With a mouthful of pizza crust, I surrendered a friend.
In inner-city schools, teachers, administrators, and parents neglect to have expectations for certain children who become consumed by the gangs which surround them. Most of all, these boys are neglected by their classmates who share their daily experiences but lack the understanding to help them, unintentionally setting them up for a life of failure. My friend was no exception.
I was sitting in a local pizzeria, scrambling to memorize biology for a quiz and scarfing down a slice of Chicago’s best stuffed cheese pizza, when someone behind me shouted, “Look! It’s our high school!” The lunchtime crowd — a variety of students from my high school — whipped around to get a view of the TV. A boy’s face filled the screen before the camera zoomed out to show the handcuffs, baggy jeans, and my friend, Michael.* The police were arresting him on charges of rape.
* * *
In my 12 years in the Chicago public school system, I had noticed gradual changes. In elementary school, I interacted with other students freely, but in high school there were clear divisions. I walked through the hallways with an oversized tennis bag, several heavy books, and a stack of newspaper pieces to edit before deadline. Sometimes I passed those familiar faces, which often shot polite smiles my way. By now, however, these old friends sported lighters and looks of defense that seemed ingrained in their eyes. At the time, I felt that I couldn’t help them. Instead, I watched them pass me by.
The first conversation I had with Michael was in the first grade. I sat with my arms crossed on my desk and I wore a freshly-ironed jean skirt and purple jacket. My pencils were pre-sharpened, my markers were brand new, and I had had a good night’s sleep. Michael came in a few minutes late and found his seat next to mine. He looked tired and unkempt, but he had the eager look of any first grader on the first day of school.
“My name is Sarah,” I said.
“I’m Michael.” He needed to borrow a pencil. We began a friendship limited to Room 227. For math and reading, we were separated because he was in the “general” program and I was with the gifted students. Our friendship grew while we sat in two desks next to each other during the morning attendance and afternoon game of Seven Up. We talked about our siblings, pets, and weekends. We borrowed supplies from each other and I helped him learn to read. He shared with me Michael Jordan career statistics that left me in awe, and somewhat envious, of his sports prowess. He was especially good at kickball in gym, where I was struggled to run the bases. And while the outside world conformed to racial and economic divisions, Michael and I learned to respect each other.
About halfway through first grade, I noticed a definite change in Michael. He never completed work and constantly distracted other students by tapping his pencil, or picking fights. I continued having conversations with him, but soon had to ask him to stop distracting me. I vividly remember the day Michael’s desk was moved to the corner. After a particularly bad day for him, our teacher became fed up and commanded him to move his desk against the wall, away from other students. Michael stomped his feet and closed himself off to everyone, replying with a harsh “no” to any questions directed his way. He was forbidden to speak to anyone.
From time to time I would look to the corner, where I often saw his shoulders slouched over his desk. I couldn’t understand how a few incidents of bad behavior could segregate Michael from the rest of the class for the remainder of the year. I simply knew that Michael was nice to me. Even then I realized his behavior, his academic weaknesses, and his unfulfilled need for special attention would cut a good friendship short.
I lost touch with Michael, with the exception of the occasional polite conversation in the hallway, between first grade and graduation. The last time I remember having a long conversation with him was at a basketball game in seventh grade. It was the first game of my first season on the team and I was nervous. After scoring seven points in the first half, I was tired, out of breath, and proud. I looked up after halftime began and saw Michael running towards me from across the court with a smile on his face. He excitedly congratulated me, and then patted me on the back and returned to the stands, where his parents waited. His father wore a gold, tailored business suit and his mother sat dignified, watching over Michael’s younger siblings.
* * *
In 1997, Michael didn’t receive his lower school diploma because of a stricter promotion policy passed by the Board of Education. I started elementary school with Michael at my side. I left alone, feeling his absence on graduation day more than the pride and accomplishment many of my peers surely felt. I passed him in the hallway after the ceremony; I was in a hurry to clean out my locker and meet my family for lunch. He gave me a simple “hello” and looked at my gown. I stopped, wished him good luck and struggled to find other words of encouragement or happiness. I found nothing but helplessness, which became ingrained in my memory.
Michael eventually passed the summer bridge program which students who did not graduate from elementary school were required to attend, and began high school with me in the fall. I saw him hanging out with some of the same faces, and some new ones, in clumps after school and in the park. I knew some of the people Michael hung out with were constantly in trouble with school security, and I feared that he would follow their paths of vandalism, theft or worse.
I now saw what my first grade self didn’t understand. Michael’s warning signs had appeared early and been largely ignored. I internalized most of the blame because I had watched Michael’s situation deteriorate and had done nothing to prevent it. I later saw his situation reflected in the young lives of others. In high school, I tutored seven-year-old Raymond in a summer intervention program. Raymond had trouble focusing and instigated fights, and he needed me to direct him through every question in his reading workbook before he could put his own sentences together. I heard about eight-year-old Terrence from my mother, who was torn between his parents as they battled for custody after their divorce. And while interning at the Board of Education, I pored over pages and pages of statistics about boys like Michael. This many students didn’t meet graduation requirements and that many were required to attend summer programs. This many didn’t pass the third-grade reading test and that many were required to go to a summer bridge program. I couldn’t help assigning the name Michael to each statistic, for he was my one living, breathing, and struggling example of the many children who are left behind by their communities.
My last conversation with Michael was during my sophomore year of high school, before a two-year lapse in which he disappeared. That day, as I walked through the park back from lunch, I spotted him with a few other boys, only one of whom I recognized.
“Hello, Michael. How are you?”
“I’m good — good. How are you, Sarah?”
“Things are fine. I’m working hard. I’m tired.”
[Silence. Uncomfortable stare.]
“What have you been up to, Michael?”
“Well, I’m not really taking classes anymore. I’m just seeing what’s happening. I’m just hangin’ with my boys here. Just shooting some dice. And you?”
“I’ve been pretty busy and classes are harder this year. Well, I should get back to school. I guess I’ll see you around, Michael. Take care.”
“You too, Sarah,” Michael said, as he returned to his game. I walked away, and our paths diverged for the final time. Our desks would never sit side by side again and we would never share another conversation. I walked toward my classes, down the aisle at graduation, and onto Old Campus at Yale. He walked toward the local convenience mart to buy cigarettes, into a bathroom where he allegedly raped a girl, and into a county courthouse. At that moment in the park, Michael and I finally submitted ourselves to separate worlds.
When I saw Michael next he was on the television screen, handcuffed. The reporter, standing in front of my high school, said that Michael had allegedly raped a freshman with the help of two friends. It was believed that he followed her home after school, trapped her in a bathroom, and with the use of both verbal and physical abuse, forced himself upon her. The report ended and everyone sat in silence.
“I know him. Michael was my friend,” I quietly said. “I can’t believe this is happening.” When we returned to school, news vans were parked on the street, a scene familiar to my high school once every couple of months. Michael was charged on numerous counts and placed in jail.
Six months later, I read in the newspaper that the charges against Michael had been dropped. I wanted to believe that they found evidence to defend him, that he was innocent and safe, and that I would run into him someday. I could only hope that justice had been served to Michael and that he hadn’t given in to the assumptions so many people had made about his future.
In retrospect, the first conversation I had with Michael and the last conversation in the park were very similar. Both times, I was talking to a boy who seemed innocent and charming. Both times, I was also talking to someone crying out for help. Every day I sat next to him in first grade, our friendship was one day closer to an end.
He joined the nearly half of students who typically drop out of high schools like mine. Our academic community had nurtured me but had turned its back on Michael. I feel guilty for having been a part of this neglect, and I wonder if I could have altered Michael’s path by simply choosing not to accept his seemingly prescribed place in life.
* * *
It is a sunny day in the future and I walk through the park next to my high school. I reminisce on my high school days, grab lunch at the local pizzeria, and lounge on the grass to watch the world pass by. Michael recognizes me as he walks through the park and his face lights up — it’s the eager first grade smile I remember so well. He sits down, asks me how I am, and we begin a third conversation about what happened, and what will be.
*Editor’s note: Name has been changed. n