Chapter 1 excerpt from "The Improbable Rise of Paco Jones"
As an 8th grade English teacher, that makes me relatively old—to them.
Twice their age.
The 13’s are two students sitting in the front row, ten minutes early for my next class. I sit at my desk behind a computer and remember glimpses of my 13-year-old self.
Sure, I said and did some dumb things back then. But I was also a thoughtful and conscious being, much like the students in my classes—though they don’t seem to get much credit for it. Instead, they’re dismissed by many adults as Internet-iPhone-video-game-zombies. The truth is that there’s a lot going on behind the scenes, in their heads and under their skin.
I see it everyday.
I hear it when they don’t think I’m listening.
Like right now. These two don’t realize that I am paying attention.
What are they doing? Watching the trailer to the next James Bond film on YouTube.
What are they saying?
“Those skeleton masks are awesome, man.”
“That’s Dia de los Muertos in Mexico.”
“I wanna’ do that for Halloween. That’s cool.”
A far cry from when I was in junior high.
They used to call me things like “Dia De Los Muertos” and “Taco Jones,” and it was far from “cool.”
Now I am the teacher and they call me Mr. Jones—kind of weird. Most of my students don’t know that my first name is Paco, and none have any idea what happened to me when I was their age. They probably can’t even imagine me as a middle schooler.
But I can.
I remember the 8th grade—and Naomi, Trent, Tequila, and ‘The Game’—like it was yesterday.
TACOS AND POOP
I was almost done with my first semester of 8th grade at Walden Academy.
I sat outside, alone on a bench in the middle of lunch recess on that cloudy, mild California day. A group of seven friends—the “cool kids”—were sitting at the table they’d claimed way back on the first day of school.
It was an exclusive club. Nobody else dared sit there. Five 8th grade boys sat with two pretty girls and they laughed hysterically at themselves and the objects of their ridicule. The mighty Trent Oden was their leader. They all wore designer sweatshirts and two- hundred-dollar custom-made Nikes. With mandatory plain uniforms, this was how Walden kids distinguished themselves: their shoes. The footwear at their table alone must have amounted to more than 1,000 bucks.
I looked down at my feet. The collective value of the shoes at my one-man lunch party: $19.99.
As I opened my lunch bag I saw something else I’d never noticed before: My skin was almost as brown as my bag.
I’d never thought about my skin color at my old school, Dolores.
So I was isolated, and more or less a loser that day—actually, that entire semester. I poked open my juice box, pulled out three foil-wrapped tacos and some salsa my mom had packed, and started eating.
When the group of so-called cool kids quieted down it got my attention. They were usually loud and obnoxious. So I looked up from my tacos and made eye contact with their table.
That’s when they started laughing at me.
Maybe they’d made fun of my Payless shoes that looked like bootleg imitations. Or maybe it was my plain blue sweatshirt, cheap and label-less. Maybe there was food on my face, or my hair was all messed up? I looked over my shoulder to make sure a circus clown wasn’t standing directly behind me.
Then a boy named Paul pointed at me and shouted, “Viva los Tacos! Whoo!” Everyone at their table started laughing hysterically.
This confused me.
I didn’t see the humor in my tacos or my appearance.
Then I heard: “Holy crap, Paco’s eating frickin’ tacos!”
I’d never thought about the tacos, burritos or quesadillas my mom packed for my lunch, except for that they were delicious and spicy and I generally appreciated her efforts. At my old school with my old friends, my lunches were usually a source of envy. Here, apparently, they were the source of ridicule—the butt of some kind of racist joke.
Another guy at their table actually stood up and pointed at me and yelled, “Paco’s got tacos! Run for the Border!” As the laughter of the cool kids began to die down, he added this one to rouse them: “Taco Tuesday—Arriba, arriba!”
They all laughed out loud again.
I guess he and his friends didn’t realize that it was a Thursday.
Or that the word “Arriba” didn’t really work there.
Those bastards seemed to be too caught up in making fun of my name and my Mexican-ness to worry about accuracy or Spanish grammar, or other people’s feelings.
I gave no outward response—my only defense was to appear unaffected by their laughter.
This kind of thing didn’t happen every day that semester, but it had happened before. I’d drawn strange stares from day one at Walden, and some of my classmates had taken to calling me ‘Taco’ because it rhymed with ‘Paco.’
Other random lowlights of that semester:
One time I was asked, “Hey, Taco, can we borrow some hot sauce?”
And it wasn’t even lunchtime.
On the first day, a teacher asked me, “Paco—is that your real name?” He pronounced it ‘Pay-co” for the rest of the semester, despite my correction—maybe because it always got a laugh from a few students in the back row.
Around Halloween, I was called “Dia de Los Muertos” as if it were my name.
Yes, the comments were extremely stupid, but they still hurt.
However, as The Art of War prescribed, since I was always outnumbered, I chose not to fight. I tried my best to ignore them.
Anyway, that same lunch recess, two minutes after the cool kids had laughed at me—as if the Paco-Taco thing weren’t enough—poop fell from the sky and landed directly on my face. Literally.
It happened like this: As I took the first bite of my second taco, a very warm substance splattered just above my right eye. It felt like a large spoonful of runny refried beans had just scored a direct hit on my face. It didn’t immediately register as bird poop. What the hell had just happened? I dropped my tainted taco and wiped the muddy, acrid crap from my eye and the right side of my mouth. Yes, my mouth!
There was a slow-motion second of silence.
Time stood still.
I heard a lone scream—no, more of a banshee battle cry—and then an outburst of hooting and hollering. The explosion of student cackling was all aimed in my direction. Amidst all the noise I heard different versions of “Man, look at all that shit on his face!”
The humiliation was overwhelming.
So I did what I imagine anyone in my shoes would do: I covered my face and ran to the nearest bathroom. Of course—in panic mode—I had tunnel vision. I looked only for an escape route, which is why I didn’t even notice which bathroom I had entered.
While I hunkered over the sink splashing water on my face, a girl’s voice let out a shriek. “What the hell are you doing in here?” she said, clearly annoyed.
“Oops,” I said, scooping handfuls of water on my face, keeping my head down. “I’m sorry. I’m having a really bad day.”
“What happened to you?” she asked with a hint of sympathy.
“I just got pooped on,” I said.
“Yeah,” I said.
Literal, yes—but it could also have been a metaphor for my whole first semester at Walden. I looked up from the sink and turned to the girl I was talking to, but my eyes were all waterlogged and everything was blurry.
I could see she was checking herself out in the mirror, applying some lip-gloss as if she were ignoring me. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail and she was wearing a tank top. As her profile came into focus, I felt even more uncomfortable.
“I’m sorry I’m in here,” I told her. “I needed somewhere to hide.”
“No problem. I understand,” she said and turned from the mirror to face me. “Well, on the bright side, I think getting pooped on symbolizes good luck in Greece.”
I couldn’t manage to get another word out.
I must have been mesmerized by her eyes and her lips—actually, her entire face. It was as if her golden brown skin let off a radiant glow. She was absolutely beautiful.
Her name was Naomi Fox.