Street Smart

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Like so many of Rose Davis's students, DeAndre is keeping a foot in both camps, straddling for a brief moment two disparate worlds.

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.

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