In 1980 Queens, New York City, on his first day in 6th grade, Jewish-American Paul Graff becomes fast friends with a rebellious African-American named Johnny. However, Johnny was held back by a year and gets harsher treatment from their teacher when they both joke around in class. Paul also often disassociates from his schoolwork and draws pictures instead. Paul lives with his financially stable family of Jewish heritage. He is very close with his maternal grandfather Aaron Rabinowitz, who encourages him to pursue his aspirations of becoming an artist. His well-meaning but strict parents, Esther and Irving, are less convinced by Paul's career prospects to be an artist.