On the day we call the cops on him, L. tells me he’s always been a fighter.
No guns, though. He looks up at me from where he’s hunched, a skinny kid sitting on a rickety chair. Not before what happened.
What happened before was L. was riding his bike and some bad boys shot him in the spine. He wasn’t supposed to walk again. He walks fine now. He swaggers. His khaki pants are too big and he cinches up his belt higher than the other boys. I don’t think he can handle wrestling with the constant creep of a sagging waistline.
(This is the part when I should tell you more about me, about who I was and how L. made me different. This is not that kind of story.)
L.’s uncle tells me he has nerve damage and I’ve seen his legs shake when he has to stand too long. He covers it well. He’s a fighter.
E. gets arrested in a big group of boys weeks before the 10th grade spring assessments. In the courtroom, I sit next to his mother and sister and we wait for the attorney, who is late. When the judge reads the arresting officer’s statement, I realize I know all the boys who were there that night. The boys whom E. was allegedly with when he allegedly put a gun in a white man’s face and allegedly forced him out of his car. The man described a gunman the cops have determined is E. Medium height, medium build teenage male with medium-length dreadlocks. The description matches half the boys in the group.
The judge allows me to read a short statement. I praise E. for regularly completing homework, for coming to school every day on time, for staying out of trouble. I say that I know the boys. I say that I believe they made some bad choices. I say that I can’t picture E. with a gun in his hand.
So you know these kids? The prosecutor drones a list of names.
D. was expelled, I say. M. stopped coming. I haven’t seen T. since I taught him in the 8th grade.
The prosecutor shakes his head. E. is a bad boy, a boy who hangs out with boys who get expelled.
This last part is true. These boys are E.’s friends.
Across the room, E. sits quietly in an orange jumpsuit. He looks bigger than his age, blurs into the other men in their jumpsuits, all of them together waiting to be talked about by those of us on the other side of the room. I look at him, but we’re too far away to make contact.
Much later, I will imagine the carjacked man’s fear, the dark of the night, the flip book of mug shots at the station. I think of how easy it must have been to point to someone, anyone. To look at E.’s hard face in his booking shot and think: yes. He looks like the one.
E. stays in prison for nearly two years until the case is dropped. They release him just after New Year’s Day. When he calls to tell me the news, I am 1,200 miles away. He asks me about school, tells me he can’t wait to go back. He tells me he’s thinking about an alternative school for older students with built-in vocational training. I wish him luck, but when I think about checking in a few weeks later, I realize I never saved his number in my phone.
The gun doesn’t belong to anyone, it’s just there. It’s in a backpack and the backpack is on the floor of a classroom where there are teenage boys and girls reluctantly reciting Shakespeare. How it comes to light I never find out. Who finds it, who has the instinct to pull one of the boys and the backpack out of class, who pulls the zipper open, these things I don’t know. There are only all the moments before the gun and then the moment of the gun, which is a moment that goes on and on and on.
The money from the dance will go to the family of the dead boy, but no one wants to think about a dead boy when there’s a dance so there’s a fundamental problem before we even move the tables in the cafeteria.
When A. leaves the dance, I know he is leaving to go cry. He cries angry, like a boy, his face puffed out and his breath like a snorting horse. A. is a 9th grader, and so was the dead boy. I taught them both, but at a different school, a different time, and I learned then how A. got his nickname. Turtle. He liked to hide under desks and then throw them. He had his hard shell, and then he didn’t.
The dead boy had transferred to our school just weeks before the day he was shot. It’s become a cautionary tale; the teachers walk a little more upright after the news comes in, armed with the story of his death. The dead boy was skipping school that day. He was shot breaking into a house. If only he had come to school, we think, and sometimes say.
A. walks away from me when I follow him out of the dance, but he doesn’t walk very far. Nobody knew the dead boy but A. Nobody really knew him like A. did. They only care about the DJ, the new clothes, the chance to touch each other in the dimly lit space, the ghost smell of the day’s lunch forgotten in the mix of cologne and perfume and snapping bubble gum.
A. knew him. A. knows.
No one wants to talk about the way the dead boy’s mother sounded when she spoke at the dance, the way she blurred her words together. Instead, they talk about A.
Did you hear? Boy was crying like a bitch!
After the dance, he is a boy changed. His anger is the only thing to remind him of his friend. He holds it close and holds it in. He walks around flashing angry dead boy eyes to remind them all of what happened. To tell them they didn’t know the dead boy, not really. To prove how they lie.
A. walks around until even he forgets why his angry eyes look different than all the other angry boy eyes. To remind him of his clever, crinkled turtle eyes would fill him with sadness that toes the line of terror. Dead boys never go down scared. They go down fighting.
You gotta be crazy not to have a gun out there.
I hear this, in various forms and phrasings, from nearly every boy who trusts me. These are good boys, boys who say they want to go to college. Boys who raise their hands in class, who tuck in their shirt when I raise my eyebrows, boys who run towards me in big loping strides to show me when they get a good grade on their report card.
Snitches gets stitches.
Also, I think, reduced sentences.
When another teacher and I find B. and K. skipping detention beneath the raised pillars of our school’s portable classrooms, I’m struck by how childlike they look. Long spider limbs folded up, guilty faces shining in the dark. I lecture them about safety, about responsibility, about maturity. When they are safely in the office and their parents called, my colleague and I finally look at each other and laugh. How absurd! How very sixteen! To hide under the school? Who does that? We laugh until tears stream down our faces, until we are snorting and hiccuping.
And then we go back under the building with flashlights and we search the soft ground for a gun.
In a dream, L. comes to the door and I am in a pink ball gown, half drunk, the table inside full of friends in carnival masks and bottles of wine and we are laughing, laughing.
He’s been running. He asks me to give him the gun in my hand.
There is no gun in my hand, and then there is. There are no other boys out there in the street, and then there are.
L. takes the gun and he is gone.
In my hand I have a folder full of pages that float off into the stairwell. I’ve documented. I’ve ensured compliance. The word I want to write is: complicit. I chase the pages and read all the things that L. has done and all the things he has yet to do. I chase pages of smashed windows, threatened girls, punched boys, tackled bus drivers, robbed houses, emptied guns. I grab for the pages, the litany of L.
The dream is silent as sirens. L. is an alarm that sounds over and over until he becomes a heartbeat I cannot hear. Silence is Violence. The city throbs with an invisible pulse that pushes blood into every corner. We breathe in and in and in.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: The names in this essay have been shortened to protect the identities of those depicted, but this essay is an accurate portrayal of a handful of specific situations I experienced during my four years as a middle and high school educator in New Orleans, LA. Louisiana has long been ranked most violent state in the nation by the US Peace Index, and, in 2012, New Orleans had the highest per capita murder rate in the country. From 2007-2011, the years I taught in two separate public schools, there were over 900 murders committed, many of them the result of gun violence.