August 9, 2009
I brought the gun to school because my students were being “repugnant,” “repulsive,” and “revolting,” because they wouldn’t respond to any of my attempts at discipline, because I just couldn’t take it anymore. Sometimes during my breaks, when I wasn’t hiding in a bathroom stall or chasing after things stolen from my desk, I would look up words in the thesaurus to try to describe why I hated them so much, to put names on my feelings, but there were just never enough synonyms for “bad” or “mean” or “evil” to do them any kind of justice. To be honest, nothing short of handcuffs and a squad car would really do them any kind of justice, was my feeling at the time. My students spat, cursed, and threw things through the air; they bought, sold, and used drugs in the middle of class; they wrote and drew awful things on their desks and in their books and up and down the walls–the whole room was covered in scrawled drawings and misspelled profanity. When I signed up with the program, I was told by the placement coordinator that my assignment was “lucky,” that teaching elementary school would be “easy,” “comparably,” because the kids hadn’t been “corrupted” yet, the way older students often had in “this kind of urban environment.” “You can still make a difference in their lives,” she said, “that’s what’s so rewarding about it.” My first day, when I was turned around writing vocabulary words on the whiteboard, a third grader drew a penis on the back of my shirt in black magic marker and I walked around the entire day not knowing this, just hearing kids laugh at me and seeing them point and feeling like I was going to die. To “put it mildly,” I was at my “wit’s end” with the students and I had only been teaching for about a month — it had been the hardest month of my entire life.
The “last straw” for me was when, on the Friday afternoon before Labor Day weekend, a few of my fourth graders started a small fire in the back of the classroom and used it to roast a hamster they had stolen from the science teacher earlier in the week. After holding it hostage in a pencil case and feeding it Cheetos and Skittles for several days, they had killed the hamster with a taser built from a disposable camera and then skinned and cleaned it with an exacto knife “borrowed” from the art room. I had smelled the smoke when they started the fire but we had all of our windows open to let in fresh air (the school’s AC was broken) and I just figured that some random building in the neighborhood was on fire, which in my short residence there I had found was usually the case in our neighborhood. When I realized that the fire was inside the classroom, I tried to put it out with the extinguisher mounted by the door but the extinguisher was empty and produced no foam but only a kind of watery farting sound that made the students erupt in laughter and so instead I stomped out the fire with my own two feet, in the process destroying my brown loafers, the medium-well hamster, and the small, self-turning spit that my students had constructed from pencils, gum, rubber bands, and paperclips. The students were fairly angry about the ruined hamster meat, which they had marinated all morning in a bottle of Diet Coke with Lime, but they were most annoyed that I had broken the spit, the engineering of which even I had to admit was complex and mechanically sound. “We just trying to learn, motherfucker,” said Laquanda, showing me a concept sketch she had done on a piece of graph paper. The pink cartoon hamster she had drawn there looked a lot cuter than the brown and black pile of skin and bone and ash I had to scrape off the floor after the bell rang, and, maybe because of the strawberry-scented crayon she had used, it smelled better, too. Later that afternoon, as I sat at my small, hard desk grading geography quizzes and working on lesson plans and inhaling stale smoke, I decided to buy a gun. That will teach them, I thought.
I bought the gun from my brother Michael Jackson, who stands outside the chicken place in my neighborhood every day selling drugs. Michael Jackson is not really my brother, of course, like in the family sense, but whenever I see him, which is whenever I go to the chicken place, which is often, he says, “What what, my brother?” and then gives me dap and tells me about his day and how business is going and all the various gossip of the neighborhood.
The first time Michael Jackson gave me dap, I thought he was trying to hit me or steal my wallet or something and I leapt away from him in fear. Afterward, I was so ashamed of my reaction; even though I had seen people do fist pounds, knuckle bumps, and other such hand gestures in movies and music videos and plenty of other urban entertainment I had looked up on the Internet, I still flinched by instinct at the sight of an incoming black fist and jumped back toward the curb, my arms up, fists clenched, shaking. I was pretty sheltered growing up but that’s still no excuse for how I acted; prejudice hides deep within all of us, every one, blocking the truth with long shadows. Luckily, Michael Jackson wasn’t mad at me for being scared of him for being a large African American man in the inner city, he just laughed and smiled and said, “Naw, man, it’s cool, be easy, be easy.” It was kind of hard for me to be easy at first, I’m not naturally easy, but soon enough I got the hang of it and now I give and receive dap with no problem at all and this is exactly the kind of cross cultural exchange that I was hoping for when I signed up with the program and moved to the inner city from the small town where I was born and lived my whole life up till now.
Michael Jackson’s name is not really Michael Jackson but the people who buy their various drugs from him call him that and so I call him that, too, which really makes me feel like a part of the local community, like an adopted member of a large and colorful extended family that I never knew I belonged to. One time I asked Michael Jackson why everybody calls him Michael Jackson and he said, “Cause I walked on the moon, motherfucker.”
“What?” I said. I thought this was some kind of slang-type expression, but he told me he was telling the truth, honest, “for real.”
“Yeah, I was a astronaut back in the day, right after I came out of Jefferson,” he said. “Went up to the moon in bout ‘05/’06, did science and research and all sort of space-type mess: fixed jacked-up satellites, cranked the buggy, shot rocks with laser beams. You know, moon shit.”
“Really?” I said. I didn’t believe him of course but I pretended to anyway, to keep the dialogue going. It’s always important to maintain a dialogue especially with people who seem different from you, that’s how you learn real and important stuff. “I’ve never heard anything about that,” I said, “I thought people stopped going to the moon a long time ago.”
“Naw, naw, see the government cover all that up,” he said, pausing to take some money from a stooped middle-aged woman who was using a plastic grocery bag as a hat, “see, they don’t want nobody to know nothing about the blackstronauts, don’t give us no health insurance, no matching 401k, bullshit. Not even some kinda scholarship like in the Army and shit! Space program’s fuckin’ slavery, white boy, modern-ass slavery.”
The kind of cross cultural exchange that I don’t want is drugs, which are what Michael Jackson tries to sell me every time I see him even though I’ve repeatedly told him that I don’t want them and that I won’t ever want them. I don’t smoke drugs personally and I never have and I think drugs are really bad and awful and have a multi-fold negative impact on both individuals and communities as a whole which is statistically verifiable and true (I studied this in one of my courses at the University of Phoenix Online). However, even though he’s a drug dealer and also possibly involved in a gang (I’m not sure, but there are certain signs that I’ve read about), Michael Jackson is a person who always says hello to me and wants to talk and who I like to consider my “friend,” and, in my new community or just in my life as a whole there are really not many people who have wanted be friends with me (for various reasons) so I just try not to think about MJ’s drugs and the problems they cause for him and others and society, however much they may trouble my conscience.
The night after the hamster fire, I went over to the chicken place and got some dap from Michael Jackson and then told him that I needed to buy a gun and asked could he sell me one, please. The chicken place where we “chill” is called the “Chicken Shack,” although on the off-white sign-board hanging over the door some of the letters are missing so really it’s the “Chkn Shk.” The dinner special costs $5.99 and comes with a choice of two sides, although there are only two sides (mac and cheese and mashed potatoes) so it’s not a choice, really. When I got to the chicken place, Michael Jackson was smoking a cigarette with one hand and eating a big chicken leg with the other and when I asked about the gun he was in the middle of a bite and he suddenly started coughing up a storm, like he was either choking on a bone or else there was a whole weather system blowing around inside his lungs. I patted him on the back until he stopped wheezing.
“Come on, what you need a gun for, asshole?” he said. “Yo, don’t shoot an AK, just smoke some AK, be cool, all right? It’s a holiday.”
“No, listen, Michael, I need to make a statement, I really do,” I said, “and to make my statement the way I want to, I need a gun. A handgun, preferably, but I guess I’ll take whatever I can get.”
“A statement?” he said. “Yo, buy some posterboard, tag a building, get a plane to skywrite that bullshit if you need to, fuck. You can’t handle a gun, you too tight, white boy. Ha ha, tighty-whitey, shit, that’s good, I should call you that.” He took a picture of me with his phone and began typing in this new nickname.
“Okay, you can make fun of me all you want but I really need a firearm, really bad,” I said. I felt like I was about to cry or something and hoped that he couldn’t see it in my face, this sign of weakness. “Are you gonna help me out or what?” I asked. “I thought we were friends.”
Michael Jackson exhaled a big, fat cloud of smoke and looked at me really hard for a long and quiet time. It was like his eyes were testing me or something, trying to figure out some essential fact about who I was. After what felt like minutes or hours he finally told me in a low and different voice that, yeah, he could probably get me a 9 sometime over the holiday if I gave him the money now, like right now. Whispering, which seemed appropriate when talking about a gun for some reason, I asked him if an 8 or a 7 might be more affordable as a starter gun (I really didn’t have much money on my teacher’s salary) but apparently the subject was closed and, you know, that was fine, I was happy to be getting a gun at all and that he wasn’t mad at me or anything for asking him, that we were still, you know, “cool.” I passed him the cash that I had withdrawn from the ATM earlier and he walked up the block a little and made a phone call. When he came back, he told me to stay home and wait, to expect the gun to be delivered sometime between the hours of 9 and 12 the next morning.
“People deliver guns?” I asked.
“Yeah, what you think this shit is, the fucking Wild Wild West or something?” he said, and lit another cigarette. “We civilized.”
That night, I went to sleep watching “Dangerous Minds” on DVD. I had gotten it at the library uptown after searching for movies about teachers teaching in inner city schools, in the hopes that I would maybe be inspired or learn something that I could use in my own life, but sadly I found both it and “Stand and Deliver,” the other movie I checked out, to be unrealistic and dated and not very helpful to my situation at all, although Michelle Pfeiffer is certainly a lovely woman, that can’t be argued. The next morning, at 10:30 AM on the dot, there was a knock on my door and a gruff voice yelled, “Delivery!” I went to the door and the deliveryman was gone, I just saw the edge of his afro cutting around the corner, but in the hallway in front of me there was a small cardboard box with a FedEx label on top of it, my name written on it in red pen. I opened the box right there in the hallway, like a kid on Christmas, I just couldn’t help myself. Inside, underneath a pile of packing peanuts and shredded newspaper, was the gun, my gun. It was beautiful and terrible and I couldn’t stop holding it.
When we came back to school after the Labor Day weekend, I brought the gun with me, wrapped in an old t-shirt and then a hand towel around that and all this hidden in the zipper pocket of my bag under my gradebook. Being so cautious about having the gun seemed a little silly, since on the streets of my neighborhood I saw guns every day, morning, noon, and night, sometimes held out in the open or even being fired but more often in telltale flashes of metal against peoples’ skin and clothes, little shines and glints. Guns were everywhere here. Still, I was nervous about my own personal gun for some reason, those kind of first day of school nerves you get when you’re on the edge of something new and different and unpredictable. I told myself that maybe my students had changed over the holiday or that I had changed and become a better teacher somehow, that maybe I wouldn’t have to pull out the gun at all, maybe it could just stay in my bag the whole day and then I would take it home and sell it at a pawn shop or bury it in a very deep hole. Maybe things would be different.
Things weren’t different. I pulled out the gun ten minutes into first period, just after the morning announcements. I had passed around a science worksheet about the planet Saturn to the fifth graders and was walking around trying to help some of them with their reading comprehension, which on average seemed fairly poor. The mornings were the easiest time to teach, I had found, because the students were too sleepy to really fight with me or get into much trouble. Almost all of my kids were at least looking at the worksheet, if not actually filling in the answers, all of them except for Keshawn, a corn-rowed boy who was sitting at his desk in the back left corner of the room and weighing and bagging drugs with the help of a portable digital scale.
“Please stop doing that and do your worksheet, Keshawn,” I said to him. He grunted at me, not even looking up from the scale, his fingers sealing baggies almost unconsciously. I gave him another worksheet, since the first one I had passed out was covered in drugs by this point, but he just pushed it off of his desk and kept working. The paper floated slowly to the floor.
“Do you need a pencil?” I asked. Having school supplies was a big problem for these kids and I tried to keep extras around which I had paid for with my own money, though I found that these were often stolen and used against me as weapons. Keshawn’s eyes were beady and tight, focused perfectly on the tiny numbers displayed on the scale. I put my hand over the readout, so he couldn’t see it, so that he would have to pay attention. He looked up at me.
“What I need is for you to go the fuck away,” he said, and spat at my feet. He missed, but it was the thought that counted, really, as is usually the case with spit. When I removed my hand from the scale, he paused for a second to put on some headphones and then went back to his activity with no loss of momentum or facility. A few kids nearby turned around and snickered at me. I felt my face get hot and I knew that I was starting to turn red. The kids sometimes called me “Mr. Cherry Kool” which I at first thought was a compliment (they were calling me both “Mr.” and “Cool”) but which I later found out was because somebody said my red face looked like the Kool-Aid man.
“Oh, yeah, sure, I’ll get you a pencil, Keshawn” I said, and then went back to my desk, where I opened my bag and pulled out both a pencil (which I put in my pocket) and the gun. I had been practicing holding the gun all weekend, in various positions and with various movements, but it was still surprisingly heavy in my hand. Guns never seem heavy when you see them in movies, people juggle them like they’re tennis balls, but my gun seemed very heavy and I kept worrying I was going to drop it and it would burst into flames or otherwise explode. I took the gun and went and sat down on the front edge of my desk, facing the students and trying to seem as strong and powerful as I possibly could.
“Class, could everybody look up here for a minute, please?” I said. A few groggy heads rose from desks, drooling. I raised the gun and pointed it at a random stain on the room’s back wall, like the way they tell you to focus on a certain neutral point if you’re nervous when speaking in public. I sat there like that for a minute, pointing the gun at the wall. Slowly, I heard the kids begin to whisper and hiss at each other about oh shit and do you see that shit and what the fuck, a fucking gun and et cetera. This was exactly the kind of reaction I had been hoping for, but I pretended to ignore them and just squinted down the barrel of the gun at the stain on the wall, as if I was lining up a very important shot.
“I hope everybody is getting their worksheets done,” I said, my voice cracking a little, my eyes still on the target. “I hope nobody’s doing anything they’re not supposed to be doing, because if they are, well, there’s going to be a problem,” I said, emphasizing the word “problem.” I got up from the desk and walked up and down the aisles of the class, my arms swinging gently as I went, the gun going back and forth, back and forth, hypnotic. As I walked, I looked down at my students’ faces, trying to hold their eyes with mine, but as soon as they had gotten a glimpse of me and the gun coming, they would look down at their papers and suddenly be concentrating very hard on the reading.
I came to the back of the room. Keshawn had been so wrapped up in his work with the drugs and the music in his headphones that he hadn’t even noticed the gun or the scene it had created. I tapped the gun against his desk a few times and he looked at it for a second, thinking, and then looked up at me, silent. He removed his headphones.
“Here’s your pencil, Keshawn,” I said, pulling the dull 2B out of my pocket and handing it to him. He took it with the tips of his fingers, as if he was scared it was going to bite him or something. He looked so small, suddenly. I waited for a second and then, using the arm that was holding the gun, I swept all of the drugs and plastic bags off of his desk and onto the floor. The other kids squirmed around in their seats to see what was going on but when I turned and swept the gun over the room in a wide arc, they all went back to their work. I picked up the scale and stuck it carefully into Keshawn’s backpack, which had a picture of a cartoon frog on the front. Then I gave him another worksheet. He printed his name in the top right corner and began to read.
“Do you need any help?” I asked him, lightly resting my hand on his shoulder. Without looking at me, he slowly shook his head no and so I went back up to my desk and sat down. My heart was going a mile a minute, but I didn’t want them to know, they couldn’t, so I just tried to sit there like I was made out of iron and steel, like the gun was a natural extension of my body. I looked up and saw that a few students weren’t working but were just staring at me, their eyes large and unblinking. There was no talking anymore, no fighting, no music thumping out of hidden earbuds, nothing, just scribbling and erasing and breathing, peace and quiet.
“Yo, that shit ain’t even real,” said Anthony, one of my brightest and most talkative fourth graders. We were practicing fractions.
I had been using the gun all week, in every class, and had been seeing some pretty good results from it, some impressive stuff. In the presence of the gun, most of my students had become quieter, more respectful, and, well, surprisingly smart. A lot of their educational deficiencies, it seemed, were really just behavior problems, and the gun had all but killed behavior problems. The kids didn’t yell or scream at me anymore and I no longer feared physical violence when I turned my back to the blackboard or bent over to pick up a student’s dropped crayon or eraser.
That said, things weren’t perfect, since I wasn’t really teaching my students, we weren’t really “bonding” or “sharing” or “becoming a family” the way I wanted us to, the way all the books said we should. They were just kind of afraid of me, really, some of them were terrified, I’m sure, but I figured that gaining their respect was the first step on the road toward wonderful and important and life-changing things for us and when I held the gun in front of my classes, I felt like I held their respect in the palm of my hand, all of it tensed under my trigger finger.
“It ain’t real,” Anthony said again, staring at me. The other kids looked up from their fractions to see what was going on.
“Yes, it is real,” I said, putting down my red grading pen. I picked the gun up off of my desk and waved it around as proof of its reality. “See?”
“No it ain’t real,” he said.
“Yes it is,” I said.
“No it ain’t,” he said.
“Yes it is,” I said.
“No it ain’t,” he said.
“No it isn’t real, not ain’t, isn’t,” I said. “Use correct grammar.”
“Oh shit, you said it isn’t real, ha ha! Ha ha, stupid, use correct thinking,” he said and all of the kids started cracking up, all of them, slapping each other on the backs and knocking their heads against their desks, howling, showing teeth and tongues and the little black holes of their throats. I sat there as they laughed at me and I felt like I couldn’t move, like I was frozen. This couldn’t be happening, it just couldn’t, not now. I had to do something.
So I got up, walked over to Anthony’s desk, and stuck the barrel of the gun against his temple, my index finger on the trigger, my thumb over the safety. The gun was cold in my hand because I hadn’t held it in a while, it had just been lying on my desk, waiting. I pressed it hard against Anthony’s head so that he could really feel what it felt like to have the gun pointed at him, how cold and dark it was.
“Do you think it’s real now?” I said, in this deep, serious voice that didn’t even sound like it was coming out of my mouth, this, well, gun voice. The class went silent and a few kids put their heads down on their desks and covered them with their arms and I immediately felt terrible about saying it and especially saying it in such a way, just the worst, and among these kids, too, with their lives and the things they had probably seen at home. This was wrong, I had never directly threatened a student before, with the gun or otherwise, and I knew that it was the wrong thing to do, he was just a child, after all, God, what was I doing?
“God, I’m really sorry, Anth–” I began to say, before realizing that while I was standing there feeling guilty he had taken the gun from me and was now pointing it at my chest, both his little hands wrapped tightly around the grip.
“Bang bang,” he yelled, closing his eyes and squeezing the trigger twice. Nothing happened. The students looked perplexed; so did Anthony. I was slightly confused as well, though of course relieved to be alive. Anthony turned the gun over in his hand, found the safety, flipped it to the other position, and then pointed the gun back at me. He pulled the trigger again; nothing, just a little click.
“I told you it won’t real,” he said, slamming the gun against his desk for emphasis, “I told you!”
“Wasn’t,” I said quietly, “not ‘won’t,’ wasn’t,” but he didn’t hear me, none of them did, they were all laughing and shouting and bouncing up and down as Anthony ran around the room with the gun pretending to shoot all of them, a big, wide smile on his face. The word spread between my kids and by lunchtime all of my classes knew about the gun and it no longer held any power among even the best and brightest students, the ones who actually wanted to learn. Unloaded, the gun held no power and so neither did I and things were just like they had been before.
I had to take three different buses to get to the store that sold the bullets because there are no stores that sell bullets in my area. Because of crime, poverty, the recession, and other issues, many of the stores in this community have closed up and moved out to the suburbs or the richer districts uptown — this lack of infrastructure causes a lot of problems and inconveniences for local residents. It’s a sad state of affairs. I tried to buy bullets from Michael Jackson but he said there wasn’t much of a profit margin in bullets so he and his associates didn’t sell them, personally, and he didn’t know anybody locally who did. I asked him where somebody on a budget should go to buy bullets and/or gun accessories and he said the Super Walmart on the east side of the East Side probably had the best prices. “They got everything, man,” he said.
I was on the buses for a little over two hours, a bumpy, smelly journey that felt like it took much longer than it actually did. The last bus dropped me off at the edge of an enormous parking lot; in the distance, through thick clouds of fog, exhaust, and barbecue smoke, I could just make out the Super Walmart logo, the big white letters with the star in the middle. Sweating, I hiked along the rows of cars up to the entrance, wishing that my bicycle hadn’t gotten stolen the day I moved into my apartment in the city. Inside, the store was cool and clean and brightly lit, like some kind of giant refrigerator; a smiling woman near the door said hello to me and and handed me a laminated map and a red plastic basket for my shopping. The basket had a cupholder and so I bought a soda from one of the vendors at the entrance and sipped it through a long straw as I walked. Even though I’m morally and ethically opposed to big box retailers after reading a very important book on the subject last year, it was still kind of nice at the Walmart, really, I can’t lie. It reminded me of home, of Mom, of the days when things weren’t so hard and difficult and complicated in my life. When I was a kid, we used to ride out to the Walmart every month or so in the truck and mom, who usually made me eat a very strict and healthy diet, would break the rules and buy me Icees and hot dogs and cotton candy until I just felt like I was going to die of happiness.
On the way to the sporting goods section, which my map told me was about a half hour trek, depending on my pace, I walked through the toy department, along big, tall aisles filled with figurines and vehicles and other dreams and wishes wrapped in cardboard and hard plastic. On one aisle, two boys were playing with a tiny remote controlled flying saucer that hovered in mid-air and made several annoying noises. I stopped and watched them for a minute, pretending to look at a badminton set that gave you electric shocks if you missed a point. The boys were having so much fun with the saucer, making it flip and roll and abduct small plastic people. They would drive the craft to the point where it was about to crash into the ground but would somehow pull it out of the dive at the last possible second, safe and sound. When I was a little boy, I dreamed of being a decorated pilot like my father, but then when I was a teenager, after the war started and then the other war started, my mother made me promise and then double-promise her that I would never enlist, that I would never leave her for some hot, dry place where I could die alone just like he did, for no good reason at all. It was hard to forget my dreams and stay at home with her, but this is a thing we do for the people we love, I guess, and, besides, I didn’t really have anywhere or anyone or anything else, it was just me and her and it had always been that way, really. After she died two years ago, I stayed around the house by myself for a while. To pass the time and try to make friends with other people, I started taking online college courses in various interesting subjects: astrology, wine tasting, cyberfeminism, African American studies, green energy, the history of Latin America, modern popular culture. There were so many things in the world to learn about, it seemed, things I couldn’t imagine or even imagine imagining. I was home-schooled from K-12 and I always thought that my mom was giving me everything that I needed in order to live my life when the time came for me to live it, but it turned out that there were a lot of gaps in my knowledge and experience, gaps wide enough that sometimes it seemed to me the whole world could fall through them.
I had never thought of being a teacher, but eventually the insurance money ran out and the house was repossessed by the bank and there were no jobs in our town besides at the slaughterhouses and I don’t have the stomach for that kind of work. Widespread teacher shortages in the city meant that there were lots of opportunities to work there and at the same time “have a culturally enriching experience in an exciting place.” The website for the program said you didn’t have to have a teaching certificate or even a full college degree, just a certain number of credit hours and a desire to learn and serve the public. There was even an enlistment bonus, just like in the military. I was kind of scared about coming to the big city, since all I knew about the place and the kind of people who lived there were the often scary things I had seen on television and read on the Internet, but at the same time the experience seemed exciting and powerful and important, like exactly the kind of thing I need to change my life and start over again, to become a real person in the world. The promotional literature that I read said I could “be a hero” to my students, to the community, that I could really “make a difference” and “be a part of something.” I wanted to do those things, I really did, with everything I had inside of me, I just wanted to do a good job and be a good teacher and have friends and love and happiness, that’s all I wanted, to be a part of something. It wasn’t working for me, though. I had tried so hard and studied so much and it was still all going wrong, it was, and that’s why I bought the gun and that’s why I needed the bullets and that’s why I was at the Super Walmart.
It ended up taking me about forty minutes before I made it to sporting goods — there was a tram station along the way, but there was a long line and I didn’t really feel like waiting for a ride. The sporting goods section, when I finally got there, had at its center, in between the aisles of balls, bats, and bikes, a row of big glass cases filled just completely to the brim with all sorts of guns, hundreds of them. It was amazing: there were pistols and rifles and shotguns in seemingly every possible size and color as well as a range of bows, crossbows, and hunting knives, all of the weapons perfectly polished and gleaming under the big fluorescents. I looked up and down the racks for a few minutes, my mouth hanging wide open, amazed at all the possibilities, the many different things you could shoot and be shot with. When I finally approached the counter, a nice older man wearing a blue vest greeted me and I told him that I needed to buy some bullets.
“Okey-doke, now what kind of weapon are we talking about here?” he asked.
“A pistol,” I said.
“All right, what caliber?” he said, leaning against the counter.
“Oh, um, I’m not really sure about that,” I said. Guns were complicated and it seemed there was so much to learn. I pulled my gun out of my pocket and showed it to the guy, so that he could be sure to give me the right kind of bullet.
“Good lord, son, put that away, put it away,” he hissed, looking quickly from side to side. A mother who had been examining yoga mats nearby shoved her stroller behind a two story basketball tower and then lunged in after it. An older couple took cover behind some canoes. People were so weird sometimes. I stuck the gun back in my pocket and pulled my t-shirt down over it.
“God, it’s not loaded,” I said, “that’s why I’m here, I don’t have any bullets.”
“You know there ain’t concealed carry in this state anymore, don’t you boy?” he said. “You can’t just be pulling out a gun in the middle of the Walmart like that.”
“That doesn’t seem fair,” I said. “It’s my gun and I should be able to do whatever I want with it.”
The man’s face relaxed and he signaled for me to come a little closer.
“Listen, I agree with you, buddy,” he whispered, “I do, you know, what with the goddamn gangbangers and the border jumpers and all of them coming at you left and right wherever you turn, you can never be too careful. Listen, I get it, you ain’t gotta tell me, all right?” He looked around for passers-by and, when the coast was clear, put his foot up on the counter and rolled up his left pant leg to show me a small silver pistol he had strapped to his calf. A pair of fat children ran down the aisle chasing a runaway skateboard and he quickly pulled his leg down. “The law is the law, though,” he said, “and you never know when Big Brother’s watching, so you gotta watch for him, you gotta be vigilant at all times.” He handed me a pamphlet on the subject which I told him I would read later, for sure, although personally I found his racial slurs and profanity to be ugly and offensive.
“So are you after any sorta game in particular?” he asked. I was confused.
“I’m not playing, sir, this gun is for very serious stuff, I thought you understood that.”
“No…” he said, looking at me funny, “what I mean is, what are you planning to shoot? What kind of animals?”
“Oh, I don’t really want to shoot anything,” I said. The idea of ever shooting something with the gun was terrifying. When I was eight, I shot a bluebird with my cousin’s air rifle on a dare and the pellet didn’t kill it so my dad made me crush its head between two rocks. That’s one of the only memories I have of him, really.
“So this is just for self defense, then?” he asked.
“I guess you could say that.”
He unlocked a big cabinet and from inside it laid out an array of colorful cardboard boxes on the glass countertop. It was interesting; there were so many different brands and logos and yet, inside the boxes, all the bullets looked exactly the same and did, I assumed, exactly the same thing. The man detailed the minute differences between them for my edification and I listened carefully and tried to be a good student, but the choice between most of the bullets seemed like the difference between Coke and Pepsi or Sprite and Sierra Mist. I was very interested in a brand of recycled, environmentally-friendly rounds which apparently burned clean and produced no harmful emissions but, in the end, I bought the store brand bullets because there was a sale on and they were buy one, get one free. I also picked up a cleaning kit, a trigger lock (for when I was storing my gun at home, to be safe), and some other assorted accessories. While I was still at the Super Walmart, on my way out, I also got a haircut, bought new socks and underwear, and chose a small plant for my apartment from the garden center. They really did have everything.
I brought the gun into school the next day and, after showing the kids the full clip as proof that the gun was both real and loaded and thus deserving of their respect, I took each of my classes on a short field trip out to the playground. We walked through the halls silently, in a single file line, me at the end of the line with the gun hidden in my pocket. As we went along, I imagined a bullet traveling out of the end of the gun through all of their bodies one by one, toppling them over like little baby dominoes. On the playground, they sat cross-legged in the scraggly grass, their hands in their laps, lips zipped (we called this sitting “Indian style” when I was in school but that’s an offensive term that thankfully society has left in past). I savored the silence for a moment as I stood there in front of them, all of their eyes fixed on me, giving me their full attention. Each class was the exact same way: rapt, engaged, silent. It was amazing, it was the first time I had ever really felt like a teacher, that I was a person who had this gift that I was going to give to my students and they were going to receive it, were going to take it in and learn from me and be better for it. After I felt I could make them wait no longer, I pointed the gun into the air, took a deep breath, and fired one, two, three shots up at the sky, the bullets ripping through the air and then disappearing somewhere up there, some place in the clouds we couldn’t see. Each time I fired, the students clapped and cheered and smiled and laughed. When the shooting was over and I lowered the gun to my waist, they all got up and gave me a standing ovation, as if I had defeated some horrible villain or won an important contest. Afterward, we went back inside and worked on Social Studies and World Geography and writing in cursive.
On Fridays, the third graders had show and tell. The items that were brought in were usually not very educational–various toys and dolls, bootleg video games, gold chains, baby teeth, novelty candy–but it was still a fun activity and an easy transition into the weekend. I leaned back in my chair and enjoyed the “vibe” as one of my students sang a song by Mary J. Blige a capella. As she sang, I stroked the barrel of the gun absentmindedly with my index finger, feeling its contour, tracing the line. Ever since I had introduced bullets into the gun equation about a month prior, things had been going absolutely swimmingly. The students were adorable and enthusiastic and had almost completely kicked both profanity and in-class smoking. They called me “Mr. Johnson” and raised their hands before they spoke. They were all doing their homework, every day.
“Keisha, that was beautiful, I think you should be on Idol next season,” I said, after she had finished. She beamed, curtsied, and walked back to her seat.
“Okay, who wants to go next?” I asked. Most of the students raised their hands high, their arms stretched towards the ceiling and shaking with the excitement of potential participation, some of them even whispering “me, me, me.” Their excitement made me feel so good, it was like my heart was filled with sunshine and rainbows. I aimed the gun left and right and back and forth through the class (my new way of calling on students) before settling on Dwayne, a quiet boy with a small head and big glasses. Dwayne walked up to the front of the room carrying something wrapped inside a large brown paper bag. When he got to the lectern, he put the bag down and ripped it open to reveal a sawed-off shotgun, which he held high over his head so everyone could see, his arms straining under its weight. The class oohed and ahhed and craned their necks to get a better look. I stood up and pointed my own gun at my head, which was my sign for everybody to be quiet, and then approached the lectern.
“Dwayne, you know you’re not supposed to bring any guns from home for show and tell,” I said, “we’ve talked about this before.” Two weeks ago, a small girl with pig-tails named Shivonne had brought in her auntie’s Mac-10 and I thought I had made it clear to the students that this was not allowed, that it was not okay. The shotgun was gigantic, it looked ridiculous in the the boy’s little hands, like the way ants look when they’re carrying things many times their size.
“I just wanted to share, Mr. Johnson. My brother made this all on his own, ain’t it cool?“
“I understand that Dwayne, and yes it is cool, you should be proud of your brother, but rules are rules and the rule is that you can’t bring a gun to school, okay?”
“But you gets to have yo gun,” he said. “That’s not fair. That’s not equal rights.” He looked around at the other students, his eyes pleading for sympathy and understanding, but they all stared down at their desks, silent.
“The rules are different for teachers and students, Dwayne,” I said sternly, holding out my hand to show that the discussion was over. Dwayne pouted for a few seconds, considered his options, and then reluctantly handed me the shotgun. It had a nice feel to it, although the stock had been hacked off in a kind of ugly way — the butt end was rough and poorly finished, it could have used a little sandpaper. I pumped the shotgun several times to eject the cartridges in the chamber and then put it in one of the cubbies in the back of the room until the end of the day, when Dwayne came and picked it up to take home.
One day in November, Elizabeth, another one of the first year teachers placed here by the program, came to my door during third period and asked if she could see me for a second. I put a student in charge of the lesson and then went into the hall to find out what was up. Outside, Elizabeth said she just needed to talk to someone, someone who would listen and who wouldn’t throw shoes or staplers at her while she spoke (she showed me several bruises on her forearms). I could tell that she had just been crying but had been trying really hard not to look like she had been crying; her face was shiny from smeared tears. I told her she could tell me whatever she wanted, anything and everything, in part since new inner city teachers have to stick together, of course, but also because I had had kind of a big crush on Elizabeth since I met her at teacher training at the end of July. She went to school in the Northeast and ate complicated salads in the break room and on Casual Fridays wore these soft, faded jeans which fit her body just perfectly, like denim skin. Her hair was the color of a fresh Twinkie.
Elizabeth told me that two of her students were holding another student hostage in the craft closet. Apparently, he had stolen a cell phone from one of them and refused to return it. She had tried to get them to let him out of the closet and go back to their seats, but the boys had duct-taped rusty compasses and sharpened pencils to the end of meter sticks in order to form rudimentary spears and when she approached them, they pointed these at her and told her to back the fuck up, bitch.
“I can’t take it anymore,” she said, shaking. “I just can’t handle them. They’re…god, they’re fucking animals.”
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” I said, stroking her upper arm and telling her to calm down and breathe slowly and rhythmically. I found her comment about “animals” to kind of offensive and un-politically correct but I let it go because she was obviously in a bad way emotionally and of course I myself had been in a similar place not so long ago. Having empathy for even those whom you disagree with is an important thing that makes the world a better place. I had taken to wearing the gun shoved in the back of my pants instead of in a holster; I thought that this was too informal but my students had told me it was “more dope” and I wanted to show them their opinions were important to me. After Elizabeth finally stopped crying, I pulled the gun out of my pants and showed it to her. She looked at me like I was holding, well, a gun, okay, which I guess I was, but like I was holding something dangerous and evil and bad instead of something wonderful and helpful and good, something that would solve her problems the way it had solved mine.
“Jesus,” she said, “did you confiscate that from a student or something? We should call the SRO.”
“No, no, you don’t understand,” I said, turning it over in my hand to show it off to her, “it’s mine.”
“What do you mean it’s yours?” she said.
“I mean I bought it, it’s mine, it’s a teaching aid,” I said. “It was kind of expensive but I really think it was worth it. For the kids, you know?”
“What the hell are you talking about?” she said, stepping away from me like I was some kind of monster. She looked angry and confused and confused and angry; her face was flushed from all the anger and confusion and crying but even though she was mad at me, it just made her look more lovely in my eyes. I sighed. Sometimes the smartest (and most beautiful) people can be the slowest to learn important life lessons.
“Follow me,” I said. I checked on my class, where DeAngelo was proctoring a short quiz on the American Revolution, and then we walked together down the hallway to her room. The door was closed but even from outside, the yelling and screaming and loud hip hop music were near deafening.
“Okay, you go in first,” I said, cocking the gun and getting myself ready, “I’ll cover you.” Elizabeth looked at me like she was scared in several different ways, but then went in anyway. When she opened the door, the volume inside the room somehow increased and, as she entered, balls of paper and crayons and erasers flew through the air around her as if there was some kind of school supply tornado in the room. She ran and hid behind her desk. I held the gun out in front of me with both hands, like a policeman in a movie, and then slowly entered the room, sweeping it over the class, letting them know they were all my targets. Things quieted down pretty quick. I kicked the classroom door closed behind me and then pointed the gun at the boys with the spears in the back of the room. They dropped them and, a minute later, another boy stepped out of the craft closet. He looked at the gun and froze.
“Did you steal somebody’s phone?” I asked him.
“I don’t know,” he said, looking away. I stepped down the middle aisle, advancing upon him rapidly, the gun aimed right at his head.
“Did you steal somebody’s phone?” I asked again, louder.
“Yeah, yeah, okay,” he said. He pulled it out of the pocket of his basketball shorts and gave it back to one of the former spear-holders. I lowered the gun and the three of them walked back to their seats quietly. I went up to the front of the room, picked up the lectern, which had been flipped over on the floor, and stood behind it. As I spoke to the students, I held the gun at chest level, aimed at the back of the room and angled down slightly so that it seemed it was pointing at all of them at once.
“Everybody listen up, ” I said slowly. “Your teacher is a beautiful and intelligent woman and you should pay attention to everything she says and follow all of her directions. This is how you will learn things that will make your lives better and give you the possibility of a happy and productive future in our society. Do you understand?”
The students nodded in unison. Eventually, one boy near the front raised his hand. I pointed the gun at him and signaled for him to speak.
“Yo, can I hold that for a second?” he said.
“Maybe if you behave,” I said, “talk to your teacher.”
The next Sunday, Liz (“Call me Liz,” she said) and I met at a vacant lot near her apartment and shot cans and bottles that she had been collecting for recycling with the gun. She was nervous about shooting the gun at first, even about holding it, but I told her that she would do great, that soon it would feel natural and good and right to have it in her hands. The first time she shot, I stood behind her and wrapped my arms around her arms, my hands around her hands. “Breathe in, hold it, and fire,” I said. As she breathed in, her back arched up into my chest and we stayed that way for a second, held together with tension like there were giant rubber bands around our bodies. She was warm and soft; her hair smelled like some exotic fruit whose name I couldn’t pronounce. Then she pulled the trigger and shattered a large green bottle of organic wine, the gun’s kick echoing through both our bodies.
“I did it,” she said, looking back at me. Her face was flushed but she was smiling proudly.
“You did,” I said, taking the smoking gun from her. The smoke made my nostrils tingle in an exciting way, the way I imagined people felt while taking certain drugs. “That was a great shot, good job, you’re a natural.” I’ve always been awkward around girls because, well, I’ve never really been around any but my mom for extended periods of time, but having the gun made me feel confident and big and strong, that I didn’t have to be scared or nervous; it was an accessory, it was a fashion statement, it gave me something to do with my hands.
In the vacant lot across the street from us, a group of children were playing pick-up baseball. Some of them were my students and they begged me to come over and watch their game, “just a minute,” they said, “just a second,” but I told them that right now I was busy with Ms. Stein and they went, “Ooooohhh” and laughed and made loud and exaggerated kissing sounds. The two of us shot all afternoon, we were out there probably four or five hours, went through several cases of bullets. If one of the kids’ stray balls landed in our lot, whichever one of us wasn’t shooting at the time would run over and throw it back to them. We stopped for a little bit around three to sit on the curb and eat a picnic lunch Liz had packed and then went right back to shooting. Down the street, someone was burning leaves in a trash can and the smoke drifted over the block and filled the air around us with the smell of fall. Old women in lace-cuffed dresses and elaborate hats passed us on their way home from Sunday lunch; we waved at them and they gave us nasty looks and we laughed and waved again. “Are y’all crazy?” one lady said, blocking her granddaughter from us with her body. At one point, a police cruiser pulled up on the street and the officer rolled down his window.
“Everything all right over here, folks?” he said, squinting at us.
“Oh yeah, Officer, just shooting a gun, no problem” Liz said, before squeezing off another couple rounds into some Diet Pepsi cans.
“Okay, well, be careful,” he said, and drove off.
After a while, I began to structure more and more of my curriculum around learning about the gun and about guns in general. The books I’ve read about education say that whenever possible you should tailor your curriculum to suit the students’ interests, that this is how they learn best, and though my students still cared about hip hop, gangs, cartoons, and et cetera, now they were most interested in the gun, which I sometimes wore in the back of my pants and sometimes wore in a shoulder holster inside my jacket. My third graders drew pictures of the gun on construction paper, color-coding and labeling its various parts (I put the gun on the overhead projector so that they could get the shape just right). The fourth graders had a tournament in which they tried to spell the names of various gun makes, models, and manufacturers that we had looked up on the Internet (“Ha ha, Kalashnikov ain’t got no “U” in it, you lose, Diamonique, go sit down, girl.”). The fifth graders delivered presentations on the history of firearms, from the invention of gunpowder in the Tang Dynasty all the way up to the development of the first repeating rifle, the Winchester Model 1866, and the impact that it had on modern warfare (my favorite report was from Ciara, whose glitter-covered purple posterboard described the Second Amendment as “the right to bare arms.” When I corrected her spelling to “bear,” one boy raised his hand and said that he thought the Constitution was only for people, not animals).
I changed the behavior chart on our wall from a night sky covered in felt clouds and shiny star stickers to a fake ammunition rack in which each student had cardboard “clips” that were filled up with macaroni “bullets” whenever they got good grades, helped others, or showed leadership qualities — the student in each grade who had the most bullets every week got to take the gun apart and clean it in front of everybody. If the whole class earned a certain number of bullets by the end of the week, we went out to the playground on Friday and had a gunfight with small plastic water pistols I had bought in bulk at Walmart.
Over the school’s winter break, Liz and I spent a lot of time together, some of it shooting the gun at various targets around the neighborhood, some of it doing other things, things including watching independent movies, cooking dinner with organic, gluten-free ingredients, and having sex with each other in her soft, warm bed. It was the best time of my life so far. On Christmas Eve, I gave her something that I had bought at an antique shop uptown. “I know we haven’t been together very long,” I said, handing her the velvet-lined box, “and I hope you don’t think it’s weird, but I really want to give this to you. I just saw it and I thought it was beautiful like you and I wanted you to have it.” It was a long, thin, pearl-handled revolver which dated to early in the century, probably the twenties, handcrafted and detailed with beautiful swirling lines and curlicues in the silver finish. You couldn’t use modern ammunition in it but by now I was packing my own bullets anyway (both for the fun craft of the activity as well as to avoid giving money to the big arms corporations) so that really wasn’t a dealbreaker at all. The seller described it as an “heirloom” gun, “vintage,” but I managed to talk him down to a reasonable price.
“It’s beautiful,” Liz said, spinning the cylinder and then hugging me tight. “I just want to hold it forever.”
On the first day back to school in January, I was arrested. It was about twenty minutes before the morning bell and I was helping one of my fourth graders, Jasmine, to draw a large multicolor unicorn on the whiteboard. Most of my students came to class early at this point, either to get help on their homework or just to hang out, and since that day was the first day of school after the break, a lot of kids had come early, eager to discuss Christmas presents and snowmen and fun things done during vacation, excited to get started on our new class projects and activities. We were having a perfectly good time when the principal knocked on the door and then came into the room, accompanied by two police officers. The principal was a large African American woman with a tired face who often seemed as if she was literally carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders, as if gravity pushed on her just a little harder and caused her to bulge at the seams. She gave me a tired smile.
“Mark, baby, I know this is going to sound crazy, you know, but we’ve had several calls to the tip line and these officers have to follow procedure and all that, so, now, tell me, are you carrying a gun?” she said, unable to say the last part without laughing a little in spite of herself. The officers, too, looked like they thought this was a ridiculous waste of their time.
“Well, yeah, I am,” I said. I pulled the gun out of the back of my pants and held it out in front of me so they could all see. The officers yelled, “FREEZE, DROP IT,” just like on TV, and I froze and dropped it (or, really, dropped it and froze — how could you freeze first?) and then the two of them tackled me right into my desk. It was pretty painful, it’s a hard desk and the officers were big guys, but besides my own pain, I felt bad about the kids, that they had to see this, that they had to see me, their teacher, in this position. It didn’t seem right at all, it didn’t seem fair. The officers cuffed me and read me my rights and, as they did, the kids cried and screamed and tried to come pull the officers off of me, wrapping themselves around the men’s legs and pounding them with little fists; the principal tried to get them all to be quiet and sit in their seats, but they wouldn’t listen to her, they just kept yelling at me and her and the situation. As I was pulled out of the room, the kids started throwing things at the officers, pencil cases and textbooks and cans of soda, but I told them to stop, to behave, that I was going to be fine and that they had better be very good students for whatever substitute they got or I would hear about it.
The officers dragged me through the halls toward the exit and the principal followed alongside us. It felt like my feet were barely touching the floor; I hadn’t even had a cup of coffee yet. The principal just kept staring at me, as if her eyes could burn holes in my body if she stared hard enough.
“Are you out of your goddamn mind?” she said, huffing and puffing down the corridor. “What is wrong with you, boy? A gun?”
“Talk to my kids,” I said, as the officers pulled me through the doors into the wind and snow outside, onto the dark pavement. “That’s all I ask. Just talk to them.”
The jail was cold and damp and unpleasant. While I think that many of the myths about urban life as seen on television and in the movies are inaccurate and misleading, the images you see of jail are probably right and accurate enough, jail isn’t a very nice place to be, physically or mentally or emotionally. I mean, it wasn’t unbearable, and it was probably less crowded and dangerous than the school, actually, but it was so unpleasant and gray and boring; I sat and stared at a wall and then, when I got bored with that, I sat and stared at another wall, and this was what I did for most of the day. I was never attacked by another prisoner (I was in solitary most of the time), but I still really missed my gun and reached for it out of habit more times than I could count. Guns were actually a good ice breaker when I was at lunch with the other prisoners, we were able to pass some quality time talking about the relative merits of semi-auto versus full auto and whether hollow points really were a superior bullet. The food they gave us was awful, though, it was really just different colors of mush, a green pile and a white pile and a brown pile and a blue pile (this was dessert) and I wondered if it was better or worse than what was served at the school, since if they were similar then it was no wonder that many students would refuse the school lunch even though it was free and they didn’t get enough nutrition at home.
I mean, I knew it was going to happen eventually, of course, it was amazing that it had gone on this long, that I had been able to use the gun in class for months without being caught or getting in trouble or going to jail. What I had told my students on the first day was that the gun was our little secret and that they shouldn’t tell anybody about it, not their friends, not their parents, not their other teachers, nobody. I think that at first that they kept the secret out of fear that I would shoot them with the gun, probably, but, as time went on, I like to think that they kept it a secret out of their love for me, because they liked me being their teacher and them being my students and they didn’t want anything to happen to this relationship. Of course, not all kids could keep the secret, kids aren’t great at that, it’s not their best quality, so occasional rumors spread through the school about how Mr. Johnson was teaching his kids using a gun, was firing his gun in class even, and using it to discipline bad students. Who would believe such a crazy thing, though? I’m sure most anyone who ever heard about my gun just thought that the kids were making stuff up.
Jail was boring and gray but it was mostly sad. The first night, I laid on the padded slab in my cell and looked up at the ceiling and felt sad about various things in my life, not all of them jail-related. I mean, I was worried about my future and the trial and everything (I guessed there would be a trial, that was generally how these things progressed, it seemed), how long I would have to go to prison, what would happen to me there, but mostly I was just sad that I wasn’t with my kids, that we weren’t together, that I wasn’t teaching them and I wouldn’t ever again. I just hoped that they had a good substitute who was sticking with my lesson plans instead of reading a book and letting the kids do whatever they wanted. As I fell asleep, I tried to imagine that the day’s events had never occurred, that school had just gone on as normal and expected and everything was fine and great and wonderful. In my dreams, though, this fantasy kept breaking; in my dreams, I saw all of my students grown up and living on the streets, using drugs at the ends of dark alleys, robbing stores and banks and people’s grandmothers, and, mostly, over and over again, from every possible angle, I saw them shooting each other with guns, the blood pouring out of the holes in their bodies like runny ketchup.
By the morning of the second day that I was in jail, I still hadn’t talked to any detectives or been charged with anything, which I thought was odd but figured was the result of some extension of the Patriot Act or something. I guess I could have complained or asked for a lawyer, but I’ve never been that kind of person, really, I don’t like to cause a scene. The breakfast mush was slightly more agreeable than the previous day’s dinner mush, although this might have been because I hadn’t eaten much of it the previous day and so was pretty hungry by breakfast. At around 10 AM, an officer came to my holding cell, opened the door, and told me that I was being released without charge and to get out now, okay? I thought that this was odd, too, but I really didn’t want to question it and stay in jail, so I took my belt and wallet and keys from the man and left the building. Outside, it was cold and snowy and I didn’t have a coat because I wasn’t wearing one when I was arrested. I started to look for the nearest bus stop when I saw that the principal was standing on street in front me, holding my gun in her gloved hands. She looked at me for a second as I approached her and then handed the gun to me — it felt so good to have it back again, it was amazing to feel its weight. I slipped it into the back of my pants and we walked over and got coffee at a chain place down the street from jail.
“So did you talk to the kids?” I asked, sipping my latte.
“They talked to me,” she said. “How did you do it?”
Apparently, the police had tried to get the students to move to another classroom so that they could search my room for evidence to use in the case against me, but my kids had formed a human chain and refused to be removed, shouting that the officers were hurting them, that they were touching them inappropriately. When the police had left the room for a moment to regroup and get more help, the kids had jammed the door shut with carefully wedged textbooks and blocks of molding clay and then barricaded it further with stacked desks. The principal tried to trick them into letting her in by offering them all the candy and chips and sodas they wanted, but they told her that they didn’t need any food (“especially not no high fructose, partial-hydrogenate poison,” Diamonique had apparently said), that there was a sink in the room for water and they could go a long time without eating for their beliefs if they had to (“We did units on civil disobedience and nutrition last quarter,” I told her).
Once the door was secure, the kids began writing letters to the principal about how I was a good teacher and they wanted me and the gun back with them in class and I should not go to jail, letters which they folded into aerodynamically efficient paper airplanes and flew out the window toward the office (I started to tear up at this point in the story). When school ended and evening came and the students showed no signs of being ready to leave, the principal called their parents (the ones that she could get on the phone) and reminded them that the kids were on a field trip (didn’t they remember signing the permission slips?) and that the bus was running late so she couldn’t say exactly when the kids would get home. The kids had stayed in the room all night and the principal sat in the hallway outside the door, reading their letters and listening to them play and study. Sometime early in the morning, around three or four, she had decided to get me out of jail and bring me back to the school and informing the kids of this decision finally got them to come out (“They all hugged me at one time,” she said, “It was the biggest hug I’ve ever had.”). It turned out conveniently that the principal’s brother was the local precinct captain, so by coordinating with him she was able to keep the whole thing quiet and off the record and get me out of jail and this is how we were sitting together and drinking coffee now.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” she said, showing me a few of the letters the kids had written. “Their vocabulary, their sentence constructions, their ideas. It’s so far above grade level. I don’t understand how they improved so much so fast. What did you do?”
“You’re not gonna want to hear this, but it’s the gun,” I said, making a fake gun hand gesture to emphasize my point. “I mean, we worked really hard and I’m a much better teacher than when I started, definitely, but I don’t think any of it would’ve been possible without the gun.”
“Shut up,” she said, “shut up, shut up, shut up.” I shut up. We sat there and drank our big coffees slowly until they were gone. She went to the counter and got us refills and croissants from the barista and we sat at the table and ate them in silence, too. The croissants were flaky and and warm but it was obvious that neither of us were really enjoying them, that we were just chewing so we wouldn’t have to talk.
“I can’t have guns in my school,” she said, finally. ” I can’t. I can’t even believe we’re talking about this.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Why not?” she said. “What kind of question do you think that is? Because it’s crazy, because it’s insane, because it doesn’t make any damn sense.”
“Why does it have to make sense?” I said. “It works, you can’t argue with that and that’s what really matters, right? Why do you care if it’s crazy as long as it works? Just let it work.”
I pulled the gun out of my pocket and slid it across the table to her, right next to her giant cup of coffee. A woman walking by our table shot me a scared look but in that moment, I didn’t care about her, she wasn’t important, I could only really see one thing: the principal as she looked at the gun there in front of her, as she thought about it. She sat there like that for a while without moving or drinking or doing anything, just breathing and thinking, thinking and breathing. Then suddenly I saw her arm coming up from under the table, her hand moving through space toward me, and then she picked the gun up, holding the grip tenderly at first and then squeezing it tight, her flesh molding around the steel, her finger slipping into the trigger guard like she was putting on a wedding ring. She sat there holding it for a second like that and then stuck it in her purse and said that we had some things to talk about.
Within a few days, the principal had gotten guns to a core group of teachers in grades K-8 for testing, to make sure that my experience with the gun wasn’t some kind of fluke or anomaly; after a week, positive results were being reported across the board. The teachers in the sample group raved about their guns and how much they helped in the classroom, with the kids, what valuable educational aids they were; other teachers not included in the test stood in the break room and complained under their breath about how unfair the situation was, how they should have guns, too, how their students should also benefit from what guns had to offer. By the middle of February, the whole school was armed, everybody: teachers and coaches, staff and janitors, every single secretary.
Obviously the big problem with implementing such a program was where to get all of the guns, since guns are not exactly affordable and we needed a lot of them in order to have a gun in every classroom, which was the principal’s mandate from the very start. We talked to arms manufacturers about possible educational discounts and wholesale prices and a few were enthusiastic, excited even, but they all insisted on advertising being posted all around our school which we didn’t think would send a good message to the students or the community. There was a discussion about waiting and trying to work the guns into the budget for the fall somehow, but the principal said that she wanted guns in the hands of her teachers now, not at some vague point in the future, and besides, there would never be enough money in the budget, there was never enough.
What we ended up doing was having a gun drive, a day on which members of the community could come to the school and donate their used or stolen guns with no legal repercussions or fear of prosecution. Upon being donated, the guns were unloaded, wiped clean of all DNA evidence, and stamped with new serial numbers so that they couldn’t be traced back to their previous owners. Participants could even apply for a tax credit if they liked, based on the value of the gun or guns they donated, and the fliers that we posted around the neighborhood stressed that this was an important thing that the community needed to come together and do in order to help its kids, for their future. In the days before the drive, we encouraged our students to get their parents and step-parents and brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and cousins to donate as many guns as they possibly could, promising the kids a big pizza party with a DJ and snow cones and a moon-bounce if we received a certain number of guns on the day in question. In the end, the drive exceeded our goal by several hundred guns and we were able to trade the excess to the police department for safes and trigger locks and classes in gun handling and ownership.
Most teachers carry small, low-caliber pistols for their portability, weight, and ease of handling in various classroom situations (I myself now have a classic .357 Magnum, which I feel looks sophisticated and professorial, like a tweed jacket). The coaches tend to prefer large assault weapons of military vintage; these guns are more visible from across a basketball court or baseball field than pistols. Janitors have found that certain hunting rifles slot perfectly into their cleaning carts, right next to the mops. Administrative staff vary in their preferences, although sleek machine pistols that have high fire rates yet are still small enough to fit inside of desk drawers and regulation size filing cabinets seem to be popular, especially among the ladies. The principal, vice principal, and guidance counselors all have matching double-barreled shotguns which are engraved with the school crest and which they keep mounted on ornamental wall racks in their offices, nestled between class pictures and colorful crayon drawings done by favorite students.
At the end of the year, after guns had been in most of the classrooms for only a few months, our national standardized test scores were up 26% — in my class, which was exposed to guns the longest, almost all of the students were in the 90th percentile or above in every single subject. It was unbelievable, nobody had ever seen anything like it in the history of the school. Some kids jumped several grade levels in reading or math in just a short time with guns. When the scores were released, it turned out that we were one of the only schools in the district with an A rating — not even some of the rich charter schools in the suburbs could match our scores. Obviously, such a radical and amazing turnaround meant that we were the subject of some scrutiny by the school board, and, when it was revealed by the local and then national media that our success was in large part due to the use of guns in the classroom (we couldn’t keep this a secret forever), there was of course widespread uproar and outcry. Gun control advocates denounced us and protested outside of the school with signs and slogans; popular right wing talk show hosts put their full support behind us and our embrace of the Second Amendment (I think they’re evil, but we appreciated the help). Across the nation, there were speeches and articles and newspaper editorials both pro and con, but in the end, however people felt about guns, they couldn’t really argue with test scores like ours, they couldn’t argue with success like we’ve seen, all they had to do was look at our students and see how happy and smart they were and how well guns were working for them. We were wary of putting the kids in the spotlight at first, what with the disruptions it might offer to the educational process, but because of all the public criticism, we really wanted to show the kids that they should be proud of themselves, so one day in June, the principal and several students traveled to New York City with me to appear on the Today Show; after our interview with Kathy Lee Gifford, Anthony read his favorite Langston Hughes poem live on air and Keisha sang a Beyonce song.
For the eighth grade graduation ceremony in June, after the last student had walked across the stage and received her diploma, everyone went outside to the playground in their dress-up clothes carrying their construction paper diplomas. In front of the monkey bars, a group of teachers stood in a long line and fired their guns into the air in unison. As they did, a small fireworks display was triggered in the sandbox behind them, filling the sky above the school with color and light in tribute to the students and all their hard work. Everyone clapped and cheered and celebrated the day.
At a “get to know your coworkers” barbecue that Liz and I held this fall, just before the school year started, one of the new teachers assigned here by the program told me that there’s this thing about stories involving guns, which is that if you tell a story about guns, the guns have to be fired by the end of the story, often in the direction of some important person or thing in the story, killing or at the very least significantly maiming that important person or thing. “It’s a basic rule of drama,” she said, sipping her beer and looking down warily at the newly issued Beretta she was wearing on her hip. I laughed about it at the time, since I could tell she and most of the other new teachers were uncomfortable about having guns and I wanted the mood at the BBQ to remain light and cool, but, personally, I found this rule about gun stories to be a horrifying and awful concept, however “basic” it may be to “drama,” and thankfully it’s a rule which is not true of the story of our school, which was recently described by a recent book as “the exception to the rule” about failing inner-city schools.
There have been accidents, of course. I mean, there are always accidents in life, especially when children are involved, you know, but I can’t discount for a second the fact that some of our accidents probably wouldn’t have happened if guns hadn’t been present at the school. No one here has ever died from a gunshot wound since I introduced the first gun two years ago, but there have certainly been injuries to both students and teachers, sometimes ones that the school nurse hasn’t been able to fix with band-aids and aspirin. These are ugly things that when I think of them my heart sinks into my chest and I question everything I know and believe about the world. One older teacher’s gun misfired in its holster and broke her femur, leaving her in a wheelchair for months and using a cane to this day. On the playground, a kindergartner named Brandon caught an accidental ricochet from a gym teacher’s AR-15; the bullet passed within an inch of his tiny little heart. Some teachers take the disciplinary effect of the gun too far; a few have smacked unruly students in the head with the butts of their guns, causing concussions and, in one case, a skull fracture (these teachers were, of course, immediately dismissed, as is anyone who abuses the power of their gun). There was a pilot program at one of the high schools that I can’t even think about; suffice it to say that it’s important to introduce the guns to students very early on and not wait until they’re older. Still, despite all of these admittedly bad things that have happened, I still think we are much better off with the guns than we are without them and very few people here would argue with that.
With the money from some of the speaking engagements that I’ve done since our program became famous, Liz and I bought an old row-house near the school, which I hope to have completely fixed up by the time the baby’s born. I’m not very good at home improvement, sadly; I don’t find a hammer or drill to feel nearly as natural in my hand as a gun does, but I’m doing the best I can. I’m pretty good with a paintbrush, though, which is important since it seems that everything here is being painted over and made new and clean. The community, thanks to an influx of public interest coupled with dramatic drops in the local crime rate, is becoming rapidly revitalized; Michael Jackson says that it’s becoming “rewhitealized” but I tell him that’s silly, although there are more white kids at the school this year, certainly, and there’s a Starbucks and a sushi place opening just down the street from me. Michael Jackson is still selling drugs on the corner, by the way, and I still think that’s bad, personally, but everyone has to have their place and their position in society and after everything that happened with the gun, I don’t believe in condemning people just because they’re doing something I find personally uncomfortable or unpleasant.
Of course, I don’t presume to say that guns are the solution for everyone; they aren’t, they can’t be. All places are different, all people are unique; life is a complex and difficult question and there are no easy answers for it. All I know is that we tried this thing here, in this place, with the guns, and it’s working, I know that, I see it every day, on the streets of my neighborhood and in the hallways of the school, in the smiling faces of the kids as they play. When I see their happiness and their joy, I know that this is what is most important, to try, to do whatever it takes to make things better. Like I said, guns may not be the right answer for you, but there might be some equally unorthodox solution to the problems that you face, problems that may seem huge and insurmountable, like mountains or other large and intimidating objects. I don’t know the answers to your problems or if there even are answers, really, but what I can tell you from my own experience is to not be afraid to try things, to play with ideas which at first feel strange and weird and wrong, to give them a chance. You never know where they might lead. I mean, I decided to bring the gun to school from a place of complete fear and desperation and loneliness, because I didn’t know what else to do, because I was very sad. The gun was just a random thought in my head that I seized on for some reason, I don’t know exactly why, but I did and I tried it and we played with it and now look at how things have progressed, look at the way our story has turned out, look how happy we are.