I had 45 minutes until I needed to teach my 9th-graders, and the January 6 insurrection was happening. While I was terrified for the country, I feared more for my students, who would soon arrive to our Zoom classroom upset, fearful, sad and unsurprised. I knew I would offer my students a second Zoom link to go process the news with other peers and teachers, but I also wanted to offer them a story, my story, about being young and scared. This was a risky scenario–a white, middle-aged man telling his story to students attending one of the most diverse schools in the nation during the real-time dismal showcasing of white supremacy—but I knew my story had something to offer in this moment: gritty, real hope.
It just didn’t have an ending.
In those 45 minutes before class, while the rioters carried a Confederate flag in the Capitol, I discovered my ending. While this essay is about getting jumped when I was 12 and my subsequent need for Air Jordan shoes, it’s really about why I became a teacher: to protect the majesty inside young people from America’s ills.
All of my 5th-period opted to stay and hear the story. We cried at the end. One of my students said, “That was like a Bible verse for me.” Then they started writing their own stories.
I spent September, October, November, and December avoiding the brutes in blue and red—moving fast during passing period, head lowered, ducking into a classroom when I spotted the unpredictable ones—but on the first day back from winter break, on my way to Orchestra, I got jumped anyway.
James, a 6-foot-tall 7th-grade Blood, saw me and charged. He lowered his shoulder, drove it into my chest, and launched me. When I hit the ground, my music folder exploded. His trailing friends ran through the falling sheets laughing. I watched their shoes pass me. The last pair, Air Jordans, stopped. The boy looked at me, said That’s messed up, stepped forward to help, paused, calculated the social costs of helping, and backpedaled to catch up with his crew.
Mr. Terpening appeared when I was picking up my music. He asked if I wanted to tell anyone what happened. Why don’t you tell someone? I wanted to say, but I just kept picking up my music because I figured one thing out early.
The adults don’t control anything here.
Over break, our principal died of an aneurysm in a gas station minimart.
Not even the principal’s in control is my point. No one’s an authority.
There is a building. That’s all that makes this place a school.
You got to have some sort of crew in a mess like this. I gather with Dell Holifield, Kenny Chen, and Billy Fox. We get together so we don’t stand alone. We’re quiet impala on the open plain, exposed herbivores among the camouflaged carnivores.
We don’t ask how you get into Honors, even though we know we’re smarter than, say, Jayson Boyd.
We don’t ask why Mr. Doyle shows Problem Child or Drop Dead Fred again and again instead of teaching.
We don’t ask what happened in the bathroom that caused boys to whisper and Lena to get suspended.
Or is she changing schools?
We don’t ask.
The less we inquire, the less we have to understand this place. The less we understand, the more likely we’ll come out anything like the way we went in.
This isn’t, as my aunts and uncles drunkenly joked about us teenagers on Christmas Eve, angst. And forget my cousins anyway. They all go to private school.
All I have are private nights.
In my basement bedroom, I play the cello, watch both episodes of Golden Girls, and read Roald Dahl, Gary Paulsen, and Gary Soto.
This is holding on and holding up. This is preservation. Three years is a long ways to go.
Looking down at my black, canvas, high-top Converse—the only kind of shoe I’d worn since Dad turned me onto Elgin Baylor in 3rd-grade—I had a realization colder than the concrete I fell on. I could no longer think about gentle, pretty Krissy Kumata on the monkey bars, Ms. McLane’s comments on my plot twists in The Man with Many Faces, or Ms. Cuehlo-Ruiz’s read-alouds of international stories about Respect, Harmony, and Dreams.
Middle school is where I live now.
No more longing for Elementary. Those waters have dried up.
The ones who live on move on.
That’s why we’re going to Southcenter on a January weekday evening. I’m moving onto Jordans. When I floated the Jordans idea again yesterday, Dad said, “Why do you want these Air Jordans anyway? This isn’t like you.”
The kids with Air Jordans have a shield. Even when they’re nerds, they’re no longer nerds. With Jordans, you’re in. You’re safe.
But I couldn’t put that in words.
“I don’t know.”
He examines me.
“I’m not spending $150 on a pair of shoes.”
I think he will.
I pick up after myself. I do my chores. I do my homework. I say please and thank you. I follow the rules. I don’t do anything bad. Even with my step-mom due to give birth in six weeks, I don’t complain. I won’t complain.
I just need some Jordans.
My dad parks in front of JCPenney’s, “Why are we parking here?” I ask. Dad’s already out his door.
“Let’s make this quick,” I hear through the rain and nearby freeway noise.
I walk after him in the cold, dark, drizzly parking lot.
“We going through JCPenney to Foot Locker?” I ask him.
“We’re shopping here.”
“Penney’s doesn’t have Jordans.”
He stops and turns.
“I told you you aren’t getting Jordans.”
“Leo and Matt have Jordans.”
He starts walking.
“That’s your mom’s family.”
He opens Penney’s doors. The smell of mediocrity hits. Here are the crummy mannequins, the prints trying to be cool, low thread-counts, knock-offs, wannabes. You put that shirt on, you tell people you’re trying not to look poor.
I well up. Don’t cry, I tell myself.
We’re following the brown-tile path to kids shoes.
“You haven’t even seen what they have,” he says.
“I already know what they have.”
He turns, stops, lowers his body and voice.
“Your other option is PayLess.”
“That’s where the immigrants get their shoes!”
I want to say, This isn’t Leave It to Beaver. This is 1992.
But I don’t say anything.
Here’s the wall of LA Gear, Fila, single-stitched Adidas. There isn’t anything here that will prevent Chris Thompson from looking at me and saying, “Still looking at your fingernails like a faggot, Faggot?”
“They have some Nikes. Look,” my dad says.
I don’t need to look. I sit down.
“Not Nike Air.”
He looks at a pair and confirms what I said: “Not Nike Air.”
He sits down next to me. He nudges me to at least look up at the wall of shoes. I don’t.
“You’re not even going to look?” he asks playfully.
But I don’t play back, like I might have a year ago, and my dad takes a deep breath.
He spots a shoe on the wall, grabs it, and brings it over.
“These are cool.”
There’s a huge BK on the ankle. They’re thick, black, and hard.
Now I start crying.
“Sean, what’s going on?”
“British Knights are what the Crips wear.”
I don’t want to manipulate him, and I don’t want to tell him the truth. I can’t will myself to say, They stand for Blood Killa. I don’t want to break his heart. I don’t want to tell him that all his long hours as a nurse, his pennies saved, his “sweat equity,” his pride in buying a home, have only brought me to a school like Denny where Bloods and Crips rule the second hall while the Honors kids rule, faraway, the first.
“Dad, you don’t understand,” I say, putting my teary face against his shoulder.
The shoe salesman comes over.
“Do you want to try those on?” he asks. He notices I’m crying and says to my dad, “Does he want to try these on?” He suggests we start by measuring my feet.
He measures them while I plant my face in Dad’s shoulder.
“Sean, your foot is the same size as in September.”
“I thought my Converse were getting tight.”
The salesman says he’ll bring out a couple sizes of the British Knights.
“I just want Jordans, Dad.”
An answer just comes out: “I want to be like everyone else.” I wipe my eyes with my hand. “I just want to be left alone.”
The salesman returns with two boxes. He leaves them and goes over to a boy with his mom. Dad points to them.
“But there are lots of kids like you already.”
I wipe my eyes with my forearm.
“How’s that help me?”
“Oh, my boy,” Dad says, putting his arm around me.
I shirk it off.
He rubs his neck, scratches his chin, and takes another long breath. He puts his elbows on his thighs and leans on them.
He says, “Sean, pick something else, or you’re getting these.”
Dad’s gone to work before I get upstairs. He’s left the British Knights on the kitchen table. I don’t look at them. Shoes won’t be my answer to this problem. People who can buy or steal or charm their way to safety and acceptance—that won’t be me. Dad won’t permit it.
I put on my Converse, lock the front door, and stand on the porch. There’s no way out of the next three years. The only way out is through.
I start walking to school through the rain.
I start thinking, If I were ever a teacher, you know what I’d do? I’d punish all the brutes. Here’s your detention. Mop up the cafeteria. You’re suspended. You know what? You’re expelled. You can’t treat people that way. And all those Honors kids, too. Yeah, your smile doesn’t work on me. Your mom’s phone call won’t make a difference. You’re suspended, too. Fuck all of you.
My mental F-word stirs some ghosts. Krissy Kumata, Ms. McLane, Ms. Cuehlo-Ruiz’s lessons about Respect, Harmony, and Dreams rise over me. This isn’t like you, they seem to say. You’re better than this. I try to shirk these annoying angels off, but they follow.
I sigh, frustrated by their presence, their pressure.
I’m nearly at school now, with more angels all around me.
I don’t want to go in, I tell them. I don’t want to face them alone.
You’re not alone, my cello says.
I scoff. I tear up.
It’s not fair, I say.
This will make you strong, Gary Soto says.
It’s not right being afraid all the time, I say.
Good will come, Dorothy, Rose, Blanche, and Sophia say.
There will be magic, James from James and the Giant Peach says.
I’m scared, I say.
I promise you this will mean something, Dad says.
I open the door to the building.
If I were a teacher, you know what I’d do?
I’d do all I could to prevent kids from shuttering their souls. I’d do all I could to keep them clear and vulnerable as glass. “You could break me, but you won’t. The sunlight, moonlight, and starlight pass through me.” I’d show those kids, with how I treated them and how I asked them to treat each other, with what I asked them to read and think about and create, I’d prove to them beyond a doubt, every single one of them, that in the long run, there’s more courage than fear, justice than indifference, tenderness than cruelty, forgiveness than bitterness, and hope than despair here on Earth.
I join up with Dell Holifield and his LA Gear, Billy Fox and his Filas, and Kenny Chen and his XJ900—my American knights—instinctually bonded in the only quest that ever was, if the stories are right: to be good and true.