I get a call from one of my students. He is speaking fast, he sounds skittish. Eric has been absent for five days. He showed up for a couple of days before that, then vanished. When he is in class, he waits for us to begin independent work, then calls me over to explain why he has been out.
“My mom is in the hospital”.
“My little brother was arrested”
“I was beat up by the cops.”
“I was beat up by the cops, but this time I recorded it.”
I got to know Eric well. I like him. He is charasmatic and seems to possess a wisdom much of his classmates had yet to discover. It took me a while to decide whether I was going to believe him or not. Take for instance the story about how someone was shot in front of his house in the Carmalitos project in North Long Beach. He described it in detail–the blood that made a trail on the sidewalk and down the walkway next to his bedroom window. Eric said, the victim had jumped into a huge garbage bin in the alley. That was where the neighbor kids found him. Eric said, the trail of blood led right to it.
On the phone, Eric says he was jumped. He doesn’t remember much, only feeling like he was being watched, then hit on the back of the head and slamming to pavement.
“They only hurt my body,” Eric assures me. “Will you accept the reading assignments when I come back next week?”
Eric is about 5’9, hispanic, shaved head. He chooses to wear his uniform baggy. When he speaks, though, he speaks with respect. He listens and nods his head in agreement to my lectures. When I received a paper with no name on it, I assumed it was one of my girls’. The handwriting was smooth and bubbly. It was, of course, Eric’s handwriting. Unlike many of my students, Eric doesn’t allow himself to misspell words. He corrects his mistakes.
“Are you banging?” I asked him during one of our side conversations a month back.
“No, Mr. Underwood.” He said. “But they keep trying to get me in.” Eric says he won’t get into anything he would be ashamed to have his little brother see. But for Eric, choices are usually decided for him.
On the end of the line, Eric says, “I’m coming back!”
I ask, who jumped you. My voice gets low, scratchy, I want to call the police. I want to report this.
“Just some fools, I don’t want you worrying about it.”
“Eric,” I focus my thought. I can’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t come off as fake. So I say what I truly believe. “You belong in my classroom.”
“I’ll have the reading assignments in next week. Later, Mr. Underwood.” The phone clicks.
I still don’t know how much I am willing to believe. Can I believe that he is routinely thrown against the hood of a cop car and asked where his drugs are, or what gang he leads. (Because Eric is so eloquent, the police have a hard time beleiving he doesn’t run a gang. Although they assume he is, by default, in one.) I think Eric tells me only what he knows I am capable of beleiving, because he knows that if he told me the whole story, I would really think he was lying.