, unlike my life at home, still seemed able to provide answers.
At home there was no explanation for why we never had visitors. (I could see my friends only at school.) There was no explanation for why we had lost our home, or why my mother, despite her white skin, was somehow different from the parents of my white American friends. And no one in my family ever spoke a word about the Puerto Rican men in my life — my father, grandfather, uncles, and cousins — who either drank themselves to death or abandoned their families. My brown Puerto Rican life was a mystery.
But at recess the way the ball bounced and rolled in response to my feet provided answers. However false or incomplete, these were the answers I was desperate for; answers that I could never come up with on my own, could never provide when sitting in class or when my family spoke to me in Spanish.
The white-line boundaries of that field seemed the only boundaries capable of containing the enormity of my brown life.
Not long after my argument with Diego, the mystery of recess became clear to me.
On the field that day, Max stood with a snarl on his lips, his blond hair white as the sun, his skin blotched cherry red. He was the first of us to realize the power of intention: that you could say and do whatever you pleased if you did it willfully enough. When he pushed someone into the dirt, we never questioned whether it was legal; it was merely part of the game. When he needed answers to a test, cheating was no longer cheating but helping. When he told me I smelled or talked weird, I thought it must be true. I was too young to pity him, but when I think about him now, he seems just as scared and uncertain as the rest of us, just as frightened of that field as he was of spelling tests and math problems.
“Emilio, you go over there,” he said, pointing.
When he picked me first, I thought he was joking. To have been picked before any of my white friends seemed impossible. I must not have heard him correctly.
“Go!” Connor shouted at me.
I scrambled over to one side and stood there, fists clenched, jogging in place while Max and Connor huddled together. I looked over at Diego, who looked back at me, eyes wide and chin up, hopeful that he would get picked early this time around.
Don’t say anything, I thought. Don’t mess this up.
I didn’t even realize that Max and Connor, although standing together on a team, were picking for both sides. I was too proud of my first-picked status to recognize that my white friends viewed me merely as the best of the worst. Only when I saw all of my brown and Black friends walking toward me did I realize what they had done.
“What’s your team name going to be?” Max shouted as he and the rest of our white friends backpedaled toward the goal. They couldn’t stop laughing at my team — Jalen, Pat, Diego, and me, their Puerto Rican leader — in our grass-stained jeans and faded T-shirts. None of us was any good at soccer.
“Let’s go!” Max shouted.
We trudged to our positions on the field. As the leader of the Black-and-brown team, I felt more ashamed than ever. I had never felt my brownness more clearly: how raw and clay-like it was. I felt ashamed, too, for my obsession with recess, for my desire to be accepted by my white friends.
Once the ball was kicked off, my team panicked. What little we knew, we immediately forgot. It didn’t take long for Max to steal the ball from us, break into the open field, and rocket a shot past our goalie. Afterward he celebrated in his teammates’ arms, jumping and screaming. Then he beat his chest, ready to continue the slaughter.
The second goal came faster than the first. This time there were no cheers, just laughs.
Had we all been older, we might have demanded the teams be made more “fair,” more “equal.” But to demand to have some white kids on our team felt worse than quitting. It felt like surrender. Yet the option of playing out the game seemed hopeless as well. Caught in this double bind, I scowled at my teammates.
“You guys suck,” I said, and I spit on the ground. They grumbled back. I shook my head and walked slowly after the ball.
“C’mon, Emilio! You gonna quit? You gonna cry?” I heard Max shout.
“What’s wrong with your team? Don’t they know how to play?”
I didn’t respond. I didn’t care that I was going to lose. I had lost plenty of games. What I hated was the clarity this game had brought. On any other day I would have raced after the ball, because our precious time at recess was running out. But it was clear to me now that the recess I had believed in would never teach me who and what I was. Left with this truth, I gave up on my burning questions of self. I decided that the only thing left to do was play.
When I reached the ball, I turned around and looked at the others, waiting for me to continue the game. Instead I reared back and kicked the ball farther down the field.
“Hey! What the hell, Emilio!” someone shouted.
“Don’t be a sore loser!”
They were right. As a confused, brown, Puerto Rican kid, I was sore. I was a loser. But I also knew that no amount of winning would change that.
I walked after the ball, giggling to myself. I had to do something to keep this new game going, so I started to dance. I pumped my arms in the air. I rocked my hips from side to side. I marched around the ball. I could hear kids behind me laughing, which made me act sillier. A few of my teammates joined in. We were just being kids, yet we were also doing something previously unimaginable: rather than quitting the game, we were playfully refusing it. Suddenly that game was revealed as merely another element of the larger competition that trapped us all. If any of us — brown, Black, or white — were to find a way out of that trap, it wouldn’t be through a reliance on “fairness” but by our refusal of the game altogether, our childish decision to laugh and dance.
The game did eventually go on, but this time it felt different. We were no longer willing to acquiesce as we’d thought we had to. I passed the ball to a teammate, then ran out of bounds and hid behind a tree, waiting. When the right moment came, I shot back onto the field near our opponents’ goal. My teammate lofted the ball overhead to me. I was offside. I had broken a rule. My play didn’t count, yet nothing could have mattered less.
I shot the ball at the goal, and it bounced off the goalie’s hands and straight to Diego, who clumsily kicked it past the cones to score. He kicked the ball so hard that he almost fell over backward.
We jumped and cheered.
“Stop!” Max shouted, waving his hands. “Stop it!”
“You can’t do that,” Connor said. “You’re cheating.”
“He’s right,” my teammate Pat said.
Max grabbed the ball and started pacing, holding back tears. Connor clenched his fists. Another of my white friends scrunched his face, not so much angry as confused. Pat looked worried, as if we’d gone too far. Jalen was scowling at Max and Connor. Diego was laughing to himself. We all stood there, unsure what would happen next.
In a couple of months my lies would catch up with me, and I’d be kicked out of my elementary school for living outside the district. That day was one of the last I would spend on the field with my friends. We were stuck there in that strange moment, in which a fight breaking out seemed just as possible as all of us starting to dance. The demand for unity had made us desperate, frightened, resentful. We were growing into Americans at the expense of being children.
Then the teacher’s whistle blew, and we all looked around, wide-eyed, as if awakened from our collective American dream, unsure whether it had been a nightmare. Together we walked back to class. Recess was over.