Education Opinion

Street Smart

By Edward Burns & David Simon — October 01, 1997 28 min read
To his teachers, he was just another bit player in the city’s violent and booming drug trade. Few expected him to show up for class, let alone make them proud.

In The Corner, Edward Burns and David Simon chronicle life around the Fayette Street drug market in Baltimore. Burns, a cop-turned-teacher, and Simon, a reporter and the author of the book that inspired the television series Homicide, tell the story of DeAndre McCullough, a 15-year-old already peddling drugs on turf that he’s carved out on Fairmount Avenue.

Sitting on the stoop, DeAndre decides that this is his last night on Fairmount. He works his package down that evening, and the next morning, he does his laundry in the tub. Dressed in still damp clothes, he heads down Fayette Street past the Fairmount corner and two blocks farther to Francis M. Woods High School, the only school in Baltimore that would consider for more than a second the idea of enrolling DeAndre McCullough. Chin to chest, eyes cast down, he is deep inside himself as he walks stiff-legged, driving his heels mechanically into the pavement.

He climbs the school steps like he belongs, trying several of the front doors. All locked. He rings the buzzer, content to wait. He’s spent an inordinate amount of time on the wrong side of a locked school door, in most cases accompanied by his mother, waiting for the authorities to reach a decision, waiting to start again. Standing here today in the January cold, he stares indifferently into the lens of the security camera. Finally, he hears the buzz of the door release and snatches the handle.

Inside, he’s greeted by Gould, the school security officer. “Good to have you back, brother.”

DeAndre smiles sheepishly, then enters the front office to wait for Miss Davis. He’s sure she will claim him, his confidence secured, at least for this moment, by his newfound resolve to attend class and do the work. He knows that for his part, he’s willing to let bygones be bygones, and he’s hoping the assistant principal sees it the same way.

Rose Davis has created a haven at Francis M. Woods High School for those rebellious, damaged spirits shipwrecked and abandoned by the rest of the city school system. She is everywhere at Francis Woods: a calming influence, encouraging and chiding, trying to get her charges to realize some of their potential, or at least some of their value, fighting what amounts to an endless rear guard action against the corner itself. She makes it her business to travel the local markets, where she sees many of her students and former students hanging. She’s seen DeAndre on Fairmount; she knows what that’s about.

He sits there in the office, wrapped in an unlikely innocence, waiting to be given yet another chance, accustomed to this moment of feigned redemption. DeAndre is forever in a school’s administrative office, forever waiting to talk to an administrator. His academic standard is defined by a long streak of second-day suspensions, allowing him the opportunity to attend the first day of every semester, showing off new outfits and hightops and front for the girls. Once all joy is squeezed from that first day, DeAndre follows up with a quick scuttling of the academics and a disciplinary suspension of no less than two weeks, or with any luck at all, a month or more. His friends’ school disciplinary sheets aren’t shabby, but DeAndre always manages to go them one better. For all of them, school is something to endure until the age of 15 and a half; the law says 16, but the children of Fayette Street have the juvenile court backlog figured into the equation. Within that framework, most learn to at least go through the motions. A few of the regulars of DeAndre’s crew, the Crenshaw Mafia Brothers, won’t bother showing up, preferring to take their chances with the juvenile system. But the rest do, with some regularity, take a seat in classrooms that seem to them entirely disconnected from the facts of their world.

For DeAndre, there is no common ground with anything resembling authority, and his juvenile sheet chronicles a constant struggle to stand true to himself regardless of the damage done. DeAndre McCullough doesn’t bend, and he doesn’t forgive, and he never forgets. In the classroom, he flies the flag of piracy and insolence. He is about struggle.

In nursery school, he had words with a little girl and ended up crowning her with a chair. That was the first suspension. In the 2nd and 4th grades, he fought with his teachers, taking charges for assault and more suspensions. In the 5th grade, he was asked to leave three separate schools. In the 7th grade, he failed to embrace an anti-drug presentation at the school and joined the select few who can claim a charge of punching an armed Baltimore City police officer during classroom hours.

For DeAndre McCullough, there is no common ground with anything resembling authority. He doesn’t bend, and he doesn’t forgive, and he never forgets. In the classroom, he flies the flag of piracy and insolence.

It’s not as if the school officials weren’t aware of the challenge. They caught on to DeAndre early and sent him, at age 10, to a big brother program, hoping a role model would have a positive influence. It didn’t take, but still they moved him along. He’s too smart to be held back, the officials would tell his mother, Fran, who learned to anticipate that on the second day of any given semester, she could expect an invitation to meet with some vice principal at some school somewhere in the city.

But things seemed to change last September, when DeAndre came to Francis Woods and the enlightened administration of Miss Rose Davis. Fresh from his wild summer on Fairmount, DeAndre arrived at school in high spirits, and come the second day of classes, he stayed put. He was there the third day, as well. And the fourth. His mother began to believe that her son had turned a corner.

What they didn’t know about this sudden commitment to academics was its origin, which had to do with a hot weekend night that summer, when the boys of C.M.B. got deep and decided to take a walk into South Baltimore, down to Ramsay Street in search of a rumored house party. They found it, but they weren’t exactly welcomed--at least not by the Stricker and Ramsay crew, who sensed a territorial violation. Eyes glaring, the two groups managed for a time to keep their distance, but when you’re traveling with the likes of Boo and Dorian, two tough C.M.B. regulars, trouble is assured. Words got tossed, then fists, until a full-blown brawl tumbled outside. C.M.B. held its own; DeAndre and R.C. were doing most of the damage until one of the Stricker and Ramsay boys--Sherman Smith, by name--tilted the table and came out with his iron. A couple of misspent shots, and C.M.B. was on the run.

It wasn’t anything special. They’d had their share of shooting and being shot at and were usually content to laugh it off in the safety of the rec center playground, R.C. often taking the lead in editing the encounter: “Yo, we was fucking them up. Yo, did you see DeAndre hit that motherfucker? Yo, he dropped him.”

That they got run off, that they were fighting tame when the other side had their guns out didn’t matter. In R.C.'s version, victory would always be assured.

But on that occasion, R.C.'s revisionism wasn’t enough for DeAndre, who crept back home to get his 380 semi, a weary thing that could have used a little more care. Creeping back down near McHenry Street that same night, DeAndre spotted Sherman and let one fly, but missed. Sherman returned fire, and a rolling gun battle ensued, at least until DeAndre’s gun fell apart, the clip hitting the ground, the bullets spilling onto the pavement.

He tried frantically to stuff the bullets into the clip, but Sherman, sensing weakness, pressed the attack and sent DeAndre scurrying back up top. Safe on the other side of Baltimore Street, his body soaked in sweat, DeAndre vowed revenge. And true to that purpose, he spent the rest of the summer hunting Sherman, but the boy was nowhere to be found.

Until September, when on that first day of class, during the homeroom roll call, DeAndre caught the sound of two magic words: “Sherman Smith.”

Yeah boy. Brightening, he scanned the room.

”...Sherman Smith...”

No response. Marked absent.

DeAndre left school that day inspired. Of all the schools and of all the classes, fate chose to put Sherman in the same blessed room. All he had to do was wait him out, and for that, DeAndre was in school the next day and the day after that and for as long as it took. All the time praying that Sherman wasn’t locked up, or doing so well on some corner that he wouldn’t ever come to class.

As the September days ran one to the next, his resolve never wavered. Every morning he was up and out, attending each of his first three classes, then maybe cutting out only when he was sure Sherman was a no-show.

DeAndre failed to embrace an anti-drug presentation at the school and joined the select few who can claim a charge of punching an armed Baltimore City police officer during classroom hours.

He even asked his mother to help him get up in the mornings. Fran responded initially with suspicion, but after a week or so, DeAndre could see she was impressed at his effort.

Two weeks into the semester, DeAndre was in a third-floor hallway when he focused on the vision that was Sherman, bending over to open a metal locker.

“Yeah boy!”

DeAndre dropped his binder and charged. Sherman had a second to straighten up before DeAndre crashed into him, sending both boys sprawling across the floor. DeAndre was on top quickly, raining fists as Sherman balled up like a possum.

Later in her office, Rose Davis let loose on both DeAndre and Sherman, ordering them to come back the next day with a parent. DeAndre left first and quickly found R.C., who was hanging on Fulton Avenue with Dorian.

“Look at these,” he declared, raising his swollen hands with pride. “Fucked that boy up.”

“DeAndre, you a crazy nigger, yo,” R.C. assured him.

Then it was off to tell Fran, who listened to the whole story and gave back only a cold look of disappointment. Watching her, DeAndre actually felt bad for the first time and found himself promising to continue with school if Fran would go and talk with Miss Davis.

“Andre, you got to be joking,” she told him.

But the next day, Fran went with her son to see Rose Davis, who greeted Fran warmly and ushered her into her office. As long as DeAndre could remember, Fran had always attended these meetings and, regardless of her own problems, had always managed to wear her concern into the room.

“You can come in, too,” added Rose, her eyebrows raised. DeAndre had settled in on the couch in the outer office. “There are no secrets here.”

True to form, Rose had spent part of the previous day tapping into her considerable sources, pinning down the details of the McCullough-Smith feud. With the three of them seated in her office, she let a long silence undermine DeAndre’s confidence, staring at him until he dropped his head and began to fidget. She related to Fran her son’s history with Sherman.

Damn, thought DeAndre. Who’s snitching?

“Well, DeAndre,” Rose said, turning her attention to him, “your attendance has certainly improved from last year.”

He was out of his depth, and he knew it, hiding behind a mumbled, “Yes’m.”

“So now that you’ve settled your little score, I guess we won’t be seeing very much of you around here anymore.”

“No, I’m going to go,” he insisted. “I’m going to go.”

“Well, let’s just write that down.”

She handed him her little account book, the repository for so many handwritten promises, all duly signed. Some were kept, most were forgotten, but all were used to try to bind her students to her, to put it on a personal level.

DeAndre had signed that promise, but as the fall days grew shorter, he felt the ache of his poverty, the desolation of the rowhouse bedroom on Fayette Street that he shares with his mother and brother, and the lure of the nightly action. Slowly, inexorably, he slipped off to Fairmount Avenue.

Now he’s back. And of course, Rose Davis will take him on the rolls, give him another chance, promise even to promote him if he can pull himself together. She sees no other choice. Like so many of her students, DeAndre is keeping a foot in both camps, straddling for a brief moment the two disparate worlds. If she can keep him coming to school four days out of five--three days a week, even--she might have a shot. If he stops entirely, then she has lost another one--a gifted one, in fact--to the corner.

The door to Rose Davis’ office opens. She acknowledges DeAndre with a rueful nod.

“Hey,” he says, breaking the ice.

“You can come in,” she tells him.

DeAndre rises, glancing again at Rose as he steps past her in the office doorway. To his surprise, she is smiling.

His hand is up. In the air.

Donna Thompson can’t immediately fathom it--this vision of the McCullough boy looking blankly at her from the other end of the classroom, arm raised, palm open. Patient.

She asked for a volunteer, figuring that she might rope an actual high school student into a little bit of extracurricular oratory. Instead, and through no fault of her own, she gets DeAndre.

For a moment or two, she stares at the upraised hand, then elsewhere around the room, then back at the hand. DeAndre looks back at her with no hint of malevolence, but still, she’s cautious, suspecting that this unlikely act of classroom participation is a setup. She figures DeAndre is looking for a chance to clown. Or raise hell. Or ask a question completely off point. Or, at best, respond to her sincere call for extra effort by asking, in the blandest of tones, if he can use the bathroom or sharpen his pencil.

She’s given her query the proper wait-time, hoping for some other hands to shoot up. But now the empty pause is washing back on her, with DeAndre alone and waiting. She breathes deeply and then does what a Baltimore city school teacher has to do every day. She gives the kid the benefit of the doubt.


“I’ll do it.”

Heads turn, but the silence holds. No one is quite sure where this is going, and Donna Thompson is working hard to suppress that part of her ready to assume the worst.

“Have you read the speech before?”

“I heard it.”

“You know it’s for today’s assembly?”

DeAndre nods. He’s serious. Lord, he’s serious. She arms him with a xeroxed copy of Martin Luther King Jr.'s finest words, and he begins to absorb them, his head lowered in quiet concentration. The rest of the kids are watching DeAndre expectantly, waiting on the mayhem that is sure to follow, figuring there must be a punch line in here somewhere. But he ignores them, his lips moving silently through sentences that seem ancient and familiar.

Donna Thompson, who has taught English in the city schools for 12 years, can only wonder at the chain of absurdity that has brought them to this point. DeAndre has been dead weight in this class since September, his sole achievement being that he has been present for nearly as many days as not.

He’s smart. She knows that. All his teachers know it; they lament him in the faculty room and the front office. The elusive Mr. McCullough floats in and out of their classes, never settling into a functional rhythm, never completing anything he begins or showing signs of real commitment. Yet they are given occasional glimpses of ability and wit, of the mind that denies them any connection.

In January, he actually had a notebook. Blue denim, with a plastic pocket and a couple of No. 2 pencils. For a while, he filled it with copied questions and rote answers--the usual ditto-sheet fodder that the city teachers threw his way.

“Four resources of Africa: gold, silver, diamonds, oil.”

“Define the following terms: tariffs, interpret, census.”

“Who was Crispus Attucks?”

“Madame C. J. Walker invented the hot comb. She developed an entire line of beauty supplies. She was the first black millionaire.”

For reasons he himself didn’t understand, DeAndre had volunteered to culminate his academic wanderings by learning the great words of a great man and speaking them in front of a school assembly.

But the notebook was long gone, left behind on the bleachers in the Francis M. Woods gym, unmissed and unmourned by a young man for whom the ditto sheets and blackboard questions had no meaning. Africa was somewhere else. Crispus Attucks was dead. No one he knew was clocking a roll by slinging hot combs.

Academically, what remained for DeAndre was the symbolic gesture of walking through the school doors, and then--by dint of some modest improvements in classroom demeanor--not being tossed back out by the school security guards on a regular basis. For him, school had for years been nothing more or less than a social event, a guaranteed happening in a life of daily sameness. His boys were all at school; the girls, too. You went because shit happened there, and nothing much was going on anywhere else. For some kids, like R.C., television and basketball were enough. If it was a choice between school or television, R.C. would be back in the house after his mother went to work, lost in the animated bliss of X-Men or G.I. Joe or Spiderman until the soaps came on and it was time to grab some buckets. But for DeAndre, that didn’t get it.

Rose Davis had let him back into the school on his promise that he would come to class. She, in turn, had promised that if he would show a glimmer of interest or just sit quietly and go through the motions, he would be eligible for a social promotion to the 10th grade at the end of the year. Rose had faithfully recorded the agreement in her blue contract book, and DeAndre’s signature had been affixed with an earnest and appreciative smile.

Social promotion was, of course, the endgame for all concerned. Everything else had failed: Braced with multiculturalism and a hands-on, child-centered approach, the curriculum had nonetheless lost all connection to DeAndre’s world. He held suspect the interest or praise of caring teachers, knowing their values would never sustain him on Fayette Street. The promise of taking any other road, of securing some better life through the prospects of a high school diploma--this meant nothing to him. The negotiations had dwindled to a last, lonely ploy, one premised on unsubtle bribery.

All of which made DeAndre McCullough’s single act of participation all the more extraordinary. Between his pursuit of a working wage and his indifference to academics, he hadn’t managed enough class attendance this spring to remotely justify even a social promotion to the 10th grade. As for actual effort, his standard had been set since January, when he announced to every one of his teachers that they needed to get one thing straight: He would not do homework. Moreover, he had it in his mind already that if Rose Davis did not find it in herself to promote him simply because he was on the planet breathing air, he would not be back in September. Yet for reasons he himself didn’t understand, DeAndre had volunteered to culminate his academic wanderings by learning the great words of a great man and speaking them in front of a school assembly.

As he walks with his English teacher to the school gym that afternoon, DeAndre McCullough is, even by his own reckoning, holding to the tail of a long string of improbabilities. What, he asks himself, am I doing here?

For one thing, he had to get out of bed this morning, scratch together clean clothes, and begin walking east. Not south toward the Ramsay Street playground and a day of pickup basketball. Not north to Edmondson and Mount for some of that good weed. Not west to R.C.'s apartment. No, it was east toward the high school.

DeAndre McCullough is, even by his own reckoning, holding to the tail of a long string of improbabilities. What, he asks himself, am I doing here?

He had to bypass Gilmor Street and the chance to hook up with one of the crews selling there. He had to step past his girlfriend’s house and the chance to convince her to skip school and spend the day running the street. He had to get to Calhoun Street and turn--not right toward Baltimore Street and the men selling the weed out of the auto garage, but left toward the school doors. He had to open those doors, then try not to provoke Gould, the school security officer, when Gould greeted him in the lobby.

“Good to see you, son.”


Then he had to dodge Rose Davis, who had tracked so many of his absences that she was likely to pull him into the office for another conference. He had to get through the hallways and past the bathrooms and out of the stairwells--all of which offered opportunities for companionship, disturbance, and adventure. He had to survive his first class, no easy feat when Mr. James is droning on about electrons and neutrons, and a couple of the McHenry Street boys are clowning in the back, throwing dice against the wall. Then he had to pass up a dozen other chances at escape--as a hundred other students were discharged into the common hallway--and step into his English class.

From there, some divine intervention was necessary. The kid who had agreed to give the speech had to be absent, so that Miss Thompson, in desperation, would have to appeal at the last minute to the rest of the class. And her class, united in its detachment, would have to leave her hanging there, waiting, until salvation was possible only from the unlikeliest source. Then finally, he had to raise his hand.

In the gym, DeAndre can sense the palpable buzz of incredulity as he’s introduced.

He coughs once and offers a quick, furtive smile. Then he begins. “‘I have a dream...’”

He takes in curious looks from the faculty and suppressed laughter from some of his boys in the bleachers.

“‘I say to you today, my friends...that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment...I still have a dream....’”

And he’s good. So good, in fact, that the same teachers who customarily mark Mr. McCullough’s report card with a circled Comment Number Five--"conduct interferes with learning"--are now looking at each other from the edges of the gymnasium, their eyebrows up, traces of a smile playing on one or two of the more generous faces. Rose Davis nods knowingly, as if this outcome were certain and assured.

After the assembly, Donna Thompson is genuinely proud, telling DeAndre that he was wonderful, encouraging him to take it further and represent the school in the citywide oratory contest. He’ll have two weeks to memorize and practice, with Mrs. Thompson as his coach. And DeAndre, caught in the elation of the moment, actually agrees.

Two weeks later, in the waning days of the school year, he wakes up late, washes, grabs the suit that Rose Davis let him borrow, and then rummages through the bedroom dresser and a dozen jacket and pants pockets, finding only a third of the necessary words. Half-dressed, he goes to the apartment door and shouts down the steps to Fran, who is on the stoop.

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.


“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.



“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.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 1997 edition of Teacher as Street Smart