I don’t think my second grade teacher, Mrs. Herring, hated children when she started teaching at 20th Street School, but by the time she got to me, I think it was starting to happen.
Teaching is a punishing job. You see one kid after the next that you can’t save. Can’t save from bullying, can’t save from abuse, can’t save from an unfair system of mismatched curriculum that is designed by people who have never stood in a classroom and refuse to listen to those who do. You have to work up a callous just so you can get to sleep that night, and after a while, the frustration and anger with the system permeates into everything you do. My second grade teacher was like this.
I don’t remember her ever using a soft voice. She was a veteran in an inner-city school. She had grown hard. She had seen quite a bit, had witnessed just about everything students could throw at her, but she was not prepared for the day after me and Angry’s fight.
Angry was just another poor white kid in a tough situation. He had a crinkled face the girls made fun of. I was told he had a certain smell to him. He picked a fight with me one day for a reason I cannot remember. We fought. There was no winner. When you teach at a school like this, you learn to smell a fight in the air. You can sense the danger of hot blood. You know when there will be a burst of rage before two kids break into battle, and you can move in quick to pull them apart.
This was what happened to me and Angry. We burst into violent action and, within a breath, the other kids formed a tight circle around us. Someone yelled “FIGHT!” and we were off. Maybe it was Mrs. Herring, maybe not, but whoever it was moved fast, and we were pulled apart and sent to the assistant principal pretty quick.
The assistant principal’s office was baby blue. I was there a lot. It was a rough school and I was always being dragged in there and sat down on one of the two seats that were pushed far away from the desk and out into the middle of the room. There was no decoration in the assistant principal’s office. Nothing but a big, stern desk and a chair for two ruffians. The color of that office began to symbolize violence to me. To this day, I can’t stand the sight of a baby blue wall.
We were forced to talk it out. We were told to shake hands, then sent back to class. This was where the fight really got worked out. The long walk back to the classroom was where one party laughed, “I got you good.”
The next would laugh and agree. “You punch hard but I kicked you and almost broke your leg.” More laughing and the fight was over. Violence was just a part of it, and after two kids had battled it out, they went back to being kids. But that day, things were different.
Angry glared at me. He mumbled to himself all the way back to class, punched the side of his head and stomped his way back to Mrs. Herring. I didn’t know what to do. I carried that image—the raging boy punching his head and mumbling to himself—all the way home. I carried it to my bed at night, and it was with me when I got ready for school the next day. When I walked into class and looked at Angry, I assumed it was over. Whatever had happened to him when he went home had cooled him off.
He was smiling at me, grinning like a happy kid. I didn’t look at him long. I nodded and went to my seat. I wonder now, if I had continued to stare at him, would I have noticed that his grin did not fade? Would I have noticed that his smile was, in truth, a maniac’s leer? Would I have been able to see the lunatic in his eyes?
We had first recess at about ten in the morning. Angry and I had to miss that one as punishment due to the fight we’d been in the day before. Instead of having a half an hour to herself, Mrs. Herring had two boys in her room she had to watch over. One who was tired and grumpy, the other who would not stop smiling.
I remember when all the other kids had gone outside and Mrs. Herring had given us our extra work. After the din of the class settled into nothing, I heard him occasionally giggle to himself. Thinking about it now, it chills my blood. The state that kid had to be in in that moment is harrowing to consider, but back then, I didn’t know how the mind works. I didn’t know how to watch out for a child going around the bend. None of it stood out as strange to me until we were in the classroom lining up to go to lunch around noon, when Poppy walked up to me and whispered, “Angry’s got a blade.”
“I saw it in his pocket. He keeps looking at you. I think he is going to kill you.” Poppy stepped away and I looked at Angry. I saw him turn around, saw the knife in his back pocket, partly tucked under his shirt. I caught the glimmer of steel and I knew he was going to stab me.
He looked up at me and knew I knew. He charged me. He came after me with his blade swinging and I stepped back, horrified and shocked. I don’t remember much about it. Only Assassin can tell this story.
The blade made a pass across the gut where it would have cut us open. It was a boning knife. A knife used to slice meat from the bone, and it passed by us so close that it hit my shirt. Then, the right hand of Angry came in for a stab, and Assassin’s left hand caught the wrist. He lifted it high over both of our heads, and with one solid, deafening slam, brought the back of Angry’s hand down on the top of a desk.
The hand opened. The blade jumped into the air where it flipped high. Assassin grabbed Angry by the hair and shoved him into the desks on the other side of the aisle. The desk slid, and me and Angry tumbled into an untrained, inept, wrestle-fight mess where all we did was grip each other and roll around.
Someone yelled, “KNIFE!” a few moments ago, but I could not remember who. Angry was struggling to get to the blade, still lying bold and wicked on the floor. Someone yelled, “FIGHT!” And Mrs. Herring spun into action. She had us both up by our arms and pulled us off each other.
She yelled at us until someone said knife again, then she saw it. From the look on her face, this was new to her. No child had ever attacked another with a blade before on her watch. She shoved me away and grabbed the knife. She stuffed it into her purse, grabbed us, and marched us to the assistant principal’s office. I could tell she was shocked. I could tell she was scared, because the entire walk to the office, she said nothing. She did not yell at us like she usually did. She did not tell us we were bad boys, stupid fighting boys. She just stared wide-eyed at the floor as she walked us to the office.
When we got there, a couple of teachers were standing in the office talking to the assistant principal and Mrs. Herring shoved her way past them. She tossed me at a chair. She tossed Angry at a chair, and she reached into her purse and slapped the blade on the desk. Her hand hit the desktop hard. She glared at the assistant principal, and I saw her cheeks quivering and her upper lip sweating.
“How are we supposed to teach like this?” she snapped. Then she was gone. The assistant principal stared at the blade then looked at us. He had no idea who to blame for this.
“Out,” he said, and the other teachers just stood and stared. They stared at the knife, they turned to look at us. They turned back to each other and back to the knife. “You have to get out. I need to take care of this,” he said to them, and they left. One by one. Very slowly.
There was a change in the air. Kids were bringing weapons to elementary school now. New York, maybe. LA, but not Milwaukee. Not in Wisconsin. A new type of student had come to the Midwest, and the assistant principal sat staring at their tool.
He never asked us whose knife it was. I would have denied it and Angry would have lied. He picked the knife up and called for his boss. The conversation they had was all whispers. Their eyes shifting to us over and over again before they nodded and the assistant principal sat, the head principal standing behind his chair. They called our parents, told them there had been a fight. And asked them to come in to talk about it. Then, almost as an afterthought, the assistant principal said, “I’m going to need you to bring in one of your kitchen knives.”
My mother showed up with a carving blade. She pulled it out of her purse like she was pulling out a fist full of coke. She set it on the desk, looked at the assistant principal, and said, “What is this about?”
When Angry’s mom showed up and the handle of her paring knife matched the handle of the knife Angry had brought to school that day, I was told I could go back to class.
My mother took me out into the hall and grabbed my face. She turned my head in every direction. She looked over my body, inspecting every inch of me while I tried to soothe her. When I told her the story of how the fight had gone down, she hugged me. She pulled me back at arm’s length to look at me and cocked a half smile across her face.
“You did good, sweetie,” she said. “I’m going to tell your uncles. Everyone is going to be so proud.”
I was in second grade and I had gotten in my first knife fight.