29 September 2015

“To die, to sleep –
To sleep, perchance to dream – ay, there’s the rub,
For in this sleep of death what dreams may come…”                                                                 -Shakespeare

Bryan was one of my favorite students. He was a sophomore when we met, and like me, he was new to the Opportunity Program, a program designed to serve and meet the needs of “at risk” youth, a term which, for all intents and purposes, can be applied to every single elementary, middle, and high school kid in East Salinas, because to be a kid in East Salinas means to be at risk: at risk of being shot and killed.

Bryan was shot and killed yesterday in front of his mom’s house. He was seventeen.

I know this hurts his mom. I had spoken with her on several occasions concerning Bryan’s academic standing. I had spoken with his step-dad, too. Bryan’s mom cared a great deal for her son, but Bryan, when I first met him, was infected with all the rebelliousness that comes with being a teenager.

Because of the design of the Opportunity Program, I spent a significant amount of time with Bryan. He enjoyed coming to class, where, along with my other ten or eleven or twelve kids, depending on how many students decided to show, we’d spend more than four-hours a day together, in one room. 

I often had long talks with Bryan. He was mature for his age, and he had been in regular school before coming to the program, something that could not be said about my other students. Bryan had gotten a taste of real high school life. My other students had not, and because they hadn’t, they were mostly lost causes, as far as school was concerned. Not Bryan, though. He had a future of some kind. I could tell.

In class or during the time we spent walking around the stadium’s track, Bryan and I talked about his schooling, his family, his drug and alcohol use, his sex life, and his political views. Yes, we spoke politics. He was especially interested in immigration policy. I knew more about what was going on in Bryan’s life than did his parents, something that is true with a lot of students and their teachers. Sometimes a teacher is the only adult a kid feels comfortable opening up to. 

At one point during our school year, a man wielding a pair of gardening scissors in public was shot and killed by Salinas Police outside of a market on a busy street. Bryan, moved by what he perceived as police injustice, grabbed a bullhorn and led a march and rally at the corner of where the man had been killed. Bryan believed in what he was doing. He felt a connection to the dead man; he saw the wrongness in his death, and he wanted to spark change. I didn’t know that Bryan had done this until a picture of him holding a bullhorn and thrusting an angry fist in the air ran in the local Salinas newspaper. I was moved when I saw the picture, and I told him how proud I was that he had gotten involved with something about which he had felt strongly.

Bryan was shot multiple times, his bloody body lay motionless on the apartment complex’s driveway, a few feet from the apartment he shared with his mom. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.

Bryan had once again made headlines in the same newspaper. I heard of the news this morning. Naturally, I found it hard to believe. I was told during class, and I wanted to cry, but all my current Opportunity Program students were watching me, and so I felt the need to hideaway my emotions. I don’t know why I didn’t cry in front of them. I could have, easily. 

Unfortunately, Bryan is not the first of my students to be shot and killed. There have been many others, more than I can count, and they were all at risk, simply because they lived in Salinas.

Bryan’s death hurts, though. I saw him evolve and transform into a young man with direction, no matter how directionless his direction may have seemed. He had transitioned back into regular school from my program, but ultimately ended up at another alternative education program in Salinas, from what I heard. It had been about six months since I last saw him. I wish he would’ve visited more often, just like he used to. 

Now that he’s dead, the only thing I can think of are all the laughs we shared. I can still hear his snickering and his wild howls and his simultaneous laugh and handclap combo. We capped on each other in Spanish and English and we talked about our favorite Mexican foods and cars and girls. We shared many lunches together, and we barbecued as a class. I trusted him with errands, and he never let me down.

I’m sure there was a lot I didn’t know about Bryan. There’s a lot I don’t know about a lot of people. The media will call his murder “gang related,” but Bryan wasn’t a gang banger. He was smarter than to allow himself to be used by a gang. Bryan was a regular kid trying to navigate his life to get himself to a nicer place. 

You know, though, enough is enough. This depraved behavior has to come to an end. In the name of simple sanity, the murdering has to stop. People of all ages and from all walks of life are dying violently and senselessly in Salinas. One would imagine that the good people of any city under a siege of violence, as Salinas is and has been, would band together to rid their city of the murderous and violent element(s), but this doesn’t happen in Salinas. It’s citizens are scared–simply put. Salinas’ citizens can reclaim their city. It can be done, but it takes courage. Bryan had courage—a lot of it—but Salinas will no longer get a chance to see it. 

Rest in Peace, Bryan.

Your friend,

Mr. C.

My 9/11

I let the phone to go voice mail five times before picking up.  It was Jennifer, but it was also 5:50 a.m. I may have thought it was her after the second call, but it was early and I was sleeping and everything about the phone and the ringing was rude. I stared at the ceiling one last time before answering.

Before Guen was Guen, before she changed her name, she was Jennifer, and so on this morning, Jennifer said, “The World Trade Center is burning. It’s on the news.” I didn’t understand at the time why this was worthy of multiple phone calls, but there was a loving pitch in her tone, and so it spurred me to get my ass out of bed.  

I waded into the living room and grabbed the remote control. I was in my underwear. It was cold. I turned on the T.V. and took a seat at the edge of the couch, one foot pointed in the direction of the bathroom and the other at the T.V. I wasn’t yet convinced that this was worth holding my piss. I crossed my arms to keep warm, but the tiled floor was relentless.

As Jennifer had said, one of the Towers was indeed burning. I was distantly interested. I had been in Battery Park just a few months earlier. The Twin Towers are a presence, for sure, and it would seem unreasonable to believe they could be harmed. But now there was smoke and fire and a newswoman’s chatter. Her squawk was incessant, crackling with opinion and speculation.  She was talking over the images, and as I sat and listened and watched, I noticed, from the live footage, a plane flying behind the buildings. The footage was live! I thought to myself, “Wait a minute. I just saw a plane fly by behind that building, and I didn’t see it fly out. What’s up with that?” And as my brain organized these thoughts, the newswoman said in a hurried voice, “Can we rewind the footage or can we get a different angle? I thought I saw plane fly behind the building and didn’t see it come out on the other side.” The camera’s angle changed.  “Oh. My. God!” she said. Her male counterpart said the same. I said, “Oh, fuck!”

My reaction to the whole thing was altered. There was now an emotional change. There was confusion, too. I don’t remember showering or dressing or getting in my car. However, I do remember stopping at the corner of Garo and Stimson, and Howard Stern saying, “Oh my God! The whole World Trade Center just imploded and went down. It’s gone.”

At Norwalk High School that morning, our principal sent an early morning email to all staff members. “Dear Teachers, please do not turn on your televisions. Please do not play the radio or show the news.” I was already angry, and this email nudged me towards a dangerous emotional line. I had the T.V. turned on when my second period, eleventh grade English class walked in. We perched ourselves on our desks and watched for the full period, in disbelief. We watched all day. Not one of us could have realized, in those moments, the level of change our world was to experience.

And just like that, the Twin Towers were severed from New York’s skyline, an unwanted alteration to an iconically American skyline. What little innocence America had left was also gone. America, as I knew it, had died.

Of course, it turned into a 360 degree issue, with almost every finger pointed in the direction of the Middle East. Others were pointing their fingers at our American government. It was shameful, of course.

Regardless of the controversy surrounding the tragedy, back home, approximately thirty of my ex-students have since deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan to fight the “evil-doers.”

One of my boys, an ex-Alisal Soccer player, told me a story about when his father picked him up from the San Jose Airport. He had arrived home from Afghanistan. Chucho said he was walking through the terminal with his father, his U.S. Marines backpack slung over his shoulders. He heard a familiar sound, a sound soldiers of war know. It was a landing plane, but he heard it as an “incoming.” His dad watched in surprise as his son hit the floor in haste, in the middle of the airport terminal, surrounded by a mass of people, as he yelled “Incoming! Down!” 

Chucho’s dad looked down at him and said, “Que estas haciendo?” After an embarrassing pause, Chucho picked himself up, He adjusted his backpack, and walked out of the terminal with his dad. 

After serving four-years in the Marines, Chucho enlisted for another four. He will fight this war for the rest of his life. He was ten when the planes hit. I was thirty-one. 

Thank you, Chucho.