“So what do you think? About what the angel said?”
There’s no response, but Brooklyn’s and Desi’s muttered conversation in the back suddenly explodes. Brooklyn knocks over her chair with a clang: “Say it to my face, girl. Say it to my face if you ain’t skerred.”
Deshaun and Abdullah start chanting, “Girl fight!” as Desi gets in Brooklyn’s face. Deshaun yells advice on Desi’s weak points, and I’m trying to get enough folding chairs out of the way to put myself in the middle, which might be a dumb move since Desi’s got 50 pounds on me. Brooklyn and Desi are best friends — except when they’re having “boy drama,” which is always.
“Desi, sit down or I’ll get Mr. Gerald…Deshaun, that’s enough…Brooklyn! Desi!”
The cinder blocks reverberate with middle-school chaos. I whisper a quick prayer for help — or maybe a well-placed lightning bolt — because we’re one shove away from my second fight this week. Thank God Mr. Gerald walks past the chapel at that moment, making his rounds. I think he can smell trouble (or maybe hormones) from across the building.
With a squat muscled body and leftover tattoos from his gangbanging days, he doesn’t have to say a word. He just crosses his arms in the doorway. As the kids notice him, an unnatural hush settles over the room.
At last, the Sphinx speaks. “Are you trying to lose your gym time?”
Every eye studies the floor. I hear a weak, “Nossir.”
Mr. Gerald walks back out, mission accomplished. My eyes plead with him to stay, but I know better. “I’m the coach, not your mama,” he always says.
Gerald insists that someday, I’ll get the same respect he does. But I’m a five-foot-nothing girl from the suburbs, not an ex-gangbanger, and I’m not sure I’ll hang around the Mission till “someday.”
When I’d planned it last night, my lesson seemed brilliant. Since Thanksgiving, we’ve had an almost-life-size nativity at the front of the chapel. Somebody donated the Baby with his adoring parents, and a pair of angels overhead, and magi with camels, and my favorite — a shepherd boy who’s gazing up at the heavenly host. Their faces are detailed porcelain (must have cost a fortune), and though they’ve seen better days, they’re still beautiful.
When Gerald asked me to come up with a Christmas lesson, I thought about the biblical account of the angels singing “peace on earth” and how this neighborhood desperately needs peace. Hearing about angels on Christmas Eve always gave me the feels. Maybe it would work for these kids, too.
But holidays don’t bring the same warm fuzzies in the city. The day after Thanksgiving, a block away from the Mission, a kid got shot over a jacket. Now I’m realizing how naïve my lesson sounds.
“Um…the angels sang about peace on earth. What does that mean?”
“Peace is not fighting,” says Robert — then under his breath, “Brooklyn ‘n’ Desi.”
“The angels lied,” scoffs Yasmina. “Ain’t no peace in this neighborhood.”
She has a point, but I try one more time. “Yasmina, peace isn’t always…” I pause. “It can be on the inside. So you feel peace, even though there’s fights or shootings…”
I trail off. How can you talk about peace and drive-bys in the same sentence?
“Peace is when…you realize everything’s OK, even though it’s not. I mean, it doesn’t look OK, but actually…”
Can these kids even find peace? Yasmina’s mom finds something to scream about every time she picks up her daughter. Brooklyn lives with her Grandma who drinks, but Mom’s even worse. Deshaun has been in and out of foster care. For these kids, my lesson’s nothing but one big spiritual cliché.
So I finish with another one: “Let’s pray.” On “amen,” the kids stampede for the gym.
However, not everybody leaves. There’s one kid remaining — my secret favorite, the only one who was quiet during my lesson. Unfortunately, I don’t think he understood a word of it.
Desmond is a skinny black kid in a stained school polo with bits of fuzz stuck in the hair he doesn’t know enough to brush. Right now he’s rocking his body back and forth while he flaps his hands, chair groaning and squeaking in time with inarticulate grunts. Desmond does that when he’s worked up, probably from the almost-fight.
“Ready for the gym, bud?” I ask.
Desmond looks up at me gapemouthed. He gives a loud grunt that I assume means “yes” and reaches out his hand.
I look back at the nativity as I walk out arm-in-arm with Desmond. From this angle, I see what I didn’t notice before. One of our little delinquents has given the shepherd boy a black eye with a marker.
Why did I think angels and “peace on earth” would mean anything at the Mission? Why’d I think they would mean anything to me, for that matter?
* * *
I started here four months ago, and I don’t think I’ll last five. I’m dreaming about an exit strategy while I wait for Mom to pick me up.
Yes, my mom drives her 23-year-old daughter home from work. After what happened on Halloween, I can’t do it without her.
The kids were rowdier than usual from the costumes and sugar highs that day. Mr. Gerald was out sick and the rest of us were barely preventing a riot, so it was eight by time we got the kids out and cleaned up the gym. Then, on the drive home, at a long stoplight on Euclid, it happened.
I saw him in the crosswalk in front of my car. He was a white guy with a scruffy beard and dark hoodie, and I was vaguely thinking he was dumb to wear dark colors at night. Then I guess I looked away, because the next thing I remember is his gun.
It looked way smaller than guns on TV. My first thought was, How could something so little hurt you? Is it fake? The hoodie guy was yelling, “GET OUTTA THE CAR,” and pointing the gun at my face, and I was sitting there not really scared, more wondering what came next, and thinking maybe it was a weird Halloween prank.
Then everything happened at once. He screamed, “I’LL KILL YOU,” while he yanked my door open and used the other hand to point the gun straight up. The shot was loud — so loud my ears actually rang. Then he aimed the gun back at me.
I screamed. Loud and long.
He shouts, “SHUT UP,” and I’m saying, “OK,” and trying to get out, but I realize my seatbelt’s still fastened, and my hands are shaking so bad I can’t undo it, and the guy’s cussing and screaming, “I’LL KILL YOU,” and I’m praying God will forgive my sins because I’m about to meet Him, and saying, “Please, no,” over and over. I look down, still trying to unfasten the belt…
And when I look up, I see the back of the guy’s hoodie as he runs off toward the sidewalk.
The stoplight changed. I only knew because everybody was honking. I shut the door and drove, I guess, but I don’t remember, and that’s when I noticed a cop in the other lane, his car already disappearing in the distance. He must’ve spooked the carjacker.
I whispered, “Thankyouthankyouthankyou” over and over in a prayer. If that wasn’t a miracle, I don’t know what is.
But when I got to the next stoplight, my hands were still shaking. I hit a bump and it startled me so much I screamed and swerved — almost sideswiped the guy next to me. And by the time the light turned green, I was hearing horns again, because I was crying ugly heaving sobs and couldn’t see.
I pulled over. I prayed and wiped tears and the whole time looked around desperately to make sure there were no more guys in hoodies. After 20 minutes of the same I called Mom and sobbed out, “Please come get me.” But I couldn’t say where I was, because my brain just wasn’t working.
I told Gerald what happened over the phone. He insisted I take the rest of the week off with pay. However, when Monday morning came and I got in the car for work, my hands were shaking again. It took about ten tries to put the key in. The sobs started when the engine came to life, and I saw the black hoodie and the gun clearer in my mind than I could see anything in the driveway. I ran into the house, curled up in a ball on my bed, and bawled like a baby.
Mom’s been my chauffeur ever since. I’m fine at work. I’m fine when I ride in a car. But when I get behind the wheel, I’m suddenly a wreck.
My new therapist says it’s PTSD. It’ll take time and therapy and medication to recover, he tells me, and in the meantime, I should think about finding a different job because “God doesn’t want you to live in fear.”
I’m giving it until after Christmas to decide. But right now, as I climb into the passenger seat of Mom’s car yet again, I can’t imagine making it through January at the Mission.
* * *
The next day, the after-school kids trickle into the gym. Brooklyn and Desi are apparently friends again, giggling as they admire the shirtless guys in the basketball game. Deshaun’s whispering with some kids I don’t know in the corner, while Robert wheedles the older guys to let him play ball. Just another day at the office.
But then Desmond walks in, and my jaw literally drops. One of his eyes is swollen half-shut, already turning colors from the bruise. A trickle of blood runs down his cheek. His black eye matches the shepherd boy in our manger scene.
“Desmond!” I sprint over to him. “Desmond, what happened?”
Incongruously, Desmond smiles as he gives me a friendly grunt.
“Who hit you? I’ll get some ice . . . does it hurt?”
Aida and Yasmina walk into the gym. “Girls, did you see what happened? To Desmond?”
“It was guys from the high school, Ms. Jillian,” explains Yasmina. “They was standin’ on the sidewalk, an’ Desmond, he walked through their little group.”
“They start pushin’ him, but Desmond just smiles, like he thinks they playin’,” adds Aida.
If only the world was so kind, Desmond.
“One guy punches Desmond in the eye,” says Yasmina. “His friends start laughin’, and he like, ‘Hey, Freak Show, want me to make the other one match?'”
When you’re autistic in the suburbs, you get a special education plan to reach your potential. When you’re autistic in the city, you get beat up for the crime of walking down the street.
I walk into the kitchen to get Desmond an ice pack. When I walk back out, all hell breaks loose.
It’s a gunshot. Not one. Five or six in a row.
POP. POP. POP-POP-POP.
It’s louder than the hoodie guy firing in the air. Louder than any sound I’ve ever heard, echoing off the cinderblocks.
I scream again, involuntarily duck and cover. And when I think it’s over, one more shot.
The longest scream yet. I feel my body: Am I hit? Look next to me: Is Desmond OK? Around the gym: Who was shooting? Is anybody dead? Is it over?
Mr. Gerald charges into the room, jaw set and grim. He’s running toward the sound; running like a man on a mission; running straight into danger like a huge hero or a huge fool.
And then my eyes spot what he noticed seconds before. Robert’s still in the corner, looking guilty as sin with a lighter in his hand and a string of spent firecrackers next to him on the floor while his cronies laugh like hyenas.
I don’t think Robert’s feet touch the floor as Gerald hauls him to the door.
I’m shaking and about to cry — basically hysterical, like when I get in the driver’s seat. Up till now, I’ve been fine at work, but firecrackers are gunpowder, and my therapist wasn’t kidding about flashbacks.
It’s only a panic attack, I tell myself. You’re safe. Take deep breaths like he taught you.
Then I make the mistake of looking toward the bleachers. Brooklyn and Desi launch into a perfectly-coordinated imitation of my screams, complete with ducking, covering, and feeling their bodies for bullet wounds. They laugh like only cruel middle schoolers can.
The tears start coming before I’m out the door. I don’t turn around to see if they’re mocking that, too.
I head for the restroom. Unfortunately, there’s a gaggle of third graders inside who gape at my teary face, so I back out.
I end up in the empty chapel. I don’t know how long I sob in the dark — time stops when you’re bawling — but as the tears taper off, I have to face facts. I’m a failure in this job.
I’m tired of terror when I drive and terror from firecrackers in the gym. I’m tired of being disrespected and mocked every single day for four months because I’m not Mr. Gerald and never will be.
I’m not looking for an award, just the knowledge that I made the kids’ lives a little better. But you know what? I’ve made them worse. I can’t give them anything but Christmas clichés, and I can’t keep them from fighting with each other, and I can’t even protect an autistic kid from getting pounded just because he exists, and I don’t know why Gerald hasn’t fired me, but I’ll save him the trouble.
I thought I could use the angels in a manger scene — a manger scene — to talk about peace. But in this war zone, “peace on earth” is a joke, but nobody’s laughing.
Tomorrow I’ll start sending resumes to actually use my business major, because “changing the world” isn’t working. I take off my badge and keys, ready to find Mr. Gerald and hand them in. That’s when I hear a noise at the front of the room.
My heart leaps into my throat: I’m alone, and nobody knows where I went. Nervously, I grope around the back wall for the light switch. I squint into the sudden brightness…
And there’s Desmond, sitting in the middle of the nativity like he belongs there, with one arm draped around the black-eyed shepherd and the other resting on the manger like he’s rocking Jesus to sleep.
Desmond must have wandered in just before I did. He gives me a sweetly vacant smile, the kind that always makes my heart melt.
“Hey, bud. I guess we both wanted to get away from those firecrackers, huh?”
Desmond just keeps smiling.
“We should probably go back to the gym before Mr. Gerald sends a search party.”
He extends his hand, and we start to walk out.
“Why’d you come in the chapel?”
“I usually find you in the computer lab playing games. Why’d the chapel look better tonight? Is the shepherd boy your new friend?”
Another grunt. What did I expect?
“Can I tell you a secret?” I hesitate to say this because it’s so lame, but Desmond won’t understand anyway. “I wish the manger scene could be real. It was real once… but I mean real now, so you and me could hear the angels sing. Is that why you came in here, bud? To look for angels?”
Desmond grunts again, and it sounds more emphatic for some reason. I reach over to turn off the light.
Then as we step into the hallway, it hits me. Those weren’t grunts. Desmond was answering my question.
Why did he come sit by the manger? It’s a word he’s saying that I thought was another inarticulate grunt; a word I’ve been searching for; a word that maybe sums up the whole Christmas story.
Desmond is saying “peace.”
Suddenly, like when I turned on the light in the chapel, I can see what’s been in front of my face the whole time. “Peace on earth” doesn’t come from angels singing. It comes when you realize there was this Baby who may have arrived in swaddling clothes, but went on to rescue those with lives full of fear and failure, like mine. A Baby who got mocked and beaten up for the crime of being alive, like Desmond. A Baby who befriended outcasts and died by torture, so we could know He’s with us in everything.
Everything. Even at the City Mission.
* * *
I spend the next few hours doing my job, dealing with disrespectful teenagers and the lingering feeling that nothing I do actually matters. I’m still not sure I’ll make it through January.
But after the kids are gone, I grab a bottle of spray cleaner and head for the chapel. I manage to mostly clean off the shepherd boy’s black eye, and I adjust his position just a bit. Then I text Mom and tell her I’m ready to try driving myself to work again.
“Are u sure?” she texts back. “What happened?”
I want to explain, but I’m not sure I can put it into words. So I send a picture: my repaired shepherd boy, repositioned so that he’s gazing into the manger instead of searching the sky for angels.
Mom probably won’t understand. But maybe I’ll show it to Desmond tomorrow. I bet he’ll get it. He understood my Christmas lesson better than I did.
Copyright 2017 George Halitzka. All rights reserved.