Essay of the Week: The Failure to Ask a Question

By Kyle Tyler Bason

I rush to the line for The Transformers attraction at Universal Studios. A fair haired boy stands next to me, facing the opposite direction. Then he turns around. I feel the sweat from my neck trickle down my spine. The Florida hot sun beams on my face and blinds me from fully reading his shirt. It feels like eternity. The awkward space between us seems to inch away farther and farther. His shirt reads “Confederate Flag” with the flag stamped right through the middle–on the day after a white gunman kills nine black worshippers at a black church in Charleston.

Poetry has been my saving grace since the fifth grade. Ms. Baytops, my English teacher, showed me that I could express my affinity for tolerance and justice through poetry. As a way to de-stress, to avoid anger and negativity, I create stanzas.

“Read this one,” she says to me one day, laying a sheet of paper on my desk. It remains one of my favorites– Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise:

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

The line advances a few paces forward. Without a pen or poem ready, I feel the void while standing in line for The Transformers. Who knew that a family vacation would produce a moment that stirs my thoughts similar to that time when I first read Still I Rise?

Within minutes, we reach the front of the line. The man in red stripes ushers both of us to the front row. I make my way to my destined seat next to the boy. We look at each other in silence. The buckles lock. We cannot exit the seat; the bars in front chain me down to the seat beating against my tropical shirt.

I manage to look over and murmur the word, “Hello.”

The word trembling out of my mouth surprises him, but he does not respond. I speak louder.

“How are you?”

His face lights up with a grin.

“I’m good, how are you?”

The conversation between Jordan and me continues as the ride races off. With drops and turns, the awkwardness between us seems to dissipate. Only moments of laughter at the unexpected dips overcome our fears of each other in the moment. After minutes of happiness and excitement, the ride ends. We rise from our seats continuing our conversation as we walk towards the exit.

I fail to ask him about his shirt and do not rise to the power of Maya Angelou’s words. Establishing a brief connection across the racial divide is a rudimentary step in the struggle for unity. If I could do it all over again, I would have asked him about his shirt in light of the Charleston attack. To tackle the problems of race in American life, one must have the courage to sacrifice superficial connections for direct and frank conversations.

As a poet, I am still trying to find my place within the general narrative. When I met Jordan, I wanted to surrender to the possibility of getting along with someone who, at first sight, struck me as an enemy. I jumped over the first fear–to establish a commonality with him. Yet I failed to foster a truly open conversation about race, perhaps fearing such a conversation would have shattered the momentary appreciation for one another that we shared. It was a missed opportunity.

If given the chance to engage someone like Jordan again, I hope to exercise more courage. When the adrenaline wore off, I reached for my pen and began this poem:

The ache in my heart pushed me past my fear,
A chance to show my true-self was near
Before the buckles and engine got in gear–

It was a poem I never finished.

Kyle Tyler Bason, a graduate of the Berkshire School, will be a freshman at Syracuse University in the fall.

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