AS PROMISED, HERE IS THE FIRST CHAPTER OF MY NEW YOUNG ADULT NOVEL:
Strutting down the hallway in baggy blue jeans, some frayed and worn strands at the bottom of the legs drag onto the floor, picking up the dust and debris at the end of a long school day. Tiny bits of loose-leaf paper and miniscule dust bunnies cling to the denim for dear down the sides of legs, badly concealed by an XXL t-shirt.
They walk through the halls, not making eye contact. You know they see you, and you know why they don’t acknowledge your presence. I did the same thing in high school, didn’t I? You ask yourself, remembering that the teacher was the enemy…and now you are the enemy.
DeShaun Johnson saunters past the boarded up houses, some half-burnt to the ground, and checks out the overgrown weeds and uncut grass on the front lawns of his Detroit neighborhood. He shakes his head at the broken, jagged glass of what used to be someone’s window, but now serves as the front door to a dope dealer or heroin addict who has made this their new squatting quarters. Overstuffed and torn black trash bags, stained mattresses with rusty, protruding springs, broken lamps, old toys, and other litter line the front curbs and crumbling sidewalks of his forgotten, neglected city.
His old Detroit high school was forgotten as well, but DeShaun still can’t erase it from his mind. The metal detectors, armed police officers, daily fights and gang activity consumed most of the time that was supposed to be in place for learning. One time, his cousin’s best boy pulled a blade on their math teacher for giving him a D- on a pop quiz. “Change it to an A, or I’ll slice your motherfuckin’ cracker throat.” DeShaun recalls the boy’s exact words to their teacher that day because he was trying to solve an equation with a dull No.2 pencil, but with all his classmates standing on top of their desks cheering and laughing it was kind of difficult getting any classwork done. It was a Monday. “Murder Mondays” as they were known around the school, because something violent always happened on a Monday. That’s just the way it was. An old school tradition or something.
DeShaun hopes his new school will have toilet paper and running water in the restrooms, because his old school rarely did. It was typical of everyone’s mama to buy paper, pencils, pens, glue, notebooks, and toilet paper at the dollar store when shopping for school supplies in the fall. But not this fall, at least not for DeShaun. “Baby, I is not gonna buy toiletries for you to take to school this year. And I fo’sho ain’t gonna let you go to school that is run by gangs,” Juanita Johnson had told her son, DeShaun, when she decided that the city schools were not good enough anymore for her eldest, and brightest son. With DeShaun’s daddy in prison, and five kids to take care of on her own, Juanita could not afford some fancy private school. But luckily, her co-worker at the convenience store in the suburbs has an apartment in North Pointe and said the Johnsons can use her address as proof of residency so that DeShaun could attend North Pointe High School.
As DeShaun walks north to 8 Mile Road, he passes liquor stores with check cashing services, along with cell phone and designer handbags sales. WE TAKE FOOD STAMPS signs hang in the filthy windows of these markets and pawn shops. He strolls past the coney islands, Baptist churches, barber shops, auto body shops, jazz clubs, adult video stores, and skinny, stray dogs running in the streets. Homeless men, with their eyes half closed lean against graffiti labeled, closed businesses, and homeless women push their stolen grocery carts full of recyclable plastic bottles down the empty sidewalks. Ten cents earned for each plastic bottle or aluminum can adds up to buy a couple of cheeseburgers or bottles of cheap wine. DeShaun turns his head and his gaze falls to his shoes. Can’t let them see the sadness in your eyes because their own eyes will grow more sad. Can’t fit any more sadness in the eyes of the lost and forgotten.
As Deshaun steps across the busy, one-way four lane traffic of 8 Mile Road to make the next half mile of his walk to his new school, he pauses at the car wash on the corner. It’s on the left hand, north side of 8 Mile Road—just barely out of Detroit city limits. “Wash your car clean of city dirt and grime before you enter our polished suburbs,” is probably their unwritten motto, DeShaun can’t help but wonder. He knows the car wash is there for a good reason.
Stepping out of the city and into its closest suburb, DeShaun notices the immediate differences. Moving on up the suburb’s tree lines sidewalks, DeShaun admires the flower filled medians with their advertised signs. “Mom-to-Mom sale—September 12. St. Rene’s Catholic Chuch.” And “Talent Show—try-out now North Pointers. North Pointe High School.” He admires the gleaming, shining cars of the used car lots, and reads the help wanted signs in the windows of the oil change and auto supplies stores. There’s a frozen custard stand and a family style Italian restaurant. Coffee shops, strip malls and outdoor café`s with little black wrought iron chairs and pretty red umbrellas at the tables. Men in business suits and women in high heels sit at these little tables sipping cappucinos and lattes, nibbling on chocolate biscotti and lemon scones. White men with blue collared shirts, long hair, and mustaches smoke cigarettes in their pick-up trucks, waiting for co-workers to meet them before their shift starts at one of the many collision shops in town.
DeShaun steers his new sneakers to the left and follows his feet down a residential, side street to where his new school is located. Well manicured, green lawns with flat hedges and flower beds with big plastic deer lounging in them frame tiny, neat looking all brick bungalow homes. Some of the houses have white awnings over the doorways, and most of them have chain link fences with gates in the driveways. The houses are almost identical and sit in perfect straight lines. Halloween decorations of witches and jack-o-lanterns linger on front porches. Welcome mats and flowered wreaths adorn the front doors. Large SUVs and mini-vans are parked in the driveways. DeShaun has only walked one mile from his house, but has already arrived in another world. He bites down hard on his lower lip to try to stop it from quivering and wonders what his new classmates will be like, and if he’s wearing the right shoes. The shoes are popular at his old school and everyone has them. Somehow DeShaun knows this new school will be different.
DeShaun stops to look up at the worn, brick building with paper bears and pumpkins taped to its classroom windows. Even the colorful construction paper artwork can’t camouflage the fact that this public learning institution resembles an ancient automobile factory. “Welcome Back Students!” is lettered on a large sign above the front entrance. A burning flames his cheeks as he realizes that he is not welcome. He is not “back” because he has never been before. He’s a brand new student with brand new Jordans who shouldn’t be going to school there. What if somebody finds out? DeShaun climbs the large concrete steps with a warm wave of dread flooding over him. He’s early. Where are all the students? Shiny, newly waxed floors squeak under his new sneakers and he notices the smell. The undeniable smell of the first day of school. Doesn’t matter what school it is, or where it is. The smell is the same. DeShaun first noticed the first-day-of-school smell upon entering Kindergarten. The smell hasn’t changed over his years in junior high and now high school. He couldn’t help thinking that his old high school and this school probably will only have the smell in common and nothing else.
A plump looking girl with tight jeans, pretty blonde hair and a face to match was the only other person in the empty hallway outside the main office. She stood under a “Go Grizzlies” banner staring at a bulletin board in front of her. DeShaun looks down at her feet to see what kind of shoes she’s wearing. He smiles. They’re Jordans. Like his, but girly. White and pink and tiny, with pen scribbles of boy’s names and little hearts drawn all over them.
“Hi,” the girl says, as DeShaun approaches. “I could hear you squeaking a mile away.”
DeShaun laughs. “Whattup? My name’s DeShaun.”
“I’m Melissa. Everyone calls me Missy, though. You must be new here. Are you a freshman?”
“Naw, girl, I ain’t no freshman. Do I look like some freshman punk to you?” DeShaun cocks his head to one side and raises both arms up in the air, taking a step back so Missy could get a good full look at him. All fifteen and a half years of his gown-ass manliness.
“I dunno. I just don’t remember you going here last year. If you did, I’d remember you for sure.”
“Why’s that? Because I’m so fine?” DeShaun asks, pulling on his chin as if he were stroking a beard.
“No, because you’re black. There’s only like a handful of black kids that go here.”
“For real? What is everyone racist around here or somethin’”?
“Well, if you want to know the truth, yes,” Missy says, nodding her head.
DeShaun’s nostrils flair and he steps closer to Missy so that his face is almost touching hers. He looks down from the top of her head and into turquoise colored eyes. “So you scared of us niggas too, white girl?”
Missy smiles. “You’re not a nigga. And you shouldn’t use that would. Actually, I know I shouldn’t be using it either, but since you all use it to talk to each other, I guess I can just say it this once. But don’t make me say it again, and don’t say it to me again either. It’s a bad word. A hurtful word.”
“What’s with you girl? You trippin’?”
“Naw. I’m just tired of all the black kids calling each other the ‘N’ word in the halls, and of course, it would be offensive if a white kid used that word to a black kid. But I think fair is fair and no one should use it. It should just be turned off, like our cell phones are supposed to be in school,” Missy says, pointing down to DeShaun’s ringing cell phone on his hip.
“Hey, mama. Yeah, I’m here. No, class hasn’t started yet. No, I haven’t found my locker yet. No, no textbooks yet. Mama! I’ve only been here like five minutes! Yeah, I got my schedule.” DeShaun smirks and looks at Missy. “Yeah, I’ve already made a new friend. Bye mama.” DeShaun turns off his cell phone and puts it in his jeans pocket.
Missy smiles. “Come on. Let me show you around your new school.”