Desegregation Was Messy in Southeast Texas
It was my freshman summer break when I got the news I was going to a new high school. Beaumont Charlton Pollard, or BCP as it was known, was the integration of the segregated, all-black high school, Charlton Pollard, with the mostly white, Beaumont High School.
BCP was fully integrated from the top down. As a result, the two schools combined administration, teachers, and student bodies, creating an immersive cultural diversification that certainly had its share of growing pains. Desegregation was messy.
At 5 feet and 115 pounds, I was physically immature as a high school sophomore.
One bully after the next would sniff me out. I didn’t have size or stature and looked like I was still in elementary school.
Even in this integrated environment, the race of a person was somewhat “neutral” to me. From my perspective, everyone seemed so big and tall…like grownups. As I walked through the halls, I would avoid eye contact and try to stay out of sight.
One of my friends nicknamed me, Invisi-Bill.
My sisters and I were not exposed to racism in our family. It’s hard to believe our parents never really talked about the deeply troubling history of race in the USA, let alone in our little town.
My mother was raised in Mexico City until around ten years old. She regarded Mexico as her co-heritage. Mom was completely bilingual and bicultural, and she and my father were always helping the Latino community with the myriad issues that came from lack of privilege.
This was my mother’s greatest gift to my sisters and me, compassion for those in need, which also included animals.
After putting my sophomore year behind me, I did not look forward to returning to BCP.
My first day back as a high school junior revolved around figuring out classroom locations and noticing how much everyone had grown over the summer…that is, everyone except me.
While still years away from shaving, I hoped that this would be the year of adding at least a couple of new inches to my height.
I was able to choose a P.E. class that was listed as self-defense. The trouble was that the coach knew nothing about self-defense. The coach asked for a show of hands from anyone with a self-defense background, one hand arose.
His name, Osborn Ballard. Osborn received his black belt in Thai Kwando from the legendary Beaumont Texas martial arts instructor and one of the best people I know, Fred Simon.
The coach anointed Osborn “self-defense instructor” for the class, then left for his office.
After the coach walked away, Osborn offered a sparring demonstration and asked for a volunteer. Reggie McElroy stood up to take the sparring challenge.
Yes, that Reggie McElroy of the New York Jets and Denver Broncos. Reggie was already around 6’5” and the toughest person I’d ever laid eyes upon. Osborn was about 5’10” and maybe 150 pounds.
Now We Knew
It’s difficult to describe what happened next because it happened so fast. With a fake-out punch followed by one side kick to the rib cage, Reggie dropped to the ground gasping for air.
Osborn’s movements were a blur. What struck me was the absolute calm, speed, and strength that this superhuman boy possessed and the confidence of it all.
There was no one tougher and more mysterious than Osborn Ballard, and the news of what happened spread throughout the school like wildfire.
A few days had passed, and I was still doing my best to blend into the background: to be Invisi-Bill. The self-defense class was unorganized, and Osborn was randomly showing a martial arts trick or two to the more confident students.
My Next Bully
Up to that moment, my junior year was free of bullies when a large, white football player in our self-defense class decided I needed to be taught some sort of lesson for being quiet and small.
The first time was intense. A shove to the floor from the back. A bloody lip and broken alligator toy I was holding made him laugh with such pleasure.
I was no longer Invisi-Bill. Others who witnessed the shove seemed to feel sorry for me, and I despised that flavor of attention. Helplessness is one of the worst places to live.
My particular skill avoiding bullies had been working pretty well until that day in the P.E. class. After that, I went to school in fear.
I hated myself for my small size and seeming insignificance. But that was about to change. All thanks to the compassion from the most unlikely character, Osborn Ballard.
Osborn Steps In
My bullying had not gone unnoticed by Osborn and on a Thursday morning at around 10:00 am, Osborn asked if I would like some help learning a few martial arts techniques.
“Why me?” I asked myself. “Why would someone like him even notice I was alive?” I was nobody, but he worked with me that day and in every self-defense class after.
He taught me how to stretch and the importance of core strength. He taught me how to box and, more importantly, how to take a hit – a lot of hits! It should be mentioned that in every boxing round, I was never able to land one punch.
But I was toughening up.
Osborn was wise. He told me that I had to stand up for myself against this bully, or I would live in fear for the rest of my life. He offered a possible solution, but given the size of my bully, I would only get one chance.
This solution involved what is known as a turnaround-hook-kick.
He chose this maneuver because of the centrifugal force generated by the kick from my leg spinning around my center of mass. Connect a spinning hook kick, and your opponent, no matter how big, will feel it.
We worked on this kick over and over for weeks. Osborn would randomly stick up a boxing glove and say, “hit it!” I would perform the kick over and over. And over time, I could hit that boxing glove wherever he put it. High, low, moving, but only one side. I only practiced with my right leg.
As time marched on in Beaumont,Texas, I grew a little. Although I put on a couple inches in height, my weight stayed the same, and, though I ate like a horse, I looked impossibly thin.
After Thanksgiving break, I would see Osborn again, resume my training, and maybe put on some muscle weight.
I looked forward to spending time with Osborn. I felt we were becoming friends. But Osborn had a reputation to uphold. The cancer of Jim Crow still infected the south, and skin color was always the elephant in the room.
Though integrated, BCP, like other integrated schools, was rife with racial tensions that forced much intra-segregation within the school boundaries.
Osborn was tough and intense, and no one got in his way or ever challenged him. Although he wouldn’t acknowledge me outside of the self-defense class, I knew it wasn’t about me. The fierce desire to belong to groups was and is powerful.
Our coach had moved our class out to the football field workout rooms. It was nice there. A universal gym where I would watch Osborn easily bench press 230 lbs!
There was a locked chain-link fence protecting football gear that Osborn and I would use to pull ourselves into middle stretches. There was also a large room for boxing and mats for grappling.
From time to time, my bully would taunt me, shove me or threaten me. I remember him saying something like, “you think you’re so tough now with a bodyguard.”
Osborn did not like that and told me that I alone would have to deal with this. Win or lose, just standing up to him was better than continually cowering.
And Then IT Happened
During what seemed like just another day in our self-defense class, the big bully decided to be a bit more aggressive and taunt me with fake karate moves.
He’d laugh and call me a little coward.
Something came over me at that moment. As if the whole world went silent and my peripheral vision went dark.
I have since learned about this phenomenon of stress-induced tunnel vision in the fight or flight moment.
In that moment, as if through a vignetted lens, I only saw his contorted, laughing face and, without hesitation, threw my one and only spinning hook kick.
The nature of this kick is that the foot’s heel is coming up in an arc from low-to-high in the opposite direction and is easily missed. The kick landed squarely on the blade of his right jawbone, knocking him backwards onto the cement floor.
After what seemed like an eternal pause, the silence was broken, with everyone in the class whooping, yelling, and high-fiving.
My bully was unconscious, and I was sick to my stomach. I jumped down to his side in some vain effort to console and noticed his jaw swelling in front of my eyes.
Someone ran to get help. An ambulance was called, and my life was changed forever.
Every witness confirmed I was defending myself as well as the long, sorted story of the bullying. My Karate Kid moment had spread like wildfire.
Later that day, as I was walking into my photography class, I saw Osborn and Reggie walking toward me in the hall. Osborn was smiling at me. Then Reggie stopped in front of me, looked me in the eye, entered a Karate stance, and said “HEANER…Hiya!” Followed by, “jus kiddn, man, jus kiddn!”
Reggie and Osborn made me feel seen for the first time. I was now, Visi-BILL.
The following day, the school newspaper organized a story on our self-defense class and took pictures of Osborn and me sparring. Osborn and I were now friends outside the gym. After school, I would give him rides home in my old Volvo station wagon, and everyone called us “Salt and Pepper.”
To this day, I owe who I am to Osborn Ballard. I wonder from time to time who I would have been never standing up to my bully.
Even in the wake of Jim Crow, a poor black boy from the south thought my life was important.
You can bet his life will always matter to me.