Under the Gun | Essay | Chicago Reader

Under the Gun 

A teacher's worst nightmare becomes a lesson in self-respect.

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On a Tuesday morning in early March 20 years ago Anthony Green said he would kill me. I had scheduled a filmstrip for my Tuesday 10 AM freshman English class, because it clearly demonstrated the differences between poetry and prose and because it used music the kids liked--the Doors, Bob Dylan, the Fifth Dimension. We were ten minutes into it, and a couple of students already had their heads down. I let them be. Maybe the lessons would seep through their subconscious.

I was on the side of the room opposite the open door, leaning against the radiator. A lone male figure walked past the door without looking in. Dirty. I walked around the back of the room so as not to break the light beam from the projector. In the semidarkness, with the music and the cooling fan for the projector bulb blowing, I could slip out of the room and my students would barely notice.

Teachers didn't go out to challenge every passerby, only those who fit the profile. Anyone carrying a large wooden hall pass was "clean." A female carrying books, moving quickly toward the stairs, didn't require attention. But a male with his hands in his pockets, making a wide turn toward the exit, walking slowly, arrogantly, shoulders slightly forward, affecting nonchalance but defensive, lips tight together, was dirty. His body language translated to "I'm at this darkened end of the hallway because I've either just broken a rule or am about to, and I don't think anyone cares enough to stop me."

It wasn't the broken rule that made me head out to confront him, but the apparent assumption that he could break it with impunity. Confronting him was an interruption, a bother, an effort of will. But if I tolerated it, anything I did inside the classroom became a joke. I had to show that the learning within was important enough to warrant protection and discipline. I couldn't inspire and lead and educate my students if I seemed to allow others to disrespect me and everything the school was supposed to stand for. And the students had to see that it was better to be in here than out there--just as it was better to keep their bedroom neat and clean and organized, even though the rest of the house was a mess.

I moved quietly through the door and toward the exit, then saw him get turned back by the chain and padlock wrapping the brass handles of the doors. As soon as he noticed me his left hand came out of his pocket, though his right one stayed in. He was about three inches taller than I, maybe six two, with a very short Afro and clean, handsome features. But his eyes were steel--amazing in someone only 15--and his mouth was set hard. He was wearing black jeans and running shoes and a baggy black team jacket. His gaze met mine, then ricocheted, fixing on some point over my shoulder.

I stood still in his path. "Where's your class?"

His eyes flickered over my face. He veered a little right and said nothing.

"Let me see your ID." We were still seven feet apart under a dim fluorescent fixture. I moved right.

He stopped. It wasn't a compliant stop. There's a complex kinesthetic ceremony among males, particularly between males and authority figures. If he veered to walk around me it would be avoidance. If he tried to walk through me it would be desperation. So he stopped and showed a kind of careless equanimity, what's known as "heart."

"I need to see some ID." I'd said this half a dozen times a day, five days a week, for years. But I usually saw the smile he bared only if a kid's posse was with him. He was alone.

He didn't move, though there was a shinier kind of knowing in his eyes. He was seeing more of me than I of him, so I moved to reclaim the advantage by stepping forward. "We're walking to the office then," I said, reaching out to take his arm.

He recoiled an inch, and the smile disappeared. That's when he said it: "If you touch me I'll blow you away." Not shouted, not hissed, but spoken softly, coolly, as if he'd practiced the words in front of a mirror.

Those eight words filled me with a strange, icy fire, and I actually looked down, expecting blood to soak my shirt.

I was 30 years old and had been teaching for seven years at Chicago Vocational High School, a 50-year-old cavernous three-story building on East 87th Street with seven miles of corridors, 22 unlocked entryways, and a campus of roughly six acres--territory variously claimed by the Gangster Disciples and the Vice Lords. There were 4,000 students, along with a come-and-go population of drug sellers, gang recruiters, and petty thieves. And one cop. But Officer Bradford took his lunch from 11:30 to 12:30.

It surprised me that there hadn't been more killings or more than the one or two school-related shootings we'd had that year. Sure, we had a tough principal, Reginald Brown, whom the kids respected and feared. And from our faculty of 200 teachers, we had a subset of about 30 men, mostly PE and shop teachers, who patrolled the trouble areas--bus stops, lunchroom, auditorium, the doors farthest from the center of campus. Brown cheered them on, encouraging them to rush to help when there was trouble and to supervise extracurricular events. But they still had to teach five 50-minute classes a day as we sought to reverse ever-declining test scores and an escalating dropout rate.

I taught journalism and English at the end of the two-story Chappel wing, a 1,000-foot section of the building that paralleled Chappel Avenue. My classroom, room 102, was the very last on the first floor, a good quarter mile from the main office, from the discipline office, from official help. There were teachers inside the other rooms lining the hallway--the print shop, the graphic arts lab, a math classroom, a carpentry shop, a wood shop, and one large, unlighted room used for storage. But their doors were closed and locked to keep out the kind of interloper who'd just threatened to shoot me. And with lathes and printing presses and planes whirring and rumbling throughout the day, a blast from a nine-millimeter automatic or even a 12-gauge shotgun would hardly have been noticed.

Adjacent to my classroom was the office for the school newspaper, the Trademaster, and across from the office was exit number one, infamous since 1973, when a 17-year-old male was found shot to death there the day before Christmas Eve, lying in his blood on the dirty quarry-tile floor between the inner and outer doorways. A padlocked chain wrapped around the door handles had prevented him from fleeing his pursuer, who was able to get off a shot at close range from a .38-caliber revolver. The entire freshman class and their teachers, including me, had been assembled in the auditorium for the music department's Christmas program, and I remember being ordered to keep the students a full 45 minutes after the show was over, listening to encores of "Away in a Manger" and "What Child Is This?" not knowing until later that the police needed the time to finish mopping up the blood.

The chain and lock were kept off the doors for a while after that, which meant a constant stream of unimpeded traffic in and out all morning and afternoon. Some was innocent enough, with students leaving to walk home or catch the bus or go to their cars. Some students went out for lunch--a violation of the rules under the closed-campus policy--and would leave a pencil or hair pick or folded-up Sun-Times in the doorjamb so they could get back in. Other students went out for a cigarette or a joint and would prop the door open the same way.

We had only three hall monitors at CVS, schooled in neither education nor law enforcement. One stayed in the vicinity of the lunchroom cultivating a customer base for his side business in retail vitamins. Another guarded the main corridor, an already secure section of the building, where her high-pitched Spanish imprecations were fairly unnecessary. The last was assigned the Anthony wing outpost, where he reclined in a student desk and caught up on his sleep after working the night shift at the Sherwin-Williams paint factory. So students who left the building could easily get back in, which wasn't such a bad thing if they wanted to go to class. But also propping open the doors were troublemakers who never went to class, kids who entered the building only to talk to friends, to get food or sex, to use the bathrooms, or simply to escape the cold or the heat or the wars outside. Some of them broke into lockers, strong-armed students, recruited for gangs, threatened enemies, sold drugs or weapons.

This traffic flowed not 30 feet from where I was trying to teach sentence structure and colonial literature to my sophomores and newspaper writing to my journalism class. I could have locked my door as the other teachers did. I tried that for a while, but I would lie awake at night thinking that what I was trying to accomplish in the classroom seemed absurd if I was hiding from what our principal said was our responsibility outside our doors. So I started leaving it open, stepping out several times during each class to question hall walkers, to remove objects that propped the exit doors open, or to take potential trespassers to the security office. Each of my five classes got used to my leaving them with instructions to read or write while I walked a miscreant or two to the office. I got a lot of eye rolling from the already overburdened Officer Bradford, but I didn't stop.

The dope smokers frustrated me the most. They'd huddle just inside the doors, filling the hall with the acrid smell of marijuana, bolting outside if anyone approached. So I finally brought my own chain and lock to secure the doors.

I'd be at the blackboard, drawing lines between the syllables of words on a vocabulary list when I'd catch a whiff of marijuana. "You're in charge," I'd tell one of my students as I headed out. One time I walked into the hall and saw the furtive movements of two boys, both maybe 16, through the glass panels of the first set of swinging doors. The shorter one I'd seen before. They turned their backs. I pushed through the doors, saw sparks as the tall one stamped out a roach. He picked it up and pocketed it, then he and his friend turned to face me, their backs against the chained doors.

"IDs, fellas."

They, hands in their pockets, didn't move.

"I have all day," I said. I'd done this before. Their only escape was through me, but no kid had ever even tried to touch me.

"Bradford took mine," said the shorter kid. He acted bored. The other kid was jumpy.

"Show me something, anything."

They searched through their pockets. One of them finally produced a library card, the other a school ID. I took the cards and told them to follow me. I stopped to tell my students to hold tight, and some of them stared wide-eyed at the pot smokers.

"Ooh, McGrath done bust you," said one of my girls as we headed for the office.

Some students I'd busted had run away at this point, though it didn't make much sense because I had their names. Most, like the short kid, Rodney, tried persuasion.

"Aw look, man, why don't you let us slide?"

"I don't need you to call me 'man.'"

"Oh, no, sir. But what did we do, man--I mean, sir?"

This went on for about a block and a half. Rodney said neither one of them could afford trouble now--Bradford had already told them it was their last chance, and they could get kicked out since they were past 16, and wasn't I ever young before? The pleading stopped, as it generally did, when we got into the main corridor, where some classrooms were open and students with hall passes were walking around. Rodney and his friend didn't want to be seen begging the man.

"Who you got there?" said Bradford. He was seated at his desk, pen poised above paper, a female student with a pouty expression in the chair next to the desk--likely hauled in for fighting or vandalism.

"They were smoking dope at exit number one."

Rodney and the other kid protested. Bradford told them firmly to shut up and sit down. He took the IDs from me and told them to empty their pockets. "You know for sure it was dope, Mr. McGrath?" he said. "You smelled the 'pungent, incenselike aroma'?"

"Yes. There's probably some left on the floor there if you want to make a case. But I have to get back--I left my class."

When Anthony Green,

which is not his real name, was turned back by the padlocked doors my encounter with him should have been just as routine. Walk him to the discipline office and never think about him again. Instead, he threatened to blow me away.

Frozen in fear is the cliche. It's only half accurate. I couldn't move, but it wasn't like the paralysis in a dream. It was literal, physical weakness, as if I'd been instantly overwhelmed with some disease that sapped all my strength and left me feverish. I wanted him to go away, to disappear. Only then would I be able to move my arms, my legs--be able to get my breath. I needed to tell him to go--upstairs, outside, anyplace he wanted. Needed to tell him before he took his hand out of his pocket. So I waited--we both waited--for breath to come back into my lungs so I could speak.

"Go to your class." I didn't know if he'd heard me, because my voice lacked air.

But he had heard something in my voice, seen it in my face. I saw him seeing it in my face. He swung his shoulders jauntily and turned toward the stairwell.

He was gone. I was OK--a little dizzy. I went back into the classroom, walked around the back of the room, keeping my face down. I moved to the extreme corner of the room so that all of my students were between me and the hallway.

He's upstairs with a gun, I thought. Maybe he'll leave, and no one will know the difference.

The voice on the filmstrip was reading a poem by Langston Hughes. I stood sweating, shivering, listening to Hughes gush about the Mississippi River. I realized that there were at least 15 minutes left of the film, enough time for me to go report that a student had threatened me with a gun, had threatened to kill me.

"Why didn't you follow him?" I was in the principal's office. The inner office, with furniture and his own washroom. My mouth was dry.

"Why?" I paused. "He threatened to shoot me. I came here to report it."

Reginald Brown wasn't facing me. He was fixing his tie in the mirror. "There's a way you could do that, McGrath. Did you see a gun?"

"It was in his jacket pocket. He reached--or his hand was in there when he said, 'I'll blow you away.'"

Brown turned from the mirror and smiled at me. "You didn't see it though."

He looked relieved. I thought maybe it was because he might not have to say "weapon" in the official report.

He was on his way to address an assembly of the junior class in the auditorium, and he said I should come along so that I could study the crowd, maybe see the kid. He sent a substitute to sit with my class while I was gone.

I sat to his left while he spoke about "excellence in education." As I looked out across the auditorium I thought that if the kid were in the rear of the balcony where it was dark he could easily aim toward the stage and shoot me in the face without anyone seeing. I lowered my head. Then I thought, at least I'm not alone, and I suddenly realized that when the kid, with his flat voice and dead eyes, had said he would shoot me I'd felt overwhelmingly depressed and alone. This boy who didn't know my name, didn't know I had two children and a wife, would shoot me and walk around me, and I'd be left alone, dying. I realized for the first time that fear was a kind of loneliness--the very worst possible kind.

Nothing came of the covert lineup in the auditorium,

and Brown said nothing else to me that afternoon.

At home I locked the doors and peered out the windows before going to bed. I'd told my wife about the incident, but not much about the fear. Maybe she saw but didn't ask. Or maybe I'd minimized the gravity of the encounter, and to her it seemed just another of the wild stories I brought home from work.

She and the children went to bed, but I paced through the house. He could easily get my name from my room number and then find out where I lived from one of the many students who had access to the offices. My house was only ten miles from school, so the car I heard stopping at the intersection out in front could be his. I decided it was right that my wife shouldn't know how deep my fear was. If she knew I was worrying about every sound I heard she would be afraid too.

I thought about skipping school the next day, saving myself the dark feeling of being in the hallway. Or maybe I could station one of my students in a desk at the end of the hall--a student monitor. Pick one from each class, deputize them to check for hall passes. I wouldn't be alone if I had to go out there again.

The next day I started to get calls from other teachers. They'd heard some student had said he'd shoot me. One of my friends was upset because Brown had been laughing in the lunchroom, shaking his head at how I'd handled the situation.

The vice principal visited me between classes. He'd been at CVS for 30 years and would tell stories about when he taught sheet-metal shop during the tumultuous 60s, during the decade of white flight, then shake his head sadly over how everything had gone downhill. He asked me about the incident, expressed regret over the perennial problems at that exit, recalled the fire marshal's citation issued to the principal in 1973 for having the door padlocked.

I was surprised to derive relief from his thanking me for my efforts at patrolling the hallway. Then he added, "The sad thing is, Mr. McGrath, that the people who are trying to help out around here are the ones who get the grief."

I thought about that after he left, wondered if he meant the grief from being threatened or the grief from being denigrated by the principal for lack of savvy or courage. During my morning classes my thoughts kept returning to his words, to the "support" he'd offered. It eroded a little more each time I thought of it. I realized that he wasn't concerned about me. This was just another war story in his ongoing us-versus-them, white-versus-black complaint. By noon I was wishing he hadn't come by.

That afternoon I was on my way out through the empty lunchroom when I saw Officer Bradford coming my way. He was smiling. "I heard about that boy," he said. "These kids will say anything."

So that's what was making the rounds. A kid had bluffed his way out of trouble, and McGrath had panicked.

During the daylight the fear had loosened its grip. I was able to control my breathing when I passed the spot in the hallway. I even spoke to some latecomers in the hall, good-naturedly urged them to get to class.

But at home, after dark, it came back. Maybe he was waiting for things to cool off and then would strike. I decided I'd go back to school tomorrow, but I would look for another job. They needed good teachers in Wisconsin, Michigan, Missouri. But given what they were saying and thinking about me at CVS, maybe I wasn't a good teacher.

On the third night I had the first dream. He was walking up the stairs, a yellow Pittsburgh Pirates emblem on the back of his jacket. I was standing in water, my suit pants soaked to the knees. He turned halfway up the stairs with gleaming cat's eyes and a mocking grin.

At school the next morning I thought I saw him on the way in. A cluster of students was ahead of me, and one of them had his hands in his pockets and was the right height. I walked faster to catch up, though I didn't know what I'd do. Then I saw that it was someone else.

The fourth day I felt anger. Anger at Brown and the vice principal and at every teacher the kid hadn't threatened, everyone who didn't have to peek between the draperies at night or worry about encountering him when turning down a corridor. And something else was growing besides the fear, something I'd never thought would happen to me, even though I'd seen it happen to others: I was becoming angry with black faces. I fought it. It was irrational. But I now understood what had poisoned the minds of the people I knew who'd become overnight bigots following a mugging or some other crime perpetrated by a black person.

In my next class I veered slightly from the lesson on paragraph development. "You wrote in your paragraph, Brenda, that you like to watch 'stories' on TV, but you didn't say why."

"You know, the soaps," she said. Brenda was impossibly thin, with big, brilliant eyes, an embarrassed smile.

"But why do you like the soaps?"

"I don't know," she said. "I just do."

I explained that she had raised the question in her paragraph and had to anticipate the reader's expectation of an answer. I didn't

let her off.

"I guess I want to see what happens to all these dudes and all their stuff," she said, looking around at the other students as if to see whether they too were puzzled by my persistence.

"Why?"

"I don't know. 'Cause they're people and I'm people."

I called on Roderick, then Cecilia. This went on for 40 minutes. There was nervousness in their eyes. After they left I looked at the roster, said their names to myself, saw their faces, tried to imagine their hopes and fears. I was ashamed of my anger.

My own fear was back that night, but not the fear of the boy who'd recklessly, unwittingly exploded my existence. Now I was afraid of what the fear had done to me, of how it had immobilized me, belittled me, flattened me. I wanted to return to the moment to undo it or do it over. I wanted to reach out and stop him, even as he pulled out a gun. I wanted to walk into the bullet, feel it rip through my ribs and lungs--anything instead of the fear that had encased my life for the last five days. I longed to see him again, prayed he'd come by the scene of the crime so we could do it over.

I skipped lunch and roamed through the student cafeteria. I used my conference period to stalk the halls. During my preparation period I waited outside at the bus stop. The next day I was at school early, talking with the hall monitor at the main entrance so that I could look at the faces of the students streaming in.

At night my sleeplessness was different. I would replay Tuesday morning, rearranging what had happened. When he says, "I'll blow you away," I reply, "Show me the gun"--only now I'm the one with the shining eyes and the half smile. Or he says, "I'll blow you away," and I nod and turn as if I'm going back to the classroom, then spin all the way around and smash my fist into his face. Not the jaw or the cheek, but into the bridge of his nose so that his head caves in and his two eyes disappear. And if he was too quick, if he pulled out the gun and got off a shot, that would be OK too. Death was preferable to fear.

So that's what bravery really is, I thought. It's nothing exalted. Just feeling fear and then risking death instead. Brown was right--I'd chosen fear over death.

The weekend came and I attended a wedding on Saturday, sat at a table with a friend I hadn't seen in years. We talked and drank and ate. He was a salesperson whose boss was uncharacteristically accommodating--let him choose his own hours, gave him the use of his boat to entertain clients. I extolled some of my boss's virtues, and then was surprised that I could tell the entire Tuesday story. I told it from the beginning and included the fear and its irrational outcome, the self-doubt. The next day I told my wife. And on Monday I was going to sit at the lunch table with the teachers I hadn't eaten with in a week, and I was going to tell them too.

I was on my way to lunch, weaving through throngs of students, squeezing past open locker doors, when a gush of heat cut through my gut and chest. Even from behind, the slope of his shoulders and the tilt of his head were the same as in my nightmare.

He turned and saw me staring. He bared no smile. In fact, he looked ill. The eyes were unmistakable, though they didn't shine with arrogance. He averted them, closed his lips tight, and set his chin.

Without consciously thinking about it--as if I were on the ten-meter diving platform and knew it was best to just go--I moved toward him. He must have felt me coming for he turned his head as if he were in a car that was about to be struck.

I fastened both of my hands on his right arm. He seemed accepting, his face a blank.

I turned his right arm slightly and held it behind him. I took his left wrist in my other hand and moved to his left side. "We're going to see the principal."

He didn't argue. He walked easily, almost submissively by my side through crowds of his classmates.

Maybe it was my voice. Or my eyes. Or my grip. I wasn't hurting him, but he surely felt the tension in my fingers, the tension caused by every doubt, every paroxysm of shame I'd endured for the last seven days.

About halfway to the office I saw another teacher staring into my face. He was a thoughtful, philosophical English teacher, often at odds with the administration over what he considered blind or inert policies. "Need some help, Dave?" he said.

To this day, I'm not entirely sure why I couldn't answer--or why his simple offer of help felt like an invitation back into the world. I nodded, and he joined our procession to the principal's office.

"Is Dr. Brown in?" I asked the principal's secretary.

She was used to seeing a lot of things, but her eyes showed surprise at the three of us grouped before her, the kid's arms still pinned. I was well aware that standard procedure was to take delinquents to the discipline office or to Officer Bradford. But I would release this boy to no one except Reginald Brown.

"Yes, but he's in a meeting."

We marched through the doorway anyway, into the inner office, where Brown was conferring with a man in a suit, someone I didn't know.

"Here he is," I said.

Brown stood up. He rolled his shoulders forward, and I could see his mouth and eyes adjust for this scene, which would somehow be different because of the other man.

"You can let go of him," said Brown.

"I haven't searched him," I said.

Brown's face changed again, and then I realized he hadn't known who this teenager was. To his credit, he searched him thoroughly. The kid was carrying no weapon; his wallet revealed his name. Brown asked if this was the same student, and I said yes. He asked his secretary to call Officer Bradford, then thanked me for bringing him in.

I stepped outside his office but didn't leave the vicinity. I stood in the main corridor, watching students enter the lunchroom and others exit the building. It was if I wanted to remain there until I felt the fullness of my life had returned, until the husk of fear had dropped from my body. I felt an enormous, dizzying relief at being given a chance for redemption--a chance so rare that I resolved never to need one again.

In the months and years that followed I stopped dirty students in the hallways, broke up fistfights, tried to help if a student or teacher was in trouble, sometimes even wading into another teacher's classroom. I paid scant attention to the looks of puzzlement or disapproval, for I knew that to plunge into troubled waters, even to drown, was far preferable to standing at the edge.

My resolution was liberating. Freed from fear and cynicism, I was able to focus on the students' success and progress rather than on their failures, even though that made me suspect in the eyes of the complainers and naysayers who huddle and spew in every big city school. I don't know if I helped make CVS a slightly less frightening, slightly more desirable place for Brenda and Roderick and Cecilia to spend time, but I did become a happier teacher.

Sometimes I wondered what had happened to Anthony Green, a budding Gangster Disciple. He'd been suspended for ten days for his offense, and when he returned he was immediately suspended again. Then he turned 16, and I never heard of him anymore.

I worked nine more years at CVS, then moved on to a position as an English instructor at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn. To my own office, my own computer, four-day workweeks, and students and teachers who addressed me as "professor." There were almost 40,000 students, and in the years since I've yet to encounter a gang member or smell marijuana in the halls. Some of the PhDs complain about student apathy and unpreparedness. I don't ask if

they've ever taught anywhere else.

I still check the box scores in the Tribune for CVS baseball and football teams. I read with interest accounts of installing metal detectors and eliminating social promotion, and I puzzle with everyone else over why the citywide scores are still way below the national average. And whenever I read newspaper stories about shots being fired in some Chicago school, the dim hallway in the Chappel wing and the eyes of Anthony Green flash briefly in my head.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Ken Wilson.

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