I went back to 20th Street School years later. After my fear of the place had drifted off and I came to terms with my years there. I looked up from the sidewalk and noticed it looked more like a prison than I had ever seen. The building had a new name printed on it. It was no longer called 20th Street School, but Phillis Wheatley. I don’t know the woman. She is likely a great one. I don’t know her accomplishments or what she did for her community, but it hurts my soul to hear that they changed the name of that school.
Bekah and I walked all the way around it. The gates in the front were shut tight. It was summer and no one was supposed to be there. But they left the back open and you could walk right into the playground. When we got there, we found Royal.
The basketball courts were filled with players. Most of them were my age, about twenty-one, and they were playing street ball. In the background I could see young girls playing Double Dutch, spinning and singing as they jumped two ropes instead of one. Everyone turned and looked at me like I was a stranger, like I didn’t belong there. They scowled and stopped playing. The girls stopped jumping, but it was Royal who approached me.
“You with the Sentinel?” he snapped.
I looked down at the very professional camera in my hand that I had been taking pictures with.
“No, I’m not with the Sentinel.”
“This ain’t no Phillis Wheatley. This is 20th Street School. You write that in your paper.”
He was no older than twelve if we are pushing it, most likely eleven or even ten. His hair was wild. His face hard. He was the king of his block. A rising star who was bold enough to change the world if he could make it from the neighborhood, but I had been living my life in the poor white part of town. Had seen the kids I grew up with trapped by that lifestyle. I knew how hard a climb this boy had before him.
“I know 20th Street,” I said. This brought the big kids, the men, and their girlfriends close.
Royal looked me up and down and scoffed at what he saw. “What do you know about 20th Street School?”
“I used to go to school here. I am from this school.”
“Prove it!” a man said. He tucked his basketball under his arm and motioned to me and the gate out. “Prove it or get out.”
“Anyone here remember Liechin?” I said.
The bigger boys pulled back as if in shock, or fear, or awe. It was probably all three.
“That was a badass muthafucker right there,” a boy said stepping forward.
“Don’t I know it,” I said. “I went to war with him my sixth grade year.”
They looked at me like I was a lunatic. “You lost,” a girl stated.
“We both did,” I said.
“What is your name, white boy?”
“They used to call me White Bread around here,” I said.
“Damn.” The boy held a loose fist to his mouth. “Yup, you one of ours,” he said as everyone else laughed.
They asked me if I wanted to play basketball with them, but I am not a sports guy. I thanked them, and Bekah and I walked away.
I think about 20th Street School at least twice a week. I think of the powerful people I met there. I wonder where Brotherhood is, where Pride ended up, and whatever happened to Bright.
It was the greatest experience of my young life. Hard. Painful. Exhausting. But amazing. I want to go back. Would do anything to see Mr. Schwingle again. To thank Mr. Olsen. To apologize to Mr. Liechin and explain what happened to me and why it all went down the way it did. I fear he is dead now. I fear he asked himself that question for the rest of his life. I wish I could answer it for him.
First, you have to know that I was already afraid of him. When I was assigned to Mr. Liechin’s class, I nearly cried. I wanted the other guy. He had a very cool classroom with a life-size skeleton and his class was close to the lunch room in a completely different section of the school. The kids in his class looked happy. It was the place for me. So when, on the second day of sixth grade, Mr. Liechin said he had to shift three of his kids to the other sixth grade class, my heart jumped.
I was very cool about it. I walked up to him while we were lining up for the bus home and said, “You know, I have been thinking about it and I think it would probably be best if I went to the other class.”
He looked at me and shook his head. He scowled. Was he always scowling? And he said, “I’m keeping you. You are all mine.”
The second day after first quarter grades, he pulled me aside after lunch and frowned at me. “You forgot to turn in your math today. I want you to go to your bag and get it for me. And don’t do this again.”
“I didn’t do it,” I said.
He froze. I wonder if that was when he knew something was wrong. At what point did he hear the first of the shots fire off. He turned back to me. “That is one. You know that, don’t you? That is one assignment you have missed. The only one.”
I looked at him and my chin quivered. My eyes filled with tears and I looked at my feet.
“I know.” I walked to my seat and sat.
He taught us social studies, always my favorite subject. We had discussions. Me and Mr. Liechin liked to debate in social studies. We would talk about the Roman Empire and I would talk to him about their conquests in Germania and how it was the beginning of the end for them. We would talk about Lincoln, who I thought was a badass. And he would say Lincoln was a quiet, reserved man whose every word dripped intelligence and thought. And I would counter with there are many ways to be loud. And Lincoln was the loudest man of his generation.
We played these games, he and I, and when the lesson was done, he gave us all our assignment and told us to get started. He would give us a twenty-minute head start on our homework. I crossed my arms when he said that, and I looked at my desk.
It took him a while to realize I was not doing my work. He snapped at me to get it done and I pulled out my book and a piece of paper. I wrote a short story about a boy on fire and no one was putting him out. In the story, the boy burned down to a cinder and no one noticed until, as charcoal, he fell into pieces. Then everyone was mad at him for not screaming.
The next day, when I had not turned in my English, social studies, or math, he stared at me with growing agitation. Or maybe I read him wrong. Maybe it was worry. Maybe he saw what was happening and his heart was breaking. I don’t know what was going through his mind, but he was a man of action. He beckoned me with his finger and out into the hall we went.
This would happen at least once a week as long as I knew Liechin. He would take me outside to the hallway and yell at me. He did it for the first time that day. He yelled at me for sitting and doing nothing. He asked me why I was wasting his time and mine. Said that he had seen me working during our study time after social studies and he would take whatever I got finished. Told me to turn it in, even if it was not complete, and then he let me go to my seat.
I turned in my story.
The next day, he stared at me. He pulled me back out into the hall and asked what was wrong, why was I doing this? He said he was talking to the flaming boy. He asked why I wasn’t screaming.
How could I tell him that I couldn’t? How could I tell him it was out of my hands? That my fate, my education, my life was out of my control? I said nothing and he let me go back in class.
The next day he sat me next to Pride.
Pride was a genius. He was a hard worker. He told me once that he refused to do any of his work in pencil, said the friction of the tip on the page slowed him down. He said pen glided without effort. That is what he needed. He told me he had gotten special permission from Liechin to do his math in pen.
I had been set next to him for influence. Pride would show me a good example. He would bring me back to myself.
Pride asked me once why I was not doing my work. He said he could see it in my eyes. Said I was afraid of something. “What has a hold on you?” he asked.
“How do you know I’m afraid?”
“I kicked your ass once. I know what you look like when you’re scared.”
“Why did you beat me up that day?” I asked.
“Shit, White Bread, you asked for it. I was just messing with you when I told you I was going to kick your ass the day before. Just wanted to scare you a little ’cause I saw you looking at my big sister. Then you hit me.”
“I hit you?” I was baffled.
“Sure did. You punched me in the stomach. Good hit, too. Took my breath away, but I was already punching. I’m faster, so you lost, but I still remember how hard your head is. What are you scared of, White Bread?”
But I didn’t answer. After a month of no work, and no assignments, Liechin went rogue. He hatched a new plan and set it in motion.
He grabbed three shelves filled with books. He lined them up in the back of the class, forming a small room that opened in front and he set my desk in the middle of it. He said I was the class librarian. Told me that when the other kids wanted to read a book, I was to write it down, and he gave me a notebook. I was to make sure they brought the book back after two weeks.
I was excited. I put all the books in alphabetical order and made a page in my notebook for each student in the class. The first two days went great. I loved my new position. I was enjoying school again and I remember smiling for the first time in months.
When he came to me and said that if I wanted to stay the librarian, I had to get all my school work done, I packed up my backpack, I got up, and walked to the back of the class where Liechin put all the trouble makers. When you made noise in Liechin’s room you got sent there. It was an isolated place to think about your actions before he let you join the rest of the class. I went there. There was no other place for me.
He let me sit there for the rest of the year. I sat with my back to the class, isolated and miserable. I came out of my hole for social studies. I would pace the back of the room. Him teaching, me challenging him. I had a question he could not answer for weeks. I asked it every day. But he could never give a satisfying answer.
We argued about America’s relationship with the United Kingdom. Why would we become allies with them after the Revolutionary War? Why even talk to them after they had attacked us and oppressed us? Why forgive? Hurting your colonies was unforgivable, I said. They were bullies. Why ever let them back?
He had a lot of reasons. I shot them all down. We talked about it ad nauseam. Now that I think on it, I was on fire and screaming with that question. I was trying to tell him right there what was happening and why I was forcing him to fail me. If he could have seen the question through my eyes, maybe he would have been able to help me.
One day he came to school and, when I asked him the question again, he said the North had done the same thing to the South. After the Civil War, the South were allowed to come home. “War brings out the worst in us,” he said. “But forgiveness is the way to peace.”
I walked away that day. I sat in my spot and let the rest of the lesson go on without me. From the look on his face, I know he knew he had failed me in some important way, but he just couldn’t see it.
As things went on, he got desperate. He knew I loved to read so he chose a book for the class to read out loud, The Phantom Tollbooth. He took us all to the back of his class close to where I had exiled myself and he had us all in a circle. He gave me the book and let me read it to the entire class. By this time, he had a theory he needed to test. He let me read the book. I read it well. My dyslexia got in the way a few times but I was just glad to be doing something. When he wrote something in his grade book after it was my turn to read, I asked him what he had written.
“I gave you your points for reading out loud,” he said.
My eyes rimmed with tears and I walked away. I went back to my spot in the back of the class and I sat in my desk, my head down as I slowly cried. I looked at him while the next kid read over my shoulder.
And he sat looking over the heads of the other kids staring at me, his powerful gaze never leaving me. He had drawn up a theory and he would test it over and over again.
During one of our debates in social studies, while I paced back and forth, he stopped the class and wrote in his grade book. He looked at me and smiled. “Good point,” he said. “I can give you points toward your grade for that thought.”
I burst into tears and went back into seclusion. He had, by giving me points, shut off the last piece of the class I had. I was alone now, unable to come out for any reason. I was the ghost of the class, watching but never a part of it again.
He saw me memorizing the lessons. Saw my mind working out all the problems during his math lessons. He saw it all. He knew I was learning. But I refused to prove it.
One day, he sent me to Schwingle. Schwingle talked to me with his loving voice. He told me what a great teacher Liechin was and how he would never tell me, but Liechin loved me, too. What was I doing? “Should I call your parents? Is there anything you want to tell me? How can I help? I know something is wrong,” he said.
I sobbed and asked him if he still loved me if I didn’t do my work.
He said yes and I hugged him.
The next day Liechin sent me to Olsen. This was the only time I ever heard Olsen yell. He took me out during first recess, during our time, and he screamed at me. I was throwing it all away. He knew I was doing it on purpose. How was this happening? I was brilliant, he told me. What in the world was going on?
I left broken. I never talked to Olsen again. His angry face is still locked in my mind. At times, I can forget it. At times I can still see the love and the care he took with me the year before. But now, as I sit here, I see that face I loved so much snarling at me.
Liechin had me suspended. He had to pull a lot of strings to get it. Not doing homework was not a cause for suspension, but nothing balked Liechin when he wanted something. He had me suspended and I was told to come back ready to work. He said that while I was at home the next day, I was to do the homework he assigned.
But Mumble took me to work with him instead, and forced me to work his job. Said I was headed toward menial labor with my work ethic, anyway. Why not spend my time washing dishes at his restaurant?
When that didn’t work and I came back to school the next day with nothing written on paper, Liechin asked me to stand in the middle of the class. He pulled out the spelling book and asked me to spell all of that week’s words.
I did without fail. Every word, perfect.
He pulled me outside after that and looked me in the eye.
“I’m just going to pass you,” he said. “You’re smart enough, and I know you have learned everything I taught this year. I don’t care what my boss says, or the law of Wisconsin, or the school board, I don’t care. I’m going to pass you.”
I dropped to my knees before him. I grabbed his pants and I screamed. I begged him not to, and when I looked up, Liechin was staring at me stunned.
The last day of school he called my mother at work. He told her that he had to fail me, but she was my mother, and she was in charge of my education. If she got in touch with the school and told them to pass me, they would. They would be forced to.
“He knows everything he needs to know. He has learned sixth grade. I am begging you, do not make me fail this kid. Stand up for your son. I am telling you, he is ready.” He took a deep breath and said it again. “Don’t make me do this. I couldn’t stand it.”
“He fails,” was all she would say. She hung up on him.
I hope he has forgotten all about me. I hope he never thinks about me. I fear he is haunted by the name Jesse Teller.