I am the last boy in the Boy Scout troop to get his uniform and the last boy to pay his $10 to go to the Big Camp Jamboree. When we arrive, we are the only black troop there. One of the first things to do there is the swimming test. The test is to see how long we can tread water, and it determines whether you can take out a canoe or swim alone.
None of the boys in my troop can swim, so I am the only black kid in the whole camp who takes the swimming test. I tread water. And I watch the lifeguard point to different boys and say, “You can get out. You can get out. You can get out.”
I make a move to get out. He says, “No, no, no. You stay.” After a long time, he says to me, “You can get out.” And I get a swimmer tag for it.
It doesn’t quite work out the way I think, though. Every time I show up to take out a boat or get in the swimming pool, I get yelled at: “Hey, stop! Let me see your swimmer tag!”
One time, I’m swimming in the deep end of the pool by myself, and I hear one of the lifeguards yell out, “You! You! Get outta that water! Get outta that water right now!” He is so frantic, I think there must be a snake or a snapping turtle. Then he jumps in the water and grabs me by the arm, and I think, It must be something dangerous because he’s trying to pull me out. He’s trying to save me. Then he slaps me in the face and says, “N——, who told you that you could get in the pool?”
I’m 11 years old. I get out of the pool.
One of the final activities at the camp is the mile swim. I am the only black Boy Scout eligible to try out for it. Each one of us, about ten in a group, has to swim beside a boat. If at any point you need to give up, you get inside the boat.
We start in. Three laps around this big lake equals one mile. As soon as we finish the first lap, half the boys have given up and gotten in the boat. On the second lap, the boys who had already given up yell at me from the boat, “Come on! You don’t need to do this. Give up! Come on, get in the boat!”
On the third lap, I start to get delirious. My arms feel like spaghetti, and I almost can’t move anymore. But I look way out in front of me, about two football lengths, and I see other kids getting out of the water.
I have so little energy left, and the boys are still yelling at me, but I keep swimming. I can’t even keep my eyes open. So I close them and keep on stroking, stroking, stroking. It seems like I’m not moving anywhere.
All of a sudden, I feel, like, a thousand hands on me. I’m snatched out of the water, and I see all these brown arms, and everybody’s yelling and screaming and tossing me up in the air. I’m yelling and crying, and I’m so happy.
I’m the only black Boy Scout who completed the mile swim at that camp. In the big picture, what I did, it’s not that significant. I wasn’t the last Boy Scout to do it. I wasn’t the fastest. I wasn’t the smartest or the prettiest. But on that day, in that place and time … one little black kid was first.
*Told live at a Moth show at the Mothlight at Mr. Fred’s in Asheville, NC