Liam shuffled his way down the concrete corridor to one of the side entrances at Robert E. Lee High with his head down and chestnut long hair falling over his face like he liked (it made him feel somewhat mysterious and hid the flock of pimples that had taken residence on his forehead).
He preferred taking the side entrance because there was a much smaller chance of being sweated there. The school’s security guards were usually posted at the front and back entrances of the school.
Still, Liam’s shoulders became progressively taut with each crack in the concrete he crossed that took him closer to the four large blue doors. He tightened his grip on the straps of his black, Eastbay backpack and continued to look down — only seeing the concrete, the cracks and his black-and-white checked Vans.
“What’s up?” Jackson, his best friend, sporting a retro Black Sabbath t-shirt, Levis jeans and a large checked plaid jacket, said in his newly deep voice as he came up behind Liam.
Liam didn’t respond. Jackson probably wasn’t expecting a response.
They walked together in silence, until they reached the doors. Liam pushed the metal lever and walked in before Jackson, but he knew Jackson was right behind him without even looking. Their group always tried to stick together if possible. Last March, Mason spent a week in the hospital and two weeks out of school, because once when he was by himself after school trying to get some extra help in Trigonometry, he was jumped by some kids who ended their beating by kicking Mason repeatedly and yelling, “Terrorist!”.
As soon as Liam stepped through the door and onto the blue linoleum floors, he could sense the air change. Though they were in Virginia, where they are accustomed to humidity, after the most recent of thirteen school shootings across the nation, the air in Lee High was thick, sticky, and suffocating to Liam. Breathing was challenging on the other side of those doors.
Liam quickly glanced up without lifting his head to assess the situation. Three guys from the basketball team were talking to one of the security guards, Tembo, a man so large that the gun he wore on his waist like an accessory seemed unnecessary. Tembo had been a Defensive Tackle for the Redskins until he tore his ACL. Since then, he seemed to be anxious to tackle anyone, for any reason—just for old times sake.
“I knew as soon as that ball left yo hands, Deon, that it was straight up money,” Tembo chuckled, positioning his body as if he were shooting a 3-pointer.
“Swish”, said one of the players and everybody cracked up.
Liam felt that he may have a chance to slip through today since Tembo was distracted. Wrong.
“Hey there Columbine, let’s see what you have in that bag,” Tembo demanded while grabbing the left strap of Liam’s bag and snatching it off of him. Jackson, used to the routine by now, took his bag off and set it on the large rectangular table without being asked.
One of the other security guards started going through the boys’ backpacks while Tembo began slowly frisking Liam. Liam kept his eyes down, but he could hear the whoosh of the door as it opened and closed and his classmates yapping about this and that:
“And then he said, I don’t even like Rachel”
“Did you see The Voice last night. OMG!”
“Yo, who did the math homework? Lemme take a quick peek.”
No one seemed to pay attention to Liam and Jackson; it had become the “new normal,” as Liam’s History teacher liked to say. Still, no matter how many times it happened, it didn’t feel normal to Liam.
Two years ago, during his freshman year, Liam felt normal: he lived in a middle class neighborhood in a light brick rancher with his working class parents. Tabitha, his sister was away at her first year at the University of Virginia. He spent most of his time hanging with his three friends –playing video games, listening to old rock bands and skateboarding. Privately, he spent hours on the computer learning everything he could about space. Since he was four years old, he wanted nothing more than to be an aerospace engineer—maybe even an astronaut. Life wasn’t perfect, but it was normal.
As Liam tried to block out the feeling of Tembo’s huge hands slowly working up his left leg, he wished for that time—that normal. Nothing had really changed (parents, friends and Tabitha were the same) just he the way people viewed him had.
Tembo had never touched Liam inappropriately, but each time, Liam left feeling filthy. It was as if each place Tembo had touched was left a tattoo of ignominy –visible to everyone, everywhere. So he started going to fewer and fewer places—refusing to even go to the his family’s regular Sunday night dinner at Country Buffet with Grandpa Chuck and Nana.
After the sixth missed dinner, after the sixth time of watching his Nana barely eat her dinner (and not even wrapping up some of the all you can eat rolls in napkins, sticking them in her purse, while defiantly declaring that “we paid for the damn things when you think about it”) his mother had announced the next morning over breakfast that she was going to talk with the principal.
Liam’s Dad didn’t say a word, primarily because he rarely talked. Liam didn’t say a word either because he knew there was no talking his mother out of something once she made a decision, even though he knew that she would be unsuccessful in convincing Principal Franklin to change anything. Jackson’s and Josh’s parents had already tried and failed.
Liam was right.
“Mrs. Marshall, I completely understand your concerns, but we must be diligent about the safety of our school, the students and staff in it.” Principal Franklin said in his way too soothing, I-practiced-this, voice.
“But Mr. Franklin, Liam has been searched 32 times this year. He is harassed by other students, he…
Mr. Franklin cut her off, “Listen, I understand that this might be an inconvenience to Liam; but with the current situation we need for the entire Lee community to work together to make us all safe. We just had the board approve us for more security next year and the taxpayers have voted to pay to outfit us with metal detectors at each entrance. Everyone wants what’s best. Don’t you, Mrs. Marshall?”
Cindy Marshall fumbled with the handles on her Michael Kors purse and bit at the corner of her lip to stop herself from crying. She knew that she had lost. “Thank you, Mr. Franklin,” she murmured, stood up and limply shook his hand.
Cindy got up out of the wood chair with ugly orange padding and looked around the office, wishful that in her hesitation she would find the right words to move Mr. Franklin. She saw a large plastic fake-wood bookshelf over to Franklin’s right that held books, trophies and a few pictures. The largest picture, an 8×10 was a Sears portrait of Franklin, with a lot more hair flanked by a chubby wife with an angelic smile and three daughters. All wearing red sweaters. Cindy pictured herself grabbing the picture and throwing it at Mr. Franklin, screaming, “What if it were your daughter!”
But, she just gathered her purse, and walked out of the office. It wasn’t until she got into her gray Toyota Camry parked in one of the visitor’s spots in front of the school, that she screamed.
That was three months ago. Liam no longer would talk about what was going on; but he still wasn’t coming to Sunday dinners. Scott, Liam’s dad finally said something one day, “Don’t worry, Honey. It will be alright. I hated high school too.”
Over Starbucks one morning, Cindy tried to confide in her best friend, Esperanza, a beautiful Mexican woman with all gray hair, green eyes and a deep dimple in her chin, who used to work at the public library with Cindy 20 years ago. They formed a tight bond, crammed in small places shelving books together long after the library had closed. Esperanza put her hand –rings on every finger but the thumb, on Cindy’s, “People are scared, my friend. Over 120 kids have been shot at schools in the last two years. I know Liam is a good boy, buy every shooter has been a White male. You must understand the precautions we must take. Why don’t you join me Thursday night at this club I joined, “Families United,” to learn more? It may help you to understand.
Cindy had heard about “Families United.” It was a group started by two of the parents following the Sandy Hook shooting. They were known for advocating strict security measures, profiling (though they didn’t call it that), and psychological testing for “suspected problems.” Cindy had actually received a letter from them “offering” free testing for Liam.
“I’m actually busy Thursday nights,” Cindy said and took a big gulp of her scalding black coffee.
“Get to class,” Tembo said motioning his head to Liam’s and Mason’s backpacks.
Liam and Mason grabbed their bags from the table and rushed to their respective classrooms.
Liam always sat in the back of the class. He just felt better these days knowing people were not looking at him. He also knew he was safer there; no one could attack him from behind. His crew knew that particularly after any school shooting, you had to pay attention to your surroundings. Classmates’ and parents’ anger about innocent lives being taken needed an outlet—unfortunately it was Liam and any other White, male kid, who was deemed “serious” and “reserved.”
The teacher was in front of the class blabbing on about something, but Liam didn’t listen much anymore. He still maintained a C- average, a big dive from his A+ average, without even trying. Liam didn’t see the point in trying anymore. He couldn’t even get a summer job last year. When employers saw him they saw danger.
The final bell rang and the crew met up at their normal spot, 2nd picnic table off of the quad, to walk home together.
“Dem fools probably heading to make some bombs or some shit, you know what I’m sayin” they heard some random kid say as they walked by.
They walked in silence until they got to Mason’s house, which had become almost like their clubhouse since Mason’s parents were never home. They all grabbed some beers out of the basement refrigerator, heated up some steak & cheese hot pockets and started playing Grand Theft Auto.
Here, and only here — life felt normal.
Around 6:00, everyone headed out. They knew not to be out once the sun set or they ran the risk of the cops harassing them. They reached Liam’s house next.
“Alright dude,” Liam said slapping Josh and Aiden on the back. He walked up the two steps to his house and let himself in, happy that no one was home yet.
He dropped his bag by the front door and flicked his Vans on the floor where they would remain all weekend and walked to his room, which hadn’t really changed since he was 5. 3-D styrofoam planets that he had made in middle school hung from the ceiling, a poster of Neil Young hung next to his dresser, and he had a comforter of the solar system on his bed (though he noticed at 9 that it was inaccurate). He walked over to his laptop to see if he had any emails and turned on his clock/ipod to blast his favorite playlist.
Liam crawled on his bed, propping his torso on the headboard of the bed, closed his eyes and listened to The Ramone’s “I Wanna Be Sedated”. He reached his left arm down to the side of his bed and grabbed a pint of gin that he had taken from Mason’s house some time ago. He had learned that alcohol (and sometimes spending times with his friends) were the only things that helped his shoulders relax.
Twenty-twenty-twenty four hours to go I wanna be sedated
Nothin’ to do and no where to go-o-o I wanna be sedated
Just put me in a wheelchair get me to the show
Hurry hurry hurry before I go loco
I can’t control my fingers I can’t control my toes
Oh no no no no no
It was tiring being hated. Some days, he actually thought about taking one of his dad’s guns and shooting up the fucking school. Why not ? They hated him anyway, and that was what they were all expecting. He’d shoot that bastard Tembo first, Liam thought, feeling the hear of tears on the back of his eyelids.
He reached down, grabbed the gin bottle and took another swig–then another. He imagined himself walking into school one day. When Tembo started to pat him down, he would pull the gun out of his pocket and shoot the bastard. Boom! Boom! Boom! Tears started dropping on his inaccurate solar system comforter.
Twenty-twenty-twenty four hours to go I wanna be sedated
Nothin’ to do and no where to go-o-oh I wanna be sedated
Liam reached to the side of his bed again, pulled his arm up and shot himself in the head.
My intention is for Black people to love themselves and each other. It sounds somewhat silly, I guess; but oftentimes my people are overwhelmed with negative images, bad news, and stereotyped characters about us. I’d like to flip that script. I’d like to remind us, as often as I can, how incredible we are. Read more