Illustrated by Jervey Tervalon
Lamont, the big kid sitting next to me, saw it first, but that was after he offered me fifty cents. Lamont was this well dressed kid, almost six feet.
“You want it?” he asked. I did want it, I wanted it very much. I’d be able to get a cheese toast, a burrito, or one of those sugar crusted coffee cakes for nutrition. But I couldn’t. I had to pass on it.
“I ain’t gonna ask you again, you want it?”
“No,” I said “Thanks.”
“You stupid. You could have had fifty cents for free.”
Certain there was a trick, I was reluctant to take the money. Fifty cents probably meant he got to fire on me or the money belonged to somebody else who would knock me out to get it back. He lost interest though, and I went back to reading my textbook, modern science or something. For a moment it was quiet. Then, from the corner of my eye, I saw someone rushing to the windows, (those broad horizontal windows which couldn’t open all the way) a sweaty faced woman with a scarf on her head and a plaid shirt came right up and yelled at us to leave school. Lamont smiled at her as though he was telling her, “stupid lady, I ain’t studying you!” Everybody in the class turned to look.
“Class, get to work. Don’t waste time,” Mr. Robbs, our big head teacher, shouted, but nobody paid any attention to him. More protestors came up until they blocked almost the entire bank of windows. Mr. Robbs started to close the blinds, but Lamont popped up and with his long legs stepped over the desk. I didn’t see it coming until the brick crashed through the window sending shards everywhere. The brick landed neatly on the desk where Lamont had been sitting, right next to me. Dazed, I sat there, picking glass from my hair.
That was Foshay. We all knew why it happened; the speech a couple days before at one of those crazy-assed assemblies where hundreds of kids were led into the overcrowded and noisy auditorium. I hated assemblies because you couldn’t see somebody chucking an eraser in the dark. People would start throwing things and, as a result, a fight would break out and then kids would go really berserk, and I hated when kids went really berserk.
That day two teachers were to give a talk, a speech about free lunch tickets and how we should use them. It seemed the new federal free lunch program at Foshay wasn’t going over too well. Nobody wanted to be seen with those tickets because they’d get bagged on by everybody. The lunch tickets were left, unused and discarded, on the homeroom desks. The school was stuck with boxes and boxes of untouched submarine sandwiches and chocolate milk cartons. After we were seated, Mr. Davis, a big black man with an afro, and Ms. Harris, a gym teacher who always wore a dashiki, came to the microphone.
“Greetings brothers and sisters,” they both said, “Welcome to the black history assembly.”
Mr. Davis stepped in front of Ms. Harris and gazed out at us with a profoundly serious look. He was a no-nonsense man who wore a leather jacket and tough-looking boots. Kids whispered he used to be a Black Panther.
“Today, we are going to see a film about the life of Martin Luther King.”
Maybe Mr. Davis expected some interest, but everybody still talked and laughed, carrying on. Ms. Harris stepped in front of the mike.
“The reason we’re having this assembly is to encourage you to use your free lunch tickets. People have worked real hard for you kids to get a good lunch. But those lunches aren’t some hand out. See, these lunches are owed you. It’s nothing you should be embarrassed about. You’re entitled.”
“That’s right,” Mr. Davis said, “When we were freed over a hundred years ago, they promised us something for making us slaves and we never got it. You know what they promised us way back then? They promised us forty acres and a mule. Now, y’all might not be too impressed with no mule, but forty acres that’s a whole lot of something.”
Now, we listened intently, all 800 of us. It got to be a lot quieter in that huge auditorium. They said the right thing, what we were supposed to get. That’s what we wanted to hear; what we were interested in. Ms. Harris took the lead now that we were sufficiently warmed up.
“You never gonna see that forty acres, that’s just one more promise they broke and that mule, just what would you do with a mule these days? Some of you might not know why we would be entitled to such things. The President a long time ago promised us land so we can get a start in this country,” she said with ever increasing anger. “We were slaves, we didn’t have a pot to pee in, and they said they would give us a start, but what we got are these free lunch tickets.”
“Ya’ll shouldn’t be ashamed” Mr. Davis said.
“Eat the lunches before they take that away!” they shouted in unison.
That did it. We were hanging on to their words. Usually, assemblies weren’t worth listening to, but this was much different; the auditorium was under their total control.
“So come to school!” Ms. Harris and Mr. Davis shouted and we roared our approval.
“And eat those lunches!”
We roared even more.
“It’s your right!”
The auditorium rocked with cheers and claps. Some kids were jumping up and down like in church. A few girls near me were even crying.
The assembly ended too soon. After Mr. Davis and Ms. Harris left the stage and the lights came on, there was Mr. Oak, the principal, telling our teachers to take us back to class. After students did their booing and cursing, the teachers managed to move us out.
At noon, everyone was in line to get the submarine sandwich, and apple with a four pack of Oreos, lunch. I wanted the lunch, but I couldn’t get a ticket; both my parents worked and made too much. That pissed me off because It was the same thing I was paying fifty cents for.
Then Ms. Harris and Mr. Davis were fired.
This event enraged the student body and we seemed to almost instantly know. Those first period students who had a look at the replacement teachers for Ms. Harris and Mr. Davis got the word out fast. “They got rid of them,” I heard somebody say in the crowded, dimly lit hallway, “cause of those lunches.”
By noon it was stale news. In my biology class, Mrs. Green, a very tense black woman who didn’t seem to know much about or have much interest in biology, brought up the firing as soon as we were seated.
“You know they fired those teachers because of what they said, because they wanted ya’ll not to be embarrassed about eating those free lunches.”
Some kid raised his hand and said “They fired them cause they black.”
Mrs. Green didn’t need to answer. All over the school the same information was being shared at least among the black faculty and their students.
At this junior high school political action wasn’t something the student body was about. Most of us just wanted to get home without getting jacked or stomped. This situation of fearful coexistence changed over night.
The next school day was tense like something had to happen. Teachers kept their doors locked and shut no matter how stuffy the classes got, and with all those kids not showering after gym, it was especially funky. Some students, the hard-looking ones with the big Afros and the bomber jackets and shiny Levis, stiff from too much starch, and with red or black handkerchiefs hanging from their back pockets, hung outside the gates of the school ready to get into some shit. All of us pootbutt scrubs made wide, cautious detours around them.
Sometimes the principal or one of those gym teachers—the true enforcers of authority—would come up and try to scatter them, but it didn’t work. They stayed cohesive, defying the gym teachers with their walkie-talkies and their coach shirts and shorts. Nothing happened yet, no rocks were thrown, though, soon enough, the gangsters started drawing others out of class, even some of us pootbutt scrubs.
Girls started ditching too; fine ones, not just the Criplets who appeared on the scene, chicken-headed mugwug girls who remade themselves into gangster molls. Administrators attempted to gain control, but they had little effect. Finally, the police started round ups, forcing students into the school, but as soon as they came in, they’d head around to the other side of the school and hop a fence. In desperation, the principal decided to chain and padlock the gates of the school so that no one could get in or out.
By then, though, parents got wind of the controversy at Foshay and started showing up, trying to get their kids. The locked gates confused and angered them; soon all kinds of people were coming up to the school, even some of them militant types who would chuck a brick to clear out a classroom. We were locked into the school, 800 kids and sixty or so teachers, a whole lot of people who didn’t feel safe. That’s when the Fire Marshall showed up with a crew of firemen who spent an hour with big metal shears cutting all the chains and confiscating them.
“Listen,” the Fire Marshall said to the principal, “If you chain these doors again, I’ll close this school down and have you arrested.”
The principal shrank from a big man to somebody knee high, less than a pootbutt scrub. He couldn’t do anything about the students ditching class and raising hell on the gym field. He had to worry about nuts and fools getting onto campus or students ditching in mass, so gym teachers were sent to man the entrances leaving us students on our own with minimal supervision. As a pootbutt, my desire was to stay out of the way of all this craziness, but we all had to go to the lunch area to get punch and coffee cake and those nasty burritos and submarine sandwiches.
I sat at my usual bench near where a Boy’s Dean used to plant himself to watch the lunch area. He was gone today like most of the supervision, to work at the hopeless task to keep out the invaders. Lunch seemed pretty calm, no fights or anything. No bunch of boys trying to pull well-developed Mary May Flowers’ dress up over her head. Most kids were eating and screaming at each other as usual, when suddenly somebody yelled—”Look at this shit, a bug in my sandwich!”
Kids rushed to see, and the guy, a ninth grader with a peanut head, showed off the sandwich as though it were a war wound. He smiled broadly, exulting in the bug crushed between two pieces of bread, squashed on top of lunch meat and lettuce. Soon, he had to stand on a bench so the pressing crowd could see his good luck. Then, when unknowing kids were about to eat, we screamed for them not to, that those were roach burgers.
“Hey!” Someone yelled after getting hit in the head with a flying roach burger. Then they all started flying; a hail of sandwiches fell on us all, thug and pootbutt alike.
The food fight got crazier, with only a few adults to make half-hearted attempts at putting an end to it. The craziness spilled away from the lunch area out to the gym field—a big expanse of asphalt in the center of the school. The pootbutts were the first to scatter at the sight of a wave of food fighters with rock hard burritos, cocked and ready to fling. But some weren’t cowering; the hurt ones, the ugly kids who hung out amongst themselves on the bleachers near the fence, came pounding down the steps, serious as heart attacks. Ugly guys and girls—fat and short haired, skinny and short haired with bad teeth—rushed in throwing blows, dead set on defending their precious isolation.
The bell rang, but nobody responded. They stayed out there and fought until they got sick of busted heads and knuckles. Teachers were happy to see empty classes after the tardy bell rang, and hurried to shut doors and lock students out of classrooms.
I sat out there with Roy, a kid more shell shocked than me, wondering when it would slow down or when we would truly be in danger.
The principal finally just gave up. No one was in class. Fools were trying to sneak into the school, while we were trying to flee from food fights and riots. Coach Ken appeared with a megaphone and announced the retreat.
“School is cancelled. Exit on Exposition—School is cancelled. Leave immediately!”
That did it. Students stopped all that fighting nonsense; burritos dropped from clenched hands and were trampled as we deserted the school.
It wasn’t over. The Exposition Street exit let out into a pretty rough neighborhood, blocks away from the path I usually took home. We moved like a herd, hoping for protection in numbers, but I lived east, so I broke off in that direction with some gangbangers I was on good terms with and a dozen or so other stragglers. We were about two blocks south of Western when we saw another bunch of kids running at us, or, if not us, away from something. We started running like spooked wildebeests, fleeing in all directions, racing for higher ground if it could be found. Finally, I made it to Second Ave., exhausted and bitter for having had to work so hard to travel such a short distance.
“What was all that up at Foshay?” Jude, my older brother, asked as I came into the house. I ignored him and turned on the television and settled onto the couch.
I was safe, at least until school tomorrow.
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