Every time a student died, we had a moment of silence during homeroom. The principal came over the loudspeaker, and for once I did not have to tell the students to be quiet. At such moments, at a high school in South Central Los Angeles, they became subdued and strangely unemotional, quietly discussing the where, when, and how of the death. If a student had been shot but survived, there was no official announcement, no moment of silence, so I usually found out from the kids or maybe other teachers. If a student died, though, a sign was printed up and displayed in a plastic sleeve on the counter of the office where we teachers all signed in. It usually contained a picture of the student, details about the funeral service, and a phone number.
Beneath the number, it typically said, “Family is accepting donations.” The first time I read that sentence, I wondered, For what? Then students showed up at my classroom door with a thick envelope. “We’re collecting donations for the family of Bryan Richardson,” they recited to my students. “We are his friends. For the people who don’t know, he was killed on Thursday. The family don’t have no money to cover the service, so we’re collecting some for them. Do any of you have spare change, or anything you wanna give?”
The class sat silent. Then Reggie, a heavy-footed student who looked too old for ninth grade, shuffled to the front of the room to stuff two crumpled bills into the envelope. “They need it more than I do,” he said to me, almost casually, on the way back to his seat.
After Reggie, all the other students gave change. I explained sheepishly that I didn’t have my wallet with me and asked them to come back after lunch. They said they would but never did.
I grew accustomed to the students coming around for donations. After hearing about a student’s death, I tried to remember to bring a $20 bill to school. I also got used to the crisis rooms set up after incidents, the counselors and family members on hand to talk to the friends of the deceased, and the sight of kids weeping in the halls or showing up to class in tears. On days like this, even aloof kids displayed uncharacteristic kindness and affection. Boys lingered over handshakes and looked into my eyes solemnly. Girls threw their arms around me and wordlessly moved away. No one said enough.
I was not prepared for the sight one day of DeAndre, standing alone behind the stairwell. He was supposed to be in my class, the class I was herding into the counselor’s office that very minute to get advice about colleges.
“DeAndre!” I said when I spotted his short dreadlocks and the wide whites of his eyes. Shaking, he was next to an open door with sunlight pouring in. His face twitched and seemed stretched too tight, like the mask of someone who needs to cry. He didn’t hear me call his name.
I put a hand on his shoulder. Startled, he looked at me as though he had never seen me before. A student behind me whistled and said in a soft voice, “Damn. D messed up.” DeAndre didn’t seem to hear that either.
“Just stay right here for a sec, okay? Don’t go anywhere, DeAndre. Okay?” I watched him nod, eyes fixed on a point behind me. The rest of the class stood right outside the counselor’s office, and I ushered them all in. She was a vaguely hostile woman who seemed ill suited to working with teenagers. As they filed into her space, she watched over them and they eyed her back.
“Can you please close the door, Ms. Beatty?” she asked me. “Is that young man with you? He can’t stand there; he has to come in and close the door. Young man!”
“It’s okay,” I said quickly. “He’s mine, but he’s not coming in. Go ahead with the presentation and I’ll be right back.”
“Okay, but can you please close the door?” “Yes, yes, of course.” I slipped out and looked for a second at DeAndre’s back. “What’s going on?” I asked. He didn’t look at me or answer. Although the day was warm and he was wearing a short-sleeved T-shirt, he was also wearing black gloves. I didn’t know DeAndre well, but I liked him. He was short, his baby dreads stuck out all over his head, and he infrequently had a grin that he kept to himself, as if he knew its value. Most of the time, he had a haunted, barely-there look to him. With me, he was shy and respectful, if sometimes a little gruff. He always mumbled and looked at the floor, and he had a maddening way of refusing to answer a question, so stoic that you almost felt bad for asking in the first place. The raucous greetings he garnered from the rowdiest members of the class, however, convinced me that he had an alter ego, one that was much more mischievous than he let on.
He rarely came to my 11 o’clock English class. When he did, he showed up late, with a harried watchfulness that made me suspect he had just arrived on campus. Once, during dramatic adaptations that students were filming of scenes from Of Mice and Men, he came out of his shell just long enough to play the role of director and stage a shot of the farmhands (his classmates) shooting dice. Never mind that it wasn’t in Steinbeck’s version; his classmates loved it. They cheered and hollered and eventually made DeAndre grin. During time set aside for silent reading, he frowned while poring over my book of poems by Nikki Giovanni. He picked it up so often I eventually gave it to him. On the day I did, he didn’t smile or thank me. He just said solemnly, “This is good.”
The only other thing I knew about DeAndre I tended to forget, in part because it seemed incongruous with the slight boy in front of me, but also because it struck me as knowledge I somehow didn’t deserve. The second week of school, in preparation for reading about the Salem witch trials in The Crucible, I asked these 11th graders to write about a time they had been falsely accused. DeAndre set right in, driving his hand across the paper and filling up two pages, a volley of words I could not coax from him again. He never turned in anything else longer than a paragraph. That night, curled on my couch, I read stories of children being falsely accused by parents, teachers, and siblings. It was nearly midnight, and all the anecdotes were blending together when I picked up DeAndre’s paper.
He wrote of an afternoon a few years before, when he was 14. He had discovered that his sister’s boyfriend wasn’t treating her right, so he went to the boy’s house. He stood on the lawn and yelled for the boy, who was a little older, to come outside. Neighbors pushed back curtains or watched from their porches, and eventually the boy emerged. DeAndre told him he never wanted to hear anything else about his sister’s being mistreated. He said if he did hear such a thing, he would return and he wouldn’t just be talking. The boy shrugged, walked back inside, and DeAndre went home.
That night, the boy was shot and killed. Police came to the neighborhood, the neighbors related the scene they’d witnessed that afternoon, and pretty soon the cops were knocking on DeAndre’s door. He was taken into custody, where he was told they already had evidence that he’d killed the boy and were just looking for a confession. The smartest thing he could do, they told him, was to confess, so they could get his sentence down to a few years. If he refused, he would get life.
But DeAndre was innocent and didn’t confess. After a day, he was released, with the warning that they were watching him, that they knew where he lived and where he went to school. He ended his essay with: “And that is one time I was falsely accused.”
I had forgotten about the essay by March, but as I stared at DeAndre in the stairwell and tried to figure out how to help him, I remembered his words and the world he lived in.
“DeAndre, did you know Maurice?” He nodded, looking away.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. My words did not touch him. “It might help you to talk to somebody. It doesn’t have to be me, but you don’t have to go through this all by yourself.”
“He was my—” DeAndre stopped, his voice breaking.
“There’s a crisis room in there, all set up, it’s right down the hall. Will you let me walk you down there?”
DeAndre shook his head vigorously. “Nah, I can’t—it’s—his family’s all in there, and it wasn’t like that. I don’t know his family, so I can’t.” He began to cry, jaw set, silent.
“You don’t have to see his family, you could just talk to a counselor here at school.” Suddenly a dean breezed past us, her walkie-talkie squawking. “What’s going on here?” she demanded, speaking neither to me nor DeAndre and about to walk past us without a response. Then she stopped. “What are you wearing gloves for? It’s 80 degrees!
I am not having any gangbanging on our campus, uh-uh, you get those gloves off ! ” She walked away. I doubt she even realized he was crying.
“I’m not a gangbanger!” DeAndre yelled after her, the loudest I’d ever heard him. “Uh-huh, yeah, get those gloves off, ” she repeated and walked out the door.
DeAndre looked like he wanted to spit on her, and here I felt some empathy with him. “Look,” I said. “You don’t have to come to class, but I can’t leave you in the hall and I’d really like to help you. There are people here who can, even if it’s not me and not the dean.” DeAndre was shaking his head, and I started to feel cold, wondering where he would go when he left the campus and in spite of myself wondering why he was wearing gloves. At that moment a counselor stepped out of the crisis room, a black man with an ability to connect with these kids that I would never have.
“Mr. Ross!” I called, and although DeAndre turned his head away, I was relieved to see Mr. Ross nod once and come toward us.
“DeAndre,” he began. I was glad they already knew each other. “Do you trust me?” DeAndre looked at the floor.
“I said, Do you trust me?” Mr. Ross asked, louder. “Yes or no?” DeAndre mumbled something.
“Yeah,” he muttered, a little louder. “Then give me a hug, man, this is family here, this is not something that is happening just to you, man, okay? It’s not just you.” He wrapped his arms around the boy and then led him down the hall. I watched them go with a mixture of relief and dread. Out of my hands.
In my two years in South Central, a lot of children died. Maurice, for one. Aaron, an honor-roll student who was shot four times in the heart at point-blank range. No one knew why. Brian, shot while crossing a busy street in broad daylight with his little sister beside him. Beyond the reach of our school zone, kids kept dying. A 15-year-old and her friend were outside a little store one evening, just down the street from her house. They were both killed, casualties of a drive-by shooting. During the second spring that I drove into the ghetto every day, a 13-year-old boy who had stolen a car and refused to stop for the police was shot dead—by the police.
Then there were the kids who died but weren’t shot. Julio, a short kid with spiky hair, drowned in Rosarito, Mexico, one weekend. He was in my homeroom—a quiet kid with retro glasses and death-metal stickers on his notebook—and then he wasn’t.
He wasn’t sitting at his desk, he wasn’t on my roll sheet, he wasn’t at home, he wasn’t anywhere. I think about Julio a lot, not any one particular aspect of him. He just sort of floats around in my head, with that polite, small smile of his that seemed to house secrets. I think about him in the warm ocean on the last day of his life, the way his cousin described that day to me.
And then there were kids who were shot but not killed. My first year, the first week in September, after school, I saw police cars and ambulances swarming the streets at the school’s south corner. As I drove slowly around the roadblock, I rolled down my window and asked one of the many kids standing on the sidewalk what had happened.
“Some kid got shot.” He shrugged. I scanned the radio all the way home and made a point to watch the news that night. Fires in Arizona, the stock market plunge, and then a public interest story about a new dog wash—a place you can go to bathe your dog. It took a while for it to sink in: a kid shot in South Central LA is not news.
When I got to school the next morning, everyone was talking about it, but with very little information. No one even knew his name. By homeroom I was sick of hearing, “Some dude got shot.” Angelica, a sweet girl who would become engaged before her sophomore year, came in and walked right up to me.
“Ms. Beatty, you know that kid who got shot?” “Yes.” “He was my brother.” “What? Is he okay?”
“Yeah, he’s in the hospital, but he was just shot in the leg. He’s going to be okay. You remember him, right? He sat back there, with the shaved head?”
I checked my roll sheet and she pointed to his name. He had been in my homeroom. “Of course,” I said. “I didn’t know you were brother and sister.” “He’s 17, but he’s still in a ninth-grade homeroom ’cause he ain’t got enough credits.”
Here Ruben, a scrawny student who spent most of homeroom tearing paper into tiny pieces, piped up from his desk, “The kid who got shot was your brother?”
Angelica nodded. She was strangely composed. Ruben shook his head. “That’s what you get for gangbanging.” Angelica nodded again, not the slightest bit offended. I must have been looking at her curiously because she shrugged. That morning we did not observe a moment of silence. Angelica’s brother got out of the hospital but didn’t make it back to homeroom. He transferred to adult school because he didn’t have enough credits to graduate. Since you can’t go to adult school until you’re 18, I assumed he passed his 18th birthday in the hospital.
Violence is a way of life for kids in South Central. But it’s not as if they think it’s a normal way of life. They know it’s horrible, and they know there are a lot of places where kids don’t live this way. They watch TV, and they see the depictions of relatively affluent suburban and urban high schools. They get the difference, whether they are the ones on the student council who protest the violence in their neighborhoods, or they are the gangsters. They know how the world sees them, these teenagers with no cars, no prospects for college.
Not long after Angelica’s brother was dropped from my roll, a pair of graduate students from UCLA showed up in my classroom with a survey. It had the usual questions, like What is the highest level of education achieved by either of your parents? They never told us exactly what the study was about, but the general thrust seemed to have to do with libraries and literacy, the correlations between reading and household income level. The survey raised some issues for my ninth graders, legitimate feelings of Who wants to know this? and What are they trying to say?
The nervous graduate students unwisely held an impromptu question-and-answer forum and thereby opened themselves up to harangues, random aggrieved tangents, and even personal attacks. My students began:
Who are you? What is this all about? Why you always be coming up in our business asking these same questions? Why did they take away the vending machines? Is it true we’re gonna go to a traditional schedule next year? The questions came quickly, and the graduate students began looking at me more and more frequently. I felt like telling them, “Oh, me? I don’t have control over these kids. Are you nuts?”
My goal was to keep the students polite and the discussion on track but meaningful. Then Xavier, a mean-mouthed kid who very rarely showed up, roused himself from the bed he’d created by spreading his parka over his desk. He raised his hand.
“Yeah, I got a question,” he said when called on, and he cackled, looking around at his audience of peers.
That cackle gave me dread, having never even seen Xavier raise his hand. His grade average at the time was a 6.3 percent.
“My question is,” he said slowly, “Where is the money? This is a rich country, right? Richest in the world. All these rich people pay taxes, right? Taxes supposed to go to schools, right? So why we sitting here in this broke-ass school, without enough books, with no computers that work, bathrooms that be closed because they disgusting, no supplies, no nice laboratory—you think they be like us up there at Beverly Hills High School? Hell, no. They got hallways laid in gold at Beverly Hills, they got movie theaters at school, they got Subway and Pizza Hut on they campus. You know what we got? Greasy pizza served out the lunch lines. Where’s our Pizza Hut, you hear what I’m saying?”
He paused, and his fellow students cheered. For once, Xavier was serious, and awake. He was an impassioned orator. I was in shock, leaning against the wall.
“Aren’t we Americans?” he continued. “Don’t we deserve nice schools just like other kids? Isn’t there supposed to be all this money going to inner-city schools, going to the poor little children who have to live with all the gangs and the violence? So my question is, Where’s the money? Where … is … the … money?”
His classmates broke into applause. The grad students looked at him with shining eyes, thinking, Here is the reason we began this study in the first place. I looked at him with awe and suspicion. If he was so smart—and he was—why did he act so dumb?
“You’re right to ask these questions,” one of the grad students gushed. “It sounds like you have a lot of concerns. Maybe you should write a letter to your principal. I wish we could talk about this more but—” She glanced at her watch, then at me.
“Yes, Xavier,” I said. “That’s a good idea. Why don’t you write a letter to Mr. Smith?” The class guffawed. Everyone knew Xavier didn’t write. I’d never even seen him write his own name. “Naw, that’s a’ight.” He grinned at me and snuggled back down into his parka. “Come on, Xavier,” I said. I knew it wasn’t good to be sarcastic with your students, but sometimes it slips out. “You could write an essay on it. You could turn it in for, I don’t know, a grade?”
Xavier eased his head down. “Such motivated kids,” the grad students said to me out in the hall. “That one young man, he’s really thought things through! He’s really questioning things!” The next week I called Xavier’s mother about his failing grade, and she said politely, “Thank you, ma’am. I’m ’bout to stick my foot up his mother-fuckin’ ass right now.” The next year Xavier was expelled for setting a bathroom on fire.
Although I was impressed that Xavier could express himself so eloquently and passionately, I was not particularly surprised by what he said. Nearly all of the students at our school knew the things he had said (including some of the myths, like halls laid in gold). They thought about the disparities, and they were angry. They saw injustice upon injustice heaped at their feet. They knew that somewhere there were schools with computers that worked, just as they knew that somewhere it was safe to walk through the streets at night. They knew it wasn’t normal for 16-year-olds to die. Everyone knew that. But even though they could clearly see what was going on around them, the vortex of violence still sucked in too many of them. It was a matter of survival, or of casual acceptance, or of what one’s friends were doing. Weapons and death were frightening and commonplace. Apathy was involved in giving in to the violence, and there was despair over the prospect of a better future. Apathy and despair usually led to a kind of brainwashing, kids so immersed in ghetto life they would fight anyone who tried to help them out or show them a better way. But there were others, kids who could maintain awareness and still cross boundaries. I imagine they saw themselves as if from above, doing the crazy, violent, destructive things. There must have been an angelic, innocent part of them saying throughout, “Look at this. This is crazy. What am I doing here?”
People in our society want gang violence explained. What is our world coming to when teenagers are killing teenagers over a pair of tennis shoes?
The violence exists wherever poor teenagers have access to drugs and weapons and, through these things, obtain power, which they lack in all other aspects of their lives. In gangs, people without families, or without functional families, find a place where they belong and are taken care of. A counselor at our school who was training to become a gang-prevention counselor told me he had learned how the gang structure meets every basic need that a teenager has: food, clothing, protection, purpose, identity. For some members, to leave the gang requires a rejection of everything they consider to be themselves. Getting violence out of your life is an abstract concept, but getting rid of your homies? That’s real.
Gang violence is a symptom of a society that does not meet the physical and emotional needs of its children. The allure of money? The pull of expensive sneakers? Where do you think these kids come up with the idea that money and power are the most important things to have? Advertising appeals to the most basic instincts of human nature, to the things that really get us salivating: sex, money, and power. Kids are brought up on these goals and they hunger after them—all kids do. But the lucky ones have parents, teachers, and friends who push against this unholy trinity, who demonstrate instead the importance of love, community, and compassion. The unlucky ones, the ones who miss these lessons, absorb only the messages in the media. We all suffer for it.
My students, nearly all of them, were more familiar than I with guns and knives and violence and drugs and jail sentences and death. Though they didn’t think it was normal, they accepted it for themselves. What I found shocking they had learned to endure. A student could come in after an absence, asking about his missing schoolwork, and I could jokingly ask where he had been—getting his hair done? because he had fresh cornrows—and he would say, Nah, at a homie’s funeral. We would pause for a moment to talk about it, and then we would move on to Of Mice and Men or The Crucible. But the grief stayed, grief and despair, like a scent that drips from the jacaranda trees, soaks the sidewalks, courses through the streets, and occasionally drifts in through the classroom window.