Johnny gets up in the morning and goes straight to the bathroom that he shares with his mom, his two little sisters, an older brother that works at a bakery, and whoever else happens to be around on any given day. There is a stale smell to onions gone cold and greasy hamburger from Danny’s place that he ate last night. The leftovers are probably still somewhere in the room, but it is hard to tell with all the stuff lying around. Somebody will eventually remove it, he figures. Johnny is satisfied as long as he can locate his red tennis shoes.
He turns on the bathroom lights and faces the mirror. He ponders that he kind of misses the noise of the ventilation fan that broke down last month. It helps with privacy. Johnny makes a mental note to remind his mom to tell the landlord again. Sometimes, you have to tell him a few times, or Mom could have forgotten. It’s hard to tell.
Today it’s the first day of summer school. Johnny reflects that he wouldn’t have to go if that bitch of his Science teacher hadn’t failed him last minute. “Are you kidding me?” he thinks, “I cut her deal to make up all my missing work, and just because I couldn’t finish the package, she flunked me last minute.” Johnny doesn’t consider that he really had 23 missing assignments, mostly because he stopped going to class in February to hang out with the homies Dude and Krack. If he considered it, he would not really care. He knows for a fact that you can make up the whole semester in one week. Ever since 5th grade, when his dad left and everything started going down, he has done that many times. In fact, that is the only way Johnny operates nowadays. “If it were not for that bitch…” Johnny has not forgotten that he failed two more subjects: Spanish and Physical Education. He might not have told his mom, but he has not forgotten. But those are electives. He does not need Spanish to get a high school diploma, but he needs Science, and that bitch is standing on his way to success. Johnny repeats his mantra to himself: “I can be what I wanna be…” winks at himself satisfied, puts on his red hat, and grabs his bag pack to go to school.
He tiptoes on his way out. Johnny’s mom is still sleeping. Normally, she cleans offices downtown at night, but yesterday it was her day off and she had a party with her new friend. Johnny does not recall his name. It does not really matter, they never get to stay too long, just long enough to try to ingratiate themselves with Johnny and his sisters, get some money out of his mom and hit the high road. Then, Mom stops washing, rambles around the house with make-up run down by tears and tequila bottles accumulate in the kitchen until Joe, Johnny’s older brother, who is 19 takes care of the situation. At the beginning, right after his dad left, Johnny used to get really upset at his mom’s boyfriends. He thought that Dad would eventually come back, and he wouldn’t like to find another guy living with his family. But after a while, Johnny understood that Dad was gone for good and, dead or alive, and they don’t need him anymore: Joe and himself get this. At the time when Dad left, it was only Joe and Johnny. The two little sisters came later. At least, one of them gets child support. The other, Melanie, was classified in special education because the school psychologists says that those tantrums she has every time she does not get the candy she wants at CVS are a disorder called hyperactivity, and Mom tried to sue one of her ex-boyfriends for child support, but she got the wrong daddy and ended up with a restraining order instead. She is still not clear who Melanie’s daddy is, but she loves her anyway.
On his way to school, Johnny feels a pang in his stomach. Darn! He forgot to check in the fridge to see if there’s anything left from last night. Other than tequila, he means. Johnny doesn’t drink on school nights; at least, he tries not to. Never mind, he just remembered that they are serving “Breakfast in the Classroom” right now and, unsavory as it is, it helps calm the growling in his stomach. Besides, there are always a bunch of girls in the classroom that are trying to lose weight, and he can eat their breakfast. The teacher does not even care, and what would she do if she did? Johnny reasons she can’t touch them, let alone shove food down their throats.
Somehow, one thing leads to another, and Johnny finds himself thinking again of his Science teacher. “If it hadn’t been for that bitch, I wouldn’t have to be walking to school right now, instead of hanging out with the homie Krack who passed almost all his classes, except for Health that he doesn’t really care about, anyway.” Johnny is glad that the teacher was suspended on the last week of school for child abuse. Johnny remembers the investigation well. It took about two days, and after the Assistant Principal started questioning the students, Johnny got wind from a West sider during lunch of what he was supposed to say. He heard that they were asking all the students the same questions, so it was easy to figure out what to say. They all knew that the teacher didn’t do it. The girl got the bruises from her dad, who beats her up every time he loses his part-time job as a car mechanic, but the teachers don’t know any of that. Besides, that bitch is always failing students; serves her right. Later, Johnny heard that when a teacher is suspended, they put her in a place called “teacher’s jail,” which is not a jail, but a room downtown, where teachers are supposed to sit for the whole payday without a desk, without talking to anyone, and without doing anything until they are released to go home. Johnny thinks that it is a pretty good job, to get paid for doing nothing. As a matter of fact, that is the dream of his life. Johnny is now seriously considering adding it to his list of dream jobs, right next to a police officer, a janitor and an ambulance worker.
On his way to school, Johnny passes by the Mole’s tent on 2nd Street. Sometimes, when Johnny is carrying some food with him, he likes to give a treat to his dog. Mole’s dog is a dirty white pit bull that must have once belonged to a rich family but is now missing a leg. Johnny once asked Mole why Dog is missing a leg, and Mole told him a story about back when he was in Vietnam that has nothing to do with Dog. Mole has never really invited Johnny inside his tent, the one with a US flag on top, but Johnny suspects that he has some marijuana in there, to alleviate the pain of his old war wounds. Johnny likes Mole because he always tells him to stay in school, and because he is the best rapper Johnny has heard in his life, especially when he makes a quartet with Cockran, Beatle and Stups, his neighbors from the tents nearby. When they sing by the bus stop, keeping the rhythm with their feet, drivers even stop on their way downtown and throw coins out the window, but they don’t do that very often anymore because Mole says that he is a busy man.
Just when he was about to arrive to school, Johnny scopes the homie Krack. “Whaaat?” Johnny says, “What you here for, man?” Johnny soon realizes why Krack is here. Next to him, there is a short, pretty, curvy Latina named Vanessa that used to hang out with their friend Super last June. Johnny remembers the big flaunt generated by her comments on social media, when she posted: “I hope I am not.” Girls went crazy cyberbullying her and, all of a sudden, boys that wouldn’t look her way twice before were interested in dating her. The whole thing stopped when one of the other girls’ mothers told Vanessa’s mom, and she was beaten up to a pulp with her mom’s flip-flop, one of the sturdy ones made in Mexico. You can still tell by the scar on her nose. Ever since then, Vanessa has to go home right after school, which is also convenient to baby-sit her little sister. That doesn’t stop her from flirting with as many boys as she can, as long as her mom is not present, and she doesn’t have to play good girl.
Johnny walked in class late with his red hat and his music on, so that everyone knows that he is not a nobody. Come to think about it, it was already late when he left, and his brief stop with the homie Krack didn’t make him get there earlier, either, but what’s the rush, anyway? It’s the same good old school, same old, same old. The teacher is not old, though. As a matter of fact, he’s never seen her before. Johnny thinks that maybe she is the replacement for the bitch who ended up in teacher’s jail, or maybe she is here just for the summer. Who cares? The woman is confronting him now, in front of the whole class. “Hat off” she says. Johnny tries to ignore her. “Turn your music off, sir.” Who the hell is this bitch? Now she wants to know why Johnny is late. Johnny is not in the mood for this today. Not after last night. Johnny says that he is late because he woke up late. Surprisingly, that is not enough for this one. Well, it works pretty well during the school year. Usually, teachers who rarely even care to ask why he is late in the first place, are satisfied that he is late because he woke up late. This woman makes a curt remark, something like: “Well, that’s a great reason to be unsuccessful, sir?” The woman has an accent. Who the hell does she think she is? She’s only here for the summer. “Just give me an A and we’ll call it a day.” Before Johnny realizes, those words leave his mouth. “Oh, really?” she says. “Step outside.” Johnny complies, mostly because he does not want to be anywhere near her. He starts to think that it was a really bad idea to come to school this morning. He didn’t even have to be here were it not because of that one bitch, and now he gets one even worse.
Suddenly, Johnny finds himself surrounded by a circle of students who were sent outside, just like him. He recognizes a couple of them. He knows the West sider who tipped him on what to say during the investigation of the Science teacher, for which Johnny will be forever grateful. He also knows Kanisha, who was in his Health class in 9th grade and who has created a name for herself cussing out her teachers in a way that always makes the class laugh. Not today, it looks. She is all excited telling her little group outside about the remarks that got her sent out. She appears to be surprised. It has never played down like that before. “She’s tough,” she says, referring to the woman inside. There is a tint of admiration in her voice that disturbs Johnny a little bit. To him, the woman is just a teacher. Nothing to celebrate. He has been dealing with teachers ever since he started school in 1st grade, and he knows the kind. Usually, when you cuss them out, they either ignore you or they kick you out so that you get to make a call outside and tell your homies inside what to do to get kicked out at the same time. Most of the time, they don’t even look at you, and you can spend most of your time playing cards in the back or sleeping on your desk undisturbed. If you find a really dedicated one, she might try to talk to you and tell you that she really cares about your education when we both know that it’s BS. All these folks are trying to do is get their paycheck and get the heck out of here fast as they can. Who’d want to stay here anyway? The place is a mess.
Johnny doesn’t know, but he goes to a school that was built in the 1930s. The only thing that Johnny knows is that paint is peeling from the walls and there is a rancid smell inside the wooded cupboards, like hands dead decades ago were inside dropping damp Physical Education clothes. The school district has a strict policy about the type of paint that can go on the walls. It has to be lead-free and hypo-allergenic so that the parents of potentially affected students do not sue the school district. Due to these regulations, the paint is particularly expensive, and the only available painting crew must be reserved weeks in advance so that they may make repairs, provided that none of them is on a sick leave, in which case, the job can always be re-scheduled. Sometimes, the school also features holes in the walls, but those are usually caused by students with anger management issues, or with curiosity to see what is inside a wall. If they try to make a hole in a wall at home, their parents will fray them alive, lest they are evicted from yet another apartment. That is why they do it in the school, where there are no adverse consequences.
Suddenly, the door opens, and Teacher Woman is at the door. She wants to talk to them one by one. She is not accepting hats on the head, or cell phones in sight. In view of these regulations, some of the students outside opt for leaving. They tell her so. She says, “Please yourself,” and keeps talking to the ones who volunteer to stay. Johnny is confronted with a decision, which kind of bothers him, because now he has to take a side. Johnny doesn’t like that. Before he realizes, it is his turn. To his surprise, Teacher Woman does not lecture him on the value of his education and how much she cares for it. Come to think about it, she does not look like a really caring person. She is all business. Instead of a lecture, she gives him a list: “No tardies, no hat, no cell phone” and asks him if he is ready to re-join the class. Johnny thinks about it briefly. Darn! He needs to make up this grade. If it were not for that bitch… Teacher Woman confuses his inner thoughts for hesitation and assigns him a reflective essay. What? Last time Johnny wrote an essay was in 5th grade. Nobody has ever asked him to write more than a paragraph ever since. Usually, teachers don’t have time to grade essays for every student in the class, typically over fifty, and Johnny can get away with writing a paragraph, at best. Now, he has to figure out how to write one full page, only to earn his right to stay in this hell. The morning is getting worse and worse.
Back in the classroom, one of the students has had it and tells Teacher Woman that she’s mean as hell. Students laugh, anticipating an end to the boredom of the assignment. You can see Teacher Woman actually shaking. That adds to the fun. Johnny, who was assigned a seat in the front row, prepares with the others to watch the show. Teacher Woman tells him to step outside. Her moves are predictable now, like a boxer who has lost the capacity to surprise his opponent. Johnny likes boxing. He used to watch it with his dad since he was six until the very day before he left. The student in the back puts his hat on. He tells Teacher Woman to screw herself. The whole class is quiet. You can feel the tension. Johnny knows that something inevitable is about to happen. He had enough experience in the public education system to identify this incident as the turning point in this class. Nothing will ever be the same again, depending on who wins and who loses. Because Johnny knows that there will be a winner and there will be a loser after today, and so does the rest of the class. If Teacher Woman wins, Johnny thinks, it is the end of the system as he knows it. She will have succeeded in the taming game. The weaker students will respect her as a leader, and she can ask them to do whatever she wants. If, on the other hand, the student wins, everything will go back to normal and the whole class will be able to slack as usual. Johnny puts his bet on the kid. He dresses like a gangster, anyway.
Teacher Woman repeats for the student to step outside. The student ignores her. He sits in a posture of relaxation, curious about what she is capable to do. In everyone’s minds is the same thought: “She can’t touch him.” Teacher Woman looks around herself for a phone. There is none. The teacher assigned to the classroom during the regular school year probably locked it away so that it can’t be stolen. She says “OK” in a nonchalant manner. She pulls out her cell phone. She walks to the door and punches the numbers of the main office. Her wallet is in her hand. Students are looking petrified at that wallet. Johnny can see that they wished to succumb to the impulse of knocking it off her. Teacher Woman tells them to send security to room 106 and to do it as fast as they can. When she hangs up the phone, the class is silent. The student at the back has a frozen smile on his face. He knows they are coming, but he cannot chicken out and run now. He has to take his chances. Teacher Woman casually comments that it has been one hour since class started, and she has not been able to start the lesson yet, due to students’ misbehavior and tardies. A few seconds later, the door opens, and the Principal and Mr. Harrison walk in. They both surround the student in the back and take him away.
Johnny can hear them talking outside. The student that was removed from the classroom adopts a whining voice, and Johnny can hear him complaining that the teacher was rude. Other times, Johnny perceives a different attitude, more coy and babyish. Johnny reflects that he doesn’t act like the same person with these administrators. The student is returned to class a few minutes later. He is asked to apologize. He never does, but he looks submissive, at least, while the administrators are still here. The Principal now wants to talk to the teacher. She tells her that she must give respect if she wants respect from the students. She tells her that she is not allowed to send anyone out. To everyone’s surprise, the teacher stands up to the Principal and tells her that she IS actually allowed to send someone out if they do not obey her. The Principal replies in that case she must write a referral and call the main office. This is getting better and better. The teacher asks the principal where the referral forms are. The Principal says that she will send her some. The teacher also asks for a telephone. The Principal asks if there is no telephone in the classroom. The teacher says: “Let’s look for it together.” The teacher and the Principal walk together around the classroom. There is no phone. The Principal says that she will send one and leaves quickly.
Teacher Woman turns around and says that she is happy that she can finally start her class one hour and a half after the bell rang, and that she apologizes to the students who were here on time and ready to work. She points at the good students sitting around the classroom. Some of them have admiring looks on their faces; others look like newcomers who don’t understand English. Then, she turns to the gangster at the back and informs him that she will call his mother today. To Johnny’s surprise, the gangster doesn’t respond. He is busy writing the reflective essay that Teacher Woman assigned him when he returned to class. Her comment is met by general silence. Everyone knows that, even if your parent gave the school the right phone number or remembered to change it after the last line was disconnected for not paying the bill, parents work or sleep most of the day. Most teachers won’t call your parents unless you make them really angry. Teacher Woman must be either really angry or really crazy. Johnny thinks that, most likely, it is the last.
By the time the first period bell rang for lunch on the first day of summer school, Teacher Woman had kicked out six students, assigned eleven reflective essays, written seventeen online referrals, been visited by the Principal twice and threatened to call her union and three parents, whom the entire class was one hundred per cent sure, she’d do. Everyone was talking about her during lunch. Most students were trying to decide whether to assassinate her or drop out of her class. The newcomers were talking in Spanish with a tone of admiration and the well-behaved ones, as usual, remained quiet.
Johnny has some thinking to do, which is really boring. I mean, who wants to be thinking when you can be hanging out with the crew? He thinks of Mole who lives on a tent in 2nd street and always tells him to stay in school so that he doesn’t end up like him, and he thinks of Uncle Betto, his mom’s brother, who has been in jail for two years because he was coming from Tijuana with a car load and when he saw the lights behind him, he thought that he could lose them and stepped on it instead of turning in his vehicle registration. He thinks of all this during second period, when he finally gets his style of teacher in Spanish and he can fall asleep if he wants to, or think, while the class is watching a movie. Johnny does not watch the movie because he has some thinking to do, which is unusual, and by the time the bell rings, Johnny has reached a conclusion. Johnny decides that he is going places. He is not going to do this for himself, but for his mom, who cleans offices downtown mostly every night. He is going to do it for Mole, who was drafted to go to Vietnam where he saw his platoon bombed into pieces and came back with PTSD and deaf on his left ear. He is going to do it for Uncle Betto who cannot afford a lawyer to get out of the mess that he put himself in, and plunders money from his mom and his Auntie Teresa. Most importantly, he is going to do it for his two little sisters, whose daddies are gone, just like Johnny’s, and who only have himself and Joe, who works in a bakery since five in the morning, to rely on.
Johnny arrives home after school to find his mom nearing a nervous breakdown. From her broken speech, half in Spanish, half in gibberish, Johnny understands that Teacher Woman called and informed her of all that he has done in school today. Johnny doesn’t feel angry, but betrayed. His mom thinks that he is a good kid. His mom doesn’t know anything about the ditching, the lying and the failing. It has taken years for Johnny to create a perfect student persona that he nurtures by not poking out his head too much, and when he does, it is always after the other students have acted up before him. For years, Johnny has been flying low, very low, he thinks, arriving home right after school and leaving only after his mom has left to work, hiding his report cards before his mom gets to the mailbox, and responding to school phone calls that they got the wrong number. But it appears that Teacher Woman called home during lunch, while he was still in school, and all his carefully built life character is gone now. Johnny’s mother is desperately crying that immigration is about to show up at the door, even though Johnny was born in the General Hospital down the street, while screaming what she has done wrong as a parent to make him act like this with a Teacher. Her desperate shouts are now attracting the neighbors’ attention in the apartments, who are now running towards her to find out what he has done, and who agree that the best course to take is get the flip-flop and beat the crap out of him, like they do with their own kids, to see if they learn some manners.
The next day, Johnny makes sure that he wakes up early to go to school. He doesn’t take too much time adjusting his hat, he doesn’t stop for breakfast, and he doesn’t waste time talking to Mole and Dog on his way to school. He grabs his books and goes straight to his class without talking to Vanessa and Krack who are holding hands by the entrance. It is a good thing he does, because as soon as he walks into class, he notices that Teacher Woman has devised a clipboard by the door with the word “TARDY” on top and is making sure that every student who walks in after the bell rings writes his name on it. Teacher Woman doesn’t care if you were vomiting last night, you were run over by a car on your way to school, or you were robbed of the lunch money. As long as you walk in after the darn bell and you are breathing, she will make you write a reflective essay about why you are one minute late, no matter if the reason why you are one minute late can be expressed in less than one sentence: “Because I woke up freaking late!” Surprisingly, Johnny understands a little more of the material today, maybe because he knows that if he, as much as stares at the desk longingly, never mind take a light nap, Teacher Woman will descend upon him and will either request a reflective essay or will call home or both, and he is not ready for more drama. So, Johnny decides to pay attention, for a change, and he can even manage to answer a question for the Cambodian boy sitting next to him, who is always lost, and complete a very simple journal entry.
On his way out of school, Johnny happens to look through the lightly tinted glass of the main office and sees Teacher Woman, whose name is, actually, Dr. Rodriguez, being yelled at by a fat woman whose body is covered in tattoos. The woman even has a tattoo that says “Sam” on the left side of her face and is pointing her finger at Dr. Rodriguez while she approaches her screaming menacingly. When she moves a little to the side, Johnny notices that Kanisha is standing next to the woman smiling like a rabbit. She is obviously enjoying the scene. The Principal is there also. She tries to interject several times, but the woman is too far gone and won’t stop the screaming. Johnny observes how Dr. Rodriguez calmly says something to the Principal and then turns around and walks out of the attendance office. She doesn’t seem to be walking fast, but her steps are stern. This seems to enrage the tattooed woman even more as she screams even more forcefully at Dr. Rodriguez’s back. Johnny never liked Kenisha’s mom, anyway. Johnny’s dad used to spend money on her before he left.
During the first week of summer school, Johnny learns how to take notes for the first time in his life. He learns about the human body and its basic functions. He learns how to draw graphics of the blood system. He learns how to dissect a plant leaf. He learns how to map the nerves in his hand. Johnny doesn’t recall if the teacher explained all this last semester, because he was sleeping, or late, or truant most of the time, but he suspects that they didn’t because some of his classmates are also in summer school, and they look just as surprised as he is. By the end of the first week, Johnny asks Dr. Rodriguez for his grade. It’s not an A, like he is used to, but a D. But Johnny feels proud of that D. He worked harder for that D than he ever has worked for his string of As, and it means a lot to him.
One morning of the second week of school, Johnny comes late because he couldn’t find his cell phone amid the pile of rubble from last night’s party. He knows that he will have to write an essay, but he is used to it by now, and he can finish it in ten minutes and move on with his work. Dr. Rodriguez is talking about making choices. “Believe me,” says Doctor, “I know how difficult it is for you to make some sense when your parents are working, and you only have your friends to guide you through the chaos that is your adolescence. But there is light at the end of the tunnel. So, your job, right now, is to make it there without wounds.” Johnny is mystified and stops writing his late essay. Dr. Rodriguez looks at him and lets it go. Johnny doesn’t know what a metaphor is, but he somehow perceives what Doctor is talking about. “The trick is making the right choices,” Doctor continues. “If you know that you have homework and your friend calls you up to go tag on a wall, what do you think is the right choice?” A few students put their hands up, but most of the class raise their voices: “Do homework!” they yell. “Homework is always the right choice. Do you know why?” Johnny has no clue why, but he is dragged by the momentum, the entire class is. “Because homework is the one thing that, if you do it every day, it will get you out of where you are right now. Because homework will keep you out of the streets and on the right track for success. Because homework, you guys, is the difference between making it here and dropping out later.” This is the first time in his life, after nine years in the educational system, that Johnny has heard about the healing powers of homework. Up until now, it had never even occurred to him that teachers read his homework. As a matter of fact, he knows for a fact that most teachers don’t, but obviously Doctor does. “I know that life is hard right now. I know. But this is your life, you guys, not mine. I got my high school diploma a long time ago. Either you make something out of this for yourselves, or you don’t. That’s the reality of it. And whatever you decide to do, it’s not going to impact my life, but it is going to, very severely, impact yours. I know that they’ve told you that you can be whatever you want to be. That is true. But nobody said that it was going to be free. Nothing is free. You must pay in advance with a lot of hard work, and here is where that story starts.”
Doctor had barely finished her speech when the door opened and Kenisha walked in with her mom and the Principal. Johnny does not like the summer school principal. She knows her from his community. In fact, he has known her family for a very long time. The Principal’s dad used to work as a day laborer stationing himself at the hardware store until he died in an accident because he was drunk and fell asleep by the railroad tracks. Her mom still works in the same sweatshop as a seamstress, making way less than minimum wage after 30 years of employment. The principal attended this same school and grew up in the community. Before she became a teacher, she used to work at a burger place. Then she moved away for a while with her boyfriend. Shortly thereafter, all of a sudden, two years ago, she hit it big by becoming a school administrator. Now, she walks around like she doesn’t know anybody that she grew up with, as if she was better than them all, but Johnny can still see her walking in plastic shoes and wearing hand-me-downs. Doctor indicates to Kenisha to sit next to her. Kenisha rolls her eyes but complies. Her mother is watching all this. The Principal is sitting at the other end of the classroom on her cell phone, ignoring the situation. Doctor tells her to please monitor this parent. The Principal is reluctant. She is really into texting whoever it is she is texting. They speak in whispers now and Johnny can’t hear but he suspects that they are discussing Kenisha’s parent who is sitting right behind Doctor’s desk. The Principal rolls her eyes and approaches the parent. The moment the Principal speaks to her, Kenisha’s mom begins to scream. She says that her daughter is being discriminated. She screams that her daughter has a right to an education. She screams that her daughter will not continue to sit in that classroom without her. Johnny cannot do his work. He is mesmerized by the adults in the classroom and their individual agendas: Kenisha’s mom wants to win this round, Johnny knows that she does not win too many; the Principal is trying not to lose face, she was the one on the phone to begin with; Doctor is standing there watching without saying a word. The Principal calls for security and they escort out Kenisha and her crazy mother. The class returns to normal.
Johnny has finished writing his essay. He writes: “I know that you’re trying the best for us, Doctor. But sometimes you get under my skin. Your extra, man. I never seen a teacher like you before in my life.” Johnny writes: “Ima gonna try even harder to pass this class. I don’t usually, study or anything like that, you know, because ima trayna be a youtuber and get a mansion in the hills so my mom doesn’t have to work again. Or a rapper and have my own record company. But ima gonna do it for you, Doctor, hows that?” Johnny writes: “And I will never, ever, ever, ever, no matter what, not even if I break both my legs on my way to school. Not even if a truck kills me. Not even if the homie Krack calls me to say wazup when am living the apartment gonna be late again.” Johnny knows that he wrote a pretty good essay. He feels proud of himself for the first time in a long, long time.
Johnny is in the office after school with his homie Krack, who is trying to find out why he was dropped from summer school just for a couple absences, when he observes that Doctor is in the Principal’s office again. Johnny can observe both women through the glass windows. There is clearly a tense atmosphere between them. From where he is, Johnny can only hear fragments of the conversation. “Respect, Ms. Gomez, is not conditional. It’s a given,” Johnny hears Doctor say. The Principal replies something in a very low voice. She feels the overpowering presence of the teacher and looks self-conscious. Johnny has known her for a very long time. He knows that she never got over her dad’s tragedy and the humiliation of surviving on her mom’s meager earnings and church assistance. Johnny hears Doctor saying: “I am very concerned about your statement that kids give respect when they get respect. I have heard gangsters saying that cliché many times over the years, but I’ve never heard a school administrator repeating it. Do you know why, Ms. Gomez? Because it is not true. We should be committed to teach kids to respect authority because that is who they want to be: They want to be people who nurture themselves and present themselves as polite, well-bred, respectful individuals, because that is who they are, without making it conditional to how others act. Because if we accept that, Ms. Gomez, it is going to be subject to what a specific kid considers respect. I have a number of students in my classroom who obviously felt disrespected because I asked them to put away their cell phone.” The Principal looks puzzled. She has never heard that before. All you hear in the streets is that you get respect when you give respect, not that it is on you to start. She is now talking about explaining that to the students, but Johnny knows better. He knows that Doctor has already talked to them about that in class. The Principal is telling Doctor that she will assign Mr. Schwartz to observe her. She tells Doctor that we are never out of our seats and that is not good teaching because we don’t get to move around. Doctor seems upset. Johnny hears her voice clearly now: “And is Mr. Schwartz also nationally certified, Ms. Gomez? Does he also have a Doctorate in Chemistry, like I do?” Johnny knows that the answer to both questions is negative. Mr. Schwartz used to be a teacher assistant when Johnny’s brother was in high school. He barely became a teacher four years ago and for the last two, he has been a coordinator with his own office. The Principal likes him. “I’ll tell you what,” Doctor says, her voice softer now. “If you want me to remain here, I suggest you get off my case, or else you can figure out how you are going to teach a class with fifty-seven students with severe behavioral issues, no air conditioning, not enough furniture, not enough books, and what is worse: No support from you.” Doctor stands up and leaves the office. Sounds to Johnny like she has won this round. The Principal has a sinister look on her face. The air conditioning started working the day after. The books never came. Good news is… the Principal didn’t show up again, either.
One day, Johnny is working on a set of analytical questions when the student sitting right behind him, Elvis Nava, tells Doctor that his mom wants to speak to her. Doctor is now engaged in a conversation with Duncan and Michael, two football players. Duncan is a huge African-American guy on the defense team who is always on his covert cell phone and barely ever brings his homework. He is popular with the girls though, because he is easy-going, has a huge smile and his eyes are of an impossible green color. Michael is an Asian kid who plays in the offense team. He works better alone, but he is happy to help others. He does not speak a lot about himself, but Johnny knows that his family is looking for an apartment to escape the slums where they live. Michael is the only student Johnny knows who doesn’t tag, doesn’t rap and goes straight home after school. He is also the only student Johnny knows who doesn’t accept anything other than an A. Michael’s dream is to be a businessman. Michael and Duncan work so well together that, most of the times, they don’t have to talk, yet they complement the other’s comments, as if they could anticipate each other’s thoughts. Johnny has never been a sports guy, but he is mesmerized by the unspoken communication between these two teammates. Doctor is telling Michael and Duncan that the problem with the football team is that they don’t have an alignment. Michael uncharacteristically talks back. He tells Doctor that they do actually have an alignment; the problem is, rather, that people don’t know how to stay on the line. Doctor asks him what the point is of having one, then. Michael whispers no more than two words to Duncan, and they both continue to work in silence. Johnny reflects that if he ever made a comment like that to these two guys, they would beat him into a pulp.
The conversation seems to have made Doctor forget about Nava, because on Friday, he comes back asking her whether she called his mom. Doctor looks uneasy, maybe she forgot. She tells Johnny that she will call her after school, and that is a promise. Nava begs her to call his mom right now. The whole class is now intrigued. They have all seen students begging teachers not to call their moms, not the other way around. Doctor looks intrigued now. She asks Nava, “But why, son?” Nava appears nervous: “Miss, my mom is really mean, and if you don’t call her, she is going to ground me for the whole weekend.” “Damn!” Johnny thinks, “this is the 4th of July weekend!” DiMarco, seated next to him, had to borrow a dollar from Yoon to pay for the fireworks. Yoon told him that he can have his dollar. It is bus money, but what if he has to walk home? The fireworks are more important. Doctor suspects foul play and asks Nava what he’s done. The whole class becomes interested in this, even Bella, who’s doing her work quietly as usual. “Nothing, miss, but my mom put a GPS tracker on me, and she checked two days ago when I was in school, and it showed that I was around the corner on Washington Blvd. I was in no Washington Blvd. I was right here!” Nava is passionate now. He, actually, has been sitting in class for the whole week, never mind that he was doing nothing, really. “But she wants to hear it from you, miss, she doesn’t believe me!” Doctor tells him to step outside and call his mother on his cell phone. Johnny would like to know how the episode ended, but Doctor sent him to the office to get some extra copies because of the new students. By the time he comes back, everyone is back to doing their work, and he can’t even produce the copies requested, because the secretary in the office told him that she is taking “no copies for no teacher, u-hum.”
By midterm, half the class has dropped out. Maybe they thought they could pass without doing any work, like they typically do, or maybe after several absences, they saw no point in coming back. Either way, there are sufficient desks and chairs for all students now, and less interruptions. It feels so much better. Then, for the first time, Johnny becomes interested in a class discussion on Edgar Allan Poe, who according to Doctor, was a drunkard, and surprises himself taking notes. Doctor is talking about a poem called “The Raven” about a guy that is delusional because there is no raven in the poem, despite the title, and about another guy that is tied to something and almost gets cut into pieces by an axe that oscillates over him, and about a masque of dead people. “This Allan guy sounds pretty chill,” Johnny finds himself thinking, and makes a vow to read all this stuff on the bus home. Surprisingly, he does, and the next day, when he finds himself discussing him with the homie Chide, who is the star of the school basketball team, and is also doing his work for the first time ever, Johnny feels satisfied that he knows what he is talking about.
One morning, halfway through summer school, Johnny is in the library working on a project. Doctor assigned him a report about the Riots because, according to her, it is “positive to promote inter-generational talk about historical events witnessed by older generations of family members.” Johnny is not certain what that means, but he knows one thing for sure: The moment he asked his mom about it, she was talking about Rodney King, the looting and her new skirt for two days in a row. Johnny doesn’t remember seeing her mom talk so much since before his dad left. She kept on going after dinner, as if she was afraid that her words would be lost to history, as if for once, her presence on this planet was important. Johnny is surprised that his mom knows so much about events that he only heard about on television, but he figures with all that much information, he’d better make it to the library early before school starts so that he has plenty of time to type his report and still turn it in on time. Johnny does not have a computer at home.
It is hot in the library, even though it is early in the morning, and there is a professional development session for teachers in a section of the library towards the back, that is separated by a folding partition. Johnny can hear Mr. Schwartz clearly, when he is telling teachers that they need to recognize the culture of the school. He says that in this community, he can get shot for looking at a guy straight in the eye, and are teachers looking at the students’ eyes? Johnny knows that this is true in the streets, but he has never heard of a teacher being shot for looking at a student in the eye. Mr. Schwartz’s speech seems to be gathering speed. Johnny can now hear other teachers’ voices adding to it. Mr. Cava says that he had to walk from the continuation school next door to our school through a couple streets once, and he was shocked by the misery he saw, and teachers must understand that this is what we students see every day. Father Lehman, who doubles as a Catholic priest, says that this is the reason why his classroom teaching is based on love, and Ms. Hsu adds that it is her love for her students that is going to save them from the situation that they are in right now. They continue to talk about loving students, who have nobody else to love them, for a while. Johnny is getting tired of this BS. His mom loves him, he thinks. So, do Mole and Dog, Uncle Betto, Aunt Teresa, his brother and sisters and the homies. Heck even some of his neighbors love him, especially when he doesn’t tell on them. Some others hate him, though, but we are talking love now.
Johnny can hear the voice of Dr. Rodriguez rising. She says that she is surprised that all this emphasis on loving the students has not led to any accusations of sexual misconduct yet, not that she is saying that any of her coworkers are sexual predators, she wants to clarify, but that dialectic is prone to be misunderstood in the mind of teenagers, isn’t it? There is a deep silence now, as Dr. Rodriguez’s voice continues. She says that she has never heard of a doctor being required to love her patients, and she has certainly never asked her lawyer if he loves her. She says that when she was hired by the school district, she was specifically hired for her skills, and that she never put her emotions on her resume. She says that these kids do not need love from their teachers. She says they hopefully are loved at home, at least, the parents she called, which have been about a dozen in her first week working here, did not leave any doubt in her mind that they love their children to death. She says that what students need from their teacher is not love, what they truly need is to learn how to read and write at grade level, and that if teachers truly care for these kids, she says, that this is the best, and truly, only way, in which we, students, can be helped to get out of a rundown community, crisscrossed by gang lines and swamped by drugs: by giving us the skills to become professionals and be able to afford better housing in more affluent locations. When she finishes speaking, there is a silence. Johnny bets that all the other teachers are by now out of their cult-like momentum. Johnny has been to some of those classes. He knows that, other than love, there is little learning going on in them. The bell rings to start the school day. Johnny imagines a sigh of relief.
Today Johnny is sitting at the office. He does not know what he’s done wrong. Johnny only knows one thing: In this neighborhood, if you see people running, you run. It doesn’t matter where, and it doesn’t matter why. You just run. And you run fast. It could be that someone is being chased and you get caught in the middle, or it could be that the marathon team is having practice. You never know. So, you run. Johnny ran. He was hanging out with the homie Krack at the spot, when he saw some kids running and looking behind like paranoid. Johnny and Krack did not stop to ask what was going on. They ran along. And by adding the students that the stampede met in its way, it became a big event. Just out of the school door, it was met by several units of school police. Now, Johnny is among the few that were caught and brought to the office. Suddenly, the door opens into the lobby, and the Principal comes out. Johnny’s turn is next: “Miss! I didn’t do nothing!”
Back in class, Johnny is sitting next to Reginald Patton Jr. a.k.a. the homie Treme. Treme is drawing in his black book, completely oblivious to the lesson, when, all of a sudden, Johnny notices something gray scurrying around. Before he has time to react, Treme already has his hand up: “Miss! There is a rat!” Dr. Rodriguez doesn’t believe him because Treme is always testing her: “Kid! If I call the office, there’d better be a rat in here.” But today, for once, Treme is not lying: “Miss: I seen a rat! I swear on my mama!” Doctor calls the office and about five minutes later, a burly man with a pole shows up at the door. The class is mesmerized in anticipation. “Where’s the rat?” the man asks. Treme tells him that he saw it hiding under a closet, but he can’t tell where it is now. While the man is looking for the rat, they hear Doctor’s voice: “You are not going to kill it, are you?” “What else do you want me to do with it?” The man asks. “Well, I don’t want blood all over the place,” says Doctor. Johnny thinks that some blood would be pretty cool. Like in the movie “Anaplastis.” In fact, that’d be awesome: Everyone swimming in a tsunami of rat blood, stemming from the walls, while you can hear the cries for help of older women and children, and then, Johnny shows up with a semi-automatic Mauser C96. While he is gorging on his dream, the burly man stomps out of the classroom. “Where are you going, may I ask?” Doctor doesn’t like the man, you can tell. “Lady, you told me not to kill it!” the man screams. “I didn’t tell you to leave it here, either,” says Doctor. “Awright, then, I’ll bring some traps.” The man leaves. The rat must be in its hole exhaling a sigh of relief. Johnny never sees the traps.
After lunch, Johnny is carefully finishing the best essay he has ever written when he hears the sobs for the first time. At first, he tries to ignore them, but they become overwhelming. By the time he turns around, Dr. Rodriguez is already talking to Giovanny Torres, the quarterback, who is crying and screaming because his girlfriend dumped him, after a year and a half, for talking to another girl. He is crying because he apologized, and wrote her a letter, and bought her flowers yesterday and now she dumps him like nothing. He is crying because he even got a job on Sundays at a men’s suit warehouse where he gets paid $50 a day, just to take her out. He is screaming that he doesn’t want to come to school anymore, so that he doesn’t have to see her. Security comes and tells Gio that they got dumped multiple times, too, and that Doctor also got dumped because everyone gets dumped at some point or another. By the time they take him away, Gio is texting his mom, which is not really allowed, to tell her what his girl did to him.
That day is the day when Johnny dedicated Doctor a compliment. Here is how it all came down: Johnny was leaving the class, when he passed by Doctor and noticed her perfume. Johnny, on the spot, thought of the best compliment he has ever dedicated to a lady his mother’s age: “You smell to cookies and cream.” Doctor laughed a crystalline laugh, and said that it was very expensive perfume, and Johnny left the class satisfied because he knew that he had done something of quality.
One day, Johnny shows up before class begins, as usual, and a substitute teacher opens the door. He is a youthful ashen guy with a guitar hanging from his back. Johnny looks at his classmates. They all have enough experience in the public-school system to figure out that there is not a chance that this dude can control them. They walk in gloomily. It takes Johnny less than an hour to verify the accuracy of his prediction. Within 50 minutes, three kids are smoking weed on the back, four have walked out to meet their friends in the bakery on the street outside the school, Oji is trading stuff sitting at the school deserted lunch area, while security walks around him trying hard not to notice that he is there, Carlos is working on some new lyrics, the newcomers are sitting in a circle on the floor speaking in Spanish, and the sub is ignoring them while he keeps busy playing his guitar. The next day is the same. And the next. And the next.
Nobody knows where Doctor is gone, but Johnny hears rumors that she resigned after the Principal tried to write her up for sending too many kids to the office. “Bet you that’d bother her all right,” Johnny thinks. He knows that the Principal’s favorite pass time is to walk around looking important in the hope of feeling admired by her fellow community members, from whom she feels she has finally elevated herself. Johnny looks at the petty administrator and for the first time, he is conscious of the admiration he feels for the teacher he lost: The first one that made him earn his grades, the first one to make him feel worthy of himself, the first one who stood up to the system for him. The only one who truly cared for him enough to do that. The one who paid the price.
Johnny never got an A in summer school. He got a B, the hardest ever earned B in his life. The most valuable, too. Johnny doesn’t know yet, but he will never get to be a paramedic, or a janitor. He will never be a rapper or a youtuber, either. One day, John Salazar will choose a career as a social worker. He will be gainfully employed by the Department of Child and Family Services during a long, productive career. He will protect children in foster care, immigrant newcomers and impoverished families in communities like the one he grew up in. He will get to have children and grandchildren, one of whom will become a published author of some celebrity. One day, after he retires, he will publish his memoirs, revealing his intervention in a famous case of sexual abuse that was uncovered by the press years before, and through that book, the seeds of her legacy will be planted in the wind. Long after she is gone.