It wasn’t the first time a conflict had erupted with boys from the projects across the street, but it doesn’t happen often. Usually, the threat is worse than the event. Usually, some combination of peace-keeping peers and school staff snuff it out. But this, three floors below, looked like chaos. R.D., a willowy, charismatic boy, is notorious for doing things like flashing signs and shouting, “Crips for life!” to the Bloods across the street when they stroll back and forth making threats. He thinks in terms of armies: us against them. For years, we’ve been fighting to keep his head in school while the street beckons; it looked like we were about to lose the battle.
Sirens wailed in the distance, and the crowd fell away. I still couldn’t see out the window. Students were streaming back upstairs, one of them bleeding from her arm. They had stony, intent faces and stormed past me; our school social worker helped the girl with the bleeding arm. I always feel so useless in these situations: my skill set doesn’t translate to the street.
I saw Melvin return. We were both subdued now; the drama in my class seemed like it had been hours ago. It was so small next to what had just happened.
“Melvin. Let’s talk,” I said. He followed me to a stairwell. We settled against opposite walls and looked gravely at one another.
“I’m sorry I lost my temper,” I said.
He nodded. We talked; he owned up to the fact that he had laughed after Minnie’s speech. I asked him why.
“Because I play too much,” he said, defeated, and I could hear his mother in his voice.
By the next day, word got around that a boy from across the street had been slashed, and he was pressing charges. Three of our students, including R.D., sought immediate safety transfers to different schools. The subtler mechanics of the conflict remained foggy to me, except the basic us vs. them of it.
What about Minnie? I found out from another teacher that she had fled to another class, a math tutorial, and sought comfort there after leaving my room. She seemed to have avoided the street fight completely.
I pulled her out of a class and spoke with her that morning. I understood if she didn’t want to do the speech, or even return to class, after what had happened; I was prepared to arrange some independent work for her to do in the office. But she was surprisingly upbeat. She seemed, as she often does, like she was about 25 years old. It seemed clear to her that what had happened in the class was the result of childish immaturity.
“I’m gonna write a different speech,” she told me.
“Oh,” I said, taken aback. “Okay. What are you going to write about?”
“Um, you mean, like…peace?”
“Uh, okay, great. See you in class, then.” And I wondered if that was that. Of course, I was wrong. Minnie was going to surprise me, again.