By Greg Michie
Seventeen-year-old Araceli Arroyo lives with her two children and her boyfriend just a stone’s throw away from the Seward School parking lot near 46th and Hermitage. I know it’s a stone’s throw away because I was once standing in the parking lot after a bowling outing with some of my eighth-graders, waiting for parents to pick up their children, when I got hit, just below the left shoulder, with a rock thrown from the roof of the same building.
Whether I was an accidental victim of teenage horseplay or the intended target of a disgruntled student, I’m not sure. Either way, it didn’t seem so bad. Considering the availability of handguns, I found it somewhat consoling to know that my attackers were content to get out their aggressions with an old-fashioned, if not Biblical, gesture.
Araceli and her two children are on the front steps when I walk up to their building. Her boyfriend is at work, where he’s learning to reupholster furniture. Araceli became pregnant with their first child, Luis, when she was 14, barely a month after her graduation from Seward. Iris was born a year later.
Now almost three, Luis awkwardly straddles a tiny bike with training wheels. His hair is shaved close, Araceli explains, because of the allergic reactions he gets on his skin every summer. “He’s allergic to polyester, too,” she says. Iris, not yet two, hides behind her mother, her pile of brown curls pulled back into a thick ponytail. Araceli tells the kids it’s time to go inside. “Vamos,” I repeat to little Iris, trying to win her over with my marginal Spanish. She wrinkles up her face and immediately starts to cry. Araceli saves me from further embarrassment by picking up Iris and gently whispering to her as the four of us go inside.
During my seven years of teaching in Englewood and Back of the Yards, I’ve met a lot of kids like Araceli. At 13, they were on the edge, caught between childhood and adulthood, between two different cultures, confused about their place in society, yet hungry to figure it out, anxious–sometimes desperate–to be seen and heard. Recently, I tracked down several of my former students. Some I had kept up with sporadically; others I hadn’t seen in years.
The living room of Araceli’s apartment is sparsely decorated. Sheets are draped in doorways as room dividers. Two paintings of Native Americans hang on one wall. Another wall has a Hallmark-style drawing of two kids kissing; it says “JOY” in bright pink bubble letters.
Araceli puts some chicken soup on a burner and pours a glass of juice for each child. I recall that as an eighth-grader she participated in a debate over gender roles that pitted her against the boys. While many of her female classmates sat by silently, Araceli consistently spoke up. She challenged the guys’ traditional views, insisting that women should not be limited by society’s expectations. Now, as she pours the soup into two plastic bowls and begins to talk about motherhood, her feistiness seems long ago and far away.
“For me, the hardest part of being a mother is taking my kids to the doctor and being there when they get their shots. I don’t like to see them cry or to know that they’re going to be hurting. And the other hard thing is being patient. I like being around them, talking to them. But sometimes I feel like they bother me, like they’re in my way. I want to do something and they’re there, and it’s like, ‘Go away,’ you know? I think that to myself, and I’ve even said that to them. But when I do, I sit them down and say, ‘You know what? I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say that.’ And they understand. I think little kids are a lot smarter than people think they are. I remember being told I wasn’t a good daughter, that I wasn’t good enough to be in the family. I heard it from my mother’s mouth, and it still hurts. That’s been a part of my life, and I don’t want to make it part of their lives.
“I try to do the opposite. I try to put positive comments about them into their heads. I’ve tried to learn from my mother’s mistakes, and from my older sister’s mistakes. I’m trying to raise my kids the way I would’ve wanted to be raised. If you had a sad childhood, you’re going to try to make your kids’ different. You’re gonna try to explain to them what your parents couldn’t explain to you. Me and my kids, we’re like one brain together.
“The only thing I regret is having them too early. It would’ve been better in every way if I would’ve waited. I would’ve been more ready emotionally; I would’ve been more ready financially, with a job. I would’ve done more things that I wanted to do in my life. That way, I could’ve taught them more things that I learned from school, from other people. There’s a lot of experiences I never had. I had planned to graduate from high school, maybe going to college, becoming a secretary. I had a lot of dreams that just went away. But it’s true what they say, that having a child is the most precious thing you could ever do. I mean, who wouldn’t want two gorgeous kids?
“I still think the same way I did in eighth grade. Women should have equal opportunities in everything, in every way. My standard is still the same. But once a baby is born, the feelings of a woman change. You say, I brought a person into the world, it’s my responsibility. But a lot of guys don’t feel that way. They don’t feel responsible. I have decided to stay home. It’s my decision. But if a woman wants to work, it should be her decision, too. The husband shouldn’t tell her she can’t. You know how a lot of Mexican men are–they think the woman should stay in the house all day. But if those men just want things done for them, they should get a maid, because a woman is not a slave. She should be treated as a person who has her own mind and her own thoughts.
“I think most kids don’t like school. They see it as a chore. When I was in school, I would wake up in the morning and say, ‘What do I want to go to school for? The teachers don’t even pay attention to what we try to tell them. They don’t explain the material in a way we can understand it.’ I think when kids are in kindergarten, first grade, second grade, they like school because the teachers play with them. The teachers actually sit down with them and explain things to them. When you get older, teachers just start telling you what to do; that’s it. Some teachers think if you don’t understand at first, you’re just slow. Or that you have a learning disability. I think some teachers underestimated me because I was in the low class.
“When you’re in school, you know, they divide you up in levels. The top class is for the geniuses, the next class is for the regular kids, and the next class is for the slow kids. And the kids who aren’t in the top class are thinking, ‘Well, I’ll never be like them. I’m not as smart as they are, so I’ll probably never do anything with my life,’ you know? I think that every kid should be treated equally. They should teach them the same things. I felt that some teachers didn’t explain things good to the bottom students because they probably thought we weren’t going to understand it anyway. But we did, you know? ‘Cause I was in the bottom group. I understood.
“Some teachers would tell us, ‘Hey, you can do something with your life,’ but I’m pretty sure that when they would come out of school, they would think, ‘She’s a slow student, she’s never gonna do anything.’ You could feel that they were lying to you, you know? They couldn’t look you in the eyes and say you can be somebody in life, because they didn’t mean it.”
Araceli admits “there were some teachers who were different.” She singles out Bob Zarnowski, known to his students as Mr. Z; he’s taught social studies at Seward for 15 years. “He would look into your eyes and really talk to you,” Araceli says. “He didn’t teach the high groups any different from the low groups. He treated us all the same. Mr. Z would listen to you. If a teacher doesn’t listen, a kid’s gonna think, ‘Why should I try to learn this?’ Teachers should take the time with each student so they understand whatever it is they’re doing. But some teachers really don’t care.
“I don’t want to say they’re bad teachers. I guess they’re trying their best. But the way I see it, some of them are just there to get paid. I think Mr. Z would teach school even if he didn’t get paid. It’s like his life. He loves teaching kids. He cares. And if you see the teacher cares, and listens to you, you try to repay him by listening and studying hard in his class.
“I think kids really do care. In the bottom of their hearts, they do. But it depends on both sides. The kid has to listen to the teacher, but the teacher has to listen to the kid, too….A lot of times, that’s not the way it is. The teachers just say, ‘I said it, you do it. Period. End of discussion.'”
Gerardo Salgado and a dozen adult students are gathered around the raised hood of a dilapidated Chrysler–a “hooptie,” as my eighth-graders might call it. The car’s body is scratched and dented, and its faded paint job indicates a distant past life as a taxicab. It’s the third week of a ten-week course on auto mechanics for beginners, a course that Gerardo and two friends have signed up for through the Chicago Park District. The class is being held at West Lawn Park, several miles southwest of Back of the Yards, amid a cluster of tightly packed bungalows within earshot of Midway Airport. Outside the garage, a group of junior high girls are being led through a new cheerleading routine. In the main field house, a coed volleyball game is under way, and a circle of senior citizens is doing the hokey pokey.
The students in Gerardo’s class listen intently as Wally, their amiable, gray-haired instructor, introduces the night’s lesson. “Tonight we’re going to take a compression reading on a V-6 engine,” he explains as his right hand accentuates the last few syllables. “For those of you who don’t know, V-6 means there are three cylinders on each side.” Gerardo, who at 16 looks to be the youngest of the group, nods his head confidently. He already knows that.
For now at least, this cinder-block garage is school for Gerardo: twice a week, 6 until 9 PM. Not that he doesn’t like it. During his brief high school career, auto shop was one of Gerardo’s favorite courses. He saw it as a natural progression from bicycle repairing and remodeling, a hobby he’d picked up from his father at the age of nine. But at 16, Gerardo wants more. Fixing cars is fun, but it doesn’t fill the void he’s felt since leaving school. He yearns to return, even though as a child he hated it. When his fourth-grade teacher forced him to stand up and read an entire 15-page story out loud as punishment for talking too much, he wanted to escape, to be “20,000 feet away from her.” But compared to life on the streets, Gerardo says, even that doesn’t seem so bad. “And most teachers at Seward were a lot nicer than her anyway,” Gerardo says. “Most of my teachers there taught me good. They were straight.”
His high school, on the other hand, was anything but straight. To hear Gerardo tell it, the school was overrun by gangs, with at least three present in heavy numbers. Knowing the situation that awaited them, many of Gerardo’s close friends had joined the neighborhood gang the summer after graduating from Seward. Gerardo claims he never “turned,” but acknowledges that perception is sometimes more important than reality. He was guilty by association, and this made his life at school increasingly difficult.
When Gerardo started high school, he says, “I was marked up as a gangbanger ’cause I hung out with them. Everywhere I went I was marked up. And I was scared to walk the halls. I never knew if somebody was gonna come up and hit me from the back or what. It was like each gang had their own floor. I mean, it was their floor, nobody else’s. They were the ones that took care of that floor; that’s where they hung out, that’s where all their lockers were. If you got assigned a locker on a different floor, you changed it to your floor. They would always be fighting, and I would back up [my friends] a hundred percent. They’re my friends, you know? They live down the block. So when they would fight, I would usually be there. And I’d be, like, stunned. It’d be two big crowds of guys running against each other, or one crowd chasing the other. Right down the halls, right in the middle of school. And the security guards couldn’t do nothing about it.”
One day in science class, Gerardo says, he was taunted by a gang member who identified him as a rival. “And I got smart with him, ’cause he had gotten smart with me.” But the gangbanger had allies, and Gerardo was alone. “So he’s like, ‘We’re gonna get this guy,’ and he showed me his hand and he had a knife. My mouth just dropped. When the bell rang, I just walked out of the school and I never went back. I told my mom about it, and she went up there to complain, but they didn’t do nothing.”
Eighteen months later, Gerardo’s still troubled by his flight. He says he’s certain that leaving was a wise move, but now he wants to continue his education elsewhere. His choices, however, are few. He can go to a high school away from his neighborhood, but these “options” schools have the right to refuse students outside of their districts. In recent years they’ve become more selective, not wanting to take chances on kids they see as potential problems. One school already turned Gerardo down because of his poor attendance record. His latest hope is an alternative high school he heard about one night on TV.
“My little brother, he’ll see me and sometimes he’ll tell my mother, ‘I don’t wanna go to school.’ And I tell him, ‘Hey, I want you to go to school. You’ll miss out on a lot of things.’ I tell him straight up. I lecture him. And I’m the one that should be getting lectured. Here I am not going to school, and I’m telling him to go. But that’s one reason I want to get back in school somewhere. I want to be a better example for him. ‘Cause he looks up to me. Everything that I do, he always wants to be like me. But I tell him not to. I mean, that’s my little brother, and I wouldn’t want anything to happen to him. Sometimes he’ll be at the corner store, just standing on the corner, and I’ll tell him, ‘What the fuck is your problem? What are you doing on the corner? Go home!’ Or I’ll give him some money, so he could go in and play video games and stay off the corner. But I try to be positive with him, too. I ask him if he did his homework, and I ask him about what he’s doing in school. I mean, it seems like just yesterday he was a little baby. And I look at him now, and I’m like, ‘You grew. Time flew. Time flew.’
“I’ve been out of school for a year and a half. I’m getting sick and tired of just sitting in the house. I’m not working. I can’t find a job. I go ride around on my bike, but, you know, I don’t want to go too far. It’s dangerous. Around here it’s safer, but sometimes the cops mess with us. There’s a couple of good cops who tell us, ‘Hey, get off the corner.’ That’s their job; they gotta do that. But some of them go around abusing people, beating people up for any stupid reason. I know people in the neighborhood want the cops to be strict, but they also don’t want them going around beating up their kids. The other day me and [a friend] were getting some gas, and this cop looks at him and says, ‘I should come over there and knock your fucking teeth out, you fucking prick.’ Then the cop jumped out of his car and started punching him through the window. His window was down, and the cop is like, ‘Come here, you motherfucker.’ He goes, ‘Get the fuck out of the car.’ He made us sit on the hood and take our shoes off, ’cause he was searching us. Then he smacked him a couple of times, and he’s like, ‘Get the fuck outta here.’ We got his badge number and everything. We reported him. But we never got a callback.
“It’s hard to say this, but I miss school. I really do. I want to grow up already; I want to be smart. I’ll be hearing people talk about different things, about this and that, and I’ll be like, ‘Oh, you learned that in school?’ And I’ll just feel like, ‘Duh.’ I hate it when people ask me, ‘Do you go to school?’ I just mumble something. I can’t even say it. And they’ll be like ‘Oh, you dropped out.’ And I’ll go, ‘I didn’t drop out, all right? It’s just…a little vacation.’ That’s what I tell them. And they’re like, ‘OK, whatever. You dropped out.’ I’ll look at my autograph book from eighth grade, and a couple tears will roll down my face, ’cause of all the memories, you know? And every single person that wrote in my autograph book, every single one wrote: ‘Don’t drop out. Don’t drop out. Stay in school.’ I look at that, and I’m like…what happened?”
Dressed in black boots, black jeans, and a black leather jacket, Sarah Villase–or throws a black purse over one shoulder and climbs out of a freshly washed Ford Ranger. She waves good-bye to her father, who will run a few errands before returning in 40 minutes to pick her up. She rings the buzzer of a basement apartment where her weekly singing lesson is about to begin. It’s a few minutes before nine on a windy Saturday morning. Sarah shivers slightly as she waits for her no-nonsense instructor, a Cuban she addresses as Professor Gomez. “One time I rang it twice and he came out here yelling at me,” Sarah says. “He’s pretty strict. Good, but strict.”
The teacher finally appears, dismissing his 8:30 student as he admits us into a small waiting room. Two green couches covered in protective plastic face each other. The floor is brown linoleum. On the paneled walls are four corkboards, framed and behind glass; each contains photographs of the professor’s students, most smiling proudly while holding tall trophies aloft. Near the doorway leading to the rehearsal space, a cardboard sign serves notice to students and their parents: “Always pay before your class.” Familiar with the drill, Sarah digs into her purse for the $25 fee as Gomez waits silently, his arms crossed. He counts the money and leads her into the next room without so much as a word passing between them.
Since starting her singing lessons, Sarah had noticed an improvement in the range and quality of her voice. But she had been offended when Professor Gomez told her that she shouldn’t waste her time singing the songs she had grown up listening to–the songs of the mariachi. They were folk songs, the professor said, songs of the common people. If she wanted to be a real singer, then she had to train her voice by singing real songs. Eager to learn, Sarah did as the professor asked. Yet he hadn’t changed her mind. For now, she would study and sing the music Professor Gomez prescribed. Once she felt confident enough to go out on her own, however, she would return to the mariachi songs. No matter what the professor said, Sarah thought that was real music, too.
The voice lessons were a surprise birthday present from her father. She began them during her freshman year in high school, the same year her parents had another surprise: After years of squirreling away money earned from various neighborhood businesses–a restaurant, a jewelry store, and, most recently, a flower shop–the Villase–ors had finally saved enough to buy a house of their own. They moved from their modest apartment in Back of the Yards, where they had lived for eight years, to a sturdy brick single-family home in a mostly white section of Gage Park.
Sarah had appreciated both surprises. She knew how fortunate she was to have concerned parents who worked hard to give her opportunities. At the same time, neither the move nor the singing lessons came without a bitter twist.
Though overall Sarah’s new neighborhood was calmer, cleaner, and safer than her pocket of Back of the Yards, it had none of the vibrant life of that Mexican community. Gone were the children on their bicycles, the paleteros selling ice cream from their pushcarts, and the posadas celebrations that wound their way through the streets each Christmas. Gone, too, were the smaller touches that made Back of the Yards so distinctly Mexican, like the rear window stickers that proudly proclaimed each driver’s home state–Guerrero, Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacan. The new neighborhood was a completely different world, one that seemed sterile, bland, and lifeless by comparison.
“When I moved to my new neighborhood, I was in shock. I couldn’t believe that I was in Chicago, that I was actually in the city, because I didn’t hear anything at night. There was no people out. I miss my old neighborhood a lot. I go to choir practice over there every Thursday, and I just love being in the neighborhood. You’re around Mexican people, you’re outside, there’s a lot of people out, there’s traffic, a lot of activity….Where I live now, it’s more closed up. Neighbors just say hi and that’s about it. They won’t open their door to you and ask if you want to come in or anything.
“When we moved in, as soon as we met one of the next-door neighbors, he was like, ‘Oh, Mexican people used to live here.’ And we said, ‘Yeah, we met them when we came to look at the house.’ And he was like, ‘Well, they were always having parties, playing loud music, and I would really appreciate it if you would keep the music a little lower.’ Trying to assume that just because we were Mexican, we were gonna do the same thing and be like them. And that was the first day we were at the new house! So I knew I wasn’t gonna like it. I understand my parents’ point of view, and why they wanted to move here, but I’m just not used to it.
“I remember once when I was in fourth grade someone who had just come from Mexico got put in our classroom, which wasn’t bilingual. And I remember the teacher got real angry and started saying, ‘Why should I start trying to learn your language when you’re coming to my country? You’re in America, and here we speak English. Why should I learn yours?’ She said all this right there in front of all of us. And I just don’t think that’s a good attitude. I thought America was supposed to be a place where all different cultures can come and learn from each other. They shouldn’t have to change their culture and their way of being just because they’re here. I have a lot of respect for the people who are immigrating because I’ve never suffered like they have to suffer. They have to go through a lot just to come here and survive.
“I think all Mexican people experience some racism. Say you take a Mexican person that went to college, got a diploma, and is working at a good job. I think he’s still going to get a taste of racism. Not as much as the migrant worker or factory worker who didn’t go to school and has worked in the factory all his life, but he’s still gonna experience it. No matter what you do, there’s gonna be people out there who look down on you. I try real hard not to do that. I’ve always tried to avoid judging a group of people based on one. I’ve heard friends and even some of my relatives say negative things about black people. Like we’ll be riding past a black neighborhood and you will just hear the car locks click. And I don’t see any reason for that. I always try to remember that if something bad ever happens to me with a black person or a white person, that I’ve met other people of that race who aren’t like that. You just can’t make a judgment based on one person or one incident. I remember when my father’s store got robbed, it was Mexican people that robbed us. And I’m not gonna go by that and say, ‘Oh, all Mexican people are bad–including me!’ I guess maybe I think that way because of my parents. They’ve never said anything bad to me about other races.
“My father is real supportive. He asks me what I want to do, and then tries to help me with whatever I need. I like acting and singing, and he’s always supported me in that. He got me into singing lessons. He’s always trying to look for opportunities for me and pushing me. So I am lucky, I know. But sometimes I think he wants so much for me to succeed that he goes overboard and pressures me. I go to school all day, then I go to work for him at the flower shop until eight, then come home and do my homework, and then I still have to practice my singing. Sometimes I just want to explode. I just want to do something else. It gets me frustrated. But I feel good about my future. Right now, I’m not thinking anything negative. It’s hard sometimes, but I’m not gonna give up just like that. My father told me once that I was the hope for bringing the family up, to be the first one to graduate from college. So that’s what I want to do.
“Last Monday I got a new teacher in English. She’s just out of college–a Caucasian–and she’s pretty cool. She makes us write journals. And one day she told us to write down three things from our culture and how we recognize them. So one of the things I wrote about was the music, about mariachi and all that. And after she read mine, she started asking me questions. She said she had seen a group like mariachis, except it was all guitars. And I explained to her that that was rondalla. And she was like, ‘Yeah, I like that.’ And she brought over a piece of paper and she made me write it down ’cause she really wanted to learn, you know?
“When your culture is brought into a class at school, it makes you feel good because you know that your culture isn’t just being recognized for, ‘Oh, today they caught five immigrants crossing the border,’ or whatever. You know that your culture is being recognized for something good. And when you start learning about your own culture in school, it’s interesting because you want to know more about your roots. Not that you should only learn about your own culture, but I think it’s a good place to start. A while back, we were doing a report in school on the country we were from, and one of the questions I asked my father was what were some of the traditions he lost coming over here. And there was a couple of things he named that I didn’t even know existed. There’s a Children’s Day in Mexico. I never knew that. There’s Dia de los Muertos, and that isn’t really celebrated here, either. And when he was telling me about these things, that’s when I started to realize that that’s part of the price of coming here–you lose part of your culture.
“I don’t want that to happen to me. I consider myself Mexican, and I don’t think I’ll ever lose that. It’s very important to me to hold on to it.”
On a brisk spring evening, I’m at the Chopin Theatre attending a screening of winners in a citywide youth video competition. Juan Coria and Anthony Flores, two of my former students who are now both juniors at Curie High School, have three pieces in tonight’s show. The first two are well received by the audience, but the true hit of the evening turns out to be The Catch-Up, a chase-sequence parody they made during their freshman year. Playing off a potentially threatening situation, the video takes a shot at the stereotyping of young Latino males. A surprise ending causes the crowd to explode in laughter; then they offer an extended ovation. One judge tells Juan and Tony that he liked their work so much he had his video classes examine it shot by shot.
I first met Juan and Tony four years ago, at the beginning of their seventh-grade year. They had signed up for an after-school video production program I was trying to get off the ground. It didn’t take long to see that shooting video came naturally for Juan. “I’m built for it,” he once told me. “My body’s a good tripod.” But it was more than just a physical predisposition. Once I’d taught him the basics of camera movement and composition, he was on his way. He had an instant rapport with the camcorder and a keen visual sense–an ability to see specific shots, or even entire sequences, in his head. He viewed storyboards as an unnecessary step. “I’ve got it all up here,” he’d say, pointing to his head. By the time Juan graduated from Seward, I would’ve put his work up against that of most college-level videographers. The kid had skills.
After the screening, we walk down Division. Juan and Tony are on a high–for the first time they’ve seen and heard an audience outside of Seward or Curie react to their work. But it doesn’t last long. When I ask Juan how he felt hearing all those people applaud, he turns melancholy. “It felt good,” he says, “but that piece is two years old already. We can’t live off The Catch-Up for the rest of our lives.”
Juan’s response brings us back to the present. He and Tony have produced only one new video during the entire school year, and that was back in the fall. Somewhere along the way they’ve lost some of their passion, and it’s hard to pinpoint what’s gone wrong. For Juan, the course work has always been a struggle; but during his first two years in high school, video classes were his island in a sea of boredom and frustration. Lately, however, they’ve provided no relief. He’s been falling further and further behind on his credits, and it’s beginning to look doubtful that he’ll graduate from Curie on time. A part-time job cleaning windows doesn’t put much money in his pocket, and at home, Juan says, things are “hectic.”
“My father was born in Uruapan, Michoacan, and my ma was born here in Chicago. My father’s a roofer, and my mother is like a cook for a YMCA preschool. My father came from a family of 11 children, and I don’t think anybody from his brothers and sisters graduated from school. He came the closest, but he quit before he graduated, and I think that’s one reason he nags on me to keep going to school. My mom graduated from high school here, and right now she’s going to Daley College.
“I don’t have the greatest relationship with my parents. Part of it, I think, is my fault. Sometimes I just don’t want to have anything to do with them. I have a lot of anger towards my father, and that’s one thing I’m afraid of. When I have kids, I don’t want to be like my father was with me. I mean, I guess my parents did all right bringing me up. I think I’m a good kid, ’cause at least I’m not into drugs, or I’m not out looking for fights or anything. I’m not hanging out late at night. I’m not in juvie or anything–not that the kids in juvie are bad…I know some guys who have done some extreme bad things, but they still have respect for the church and for God. They could be doing the worst things, but when they pass the church, they cross themselves, they take their hats off.
“Me, it seems like I only call God up when I’m in trouble. In a way, I hate myself for doing that, ’cause sometimes I wonder if I believe in God. I question it. I’m like, ‘Do I?’ Sometimes I don’t even know if I believe in heaven and hell. I mean, if there’s a hell, does that mean all these children nowadays are gonna die and go to hell for all the bad things they’re doing?
“But then when I’m in trouble, hell yeah, I’m praying, ‘Help me out here,’ you know? In a way it’s kind of being two-faced. It’s like you only go to him when you need something. But I do pray. Basically, the way I look at it, God is two things: It gives you hope, like there’s a second chance. And it’s also like a conscience. Like if you don’t have one, you’re gonna get one anyways. In Spanish, you say, ‘Dios me lo castigara.’
“I think what worries me most in my life is the economy. I’m broke as a joke. I mean, it’s like, when you got money, it’s not even there. When you’re broke, you’re like, ‘Damn, I wish I had five bucks’–you know, thinking that’s money. But then when you have the five dollars, it’s not enough. You want more. Basically this whole world revolves around money. Like right now, I owe somebody 60 dollars. I owe somebody else 10. I mean, I owe people money and I’m not even making enough to pay them back. I make 60 a week cleaning the windows at the laundry mat, and out of that 60, 15 goes for the bus, 15 I give to my grandmother, and 15 I give to my ma. So that leaves me 15 dollars for two weeks. That’s a dollar a day. That sucks.
“I’ve never really liked school that much. I remember one time in third grade, I was sitting in class wondering who it was that invented school. I thought it must have been somebody who hated kids. You know, they just wanted to get rid of ’em and lock ’em all up in one place. But sometimes it’s OK. Right now for history, I got this student teacher….And it’s like, I can see he’s getting frustrated. He’s looking around, and I can see he’s coming up with ideas to try to make the class more interesting….The other teacher would just stand there at the podium, and talk and talk and talk. And the kid next to me, he’s snoring, you know? I mean, the student teacher, at least he’s trying his best. Right now he has our class down in the media center working on group projects, and I think that’s helping out the class a lot. I’ve always thought that–that group projects get the kids more into learning.
“Before that student teacher came, the teacher didn’t even know my name. She kept confusing me with a guy across the room from me. She’d call me Francisco. She’d turn and look at me and go, ‘Francisco, read that.’ Then one day she turns to me and goes, ‘Francisco, answer the question.’ And I knew she was talking to me, but I didn’t say anything. She goes, ‘Fine, then! Write the chapter out by hand!’ Then when the class let out, she stood by the door, and she grabbed me and goes, ‘Francisco, where’s the paper?’ And I’m like, ‘I’m not Francisco. I’m Juan.’ And I just walked out. I think she got mad, ’cause every day after that, she just kept staring at me. But the student teacher, he knows me. He picked my name up from the beginning.
“The way I look at it, teachers are strict ’cause they’re afraid of their students. They’re afraid that the students are gonna take over them. For example, my English teacher. I know she knows what she’s doing, but it’s the way she approaches it that kills the class. She’s real strict. She sits there, and I swear, all she does is look at the class. She doesn’t make the class interesting. It’s so quiet in there, you can hear a pin drop, but it’s ’cause everybody’s afraid of her. The kids are doing the work just to do it so they won’t get hassled by the teacher. But I know they ain’t learning nothing.
“Right now I’m confused. I want to do good in school, but then I think to myself, well, what am I gonna do? Am I gonna go to college? I want to go to film school, but am I gonna make it? And even if I do, am I gonna find a job? Will I be able to be independent? It gets frustrating sometimes. I worry about it. Sometimes I think the only thing that’s keeping me in school is to prove something to my dad. But fine, I stay in school, I graduate–and then what? What happens?
“I want to be a respected man. A man of integrity. But in a way I feel scared because if I don’t make it in becoming a director or getting into something that has to do with video, the only thing left for me is doing what my dad does–roofing. And that’s kind of messed up. It’s like my dream could come crashing down, you know? Everything.”
“Smoking or non?” the waitress asks, turning her back and heading for the dining room before either Tavares or I can answer.
“Non,” I blurt out by force of habit, not yet noticing the pack of cigarettes peeking out from the breast pocket of Tavares’s white Ralph Lauren dress shirt. The waitress leads us to an out-of-the-way table where we order two sodas and a large pizza–sausage and black olives on Tavares’s half, onions and green peppers on mine.
It is the first time I’ve seen Tavares Tankersley since the weekend after his eighth-grade graduation in 1991–my first year as a teacher–when he and a few friends helped me move into a new apartment. We talked on the phone once after that. By summer’s end his number had been disconnected, and we lost touch. As Tavares and I sit across the table from one another now, he tells me that he just turned 20.
“So how did you find me?” he asks with a grin that suggests he knows it wasn’t easy–and he’s right. Before finally contacting his mother a few months earlier, I had been trying to track him down for over a year.
I first tried using the Board of Ed’s student database. When I did a search for “Tankersley, Tavares,” the last line that popped up on the screen told the story: “Cannot locate–6/30/93.” No phone number, no address. Doing some quick math, I figured that Tavares had left school after his sophomore year. But two years had passed since then. He could have been anywhere.
I remembered his mother’s name, but she wasn’t among the seven Tankersleys listed in the Ameritech white pages. I called each number anyway on the chance that I might find a relative, but no one I talked to had heard of either Tavares or his mom. I decided to try the guidance office at Chicago Vocational, the last school Tavares had attended. Initially, the counselor there refused to tell me anything, saying she could only release information to a family member. But after hearing that I was his former teacher, she reluctantly scribbled down his last known address. “But you didn’t get it from me,” she said slyly.
The 11500 block of South Peoria was next to impossible to find. Confounding the perpendicular logic of most of the city, this particular block was an offshoot that didn’t connect with any major cross streets. And when I finally found the house, I discovered the building was vacant. A guy raking leaves across the street told me that the woman had moved out a few months before. He remembered Tavares, but didn’t know where the family had gone.
I was running out of ideas. I tried searching the Internet, placing a classified ad, and calling “Lost and Found,” a Saturday-morning radio show on WGCI. Then while looking for a dentist in the yellow pages, I happened across the listings for “detectives.” A bit overdramatic, I thought, but what the heck. I picked one out at random and called.
“I can get you a phone number for 50 bucks,” the man told me. “An address? I can do that for nothing. What’s the name?”
Three minutes later, the detective called back. He gave me two addresses, saying the second was probably the most recent. I wrote a letter to Tavares’s mother that night, and a month or so later he left a message on my answering machine. He said he was on the road, working as a salesman, and he’d try to get in touch with me the next time he was in Chicago. Two months passed, and I didn’t hear anything. Then one day, out of the blue, he called.
“So what have you been up to the last six years?” I ask as the pizza arrives at our table.
“Man,” says Tavares, shaking his head, “a lot of stuff. You could write a whole book about me.
“When I graduated from eighth grade, I was still living with my mom. My father wasn’t there. He wasn’t never really present in my life. He’s cool, though. I don’t know anybody on this planet that don’t like my father–except for my mother. But he wasn’t there. It was just me, my older sister, and my mom. My mom, she was very strict. She dropped out when she was a sophomore in high school, so maybe that had something to do with her being so strict on my sister and me. She worked a lot, and we mainly stayed in the house during the week….I never got to do a lot of the things that kids that age get to do, like go outside, or go to the mall, or go to the movies–I didn’t get the opportunity to do things like that. So when I did finally get the chance to get out, I would always be rambunctious about it.
“I stayed with my mom until the end of my first semester as a freshman–which was my best semester in school. After that, I moved in with my aunt, because me and my mom was having some problems, and that’s where a lot of stuff started. My aunt’s son–who was 22 at the time–he was into a lot of things. And with me being young and seeing him with all this money and different girls and driving cars, that kinda lured me slowly but surely. I think that had a big impact on the person that I was becoming.
“When I first moved in with my aunt, I was still walking a straight line. I was still living by the word my mom always taught me. But then it started fading out. I started selling drugs around where I was staying. What they do is they start you off with like a quarter ounce. It comes in a big chunk, like this.” He cuts off a hunk of pizza. “You pay 200 for it, and you’re supposed to get no less than 40 dime bags out of it. Whatever you pay for it, you’re supposed to get double the money. Then if you want, you can move up and buy more quantity. But I didn’t want to be like Scarface or Al Pacino or anybody, so I always just kept it to a quarter ounce at a time. I tried to keep myself on a shift. I’d go out at maybe 3:30 in the afternoon and wouldn’t come in till 7 o’clock the next morning. That’s a hell of a shift, but that’s the way it was.
“When you get involved in something like selling drugs, you can’t have a conscience. You can’t be soft about it. Soft people don’t last. You have to have an ‘I don’t care’ attitude, and at that time I didn’t care. Because all I saw was that I didn’t have nobody. My mom didn’t want to have nothing to do with me. I was pretty much on my own. Whatever I got, it was up to me to get it. So therefore I couldn’t care about the next man when I had to survive myself.
“You know, it’s funny. A lot of times when a person does something wrong, they know it’s wrong, but they do it anyway. It’s like a person that gangbangs–he knows it’s wrong; he knows shootin’ people is wrong; he knows selling poison to his people is wrong. But all people see is the outer part–his pants hangin’ off his butt, and his hat turned this way or that way. They never look within him to see what’s making him do what he does. If a person was to sincerely look within these guys, they would find a lot of scared young people. Scared of being broke. Scared of not having. Scared of not being able to do for their parents or their kids. And some of ’em, including myself, come from a background where there wasn’t a lot of love there. Living in a house with a single parent–she’s trying to be the mom and the dad–it doesn’t really work out. She knows she’s all by herself, and whatever we get it’s gotta come from her. If it doesn’t come from her, we won’t have it. So having to live with that, it tends to build a lot of pressure and also causes you to make some mistakes in the process.
“I was still going to school all this time, but I started noticing that my attention span in class wasn’t what it used to be. I was more interested in what was going on in the hallway than what was going on in front of the class. And then at the end of my sophomore year, I just stopped going, man. I hated school anyway. I always hated it. One reason was because I didn’t have any patience. I wanted to do what I wanted to do. And other than that, school was just…boring. I mean, you sit up in a hot classroom, and the teachers are mean, and they’re all old–you know what I mean? Once I got past kindergarten and first grade, when we did all the activities and made stuff–once it became more book work–I just didn’t like it. It’s like this: Let’s say you don’t know how to drive a car, and I’m gonna teach you. I can say, ‘Well, you’re gonna have to press down on the brake, and throw it in drive.’ But after a while, I can’t do too much more talking. You’re gonna have to get behind the wheel and do it yourself. And I think that’s how school should be. Instead of being told how to do things, you have to do it more yourself. I mean, after you tell me the basics, shut up–let me do it now. That’s just how I am.
“So by this time I was pretty much coming in and waking up when I wanted, doing what I wanted. I was wild. I developed an ‘I don’t care’ attitude about a lot of stuff. I think that actually got me into more trouble than my temper. But I still had my principles, though. I still wouldn’t do something unnecessarily, like rob somebody who’s walking down the street, or go hit somebody upside the head and take his money. I never did nothing like that. But I did get involved in some crazy stuff.
“One day me and my cousin went over to this guy’s house to collect some money for drugs, and the guy started talking crazy. So my cousin hit him. Then the guy gets up, pulls out a knife, and comes at me! So we’re wrestling on the porch, and I cut my hand on the railing. I’m bleeding–blood everywhere. I’ve got on some white shorts, and there’s blood all over my shirt, all over my shorts. Then the guy goes in the bedroom, and we see him grab a gun from under the mattress. Now, we should’ve left right there. I don’t know why we didn’t–I guess pride or something. I don’t know. But we just watch him. So the guy’s still talking crazy, and he comes back with the gun. I start running, and then I hear a gunshot and I hit the ground. I get up and I try to run, but I’m limping. My foot’s on the ground, but I can’t feel it. So I look down and notice a little hole in my shorts. I pull them up, and I’m like, ‘Damn, he shot me.’ The bullet missed my bone, but it tore up the nerves in my leg. My leg will never be the same. I get sharp pains in my foot to this day. If my leg gets cold, like during the night, I wake up in total pain.
“I realize now that if you live by the sword you die by the sword. At that particular time, I was living by the sword. I didn’t carry a gun, but I had access to ’em. I could get one if I needed one. But I never kept one in the house, or I never kept one on me. I still don’t own a gun to this day. My father always told me, ‘Never own a gun, because when you get mad at somebody that’s the first thing you’re gonna go for.’ And it’s true. That’s why there’s so many people getting killed, because there’s so many guns out there.
“I have to revert back to a line from that movie New Jack City, when Nino Brown said, ‘None of us owns a poppy field.’ What he meant is that it isn’t black people bringing the drugs into this country. As far as I’m concerned, if the government really wanted to minimize drugs and guns, I think they could. I’m not saying they could stop it all, but I think they could control it a lot better than it is.
“You always hear on the news that the government may not have the money for certain things in the budget. They always claim they don’t have the money to do this or that. But I was reading in Popular Science magazine the other day that they’re coming out with a new fighter jet called the F-22. They have F-22s now, but what they’re doing is they’re upgrading it. And the prototypes–just the prototypes–cost them seven billion dollars. For three planes! And now that they’ve got it designed, they’re gonna sell the Air Force 436 of them for 71 million dollars apiece. And they say they don’t have no money in their budget! That makes me mad.
“Anyway, soon after I got shot, my aunt finally got put out ’cause she wasn’t paying the bills, so I was totally homeless. I couldn’t stay with my mom. I couldn’t stay with my aunt. I couldn’t stay with my sister. I was about ready to start robbing people. I’d never robbed anybody in my life, but I was running out of money. So one day I was walking downtown, minding my own business, and there’s this guy down there passing out flyers about a job selling magazines. So I start asking the guy questions, we talk for a while, and the next thing I know, I’m in a van on my way to Indianapolis, Indiana.
“For the next two years, I was traveling around the country, selling magazines. I knocked on 150 doors a day, six days a week, talked to 40 or 50 people every day. And one thing I learned is that people don’t want magazines. And even if they do, you definitely don’t have to come to their house to sell them to ’em. They know how to go out and buy a magazine. So every time they give you a reason they don’t want it, you have to give them a good reason why they should buy it. So that kept you on your toes. You had to be real quick. You had to think; you had to be sharp. If not, you’d end up talking to the door. To get ten sales in a day was damn good. And to get ten sales in a day, you’d have to knock on over 100 doors.
“In every city, we went straight to the rich neighborhoods, man. This girl that I worked with sold magazines to Charles Barkley. Somebody sold to Linda Carter, the Wonder Woman lady. Somebody else sold to Monica Quartermaine, off All My Children. I seen George Foreman’s house, Deon Sanders’s house. I been in 16 states, all up and down the east coast, through all the major cities in Florida and Texas three times. I been to Atlanta, where I seen neighborhoods full of three- or four-hundred-thousand-dollar homes, with black people living in every one of them. I’d never experienced anything like that before. There was 60 of us in the crew, from all over the country, going from town to town, all staying in one hotel. Three or four to a room. And to be truthfully honest, that’s one of the reasons I finally quit. I got tired of that. I didn’t have the opportunity to pick and choose my roommates, and even though I might not be the cleanest person in the world, I do know filth when I see it. And I didn’t really care for that too much.
“But I learned a lot in that job. I’ve changed a lot. My attitude has gotten a lot better. My temper isn’t as bad as it used to be. I can still blow up, but it’s not nowhere near as bad as it used to be. I made some pretty decent money, but never put it to any good use. To this day, my biggest problem is saving money. I buy a lot of stuff I don’t need. So that’s something I’m gonna have to work on. I’ve been looking into investing in IRA accounts or mutual funds or CDs–trying to put my money to some use. If I can afford to blow it frivolously like that, then I can afford to put 30 or 40 a week aside in some type of investment. My whole frame of mind is different now. And it makes me feel good to see how far I’ve come, ’cause you’d be surprised how many 20-year-olds out there don’t even know what the hell a mutual fund is.
“Right now I’m scared because I don’t have the education that I want or need. I know it’s gonna happen in due time, but it’s getting to that point that’s the hard part. You know, a lot of the young kids who sell drugs, a lot of them wanna do right. A lot of them wanna be doctors and lawyers. But the problem is you have to struggle so long to get to that point, and nobody wants to be broke. So a lot of ’em say, ‘OK, this is what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna sell drugs until I get enough money where I can stop selling drugs. Then I can start doing some of the things I wanna do.’ But they get so caught up in it, and they make so much money, and they make it so fast–it’s like a magnet. They just get sucked into it.
“I got a lot of reasons to go back to selling drugs. For one, I’m broke. But then I also got to keep in mind the reasons for why I shouldn’t. And the reasons for why I shouldn’t gotta weigh a lot more than the reasons why I should. That’s the way it is for most people that’s in too deep, that’s selling drugs and gangbanging. They got reasons for why they shouldn’t do those things. But the reasons for why they should outweigh the reasons why they shouldn’t.
“I know I’m gonna get a good job someday. I’m too smart, too intelligent to not have the things I want. I was blessed with a great mind, and it’s getting sharper all the time. Someday, at some point in my life, good things are gonna happen for me. I just gotta get to that point. I can’t lose focus. ‘Cause once you lose focus, and once you give up and lose the faith, it’s pretty much over. So my big fear is, How long can I keep the faith? How long can I continue to bump my head up against the wall and still come out swinging? That’s what scares me.” o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos by Dorothy Perry.