Charlie Brown in the Hood
I had been teaching 8th and 9th grade English to a group of students with learning disabilities. Slow learners: that’s what they were, and not just in math and language arts. They hadn’t learned to leave people alone; hadn’t learned to keep their hands to themselves; hadn’t learned not to take things that didn’t belong to them. There were some 15 students in the class and of the most difficult students was a short, tough little boy named Willy. He was short for his age and built like a boxer. He had shiny black skin and was rather good-looking, save for his angry, slightly pinched face. He was in fact smarter than he looked but had no real education; he was unschooled in virtually every way. My school, by the way, was located in the shadow of the famous Watts Towers, just across the street from the notorious gang projects.
Much of Willy’s personality and behavior can be explained by the fact that he had had to survive in that murderous environment. It would have been easy to forget where one was. With the splendid campus, the wide open spaces, one might have felt that nothing could go wrong. One often wondered about the strictness of certain rules. Why not let the kids run off to the restrooms? Why not open one’s door in response to a tender knock? Alas, the lovely jacaranda trees that dotted the campus created an inviting but deceptively safe environment. One might have felt like sauntering about, humming a sweet tune, but if you were 14 years old, doing so could invite attack. It could mean a severe beating by a rival gang, a savage sucker punch delivered to one’s lower back, or sexual assault. Even stray dogs were not safe. One day some boys had found a young mutt, but instead of taking it to lost and found, they dragged it off behind one of the classrooms and used it to practice penalty kicks. They were aiming, I am told, for the large stain left by a eucalyptus tree that had been removed some years ago. Like a scene from a cartoon by Charles Schultz, one of the boys held the pup down while his friend took aim and gave it a good swift kick. The poor thing smacked full force against the back wall. It either bounced some or slid straight down to the blacktop. Then the boys ran back to class and told their teachers they’d been in the bathroom doubled-over with a tummy ache. No doubt, dear Mrs. Adelina Wallace, a graduate of Mississippi Bible College (1957), was seated inside, magnificent in her Sunday best, an outfit consisting of a black cocktail dress and a string of pearls from Robinson’s Department store. She had not heard a thing, of course, only a dull thud, which she might have taken for a distant car door or the crack of a bat. Who knows what became of the poor thing’s body? If asked about it later, Mrs. Wallace might have pointed out that dogs were not supposed to be on campus in the first place.
Willy hit the boys, all of the boys but not the girls. There wasn’t a pecking order among them as far as I knew. Keisha stayed off by herself. Melody sat to the back but laughed out loud when the boys went at it. It thrilled her to see someone punched or hurt. She and Dante were friends, sort of. Letisha sat at the front and demanded attention. She wore pink hot pants year round. The boys called her a hood rat, an expression I’d just as soon not have understood. The boys liked to tease her. “Hey, what’s with the shorts? Aren’t you cold?” One of them said.
Willy jumped in, “Yeah, I can see your veins.”
Letisha shook her head. “You cannot.”
Willy: “That’s gross.”
It often got going before I could stop it.
Charles leaned forward. “Hey, darling, you sure you’re warm enough?”
“Shut up, I can wear shorts if I want to.”
Keisha looked concerned. “Mr. Lohrey, Mrs. Jackson said girls can’t wear shorts. You’re supposed to send her to the auditorium.” She gestured towards the door.
“Hey, Spellcheck, why don’t you shut up?” Charles was taking over.
“Charles, be cool over there; be nice.” I never told the kids to shut up.
He was getting annoyed: “Man, I hate that.” Now he was looking at Keisha. “Why you gotta snitch all the time?”
“I’m just telling you the rules.”
Now Letisha wanted her chance. “I walked right in front of Dr. Rawls, and he didn’t say nothing,” she explained.
“It’s just another one of our unenforced rules, kids. But thank you, Keisha, for pointing that out. Let’s get back on task, OK?”
Charles wasn’t finished: “Girl, your legs look like they made outta blue cheese.”
“Charles, would you...please...”
“Can I have a bite?” He took a bite out of the air. He snapped and growled.
“Tell him to leave me alone.”
“I just said it too cold to be up in here wearing them shorts.”
“Then why don’t you go back to the jungle?” Letisha shouted.
“Ho, whoa, hold on there, you two. Not in my classroom will you talk like that! No way!”
There was a silence.
“Now apologize. Charles? You started it. Letisha.”
“Not to him.”
“Oh, yes, you will. And to me, and to the rest of the class.”
“Sorry,” Letisha whispered.
“Thank you, young lady.” I looked over in Charles’s direction. He had his black hoodie pulled up over his head so I couldn’t see his face. “I’m waiting.”
“I didn’t do nothing.” Pause. “What you looking at?” Pause. “All right.”
It sounded like he said “awry”. “Is that your apology?”
“Great. Now, I want you to edit your paragraphs, just as I would. Ready?”
Willy’s grandmother used to drop in for a visit. Folks in the neighborhood were getting to know me. It was a small community. Basically, the entire school resided in two or three housing projects. Word got around. I didn’t speak much to Willy outside of class, but his grandmother would sit in the back not just to observe the way some parents did but to study. She wanted a lesson. She’d dropped out of school years back and preferred sitting in my classroom to staying at home and doing the ironing. She arrived in her house clothes. Hair in pink curlers, terry cloth bathrobe, and bunny rabbit slippers with a puffy white tail. I’d have died if my mother had come to school dressed like that, but Willy was cool with it. Her name was Ester or Le’ester, depending on the day. She knocked on the door, didn’t say much and then headed straight to the back of the room. Jesse got excited but she ignored him. After class, Willy would get up and join us at the front of the room. He said I was a great teacher and I rubbed my knuckles on the top of his head. Then he hugged his mom and I watched as she scurried back across the street. But she was back in five minutes. “Can I get me one of them books?”
“Huhn?” I was a little slow that day.
“I wanted to see that book,” she declared.
“Uh, I don’t know what you mean by see it.”
“I want to take it with me. Take it to my house.”
I was taken aback. “I won’t say no, but you know I’m supposed to keep them, you know, here on campus in my room, I guess. What exactly do you have in mind?”
“I want to read it. That book by Soltzzen-whatever. That guy you was talking about. I want to read the story.”
“Ok, all right. Yes. I want you to, I want you to read it. That’s great. I keep Willy’s copy here so he can’t say he forget it, but I have an extra. I have one right here. Why don’t you take this one?”
She took it without looking it over. “I’ll send it back with little Willy,” she promised.
“No, no, that’s not necessary. Keep it. Please. I’ll tell...uh, no, the kids are always losing them, even when I say not to take them, they do it anyway and lose them. I’ll say Zeus ate it.”
“That’s a joke. No, take it, really. I’m very happy you want to read it. Solzhenitsyn. Tell me what you think.”
“Thank you, Mr. Lohrey. I appreciate it.”
And off she went. She was a pleasant person, grateful, lonely. The whole thing made me feel good.
Sometimes I just couldn’t get Willy to sit down. That was my big problem that day. Normally, I would let it go. In a tug-of-war, the students nearly always won so I picked my fights very carefully. Willy was especially obstinate and I didn’t want him to go off the deep end that morning because I was expecting visitors. Some big shots from Sacramento were making the rounds and might pop in, joined by the Principal and some regional brass. I was afraid they’d come in and first thing see Willy doing a rain dance and wonder why I couldn’t hold his attention with my brilliant teaching. I’d been ignoring him
and then I got the bright idea to ask him to use the top of the filing cabinet as a desk. The height was perfect. He could stand all day as far as I was concerned. He loved it, actually, and ended up using it all year. When the visitors showed, he looked right at home, writing up a storm, shooting off his mouth. He had loads of questions for them: “Hey, whatcha ya’ll want up in here?” and “Why don’t you fix that hole in the fence?” He was ready for them. One of the guys went over and read Willy’s paper. They got a kick out of him.
Willy liked me. Why I can’t say but soon enough we were on friendly terms and I could get him to cooperate. My decision never to tell him what to do no doubt helped. I would invite him to sit, present him with a pencil, and ask him to participate. I also offered little prizes for “STUDENT OF THE DAY” and this provided all the incentive he seemed to need. Of course, he didn’t stop lashing out at the vulnerable but it kept him from punching me. Willy was not into taking instruction. I figured he pretty much had raised himself. He wasn’t always clean. As class began, he would roam the aisles, punching out at his classmates, jabbing them in their sides. He did this with lightning speed and could thrust his fist out without moving his arm above the elbow. He delivered a low blow. He could also talk without moving his mouth. These two talents no doubt had helped keep him alive to the ripe age of 14 when we first met. And he was animated in part by his vivid imagination, a fantasy life of a kind, delusions promoted by the school and by the media. Willy was a boy of 14 but he was at least 6 inches shorter than his peers, as much as a foot shorter than the varsity team leaders. He played no sports but his career plans ran in one direction. He wanted to be a basketball player. One was not allowed to point out to him how improbable this was as a future. The names Tiger Woods, Michael Jordon and Magic Johnson loomed large in the imagination. Willy had already moved into Bel Air, of course, had found in his mind a fine home next door to Magic and his family and could already taste the imagined good life that would accompany his successes on the court. To say otherwise was thought cruel.
But I did like Willy. For one thing, he made me laugh. Like the time Miss Link dropped by to check on me. Estelle Link was a heavyset black woman, 60-some years of age, with yellow eyes and braided hair. Everything about her was square: her head, her ass, her shoulders, even her face. Not quite shoulder length, her braids hung straight down, weighted down by colorful wooden beads from Pier 1 Imports. They’d have looked nice had she been forty years younger, but on her top-heavy body.... Her brother had been on death-row for decades. That, people said, explained why she hated whites. Anyway, she came by every once in awhile. Curiously, the students despised her. They recoiled upon seeing her enter the room. She headed straight for Willy who was busy writing a simple paragraph. She tapped his paper and insisted that he write his name in the upper-left-hand corner. He was in no mood, but she persisted. Now she started complaining about his first sentence. She didn’t like the way he crossed his “t’s”, so she made him redo them. Willy was playing it cool. Not a word, but suddenly he reached up and snatched one of her braids and gave it a little tug. Oh, my, Miss Link wasn’t going to have that. She went wild. She jerked him out of his seat and marched him out of the room, oh, yes. She was going to have him suspended. He had assaulted her. Of course, the students and I were barely able to contain ourselves. Willy, in his own way, was a genius.
Willy left Charles alone. He was a viper-tongued youth, a skinny guy who dressed in black with a hoodie pulled up over his head. I’d tell him to get his papers out and stop antagonizing his classmates. He’d speak back in a Donald Duck voice, “Ok, Ok, fat ass.” I pretended to be shocked. “Charles, what was that?” “Nothing, nothing. I didn’t saying nothing.” Long pause. “Fat ass.” I can’t say that Charles and I were friends, but he tolerated me and I got a kick out of him. He carved graffiti into the woodwork and wrote gang signs on the cracked black board with white out. When I caught him, we had to go see Mrs. Jackson, the legendary school counselor and proud wife of Rev. J. T. Jackson, pastor of the local Baptist church. She drove to work in her husband’s white Rolls Royce and parked it next to the Principal’s dusty Honda. I loved seeing her in her favorite emerald-green dress, a skin-tight affair with a plunging neckline. It came down below her knees which made it hard for her to walk. I thought she looked a lot like Mae West but moved like Rosalind Russell. She could be alluring. One morning, after a heavy rain, there was a lot of mist and fog in the air. She was walking along on the way back to her office. She had on a red beret, and I said: “You look like you could be in Paris.” She didn’t look back. “I wish.”
Kindness confused some of the students, there is no doubt about it, but I saw no benefit to being hard or unapproachable. Part of it was race. I just didn’t know how to be firm with African-Americans. Would I be backed up? I didn’t know. Would the kids take it from a white man? Some wouldn’t. In the beginning I was hesitant to let my hair down. This is well-illustrated by my frequent exchanges with Willy, a boy whose skin glowed like a polished eggplant. He was moody, but more often than not just shimmered with youthful zeal. He was agitated that day, restless, even more than usual. He rocked in his chair. His knees clapped. “Let’s go!” He sat at the edge of his ringside seat. “Come on, teacher. Let’s have it. Teach me something.” He was an eager-beaver, delightfully, obnoxiously inquisitive. But he was also easily distracted and, as a result, arrived late to class. I always let him in because otherwise I wouldn’t see him for another hour or so. It bugged me that he came tardy so often, but by the time I had figured out how to respond, I was ready to blow my stack. “Are you going to come late every day?” I had given him some papers and a pencil which had fallen to the floor. He was too keyed up to notice. “Can’t you even pick them up?” At this point I was ranting. Weeks of pent of frustration boiled over. My voice was so loud, so over the top that Lafayette drew back in his chair. Suddenly, words shot out of his mouth: “I DIDN’T KNOW YOU LOVED ME! WHY DIDN’T YOU SAY SO?” His words ricocheted off the walls. I’d prepared myself for “go fuck yourself”, but not for this. What in the world did he mean? I scarcely knew what to say and don’t remember now what my response was, but I’ve thought about it a lot. My explanation is that he had come to associate anger with love, no doubt from being surrounded by his aunties and grandmother who found living in the projects with a young teen-aged boy more than a little taxing. I assumed he caught hell often and got lots of whippings and hugs from these same women. For Willy, getting yelled at was comforting, expected, perhaps in a weird way desirable. I had been trying my best to play it cool, but for Lafayette, and I assume for many others, my practiced coolness looked like a lot like indifference.
The little arrangement we had between Willy and me worked throughout the year. I had been bringing a bag of penny candies to the classroom and kept it locked away in the cabinet until rewards day when I offered Tootsie Rolls and such to my top students. Naturally, word got out; no doubt the kids told their friends and many who were not included felt left out. One day, after school, at about 3 p.m., a group of neighborhood toughs came to my classroom door demanding candy. There were about 12 boys, I’d say, 14-18 years of age, bored drop-outs and gangster wannabes looking for a hand-out and maybe a little trouble. I had stepped out of my door and was standing on the paved walkway leading to the car park. The boys surrounded me. One said, “give us some of that candy, motherfucker.” I was not at all ready for this sort of thing and had no idea how to respond. There was no one to call, nowhere to go really. The campus cleared out daily right after school precisely because of this sort of thing, but I had been a bit delayed. “There’s nothing left. I gave it all away. I’m sorry, but...,” I replied. “Shut up” was what I heard in response. I figured that a kid who could say that to a teacher could just about say or do anything. I realized now that I was in trouble, and began to wonder how the whole thing would end.
Just then little Willy showed up. He came over beside me. I don’t remember saying anything to him, nor do I remember exactly how I felt upon seeing him. Was he part of this? I didn’t know. Then I heard him say: “Get back in the room.” I hadn’t seen his mouth move at all, but I recognized his voice. I followed his advice and closed the door behind me. We had no cell phones in those days and the classroom had no phone. I stayed in the darkened room for about 30 minutes, just standing there with my briefcase in my hand. I was afraid to reopen the door, but when I did the coast was clear and I went quickly to my car and drove away, out beyond the eight feet high fence that surrounded the school grounds, down past the seedy housing project where Willy and his friends lived. When I stopped at the red light, I lay my head on the steering wheel. Eventually, I proceeded onto the highway that ran west and continued driving in that direction for a while.
A better man would have called it quits, but I was locked in, one of those terrible teachers they’re always talking about who work for a paycheck. I couldn’t afford to do it out of love alone. Few of us could. When I pulled up that morning, I hoped to be greeted by a brass band and pom-pom carrying cheerleaders, but wasn’t too surprised to see the same old cast of characters. Nobody knew about my candy ordeal and I wasn’t eager to tell anyone. I headed first for the main office, signed in, and continued on to class.
David Lohrey grew up in Memphis. His poetry can be found in Softblow, The Blue Mountain Review, Otoliths, Cecile’s Writers and Quarterday. In addition, recent poems have been anthologized by the University of Alabama (Dewpoint), Illinois State University (Obsidian) and Michigan State University (The Offbeat). Work can also be found in The Stony Thursday Book (Limerick) and Hidden Channel Zine (Mall Sligo). David is a member of the Sudden Denouement Literary Collective in Houston. Recent fiction can be read in Crack the Spine, Brilliant Flash Fiction and inshadesmag.com. He teaches in Tokyo.