Thick-Skinned

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On weekdays in July, I would walk to my neighborhood tennis court and play against whomever was there. On most afternoons, a Portuguese tenth grader named Gabe would be hitting against the backboard. I dreaded seeing him because he was notorious for kicking kids off the court so he could hog it himself. One day, though, I worked up the courage to ask to join him, thinking that playing against an older and more experienced athlete would provide a nice challenge. Unfortunately though, although he agreed to the match, I noticed that he continually mumbled racial slurs under his breath. As the game escalated, especially whenever I scored a point, he would shout racist comments at me, yell offending names, and make fun of my slightly flawed English. After Gabe narrowly won, he celebrated by calling me “chicken fried rice” and “sushi.” As I gathered my three tennis balls from the corners of the court, he let out one more jab: “Are you looking for coupons over there?” I never showed any signs of weakness: no crying, no whimpering, and no hiding. I recalled one of my dad’s musings: “It isn’t about how hard you can hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward,” a quote from his favorite movie, Rocky Balboa.

Even though the experience had been unsettling, I knew that the best way for me to work through my discomfort would be by smacking a tennis ball over the net. So, I headed back down to the court. I hoped Gabe wouldn’t be there, but as luck would have it, he was once again stationed by the backboard. Instead of turning around, I kept walking straight towards him and boldly challenged him to another match. When he saw me, he started belittling my family’s economic status. He asked me where I had gotten my one-dollar racquet and if my shoes were from the flea market. Anger stirred inside of me, but I kept my cool. I just tried to focus on the intense tennis match. However, as the game escalated, the insults became unbearable. Each time I won a point, he swore at me; each time he won a point, he let out a happy yell and said, “Chicken fried rice! Chicken fried rice!” Although I was sweating with fear of physical assault, I kept pressing, discouraging any attempts to break my streak. I could sense him trying to interfere with my focus, but it gave even more fuel to my shots. After his powerful serve surged toward me, I smashed a backhand toward the left corner of the court. As Gabe attempted to sprint from the far right side, I knew that I had won the game. As I suspected, Gabe dove and missed the ball. He threw down the racquet in protest, while I casually walked off the court and left without looking back. That was the last time Gabe attempted to pick a fight with me.





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