BY JEFF DEENEY The students’ first taste of freedom from room 315 doesn’t come until well after noon when they are escorted by the teacher’s aid Miss Patterson and the behavioral health worker Mr. Thompson to the lunch room. When finally given the opportunity to leave the room with legitimate cause the children explode into the hallway, running, jumping and kicking lockers. They draw the ire of the school security officers who scream at them to settle down. They duck into classrooms, giving loud, disruptive shout outs to their friends, causing teachers to holler and slam doors in their faces.
Miss Patterson and Mr. Thompson trail the children by twenty paces and aren’t making any effort to catch up with them. The two staffers are leisurely talking about what they did over the weekend, about what they’re doing today after school; they savor this quiet moment away from the exhausting close contact they’ve maintained with the students all morning. They’re aware that the children are getting out of hand and aren’t doing much to reign them in; once the children have left room 315 and joined the general population for their lunch period it falls on school security and the hall monitors to contain them.
The high school is filled with hall monitors, mostly middle aged women from the community whose job is to check passes and enforce dress code. Their raised voices reverberate over the cacophonous crowds that move in the halls between classes. “Pull them pants up,” they yell, “and take that hood down!” The students recognize the sharp, maternal tone they’ve heard at home; like mom, the hall monitors take no bullshit and get respect — their demands meet little resistance beyond the occasional eye roll or mumbled cuss word.
The hall monitors also act as ad-hoc school counselors, having hushed conversations with troubled students in the darkened doorways of vacant classrooms. Since the school only has one counselor to serve the entire student body the bulk of counseling services happening here come in the form of these heart-to-heart talks during the brief breaks between classes. The hall monitors will dole out advice about family problems and boy troubles to any student that asks for it. With the tug of a sleeve they pull aside any student who looks over-tired or in poor health to inquire about their well being, asking about the student’s diet, sleeping habits and hygiene.
Security is extra thick when the halls are full; flocks of security guards cluster near stairwells and move through the crowds. They tower head and shoulders above the kids and use bullhorns to direct traffic’s flow. The school has an abundance of metal detectors; there’s at least one by each entrance and then more in the lower level hallways by the cafeteria. The city’s armed School Police aren’t usually present in the building but today they are since there was a massive off campus brawl involving fifty students down the street after school yesterday. According to hallway whispers it was a turf battle over the control of a set of nearby drug corners. The black-booted, bomber-jacketed officers are here to scan the crowds of students for faces that fit descriptions given by local business owners whose property was damaged during the fight.
One of the school security guards, a smoothly bald man with the build of a former offensive lineman, eyes Diquan hard when he walks past the metal detectors near the cafeteria entrance. Diquan senses that he’s being challenged by the guard’s hard stare and stops to hold his eye contact. The boy pushes his chest out, throws his arms up and asks in a testy voice, “Whassup?”
The security guard’s face stays serious and filled with menace; he bends low enough to be almost nose to nose with Diquan while looking at him with one eye widened and the other narrowed to a squint. He replies in a rumbling bass,
“Jesus is what’s up, son.”
In the cafeteria the students of room 315 sit at a table apart from the general population. Miss Patterson keeps a close eye on the clock to make sure they aren’t out of class any longer than they need to be. The kids are given just enough time to wolf down their food before Miss Patterson shoos them back to room 315. The longer the kids are outside room 315, the more likely it is they will get into a confrontation with their classmates who frequently taunt them for being in “the retarded class.”
The lunch room is in a state of near total chaos during peak hours; the noise of two hundred loud and rowdy children is deafening and thrown food and garbage frequently flies through the air. The menu consists of sandwiches made from sweaty, gristly deli meats topped with wilted, browning lettuce and pizza made from a thick slab of day old French bread smeared with sugary tomato sauce and covered with two slices of barely melted provolone cheese. There’s a vending machine scantly stocked with candy bars and chips but nobody uses it because everyone knows it doesn’t work. The kids tear into their lunches without hesitation or complaint. Near the table where the kids from room 315 are sitting one of the white-uniformed kitchen staff is loudly complaining to a business-suited administrator about the condition of the lunch room after last period’s students went back to class.
“You got these teachers in here with their feet up on the table, reading the newspaper while their kids are throwing food clear across the room. No, no, it cannot be like that tomorrow, these kids was crazy. You should have seen the mess we had to clean up before the next group could sit.”
The lunch room has its own plain clothes security guard of sorts, a tiny but hard looking young neighborhood dude with long gangster braids, an oversized Polo shirt that comes to around his knees, and baggy washed out black jeans that pile up around his fresh Timberland’s. He sits in a folding chair near the cafeteria entrance, waiting to accost children who are trying to ditch out of lunch early. The chaos of the lunch room tends to leave the kids agitated and raring for confrontation as they spill back into the hallway. This is the most likely time of day that a dangerous brawl will break out between opposing student crowds, so the school employs some extra muscle to oversee this hot spot and forcefully disperse malingerers.
As Diquan leaves the cafeteria the plain clothes security guard senses something about the boy he doesn’t like. He’s waiting for Diquan to catch his disdainful glare. Diquan, who is always on the lookout for an invitation to trouble, spots the guard sneering in his direction and heads directly towards him.
“Don’t suck your teeth at me, boy,” the guard calls out, standing up and preparing to tussle by shaking his arms to loosen up a little.
“Fuck you and them faggot braids, nigga,” Diquan shouts and dives towards the guard.
The two tumble to the ground, their flailing arms trying to land blows. The guard deftly spins around Diquan, taking the boy’s back and pinning him to the ground. He lands a series of shots to Diquan’s exposed midsection; the blows are intentionally light and don’t hurt the boy, who has roughly the same physical build as the slight security guard. Nonetheless, the blows are skillfully executed enough to send the clear message to Diquan and the growing crowd of onlookers leaving the cafeteria that though the guard is short in stature, this isn’t the first time he’s thrown hands and he doesn’t hesitate to get down on the tiles with potential troublemakers.
The guard quickly hops up and in an eyeblink the fight is over. Diquan gets up laughing, unharmed except for a mildly stretched out shirt. The guard cracks a smile, too, while waving the boy off like a bad smell.
“I’mma beat your ass next time,” Diquan calls over his shoulder as he hustles to catch up with Miss Patterson and the rest of the group, his cat-like eyes still brimming with mischief.
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