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"Yo! Yo! Rap-battle in the lunch room!"
"Rome n' Donis,"
"What? Ooh, snap!"
They ran off and I was close behind. I was not going to miss this. Jerome was my student this year, and I had taught Adonis back in 2002. Jerome was in the "B" section. They called it "B-Block." Jerome hated school, but I always got him to laugh. He looked like a business man more than a rapper, short hair, square jaw, military posture. He was one of the only students to ever beat me arm wrestling. I was good at arm wrestling fifteen year olds. They were never quite developed at fifteen, and they all made the excuse that I had "old man strength," especially for a little guy. Jerome beat me once during a last period lull. We had fought it out for what seemed like hours. I was beet red in the face, and sweat had prickled up all across the top of his forehead. His smile was painted on, his lips stretched thin. After he put me down, we shook hands. My arm was numb. He tried to make it look like he was not trying to catch his breath.
Jerome always tried to pay attention in class, but his attention was quickly shattered by a joke, a noise, a question, a movement, the air. He had a ratty old notebook he kept his raps in. I made him put it away during class. I could not read the raps because his penmanship was so poor. What I could read did not look very good, but on the few occasions I heard him blow, like outside the faculty bathroom on the first floor, or in the senior stairwell where he could get the benefit of an echo, he somehow made the rhymes wrap around in a clever manner. He was actually pretty good. He tended to gasp a bit for breath between lines, especially at the brink of the crucial one where the punch line was going to cap it, so I told him to get vocal lessons. When I told him this one day after class, he smiled and made his eyes go thin lidded. He put his thumbs together in a coded sign that I failed to understand, and this made Isiah "haw-haw" with laughter so hard he banged against the wall and knocked down a student council announcement that had been stapled to Ms. Newman's hallway bulletin board. Two years later when Jerome was to become a senior he would record a purposefully ugly, hard driving hip-hop song called, "I Like Being a Nigger." It would be one of the best raps I'd ever hear, but here, right now, was Jerome's tenth grade year. He was not that developed yet. He thought he was, but he wasn't.
Adonis was a senior. He was developed and he was smarter than Jerome. He was quiet, and school-smart, and though he studied and wrote in a sophisticated manner when his scholastic life demanded it, he had a reputation for putting together spectacular street rhymes. I was not surprised. Writing was writing, and meter was meter. If you were good, you could do it all and not lose one shred of integrity.
Adonis had the reputation here. Intellectually I understood this, but I must admit that it still surprised me deep down. I thought Jerome would win this. He was bigger. He was meaner. He was darker. In class, Adonis was so quiet you didn't notice him until he handed in one of those papers with perfect penmanship, a strong thesis, and solid argumentation. I had told Adonis in private, on many occasions, that he would make a great English teacher. He quietly accepted this compliment in a manner that made you think that he appreciated the boost, but had other plans. Adonis was polite and quiet, and he had been born with a birth defect that left his hands curled in like crab claws. I believe it was the effects of Cerebral Palsy, but I'd never asked. Adonis was handsome in his own way, but you noticed the hands during your first conversation. They were that obvious.
Adonis had been working with those hands for many years. He did not wear braces or splints. There was no I.E.P. to tell teachers how to better accommodate him, because he was already the best student in all of his classes. His penmanship was perfect. That must have taken a lot of practice. Adonis was smarter and harder working than Jerome, but I was still betting on Jerome. Rap-battling was about anger as much as clever rhyming. Jerome was always angry. His smile was angry and his jokes were angry. I had come to terms with him and uncovered the best ways to give him the most scholastic training possible, but "Jerome-unleashed" seemed the better candidate to win a verbal knockdown-drag out in the cafeteria.
I tried not to run. You were not allowed to run in the hallways, and I did not want to break two rules. I was pretty sure that a rap-battle in a crowded cafeteria would not be viewed by administration as a positive, educational experience. But, I was going to see this. I could pretend I didn't know what was going on for at least three minutes, right?
The cafeteria was a loud, numbing buzz. Girls were huddled together in groups, kneeling on the benches, shouting in each other's faces. The boys in the entire front section had gathered in a mob. They were sitting fifteen guys per bench where they would normally fit ten. The mob was fifteen rows deep. There were mini raps going on. A guy would kneel up on a bench, juke, shout, show teeth, flick fingers, curl lips, and finish with wide eyes. There would be a ripple effect of those laughing with or at him, open mouths shouting, "Ohh!" with a finger to the lips if the mini rap was outstanding. Jerome was sitting on the fifth bench in, smack in the middle of it He was bending over his notebook. He was still memorizing, still practicing. Adonis walked in the room from the office side, by the juice machine. The electricity changed. The kids had kept this under wraps for days, but it was hard to miss their excitement here. Adonis walked over to the mob. He was strutting in such an animated manner that it first seemed like he was limping. His shirt was untucked. His tie was off. His hair was tied back in a pair of mini pig-tails sticking straight behind, but one had come loose. His eyes were crazy. He looked like he'd just come from a fistfight and was looking for seconds.
Things had gone quiet.
"Psst! Mr. A!"
I turned. Zykia was sitting on the edge of her bench on the girl's side, leaning forward. She had a wide face, and a wide smile. Her hair was bleach blonde, pulled back in a scream.
"Hi," I waved. I smiled.
She was smiling back and whispering through the smile.
"What?" I said.
"Move out da fuckin' way!"
"Oh!" I said. I moved. It took me out of good hearing range, but she had squatter's rights.
It got quiet with a few students still hush-hushing each other. Mr. Hall was patrolling the back of the room, and had stopped to watch a couple of guys play chess. Mr. Ditno stood over by the trash cans and looked uncomfortable. He looked at me. I shrugged. He looked around for better commiseration.
Jerome closed his book. He stayed seated. Adonis was in the aisle at the head of Jerome's table.
"No memory!" Adonis said. Y'all got yo book! Fuckin' cheater!"
Jerome sat with his hands folded. His eyes were slits.
"I's just lookin' fo' old times sake. I always do that ‘fo I battle."
"Go ahead, then," Adonis said. "Spit. Y'all's first."
Jerome closed his eyes. He put up his hands with fingers spread.
"Yo, yo, bitch," he said.
Adonis pushed between the guys in front of him, the guys who were sitting across from Jerome.
"Bitch?" Adonis said. He pushed his way over knees and between shoulders.
"Bitch?" he said louder. He pushed deep in to the row and shoved between Chris Smith and Bill Tomlin, he shoved his way in directly across from Jerome, and leaned right over him. He was right above Jerome's face. "Bitch?" he screamed. "You callin me a bitch?" Saliva sprayed out of his mouth. Jerome looked straight ahead. A rock. Adonis was yelling at one side of Jerome, then the other, one ear, then the next. "I'm a bitch? Okay. Spit then. Spit to the bitch!" Adonis struggled himself out of the row, came around and re-entered the row Jerome occupied. Again, Adonis was climbing and tripping over people. A spider with crazy eyes. He parked himself right behind Jerome, and stood there with his arms folded. Jerome closed his eyes tight, he closed them and tried to regain a foothold to where he had been, to what he had planned, to the shower of insults he had planned to make look like spontaneous, artistic rage. He raised up his hands again, opened his mouth, and then just shrunk down. Nothing. Dead battery. His head was down. His head was hung so low down, his shoulders made points at the top edges of his dirty white dress shirt.
Adonis jumped into the aisle where everyone could hear him, and started rapping so fast I could not understand him. The crowd started standing, started hooting, started echoing him. Adonis was marching back and forth, pants low, shoes filthy, hair out, shirt out, face twisted. Then he turned from Jerome, turned to the girl's side, turned to the heart of the crowd.
"I'm mo' man than you, I'm mo' black than you, I'm a fuck ya ma, and I'm a smack ya boo.
"I'm a spell it fo' ya so ya understand, I can even beat ya with my fucked up hands!"
The crowd roared. Adonis fell back in to a row where boys pummeled him with congratulations. The crowd was cheering. Mr. Ditno walked over to the row where Adonis stood surrounded by fans. Ditno put out his hand, palm up, index finger curling in, come here.
Adonis ignored him. Ditno's subtle gesture evolved to a cop's palm facing inward, elbow pivoting the straight forearm backward, come here, this way, now! Adonis ignored him. Ditno pointed at the floor at his feet.
"Get out here! We're going to the office. Don't make me get security."
Adonis fumbled his way out of the row. Ditno tried to take his arm, and Adonis jerked it away.
"Don't put your hands on me," he said. "Don't put your hands on me!"
The crowd went crazy. Ditno walked Adonis out of the room without touching him. The principal came in and droned on the microphone at the podium for a few minutes. Things settled back into card games, drumming on tables with quarters, piling plates at the edge of the rows for the volunteers in hairnets to scoop them away, and girls smiling widely when caught sitting over on the boy's side. The clock hit 1:20, and the principal gave the famous words:
"Alright. Let's go. Table by table."
Students shuffled out and I headed up toward the offices. On the way I saw Adonis walking back to class. I put my hands out to the sides and smiled.
"Yo!" I said.
"Hey, Mr. A."
"Come here." We ducked in to the small library between the tutoring center and the janitor's closet where all the maintenance guys smoked but swore they didn't. Adonis had tucked in his shirt and his hair was fixed. Two little pigtails in back. Not my style, but now it was neat and trim.
"Did you get suspended?" I said.
"Are you kicked out today?"
"No. It begins tomorrow."
I put my book bag down on a chair.
"You killed him," I said.
"You weren't very fair about it."
"It isn't about being fair, Mr. A."
"You really killed him."
"Yes. Yes I did."
"How much did you pay him?" I said.
"Mr. Ditno. You couldn't have had a better exit. After the rap ending with the line exposing your... disability... you are taken out like a gangster, demanding that the authority doesn't use his "hands." My God, that's poetic! Did you plan all that?"
"I'll never tell."
"Why did you kill Jerome like that? Are you guys enemies? I don't have to worry about this thing being a prolonged issue, now do I?"
"No. It's over. Jerome is cool. He'll have his day, but I couldn't let that day be today, do you know what I mean?" He sat at the table and I took a place across from him. He ran his finger along the grains in the table and looked at the crooked finger. "You won't believe this, but I feel bad for Jerome," he said. "I did what I had to do. We all have our faces, Mr. A. You have yours and I have mine. I wear faces, but sometimes I get tired."
"Is that what we are? A bunch of faces?"
He smiled a little.
"I'm black, Mr. A. I can't afford to play games. When mamma and daddy talk "niggah," and someone in the family is always on house arrest, you can't go lying to yourself."
"So, what's under the faces, Adonis? I've always wanted to know that."
"You should make it a pre-class paragraph question."
"I'm making it a "now" question."
He took a cell phone out of his pocket, flipped it open, and pretended to look at the tiny screen.
"It's different for me and you," he said.
"Under the faces of a black man, there's a black hole, like being hungry all the time."
"And for me?"
Adonis let go a laugh.
"Now you're being foolish."
"Explain," I said.
"Under your faces, there's gooey vanilla, like the icing the baker puts in the canvas squeeze bag so he can write stuff on cakes. Under your faces, you just swim in the goo. Then you write stuff all over the black holes. You squeeze the canvas bag and write all over the hunger."
"And why would we do that?"
He pushed the cell phone closed.
"Because the blackness behind the goo makes it brighter. Without the blackness, the vanilla would just run into everything else. The blackness makes the whiteness into poetry."
"Uhh, wait now. I heard some poetry today, Adonis. It was mean spirited, but that doesn't take away its value in terms of -"
"No. That shit is just hound dogs barkin' in the woods. But vanilla, see, it sticks. It sticks to everything."
"If I'm following you right, Adonis, I have to propose the fact that you have a gift writing in ‘Vanilla' yourself."
He stood up.
"Just another face, Mr. A."
"So what's the answer?" I said. "How do you end the hunger?"
He stopped at the door.
"Because I like poetry too much for that, Mr. A."
He walked out, and I wondered if I had become his second casualty.
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