It was a glorious day in the history of our town when the powers that be officially decided to change our school team name from the Smithtown Indians to the Smithtown Indians. No. That's not a mistake. Let me explain.
I was just a skinny 14-year-old, struggling to make my way through my freshman year without everyone seeing one of my erections pop up like a leprechaun car salesman (small yet persistent!). My size and lack of interest in all things academic and athletic had put me and those like me in no man's land. We were supposed to be looked down on by both the jocks and the bookworms. It was an odd place to be for a kid that could understand the intricate rules of sabacc, but couldn't get a C on his math test. So there I was, sitting in my bubble in the back of Biology class, when word came down from on high that we won a major victory for our town to honor the traditions of our impressive past while proudly looking towards the future.
For several years around that time, an ever-growing movement to change our mascot, Lil Geronimo, plagued our small town. Now, we didn't have any Native Americans, which seemed to be a problem for some people. We had seen it elsewhere. All around us, other schools had fallen: the Batavia Red Skins, the Little Cedar Midgets, the River City Coons, all gone. Tradition torn asunder like a field of daisies mowed down for a parking lot. Those daisies weren't hurting anybody, let me tell you that.
I remember that I was in Biology class when Principle Flanks' shaky but stern voice came over the loud speakers. The man was only in his early sixties, but dealing with us for decades had left his voice teetering on the edge of death.
"Attention students," he began, "it is with great pride that I announce some important news for the future of our school."
I watched the woven fabric over the speaker vibrate hard, and I thought of how it was always exciting when someone dared to use the loudspeakers, as there was always a chance that one would explode and send shards of particle board flying about the room and hopefully into the teacher's head. Nothing life threatening though, just enough to get us out of class for the week. At least the day. (One actually did burst from the wall one day. Brian Kiziah said he saw it happen once, so it must be true.) So despite our school being rather famous in the highly prestigious southeast Oklahoma corridor, all of our money went into our stadium and uniforms, and lacked in other unimportant areas, i.e. loudspeakers.
"I would like to announce," his voice tottered on, "that we shall henceforth be known as the Smithtown Indians! That is all." We all looked around in blind wonder, asking ourselves why we should be amazed. You see, we were already the Smithtown Indians, and had been since the school's inception.
"Old fool has finally lost it," said Jeremy Winters.
"Time to send him packing," added Bradley Davis.
"What is that buffoon on about?" said our teacher Ms. Gardentopp. We all looked from the speaker over to her direction where she just shook her head and stood up to teach once more. She grabbed a piece of chalk, and we went on our merry way.
It wasn't until the next day when we got a special release from our school "newspaper" (it was just a photocopied piece of paper usually divided into two big columns with nothing of real interest in either). Most all of the copies of the paper ended up in the trash those days, but I still have my copy of this one in my old files in the basement. The story, written by my best friend then, was so big that it amazingly took up the entire page.
The Tomahawk Weekly
August 20, 2002
SAME NAME CHANGE STRANGE?
By Pravin Kothari
Principal Flanks would like to announce that our school's new mascot is the Smithtown Indian. The announcement was made yesterday to some confusion in the student body.
"What is he talking about?" asked one student who wished to remain unidentified. Other similar comments were heard in various other places around the school, sources say.
Well he's not talking about Native Americans, that's for sure. For several years now, our school has been asked to remove our "offensive" mascot. The most recent notable protest was the sit-in in Principal Flanks' office last May.
Principal Flanks said at the time, "If they're really upset about this, then they wouldn't be sitting Ind -- cross-legged in the middle of my floor."
At the Sunday meeting of the school board, that pressure that drew up such ire in the administration of Smithtown High School broke the board's back as they decided to adopt the Indians, that being those from the country of India, as our new mascot.
"It's not offensive because we never oppressed the people of India," said school board member Janet Barnard. "We realize that we were offending the Native Americans and wanted to make it right while still carrying forth the noble traditions of the Smithtown Indians.
Principal Flanks assured this reporter that not much will change, and in fact it will be a money-saving decision in the long run. The colors of the school will remain the same as will the sports uniforms.
Lil Geronimo will be retired in a ceremony at the first football game of the season on August 30th against the Batavia Badgers. Open tryouts for the yet unnamed new mascot will be held this Friday.
DO YOU HAVE WHAT IT TAKES?
Become the next Smithtown Indian! We are looking for the best of the best. We want someone that lives and breathes Smithtown pride.
Bring your own costume and music for tryouts that express what it means to truly be the Smithtown Indian.
Tryouts will be Friday at 2 pm at assembly in the gym.
"You should do it," I told Pravin later at lunch. "You are the only Indian kid in this town, it makes sense for it to be you." Pravin sat down in front of me at our bright red plastic lunch table. I looked him over, judging whether he could pull off being the new Indian. He was just as gangly as I was. I think we were drawn together because if it weren't for the color of our skins, we'd pretty much be twins. Brown hair, brown eyes, ribs sticking out of our chests, and we had both hit our growth spurts the previous spring, making us look like skesis from The Dark Crystal, though not as evil of course.
"I don't like the way everyone is looking at me." Hardly anyone had read his article, but word quickly spread that we were now the Indians. Pravin had the unfortunate honor of being the only student of color at Smithtown High School. We used to have double the number, but his sister graduated two years ago. His father had thought it was a good idea to set up his optometrist office in the town square. We're going to help the town see straight, he would jest. They didn't make the fortune that his father thought they would make, but they weren't poor by any means. His mom didn't even have to work, which astounded me. Everyone's parents around there worked, and some had two or three jobs just to make it. It was a rough area to live in if you weren't a farmer or excited to work a gas pump for the rest of your life.
"Everyone is not looking at you. It's all in your imagination," I said, pulling my eyes down to my food. I was lying, though. Everyone was indeed looking at him. Not just looking at him, but looking at him differently. "But this could be our ticket off this cursed rock of a lunch table. In case you haven't noticed, we're out here in no man's land. Stranded on Tatooine. You're our only hope."
"In case you haven't noticed, mascots aren't a ticket to fame. Can you name one famous mascot? No, you can't."
"But it's the closest that either you and I will ever make it to being on a football field." I took a large bite of the mashed potato and mustard sandwich I had made.
"I do get on the football field," Pravin said forcefully. "Every game," he punctuated his point by sticking his finger into the table.
"Not as a reporter. How much action has that gotten you?"
"This isn't a teen movie. I'm not racing to lose my virginity by summer, or any of that crap." One thing could be said of Pravin: he stuck to his guns and didn't give a shit what anyone else thought. When there was a two-way tie for prom queen, Pravin was writing about the outdated books in the English department. When I got a date with Jenny Piper and hooked him up with her, well, earnest friend, he politely declined, holding out for his own crush. My ace in the hole.
"Beth!" I yelled to a blonde-headed girl two tables over. She turned around quickly like I had just zapped her in the back with a cattle prod. She grimaced at me, and Pravin ducked his head down, focusing intently on the cheese sandwich in front of him (our school's vegetarian option). I waved Beth over, and amazingly she obliged. She walked quickly to our table then crossed her arms.
"What?" she asked briskly.
"Did you hear? Pravin's thinking of going out for the mascot." Pravin looked up sheepishly. He had been in love with Beth Rodgers since he first moved here. She was now the Editor-in-Chief of the Tomahawk Weekly, which might explain his recent interest in reporting.
"Really?" she asked Pravin.
"I'm just thinking about it. Nothing permanent," he said. She uncrossed her arms, and put her curly hair in a haphazard ponytail.
"Well that's pretty cool," she said. "I'll root for you, definitely. You have to be better than Jarod. Did you know that asshole came up behind me as I was getting my book back off the ground last year?" Jarod Jacobs, a junior, was Lil Geronimo the previous two years. No one had dared go up against him, as he was possessed by the spirit of the Smithtown Indian and was merely a vessel for the voice of Geronimo to speak through. He was also a behemoth. He was at least 6'3 and 240 pounds, yet when he did his halftime shows, he would jump, dance, and kick as if he were held up by a feather blowing in the wind. "Anyway, I got to go back and eat. Good luck, Pravin!" Beth grabbed his shoulder and shook it back and forth before she darted back over to her table, probably to questions of what she was doing in Loserville.
"What an asshole," I said. "See, Pravin you have got to do it. This isn't just about becoming popular; it's about being the knight in shining-fucking-armor for once."
"I don't know," he shoved what was left of his sandwich into his mouth.
"Come on man, do it for me. I'll give you those dual lands that you have been trying to weasel out of me for months. Finally get your blue and green deck going proper." I knew I had him. Women were one thing, but Magic: The Gathering was a completely different entity. He could never convince his parents to take him the 30 minutes out of town to the Ramparts Comic Book Shop, so he always played with my hand-me-downs. It was the only time I ever felt rich or like I had the upper hand around him.
"Fine, I'm in," he said, and I raised my milk to toast.
"To the Indian!" I belted.
That Thursday, I went to his house for dinner and to prepare. We knew a win for us might also mean an ass kicking, but that never stopped us before. We were nerds, of course, but we stuck up for ourselves when the time called for it, so everyone left us alone for the most part. It was a cold, isolated existence, and although Pravin liked it, I was ready to get out.
Their house was big. Bigger than most. Bigger than mine, anyway. It had two floors, which was unheard of in my town. That is the life of luxury, my mom would say as she would drop me off. The only real downside of his house was that he lived outside of town, and it was sandwiched right between two cattle farms. So the smell of shit and hamburger hung in a fog over his house. I never got used to it, but Pravin would swear that after the first year, the smell just went away, and he would deny any of my protests or gaggings.
I rang their doorbell (such decadence!), and Pravin's mom answered. She was dressed like every other mom around there. Jeans pulled up to her belly button, white shirt, and a light blazer. She smiled, as she was always happy to see me for some reason.
"Pravin's upstairs," she said. "Listen, I want to talk to you two later. Don't run off."
Their house was noticeably barren. Brown boxes stacked on top of one another collected in nearly every corner. After moving here two years ago, Pravin's mother had famously refused to unpack, noting that they better be out of this town in six months or she was leaving, back to India, she said. She never left, nor did the boxes get unpacked. I was never sure what deal went down behind closed doors, but from what I overheard my dad saying after an eye exam, things were never better at the Kothari household.
I ran upstairs two at a time and made my way to the door with the Red Dwarf poster on it (My birthday gift to him. I saw it at Ramparts and knew he would love it). I knocked and Pravin opened up the door slowly to reveal him wearing what looked like a goofy shirt three sizes to big for him.
"It's my formal kurta," he explained. "Well, my dad's actually. It's a little big, but I think it will do the trick.
"What is it? It looks like fancy pajamas." I giggled (masculinely of course) while I tugged on the sleeves to smooth out his collar. He shook me off and walked over to the mirror by his TV. I remember that at the time, I thought his room was huge. Double the size of mine without a doubt. In one corner were his PlayStation and Xbox, and in the other three boxes stacked on top of one another, the top one opened and erupting with clothes.
"It's what we wear to big events. In India people wear them for anything, but my dad says he only wears this one if he really wants to impress somebody. I figure it will look good. There's no way that Jarod will have one of these tomorrow. I'll be a shoo-in."
"I don't know," I said. "It looks kind of weird. Might be an open invitation for an ass-kicking."
"It is a little weird, I guess. My parents bought me a suit, but never a kurta." I watched Pravin as he stood there staring in the mirror, straightening his back so the kurta didn't fall around his knees. I went and sat on his bed while he pulled it off over his head and tossed it in another pile of clothes on the floor.
"So we got the outfit, but what music are you going to dance to? I assume you're going to dance, right?"
"I guess. I could do cheers or something, maybe?"
"Dancing is better than cheers, I think. And I don't think any Indian music is the way to go." I walked over to his CD binder and began to flip through. "I've heard your dad playing it and it's enough to give anyone a headache."
"Tell me about it," said Pravin.
"Besides, I don't think they're going to play any Indian music at the football games. Would they?" Before he could answer, there was a knock at the door.
"Hello space cowboys," Pravin's father said as he pushed his way into the room.
"Hi, Mr. Kothari. How's tricks?" I said. Pravin's father was renown for being laid back and generally awesome. He was barely taller than Pravin or myself, but had a potbelly that often became a tray for his weekly tub of ice cream when watching Survivor.
"Tricks are good, Justin. Saving the world one pair of eyes at a time." His accent was thicker than his wife's, but I had been around enough to pick up on at least 84% of the things he said.
"Dad, what should I do for the tryout tomorrow?" Pravin had sat down in his video game chair and had begun to swivel back and forth.
"Ah, the tryout. My son the Smithtown Indian. Why don't you get up there and do some of your dance moves. Let's see, I know you know the Macarena and the chicken dance thanks to your cousin's wedding, so you have options."
"I'm not doing the Macarena, dad," Pravin rebuffed quickly. I subtly made the hand motions at him while he gave me a dirty look.
"You know what would be good? I think in the basement are some old Bollywood tapes. You will have to look for them, but those could give you some dance moves."
"That might work," I said.
"Yeah, maybe. I won't look like a dork, will I?" asked Pravin.
"No, of course not. It's all in the hips," he said. Here he twisted his hips back and forth. And the arms. He stuck both his arms at an angle pointing at the ceiling, and then swished them back and forth. And then the feet. Light tapping. He kept one foot on the ground and brought the other up and down while he softly bounced.
"So, what you're telling me," Pravin said, "is that it's just everything."
"Yes! Everything!" His dad twirled in a circle throwing his arms to the side, moving from foot to foot. He slowly picked up speed as he twirled in a circle then turned to face his son. He tossed his arms loosely back and forth in front of him and his hips bumped the air. His big belly shook as the floor creaked under his weight.
"Dad, stop! You'll bring the house down. Besides you look like an Indian Vanilla Ice." His dad stopped with his arms outstretched to us, waiting for applause. I had a big grin on my face. I could never picture my dad doing something like that.
"Bhangra. It's when you combine western music with Indian," he said. "This is what you should be doing, Pravin."
It was good advice and we took it.
Later, we found some of the old movies Pravin's father was talking about. They were still on VHS, so they were fuzzy, but still imitable. We practiced, yes, myself included, some dance moves and got pretty good until the wondrous smells of Pravin's mom's cooking made its way upstairs. They were all vegetarian, and probably the only vegetarians within a hundred mile radius. I found it amazing that Pravin's father could acquire such a belly on just vegetables, but their food was so good. It beat a cheeseburger any day, which is why I often found myself conveniently at their place for dinner.
"You should see the moves we came up with, mom," Pravin said. He threw his hands up, and I copied him. We pointed up to the ceiling then hung our heads down to the floor. Held for three, clapped, and pointed to one another.
Pravin's father guffawed. "That's how you do it," he said.
"I'm kind of getting a little excited about it," Pravin said.
"They're going to love you," I said. "It's about damn time."
"Justin!" his mom yelled from the kitchen.
"Sorry, Ms. Kothari." Pravin's father smiled and winked at me.
"It is about damn time," he whispered. Pravin got up to go help his mom, leaving me and Pravin's dad sitting across from one another. Usually with other dad's we'd have to make small talk about school, but not Pravin's dad. "I had your principal come into the office the other day; Flanks right?" I nodded. "That guy has so much mucus in his eyes that it's unbelievable that he can see at all. He's practically blind. I pulled so much out it was like stretching out the candy."
"Taffy?" I asked. 84%.
"Yes, taffy," he said. "The kind you chew a lot."
I smiled wide. He always had the best stories for being an optometrist.
Pravin and his mother reentered with several shiny silver bowls and platters, setting them down on the table with soft clangs. Pravin sat down next to me and his mom across from him. I was first to take my share and loaded my plate up, piling all my food on a piece of flat bread.
Before I even took my first bite, Pravin's mom began to speak.
"Pravin," she said, "are you sure about this whole mascot business?"
"Of course, mom," he said. "It's our ticket to a better life."
"I'm along for the ride," I added, but she did not smile.
"It's just that, doesn't all this just seem a little odd to you three?" She made a note of looking her husband in the eyes. His pupils tightened a little when he met her gaze.
"I don't think so, Ms. Kothari," I said. "Pravin wrote in the paper that it's not racist or anything because America never oppressed India."
"It would be racist if there was a team in England named the Indians," Pravin's father added.
"I don't think we have to be oppressed for it to be wrong. We put up with a lot of stuff in this town, the stares, the laughs." She paused.
I shoveled in a mouthful of food. Pravin was eating slowly but steadily.
"It will help us out," Pravin's father said. "We can draw a picture on the front window of the store. 'Proud home of the Smithtown Indian' it will say. Double the business without spending a nickel."
"Yes, yes, it will be good for business, but is it good for Pravin?" she asked.
"He will be the most popular boy in school. The start of a new tradition." Pravin's father ate steadily as he talked. He was not one to let a conversation stop his enjoyment of a meal. Pravin and I had gone quiet.
"If we were back in India, Arjun, we wouldn't have teams named the Americans or White People. It wouldn't happen. More importantly we wouldn't make the only white boy in India the poster child for this nonsense."
"I'd do it!" I chimed in.
"Mom, it will be fine," Pravin quickly said over me. I had made it to my bread and had begun to tear it apart. "I'll do it right, so you don't have anything to be embarrassed about."
Pravin's mom stood up and we all looked at her. "I'm not worried about you embarrassing me, she said. I'm worried about you embarrassing yourself." She took her nearly full plate to the kitchen, and I heard her toss it into the sink. She was crazy, we thought. With the routine that we worked out there was no way that Pravin could embarrass himself. The three of us exchanged glances, as if to both show Mrs. Kothari was wrong. Mr. Kothari gave Pravin another wink as he stood up to go to the kitchen. He was going to be the new Smithtown Indian; the three of us knew it for sure.
The whole school packed into the gym for assembly the next day. The placed buzzed with excitement as kids ran up and down the bleachers, trying to find the perfect spot to watch the action. It was better than a football game, that's how heavy the air hung with intensity. Pravin and I had scoped out a spot under the bleachers before anyone got there, he in his father's kurta, and me in a button up flannel shirt, chucks, and shades sitting on top of my head. My boom box was set in between our feet as Pravin bounced slightly back and forth as he went over the routine in his head, making small hand gestures as he went along.
"You got this, dude," I said. Of course, that's what I hoped. Pravin had the hard part; I just had to stand there. But who knew? After that day, I could maybe have another date with Jenny Piper.
We heard the creaks of the bleachers slowly die down. Principal Flanks must have gone out on the court to quiet everyone down. It was coming down to do or die time. My heart was beating out of my chest, like I had a week's worth of cappuccinos in one morning.
"Ladies and gentlemen," we heard the muffled voice of death come over the loudspeaker, "are you excited for your new Smithtown Indian Football Team?" There were loud, metallic bangs echoing around us as everyone began to stomp the shaky steel beneath them, creating a thunderous cacophony around us. Pravin put his fingers in his ears and smiled at me, the same smile as his mother's. I smiled back. This is what we were after: sheer, unabashed fervor.
"All right, settle down, settle down." The raucous rumbling slowly stopped. "Now as you know we have to have a new school mascot in order for this momentous occasion. We are looking for somebody who will get everyone standing on their feet while striking fear into the hearts of our opponents. Someone that will carry on our past traditions while taking us into the future. Someone to represent each and every one of you as your new Smithtown Indian!" With the word "Indian" he threw his fist up into the air and the hormonal crowd once again vigorously applauded. Some chopped at the air. And others whooped and hollered while clapping their hands over their mouths. Principal Flanks put his hands up once more and the ferocity died down.
"So without further ado," he continued, "may I present our first contender for the crown, Smithtown high's own little Indian, Pravin Kothari!"
"What did he say?" Pravin said.
"He said it's time to go!" I said, pulling Pravin by his kurta. I reached down and pushed play on the boom box and cranked it all the way up. I could feel the adrenaline pumping in the back of my head-vibrating up and down my spine. As the familiar bass notes came out of the speakers, I strutted out from underneath the bleachers. I popped my shades down and made my way to half court. When the words, "Stop! Collaborate and listen" came on I halted, pounded my boom box to the floor, leaned back and crossed my arms. Pravin ran out beside me, set himself, and then went right into his routine. Arms flailing, but not wildly. Legs kicking, but not haphazardly. Elbows popping, and definitely locking. It wasn't amazing or anything; after all we only had a day to rehearse, but it was pretty damn good for just a couple of nerdy nobodies to pull off on short notice. I grabbed my glasses when "If there was a problem, yo, I'll solve it" came on, and I tossed them to Pravin, and he slid them on effortlessly. I went back to being a statue off to the side. It wasn't about me after all. It was over so quickly that it felt as if we hadn't danced at all. As the last beat dropped, Pravin walked over to me and we stood back-to-back, waiting for our fate.
It seemed like a minute passed before anyone made a noise, but looking back, it was probably just a second or two before the clapping of not just one or two people, but of everyone fell over the gym. They had liked us, or at least our routine. I looked over my shoulder at Pravin and he had this big goofy grin on his face, better than when I gave him those cards for going through with this whole thing. He was happy, really happy and with that I was fine with everything that went down the night before. Pravin's mom had been completely wrong.
We high-fived and ran off the court to the side door of the gym. Pravin looked across the bleachers and caught Beth's eye. She waved and gave him a thumbs up, before returning to her friends and laughing. I could feel Pravin's heart jump up my throat. Silence fell across as Principal Flanks made his way out to the mic again.
"Thank you Mr. Kothari," he said. "That was truly something. Next we have our mascot-in-residence, Jarod Jacobs." A heavy applause erupted for him, as the giant lumbered slowly to the center of the gym. His back heaved from side to side as he made his way out. He wasn't dressed up or anything, just in his normal school clothes that we had seen him in earlier that day. He stopped dead center and crossed his arms with his back still to the audience.
"We got it," I said to Pravin. I put my arm on his shoulder; he just smiled and then looked back to the court.
The low dull tones of our school fight song came over the loudspeakers in the gym, and I knew we had him. Who wouldn't pick Vanilla Ice over our tired school song? Then the first loud drum sounded and Jarod turned around, revealing his actual costume.
"Is that supposed to be a bindi?" Pravin asked me. I didn't know what a bindi was, but I did know that Jarod had a big, red dot the size of a half dollar colored on his forehead. I guess he had to make it large enough for the people in the back row to see. I stood there dumbfounded, but all the students were apparently going along with it. Everyone began stomping with the beat of the drums, shaking the lights with each pound of their feet. Jarod had started his routine. His old routine. The one he did when we were still the Smithtown Indians (God this is confusing. The Native Americans team). Jumping into the air, he touched his toes to the delight of the crowd. He hopped on one foot and then the other in grand arcs while waving his arms in slow, smooth motions over his head, just as he had learned from his predecessor, and just like everyone had seen time and time again on the football field.
The final note fell and instead of crossing his arms as Lil Geronimo did, Jarod put his palms together as if in prayer, faced the audience, and bowed. Papers flew, fists were thrown in the air, and butts left their seats as the gym shook with the excitement of old and new. Of tradition and progression.
Pravin and I stood in the doorway dumbfounded, unwilling or unable to move. I saw Beth cheering just as hard if not harder than the rest. The roar continued on for some time as we finally heard Mr. Flanks loudly over the speakers, "Here's your new 'Lil Sanjay,' ladies and gentlemen!" I still had my arm around Pravin. It felt as though they weren't cheering for Jarod, but cheering against us. In that gym, it felt like the whole world was against us. We continued to watch, and I didn't know what to do.
Principal Flanks pulled Jarod over to him and licked his thumb. He put it to Jarod's forehead (which Jarod did not seem to mind, for whatever reason) and then put his thumb on his brow, placing a fainter red thumbprint on between his eyes. He then threw up both hands in the air in victory.
"I'm so sorry, Pravin," I said.
I looked at his face, and could feel his shoulder shaking.
"Don't be," he said, straightening his kurta. He pulled hard away from me and let my hand drop to my side. And he walked off to the lockers, leaving me by myself -- this nerdy, embarrassed 14-year-old wondering what he did, and not realizing until ten years later what I had truly apologized for.