To Be Somebody–A Story Dedicated to Some North School Kids!


This story is dedicated to some of the students I worked with when I taught at North School who always knew change was possible.

To Be Somebody

As I walk to school, I already know it’s going to be a bad day. When I left home, my sister, Cynthia, was in the middle of a fight with her old man. He’ll leave her again. My mom will go nuts trying to take care of Cynthia’s two-year-old daughter while my sister works. So this morning, my mom yells at me because it’s easier than screaming at Cynthia.

The pressure inside is building–it keep building. It’s like that stew my mom cooks on the stove–yeah, menudo–that’s the stuff. Sometimes she forgets it and it bubbles and boils all over the place. That’s how I feel right now.

I’m early to school and the guys are hanging out on the grassy area. I’m wearing a red shirt and khakis because my buddies are Nortenos and they want me to become a banger. It’s not me, but sometimes it’s easier to wear the red. They’re standing in a circle when I walk up.

“Sup?” I ask. As soon as the circle opens for me, I know what’s up. They’ve got nerdy Erik cornered, and they’re smacking him up side of the head.

Erik’s a little guy who dresses all slick and stylin’ like his mom buys his clothes. He’s askin’ to get kicked around. But him and me worked on a science project together, and he’s pretty cool in a nerdy way.

“We’re just showing this dude he better not be frontin’ us again.” Miguel stands with his hands across his chest, looking at me hard.

Miguel’s big–nearly six foot–but I’m the same size, so he doesn’t scare me. I give him a little shove so he steps back.

“Why are you up in my business?” Miguel looks so puzzled, I almost laugh.

The pressure bubbles over again. “Just step off,” I say. He and the crew start closing in on me. Something explodes inside me. This time I shove harder and Miguel looks surprised to find himself on the ground. I grab hold of Erik’s arm and shove my way through the group, dragging him with me.

I don’t like the silence when I walk away. I glance over my shoulder and see Javie staring. He and me have been buddies since first grade. He’s big like an oak tree, and I’m sorry to say, dumb as dirt. He just became a banger and has been pressuring me to join. They love him because he’s good muscle, but I know that’s not Javie either. I look away and head for class. Erik thanks me and goes over to his fellow nerds.

Rumors fly down the hallway. Tomorrow Miguel is supposed to bring his brother to school and they say he’ll be packin’ heat.

Michelle, who I think likes me, warns me they’re going to jump me after school tomorrow. I shrug like I don’t care. Still, the pressure’s there, pushing inside my brain.

At home, my sister’s still at work and my mom is exhausted from watching the baby. I scoop my niece Jennifer up and she wraps her chubby little arms around my neck. I carry her to the living room and set her in front of her toy box. I sit down beside her and we dig through the toys. As Jennifer climbs over me and plays with her stuffed Snoopy, something inside me releases and the pressure slips away. I put my head in her black, satiny curls and she smells like lilac soap and baby lotion.

My mom comes in and watches us. “You’re so good with her, Vincent.” Her tired black eyes glow. “You’ve grown this past year. You remind me of your Uncle Anthony. He was tall and slender like you and he had the broad shoulders. Only his black hair wasn’t so straight.” She brushes the hair off my forehead. “He’d be proud of you.”

There are tears in her eyes, but neither of us mention why. My Uncle Anthony died in Iraq. Later, I fall asleep with thoughts of my Uncle Anthony floating in my head. The pressure builds again. I don’t want to disappoint my family, but somehow I’ve got to get through school tomorrow.

Next morning, I walk real slow to school. My buddy, Josh, hooks up with me. Since we’re on year-round school, he’s off-track right now and not in school.

Josh says, “I hear you got some problems with the crew.”

“They’re talking some smack,” I admit.

He smiles and holds out his hand and I look down. He has a shiny, five inch blade. The boiling and churning build up again. The sunlight falls on the silver blade and it gleams.

I push his hand away. “I don’t need that.”

“Chill. You need to protect yourself. It’s all good,” Josh says.

I lift my hand and let it hover over the silver knife. Josh snaps it shut and I jump. He laughs and I grab the knife and slip it into my pocket. The bubbling inside my brain overflows and it’s like I hear the hiss of the stew hitting the hot stove.

In class, the weight of the knife feels weird in my pocket. Rumors are flying that Miguel and me both have knives and we’re meeting in the park after school. At break time, me and my jock friend George go off in a corner and start messing with the knife. It falls apart in my hands. Shocked, I stare at my friend. If Miguel has a knife and I have nothing, what can I do?

“Let’s go in the bathroom and fix it,” I say to George.

We’re the only ones in the bathroom and we huddle, trying to get the stupid thing back together. We don’t pay attention when the bathroom door swings open and then shuts again quickly. We get the knife fixed and head back to class.

Back in class, there’s an announcement over the speaker asking for me to go to the office. My heart nearly pounds out of my chest. The eyes  of every classmate are glued on me. I feel like I’m walking underwater as I head out of the class. I look for a place to toss the knife, but teachers are standing and talking around the hallway.

At the office, it feels like the end for me. I try to explain to Ms. Mason what happened, but all she gets is that the custodian saw me with a knife and she’s heard it’s a gang-related incident. She calls in Miguel, but he’s so cool and doesn’t have any weapon. He swears I’m making it up. So I’m suspended from school pending my hearing, whatever that means. Miguel goes back to class like nothing happened.

The worst moment is when my mother comes to school to pick me up. I can’t look her in the eye. She cries all the way home. My father doesn’t even want to look at me when he learns I was involved in gang stuff. At least my little niece doesn’t judge me. She holds up her little arms and says, “Up, Vincen.” She never could say the ending  ‘t’ sound.

After the shock wears off, my family and friends support me. When we meet with the school board, my mom and dad stand by me. Even with letters from teachers and coaches sticking up for me, I still get suspended.

The suspension is for three months and I have to go to an alternative school called Live Oaks. At school, we make jokes about the place saying it was named that because you had to be stump dumb to go there. It really isn’t funny.

It feels like I’m in jail. There are about twenty kids in the class ranging from 7th grade up to 12th grade. The teachers place us by ability and not age level. This part is sort of cool because now I realize I’m smarter than I thought, because I’m now doing the work of the 12th graders.

If I thought I’d been under pressure before, it’s nothing compared to this. If I talk out or do anything wrong, I’m suspended for five days. They have what they call the ‘three strikes rule’ and if I get suspended the third time, I’m out…period.

It’s really weird being surrounded by kids a lot dumber than me and most don’t even care they’re at this place. A few kids have already been kicked out, but the rest are hanging on like me because they know there’s nowhere else to go. We sort of walk around cattle-like, the older students mixing with the younger because no cares if you’re cool or not. All the basic freedoms, like talking to my friends or walking around at break time are gone. There’s no science, no after-school activities, no sports. I’ve had a lot of time in these three long months to think, since my biggest focus at this school is not screwing up.

After three months crawl by, I’m grateful to be back at my old school. I never wear red anymore. Javie is still a banger. Sometimes we talk, but he still doesn’t get it.

My grades have improved, but even now, sometimes I forget and my grades slip again. But one thing I learned at that school is that I’m not dumb. When I used to talk to my old friends, I’d think I wasn’t being clear enough, now I know they just weren’t smart enough to get it.

Coming back to school, my teacher suggested I work in a kindergarten class every day. At first I thought no way, but then I decided–what have I got to lose? When I work with those kindergartners, it feels a little bit like playing with my niece. There’s something about young kids that makes you feel like you’re always somebody in their eyes. That helps when you sometimes feel like nobody to yourself.

I’m glad this year is almost over. The pressure still builds and threatens to spill over, but I’ve learned basketball or football help. In high school I can start fresh; ready to be whoever I know I can be. If I see guys picking on a nerdy kid in high school, will I walk away? No way–but I’ll know how to handle it better next time. I’ve learned that I always have choices—but the question is will I make the right one.

This is dedicated to all those kids at North who struggled so hard to do the right thing even under extreme peer pressure.

Thanks for stopping by.











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