There were six basketball games going on at the six goals of the gym. I can still see the hazy thickness of the sweat-drenched air filling the gym, still hear the chaotic rumblings of about eighty ninth-grade boys all dressed in the same blue gym shorts and blue and white reversible tank tops.

I was ecstatic and terrified that I ended up in the same game as Robbie Roberts. We’d never said a word to each other, but my crush on the ninth grade quarterback was at its peak. I was determined to play my heart out, desperately wanting to impress him so we could talk afterward and embark on our wonderful lifelong friendship.

Early in the game, the ball fell into my hands, my chance to dribble and shoot and dazzle him. The next few seconds happened in a blur: swarming hands surrounded me, bodies bumped against mine, legs tangled with my own. An arm broke through and stripped the ball away from me.

Then he said it: “Jesus, another Bubba.”

Bubba Brown, who was also black, was the joke of my high school. He had the size and strength to be a good athlete, but Bubba was born with some kind of physical defect.

No one at school knew the exact nature of his problems, but what we did understand was that he was partially deaf and couldn’t speak like the rest of us. The ninth grade class assumed Bubba was retarded. Everyone made fun of him.

“Jesus, another Bubba,” Robbie Roberts said in the flurry of action after the ball was taken from me. He didn’t say it to anyone in particular, really just to himself, his voice a mix of shock and disgust, as if he really couldn’t believe that in his world of perfectly graceful athletes, that, of all things, another clumsy dope like Bubba existed.

To everyone else, the comment most likely blew carelessly through the stale gym air, becoming lost in the clamor of excitement. To me, a shrill siren had sounded. The end of the world had come.

I died, but couldn’t let the rest of the gym class know it. I went through the motions and played out the rest of the game, trying my best to remain as invisible as possible, clinging tightly to the emotions inside me lest they come bursting out uncontrollably.

I rode home on the school bus feeling apart from the others. They were laughing and making jokes with each other. They didn’t have to dream about having friends. Robbie Roberts hadn’t called any of them Bubba.

I got home and dropped my books on the table next to the door. No one was home. Like a zombie, I walked to my room and collapsed on the bed. I lay on my back, feet propped up against the wall, and cried for the next two hours.

My life was over. Robbie Roberts was never going to be my best friend. I hated the world. I hated Bubba for coming to our school. I hated myself. I was never going to be anything special, never going to be liked by anybody, never going to have a best buddy.

Robbie Roberts had made it official: I was just another Bubba.