Friday, August 22, 2014

What I did on my summer vacation

How was your summer?  I asked for about the 92nd time today.  We'd staggered the kids' arrivals back to school, with freshmen coming on Monday, sophomores on Tuesday, and juniors and seniors on Wednesday.

The older kids always came in taller and skinnier than they'd left.

"Aight," said Shawn, "Boring," said Katie, and "Too short," said Brianna, smiling at me.

I smiled back.  And I know you're so happy to be back at school.  You look happy.  I just know you want to do some Algebra.

"Stop," said Katie.  "I hate math."

You love math, I said.  Don't lie.

Shawn smiled then.  "You right," she said.  "Algebra II.  Bring it.  Anything's better than the last couple months."

I stepped out and began to wander in and out of classrooms.  I do that a lot during the first few days of school; it's one of the first things they teach you in administrator school: be highly visible.  Everybody likes to know somebody's in charge.  The freshmen were adorable: so scared.  You need to enjoy these weeks, when they're scared, because the minute they settle in, they start smelling themselves and you spend more time on them than anybody else.  I hit a senior class. They're my favorite because I can still see the fourteen-year-olds they used to be.

They were working alone at computers, so I wandered in and out of the rows, asking them questions about their work and asking them how their summer was.

"Fantastic," said Christopher.  "I played ball all summer."  Christopher was a star basketball player on Varsity.

"You know what I did?" said Kendall.  "I went hunting."

Wait, I said.  Did you say hunting?


Like deer?  Are you telling me you shot Bambi?

"Nah," he said.  "Rabbits.  And a squirrel."

For the first time today, I was speechless.  You shot a squirrel, I repeated.  Did you cook it?

"Nope," Kendall said.  "It wouldn't die.  I shot it twice, too, but it just kept running.  We cooked the rabbits, though.  I was with my uncle and he was teaching me how to live off the land.  He said it's how they survived when they didn't have any money and I wanted to learn how."

Huh, I said.  You cooked at ate rabbits.  I don't think I've ever met anybody who's ever done that.

"I went to Navy Pier," said Christopher.

"Yes," Kendall broke in.  "I ate rabbits."

Where did you hunt these rabbits? I asked.

"I don't know, somewhere in the suburbs."

It was the second time he'd left me speechless.

"I was up at Navy Pier for a basketball camp," said Christopher again.  He named some Bulls player whose name I didn't recognize.  I'd stopped following basketball after Jordan retired.  To tell the truth, I can probably only name about three current NBA players: Lebron, D-Rose, and  Joakim Noah.  I like him because I really like his hair.  "He was there to help us kids play ball, and when he asked for a volunteer, I popped up."

How'd you do?

"I kept hitting air and he told me to use the backboard. I was so terrible but it was awesome."

Kendall broke in, "We roasted the rabbits.  With carrots and potatoes.  They were really good."

Carrots?  I said, chuckling, then realized he wasn't being ironic.

Christopher broke in again: "Oh.  And? I met Bill Cartwright."  Now, Bill Cartwright I knew.  He'd played for the Bulls back when we were good.  That's a team where I could name every player.  Christopher pulled out his phone and showed me a picture.  "He was at Ms. Biscuit.  Prater says he knew him but I think he's lying."

I wandered into a Spanish class.  They had a sub because we've been having a hard time finding a decent teacher.  I had high hopes, though.  "Yo, where's Miss G?" asked Kiara.

I shrugged.  She took another job.  She wanted to be closer to home, to the baby.

"And Miss P?"  This line of questioning begins every school year.  There's a high teacher turnover rate in the city.  Lots of people begin their careers here, gain experience, and then shift out to a job in the suburbs where the pay is higher and they're less like to get mugged.

She took another job too, I said.  Kiara looked like she wanted to cry.  It's not that she didn't love all of you, I added.  She just needed to do what was right for herself.  I've been here for a long time, but someday I might move on too if life took me somewhere new.

"You best not," said Kiara.

Not right now.  Right now, this school is close to my house, I love you guys, and I love my job.

"Wait," said Brianna.  "You live close?  Where?  Party at Miss B's!"

I've missed you guys, I said.  School is so boring in the summertime without you here.

"I missed you too," said Kiara.  "I mean it."

I made it back to the main office just as William walked in.  William is one of our recent grads.  Last year he got a freshman girl pregnant so he comes back up to school every so often to see her.  Even so, I hadn't seen him in months, so I gave him a huge hug immediately.

"Can I talk to you?" he said.

We went back into my office and he started telling me about his summer job and the babies and how he changed his mind and decided to go to college.  "I want to do better," he said.

That's wonderful, I replied.  What changed?

"Do you remember on the news this summer?  That shooting at the night club?  That was my brother."

Your actual brother or your play brother? I asked.

"My real brother.  Same Mama and Daddy.  My whole brother.  My only brother."

I'd never seen such a look on his face in all the years I'd known him.  See, the thing about William is he's a guy who always laughs.  He likes to rhyme and he's a quick thinker, and so he's always got a group of laughing people around him.  What happened? I asked.

"He got in a fight," he said.  "He won that fight, and when the guy knew he couldn't beat him, he went and he got a gun and he shot him.  He shot him.  He shot my brother."

I'm so sorry, I said.  You were close?  But they were.  I knew they were, because I remembered now how many times he'd told me about his older brother.

"It's funny," he answered instead.  "You hear about the murders in Chicago, and it's sad, and it's awful, but for the most part you can ignore it.  You can keep your head down and go to work and try not to let it get you.  But sometimes it just hits too close."

I nodded.  We'd lost a student at our school last year, and over the last three years at least five of our kids had been shot in the leg, one by cops.  He was running away from a crime scene and must have looked guilty.  You know how many gun injuries are in the leg?  A lot, especially when the shooter is inexperienced. The kick from the gun makes the bullet go down.

"It's the kind of thing that you have to ignore until you can't," he said.  "I've been crying all summer."

How's your mom? I asked softly.

He smiled.  "She's fine.  She's strong.  And I'm fine too.  And now I've got my transcripts and I'm going to enroll in Kennedy King and I'm going to take care of my kids and I'm going to do better."  He looked up then.  "What's wrong?  Smile.  You need to smile.  You can't be looking at me like that.  I'm okay.  We're all okay."

Sure, I said.  Sure.