Foshay Junior High back in its Wild Wild West days presented ample opportunities to witness brutal surreal violence. Our math teacher, another white long-term sub, looked like Steve Rogers before he took the Captain America treatment — an asshole who treated us all like trash with his concentrated condescension. We knew he hated us, and we all, from pootbutts trying to hold onto our lunch money to gangsters who damn sure were going to get that lunch money, hated him more than we usually hated long-term subs.
This was the class where girls had their panties pulled at by guys and fights would constantly break out. I always wanted to be anywhere but there, especially the last day of class before vacation. Today was different; I wanted to be there because it was obvious what was going to happen. His ass-kicking.
Maybe he didn’t know how it would go, how it worked, that what happened to us pootbutts and gangbangers, Criplets and good girls, the violence that we drank, bathed in, swam in, would wash over him like a dam bursting.
Spring break was coming and soon we’d be free from this school that was about keeping us locked in and off the streets and not much more. The single goal after school was getting home without getting beat down or jacked. But before the great spring break immigration could commence, Steve Rogers had to get beat down. The clock hands were about to align at three and he stood before us scowling and severe, sporting a glaring white dress shirt starched to the point of rigidity and a narrow black tie for added emphasis, not realizing his beat down was coming.
Up to this moment he was our better, or so he thought.
“Sit down,” he demanded, but no one listened. A skinny kid rushed him first, a slit-eyed wannabe gangster. Steve shouted at him to sit back down, the class had not ended. And Steve got slugged. He ran for it as he had to do and sprinted to the asphalt playground and did zig-zag patterns as the skinny wannabe gangster trailed him throwing stray haymakers. It was mesmerizing and satisfying until it became clear that Steve was kind of elusive. The bell had rung and we all headed home for our Easter break.
A week or so later we had a new teacher to torment. We rushed in to see the new temp teacher whom we might manage to drive out of class that very day. We found our desks and we got a look at him. He was very white and blond and kind of young. He wore a powder blue leisure suit and had an amazing smile. The dude was beautiful in a way I thought only women could be. Suddenly, the class was under control as he called roll. I felt bad for him. We devoured all newcomers; it’s what we did and he was doomed.
Then he called my name: “Where’s Jervey Tervalon?”
I raised my hand.
He smiled radiantly and laughed and said, “I’m not calling you Jervey. I’m going to call you ‘Jervey Topsy Turvy.’”
My heart stopped and sweat stung my eyes. Did he just call me ‘Jervey Topsy Turvy’? He had just drawn a target on my back. I’d be getting punched while dudes be shouting, “Punk ass Jervey Topsy Turvy!”
But nothing happened. It was like magic. Nobody attacked me, or anybody else. His math class became some kind of civil space and we didn’t exactly become saints but things were different.
Mr. Finn would draw simple algebraic equations on the board and we’d pretend to be dutiful in trying to understand his assignment. For whatever reason we were on our best behavior. I think it had to do with, without him saying it, or us being able to understand it, Mr. Finn being an openly gay man. He was real and he wasn’t hateful or racist or whatever. But maybe — this might be truer — it felt like our lives had blundered into a sitcom-land where everything would always work out for the best. I think it did for him. His long-term sub assignment ended and he vanished to be replaced by another shell-shocked white temp forced to teach at a ghetto school and we chased him out like the rest of them.
I wanted to write a memoir but the connective tissue of the memoir didn’t interest me. I wanted to render memories that would pop up like mushrooms and quickly vanish. I owe much to where I was raised, in a black neighborhood where people talked to each other and spent time on the porch and on the corner, as did my brothers and their friends as they smoked weed, drank Mickey Big Mouths and Heinekens, and talked all the time about the insanity of Vietnam, nuclear war, and H.P. Lovecraft, and from there they’d segue into the adventures of the many memorable characters in the neighborhood. I tried to do that here.
Previously published in LA Review of Books, August 14, 2021: