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You Can’t Be Serious
Author:Kal Penn

You Can’t Be Serious

Kal Penn

For Piggy, who can’t read.

And my parents, who can.


I was barely six years old when the fastest, dumbest boy in kindergarten called me the n-word. (Jeez, Kal, what a way to start your book.) It was late in the school year—May, possibly June. Unseasonably hot for late spring. Miss Withers’s entire class was playing freeze tag on the playground, and agile little Randy Finn was “it,” powering through the muggy air, happily trying to tag the rest of us. This devil child resembled a splintered toothpick—skinny, with tiny arms. He came at me with his fingers outstretched, and I took off, resigned that he’d catch me quickly. The gravel crunched faster under his feet behind me, his breathing getting louder and louder. This kid was close.

Just as he got within reach, we came up to a jungle gym, a crossroads. Randy’s skinny knees reminded me of cartoon doorknobs. Time for a cartoon trick! “Look!” I shouted dramatically while pointing in the direction from where we came, “what is that?!” Nobody ever falls for this stuff outside of cartoons. Randy stopped. He fell for it. He turned to see what I was talking about. “What’s what?”

By the time he turned back, I was twenty glorious feet away. Not because I was fast, but because Randy was so very dumb.

Hands on his hips, the kid caught his breath. I got a good, satisfying look at him: such a diminutive frame swimming in the ocean of an oversized T-shirt, trying to make sense of what just happened. As the realization dawned on him—that I just outran him by outsmarting him—Randy’s face contorted. He glared. Anger was building from a place deep inside. I glared back, unafraid. This silent staredown probably lasted five seconds—a kindergarten eternity. And Randy broke it with words that forever altered my understanding of the world. “You,” he said confidently, “you’re a %@*#!&!” Fast, dumb Randy Finn called me the n-word.

Every kid within earshot stood astonished. A white girl named Holly started to cry.1 I didn’t know exactly what the n-word meant, but I quickly understood its gravity from the other kids’ reactions. An awful feeling erupted in my gut—whatever this word means, this is what I am? And that’s bad? The sea of tiny, shocked faces quietly disbanded to the various swing sets and monkey bars.

I didn’t tell any adults what happened. I knew I wouldn’t get in trouble because I hadn’t done anything wrong. I just didn’t want to be part of someone else’s bad behavior. I could dismiss Randy’s name-calling since he was so dumb. But he had succeeded in defining me as different in a way I didn’t yet understand. Being different wasn’t something I wanted to draw attention to. I didn’t need to be one of the cool kids—but I did want to blend in.

* * *

First and second grade were uneventful insofar as—super-low bar here—I don’t remember getting called any racial slurs. I quietly sat decked out in clothes from Sears and did what was expected of me. By third grade, a Persian kid named Araz moved to our suburban New Jersey town. He was better-dressed, and looked nothing like me, but the teachers suddenly started mixing us both up. This fascinated me. I hadn’t yet experienced the repeated behavior I’d come to know as “all look the same–ism,” so the fact that teachers—who were the smartest people in my whole wide seven-year-old world—could get confused by two boys who only shared a vague brownness, fascinated me. It was almost as if Araz and I alone knew what the other kids didn’t—that the teachers weren’t actually that smart. And for that I felt kinda bad for them.

Fourth grade was the year I first recognized that I was way more different based on how my brain works rather than anything else, and I remember the first time I felt this way. For show-and-tell one Friday, I brought in a G.I. Joe jeep. It was boxy and green and probably about the length and width of this book. Before I stood in front of the class to talk about my jeep that morning, I had a compulsion to make up a complicated story. I pointed to the four wheels and confidently told the class that each one had tiny suction cups on them (total lie). These special suction cups were activated, I said, by remote control (another lie), so I could drive it anywhere—including on the ceiling (also a lie! Why was I doing this?!). I staved off any requests to see the jeep in action by announcing that I couldn’t make it go upside down right now because it was out of batteries. (True, but only because I had removed them.) The kids thoroughly enjoyed and believed every part of my made-up story. This was my first acting improvisation, and it was both terrifying and exhilarating.

Also in fourth grade, I’d find myself zoning out while the teacher was talking. I’d stare through the window, thinking up crazy worlds and scenarios. (One of my favorites was the movie Back to the Future, which came out that same year and which I was totally obsessed with. I imagined what it’d be like to be a fourth-grade version of Marty and Doc. Instead of a DeLorean, I imagined the monkey bars as my time machine; I could climb on top and pilot it anywhere I wanted to go.) The downside to discovering an overactive imagination was that when report cards went home, my teachers would always write to my parents, letting them know I was the only kid in class with this strange mix: “is very conscientious but daydreams a lot.”

Being different meant my mind wandered. My imagination came up with endless scenarios throughout the day—sometimes to cope with boredom. Other children responded to boredom by acting out, but my first reaction usually was—and today still is—curiosity. If something didn’t make sense, I needed to ask why. I always wanted to know more. And if I wasn’t able to find the answer, I’d just make something up in my head.

* * *