Mr. Fried was the art teacher and he biked to work. He carried canvas tote bags and had coke-bottle glasses. He was bald on the top of his head. Whenever I see photos of a young Bernie Sanders, I’m convinced they were the same man. Mr. Fried was our Mr. Rogers.
It was probably first or second grade that I had art class with Mr. Fried. I remember him teaching us how to cut perfect circles out of construction paper. He told us not to cut long pieces of “spaghettis” with the scissors in a circular track, but to cut the corners of a square piece of paper gradually and repeatedly until you whittled yourself a nearly perfect circumference.
We’d come into class and he’d say, “Ok gang, let’s do some painting today!” Or, “Alright gang, make sure to close your paste tightly so it doesn’t dry out!”
“Gang.” He loved to call us Gang. I started to notice how often he addressed us using that word. It didn’t hurt my feelings, it was just something odd and repetitive enough that I became obsessed with him addressing us with that word.
I decided to use it as ammo. One day I gathered all my friends at lunch, and I set a plan in motion: The next day in art class, the very first time he called us Gang, we’d all respond at the same exact moment with the same reaction.
The next day, Mr. Fried welcomed us as we sat down. He took attendance. Then he stood up from his desk and walked to the chalkboard to begin class. As he picked up the felt eraser and his lanky frame swayed back and forth while he cleaned the slate in a cloud of white dust, he announced, “Today, we’re going to talk about shading. How does that sound, Gang?” His voice reflected off the surface of the chalkboard and back at us.
In that instant, time slowed down and we sprung into action. His back was still turned when all my classmates looked at me, waiting for a cue. There was a beat of silence and I just went for it. I cued everyone to begin the phrase I trained them with at lunch the day before: “MY NAME AIN’T GANG!!!”
We nailed it. 25 kids, all at once, cheered, “MY NAME AIN’T GANG!” It was like when you're at a birthday party and everyone just knows the perfect moment to start singing Happy Birthday together as a unit, except our song was a four word retort shouted in unison— As if we were a gang.
The words were so perfectly enunciated by all of us as a single group, we had to laugh at our accomplishment. The timing and execution were just too good. I felt like I was some kind of genius captain and my troops followed my plan perfectly. I was the conductor of the most obnoxious orchestra.
As we guffawed with pure childish joy, Mr. Fried froze. You could see his posture change. His arms fell to his side and his shoulders dropped. He slowly turned around. We calmed down and got quiet.
“What did you all just say?” There was a long silence. No one answered.
“Do you not like being called Gang?” he asked. Everyone just kind of looked at their feet. It was obvious he was hurt.
“Kids,” he continued, tears welling behind the thick lenses of his glasses, “if there’s ever something you don’t like about my teaching, please tell me. You can talk to me. Don’t purposely hurt my feelings like this.” A few tears streamed down his face. Then he sat back down at his desk in the pure silence.
I was so ashamed. I’d made my kindly art teacher cry. “Do whatever you want for the rest of class today,” he finally said.
This is probably the earliest time I can remember orchestrating a prank where one person would be the butt of the joke. There would be more. People see me as nice, quiet, and shy at first, but I've always noticed a mean kid hiding inside me, begging to play.