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Street Smart

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He marches down to the high school in a foul mood, fully aggrieved and convinced that he's justifiably done for the year.

"Ma," he yells, almost belligerent. "Where my speech at?"

Fran shouts back from the front steps, telling him to look on the dresser top.

"I got that," yells DeAndre, bringing his mother up the front stairs. "Where the rest of it?"

"The rest of what?"

"There was more pages."

"That's all you showed me."

"Yeah, right."

Fran explodes, telling him she has no use for his school papers and no reason to lie about their whereabouts. "Why you want 'em anyway?" she yells from the stoop.

DeAndre mumbles a profanity in response.

"What?"

"Practice," he says, rooting through the dresser for a few more minutes. Slinging the suit over his shoulder, he cracks the bedroom door, then walks to the front stairs, waiting there until his mother leaves the stoop and descends to the basement. When she does, he slides quietly down the stairs. All the way down Fayette Street, he's telling himself that he can't give his speech, that he's missing the rest of the pages, that even if he had those pages, and even if he'd practiced, and even if this country-ass suit actually fit him, he still wouldn't tell his mother. She'd only try and tear him down like she always did, complain because he hadn't practiced or done more with it. She's always downing me that way, he tells himself, talking about what he should be doin' and how he should be livin' when she ain't doin' shit her own self.

He marches down to the high school in a foul mood, fully aggrieved and convinced that he's justifiably done for the year, that it's just a matter of telling Rose Davis that he can't wear a geechy suit and that his Ma threw his speech out. Either that, or just tell her, fuck it, I got other shit to do.

On the front steps of the school, he runs across Randy, a C.M.B. hanger-on, who's talking about going up to the Boys' Club to lift weights, or maybe going downtown.

"Wait up," DeAndre assures him. "I be right back out."

But once inside, the gravitational field shifts. He's confronted in the front hallway by Rose Davis, who catches a glimpse of him through the outer office door and follows him down the corridor before he can think of anything to say.

"DeAndre!"

"Huh."

"Where are you going?" she asks, guiding him gently with one hand to his shoulder. "Mrs. Thompson is waiting upstairs."

"I don't think this fits," he says, holding the suit out by the hanger, hoping she'll take it back.

"You tried it on, didn't you?"

DeAndre shakes his head.

"Well, go up and see Mrs. Thompson," she says, steering him toward the stairwell. "I'm sure it'll be fine."

He climbs the stairs with a tightness in his stomach, trying to muster some anger at his predicament, telling himself that even if he was going to give the speech, he looks all right now. Fuck this, he thinks. No need to wear no white man's suit.

"We have to hurry," Donna Thompson tells him. "You're late."

He's a trapped animal. "Man, look at this geechy-looking thing," he says. "I ain't wearing this outside."

"DeAndre, just try it on."

He looks at her, then down at the jacket.

"Go on."

He begins unbuttoning his shirt and the English teacher, taking her cue, heads for the door. DeAndre plays the moment.

"All man," he declares, pounding his bare chest.

Donna Thompson ignores him.

By the time DeAndre gets out of the car, the necktie is sagging and the shirt tail hangs free--he is rebelling as best he can.

He emerges five minutes later to find his English teacher and Rose Davis waiting for him in the hallway. Shirt, slacks, jacket, belt, and shoes--everything's a fit, though the shirt collar is a little tight. He carries the necktie--striped, subdued, very Republican--in his hand, unable to negotiate any kind of knot.

"That fits nice," says Donna Thompson.

"Mr. James," says Rose Davis, calling to a teacher at the other end of the hall. "Could you come here and help this fine-looking young man with his tie?"

DeAndre laughs awkwardly. Smiling broadly, Mr. James battles the necktie to a full Windsor while DeAndre finds more to complain about: "You chokin' me to death. I don't see how people wear clothes like this."

"But you look so fine, DeAndre," says Rose Davis.

"Mmmm hmmm," says Donna Thompson.

The two women begin to lead the way to the stairwell. It seems there's no going back on the bargain, though DeAndre is still looking for an out.

"I don't have my speech," he tells them. "My ma lost it."

The English teacher returns to her classroom for a fresh copy, and minutes later they're out the door. At least Randy is no longer waiting for him; that much is a relief to DeAndre, who feels shame at allowing himself to be displayed this way. Mrs. Thompson drives east across town, heading for a middle school at the other end of North Avenue. By the time DeAndre gets out of the car, the necktie is sagging and the shirt tail hangs free--he is rebelling as best he can.

His teacher pauses to straighten him.

"I look geechy," DeAndre insists.

At the front doors of the middle school, two elderly women come out just as this unlikely apparition--this dreadlocked, gold-toothed scholar, his street presence at odds with the corporate uniform--is on the way in.

"Young man, don't you look nice."

"Yes, he certainly does."

Suddenly, his head comes up in a broad smile. He loses all of his corner chill and actually struts through the front hall. The women at the registration table add to the accolades--even more so as it becomes clear that DeAndre is a participant in the dramatic-reading competition, one of the few boys, in fact, to be included.

The attention has an effect. After registering, DeAndre squares his shoulders in a Cagney-like contortion, then glides into the auditorium as if his entrance is victory itself. Donna Thompson, however, is showing enough fear and trepidation for both of them.

"DeAndre stepped in when the young man who was supposed to read was absent," she explains to the registrar, fearing the worst for her charge. "He hasn't practiced as much as..."

Her voice trails off, and the other women nod sympathetically.

Inside the auditorium, DeAndre is escorted to the stage; he's there in the nick of time, with only a minute before his group is scheduled. He's seated at the back of the stage in the center chair of three, with a girl on either side. The judges are in the front row facing the stage. Donna Thompson slips quietly into the last row. She drops her purse, crosses her legs, and bows her head, one hand over her eyes in what seems to be a prolonged moment of prayer.

DeAndre is oblivious. All he knows at this point is that he's dressed to kill and they've dropped him between two sweet young schoolgirls, both of them nervous and earnest. The girls are sweating the contest; their worthy adversary judges their legs.

The white girl from Southeast is called first. She launches into Eliza Doolittle's vengeful rant from My Fair Lady. "Just you wait 'enry 'iggins," she promises in a flawless Cockney, her face ripe with wounded pride.

For whatever reason, DeAndre raised his hand. And today he showed up, wore the suit, went through with it, so that for at least this moment, he has stepped from the shadows of the corner.

She finishes with a righteous flourish, nods respectfully to the judges, and returns to her seat. DeAndre watches with a vague interest that grows deeper when the taller black girl rises to begin her own presentation.

"'...and I'm proud he was brave and helped save somebody else 'fore he got killed. But I can't help thinkin' Willie died fightin' in the wrong place....'"

The black girl is regal in her delivery of the soliloquy from A Medal for Willie, the William Branch play. Transformed into a middle-aged mother, she musters every ounce of dignity to deny those who had the audacity to misuse her son. The girl's voice is full and sonorous, flooding the auditorium with a mother's pain.

"'So you can take this medal back on up to Washington and tell 'em I don't want it. Take it back. Pin it on your own shirt. Give it to the ones who keeps this big lie goin'....'"

She sits, and the judges call for DeAndre McCullough from Francis M. Woods High School. There is no show of panic, no sense that he's out of his league, that he's just witnessed two very polished presentations--each performed from memory, each with the flourishes of real stagecraft.

He stands, walks almost casually to the podium, and goes into his jacket pocket for three sheets of paper that he slowly unfolds and arranges in front of him.

"'I say to you today, my friends...'"

His voice is firm, with some of the Southern Baptist texture required. He doesn't falter or stutter, but neither does he dare to lift his eyes from the paper and risk losing his place.

"'...that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveholders...'"

He is reading and reading well, and the absence of whatever dramatic emphasis is required for King's extraordinary dream is, for Donna Thompson, of secondary consequence. No, DeAndre will not win points from any judges today, but neither will he be embarrassed. For whatever reason, he raised his hand. And today he showed up, wore the suit, went through with it, so that for at least this moment, he has stepped from the shadows of the corner. In the back of the auditorium, Donna Thompson is caught up in the emotion of this small triumph. She visibly gives way to her own relief, opening her eyes and staring up at the ceiling with an expression of pure thankfulness.

"'I have a dream today....'"

DeAndre begins to sense the end, to realize that after a few paragraphs more, escape is certain. The dramatic flourishes are fewer; the words roll past in a rush, and perhaps intentionally, DeAndre inserts his own first-person ad lib at the very end.

"'Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty I'm free at last.'"

Free is free. DeAndre lumbers away from the lectern without acknowledging the judges. He leaves the pieces of his speech behind and makes his way up the aisle. Donna Thompson is there to embrace him.

He's been to the mountaintop, and only when he swims through the sea of congratulations in the outer lobby and emerges from the school building is the dream once again deferred. Out in the parking lot, DeAndre yanks the tie from his neck and strips himself of the jacket and dress shirt. He pulls the slacks off over his shoes, leaving only his knee-length shorts and a tank top.

He balls up the dress clothes, tossing them into the car trunk. He's quickly back in character, regaling Donna Thompson with a detailed assessment of the two contestants who preceded him: "Yeah boy, they was both fine as I don't know what. I be awright with either one an' better with both."

It's almost enough to make her believe that he couldn't care less, that the journey was lost on him. But as they get in the car, he stops her in an altogether different voice.

"You know," he says quietly. "I can win this next year if I want to."

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