Staying Out of Trouble

Photo by Jack/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.
Photo by Jack/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.

The veins in the wooden desk in front of me were particularly interesting today. I followed them with my eyes, back and forth, tracing their paths to nowhere off the edge of the desk. I started to think about the table at home. Well, home as of a few months ago. It was not perfectly smooth, polished, or regular like this one.

It was rough, but worn to a certain level of smoothness, sensational to the touch with its small bumps and grooves. If you were to ever spill a drink on it, you would hardly be able to predict how the liquid would sit on the table, and eventually flow to the floor. When I was younger, I was known in the family as being prone to spilling my drink in fits of excitement. “Tiruigan le tomber” is what my mom had called me, translated roughly to “Tiruigan the tipper.” The produce and the weather here left much to be desired, compared to the delicious juices, fruits, and the bright, warm, sunny days of my home country.

My eyes were closed as Mr. Sow droned on about correct mannerisms. I started to see the beach and the bright blue sky, his voice morphing into the slow beat of the waves against the shore, limbs and hair braids splayed out on top of the hot sand…

“Oh Côte d’Ivoire, I’ve missed you so much,” I nearly say aloud before some responsible part of my mind caught me and jolted my consciousness back to the classroom. I looked up from the desk and surveyed the classroom, making sure Mr. Sow hadn’t noticed my lack of attention. I liked Mr. Sow quite a lot, but learning the intricacies of English was hard, and some days I just did not have the mental fortitude for it.

I glanced at the clock and noticed that there were only 5 minutes left in the period. Suddenly, I had a burst of energy and wakefulness, as my next class, algebra, was always the most enjoyable class of the day.

The bell rang, and as I got up, I looked to Atinama standing up across the room. Atinama was my immigrant comrade from Senegal. We were in a lot of classes together and she was also a french speaker, so naturally we were friends from almost the second I had arrived. She had a big goofy grin across her face and had a look in her eye that meant trouble. A wide smile materialized on mine as well, as I suppressed a laugh and tried to guess what she was up to. Walking out of opposite sides of the classroom, we converged at the doorway, and as we turned into the hallway, she showed me something that she was holding inside her hoodie pocket.

It was a y shape with a band: a slingshot. My eyes darted up to meet hers. She met my nervous look with one of daring and defiance. Although we both knew the consequences of being troublemakers as immigrants in a public school, Atinama was gutsy and reckless at times. My heart and mind were both speeding as conflicting emotions of intrigue and fear faced off inside of me. I tightened my arms to my body and shrunk into my oversized tie dye t-shirt.

“Atinama, I don’t know what you’re going to do with that, but I don’t think it’s a good idea,” I said quietly, so no one else could hear.

Her eyes lit up. I had foolishly provided her with the challenge that she had been looking for. We turned a corner into a short empty hallway, and after looking both ways to make sure no one was close, she swiftly aimed and fired her chewing gum down the hall, sticking it to the wall on the other end.

We ran and turned another corner, my heart hot and really racing. I stared up at her again, slightly peeved and slightly exhilarated. Laughing and wrapping her arm around my shoulder she whispered into my ear,“Today I will be getting my revenge. They will not get away with what they did on Monday.”

I wanted to reply with a warning or a rebuttal against whatever her plan was, but we were already walking into the next classroom. I sat lightly into my seat, and thought apprehensively about what might happen in the lunchroom today. My eyes and my heart both dropped to the floor, my sister’s words passing through my head, about how hard my father worked for us to live here, and how one misstep on my part could ruin everything for my family. I pulled my baggy jeans over my knees and prayed that nothing bad would happen today.

On Monday, there was a big fuss when one of the other girls, one of the native New Yorker girls, had spilled a pudding cup on Atinama in the lunchroom. It was obvious to most everyone that the girl, Allacia, had meant to do it, but she escaped any trouble because it couldn’t be proven.

I thought that Atinama had forgotten about the incident by now, but it was apparent that she hadn’t.

Math class always did well to allow me to forget my problems. After the quiz (which I could have aced in my sleep), we were learning a new technique to solve for x. We were doing practice problems to make sure everyone understood the work, but it was all so obvious to me, and I breezed through the questions in seemingly less than a minute. While everyone else was struggling through them, I cracked open the school book to a random page. I always start randomly, and leaf through pages from there until I reach an interesting picture or diagram. Today, I found a chart of a big wave, like if some ripples in a pond were turned upside down. After concentrating on it, I decided that it actually looked like an octopus.

There was a page of words and equations adjacent to the octopus. I didn’t read the words, I just followed the equations, and after some concentration the octopus started to make beautiful sense to me. I wondered, what other shapes and creatures I could create by commanding the language of x and y? This was a language that always seemed to make about 100 times more sense than English, to me.

We had been talking about power series, x to the n power, and how exponential growth was a very important concept. I had heard once that New York City’s growth could be fit to an exponential curve, and that by the year 2100, 100 million people would be packed on to this little island. Sometimes I think about how I am just a tiny, insignificant, part of a statistic, an immigrant that adds one more to the even currently incomprehensible number. 10 million. Easy to say, but almost impossible to imagine.

Pausing my investigation of my textbook, I decided to pass a note to Atinama. Everyone was scribbling away and turning sheets of paper, so it would be easy to send a message without notice. I recounted what my sister had drilled into me when I first arrived in America. No matter what, stay out of trouble. No matter what, stay out of trouble. No matter what, stay out of trouble…

I wrote cryptically, in case there were any spies between our tables, “Nam, I don’t think it is a good idea, keep the ☮, you know what can happen if there is any trouble -Tiruigan”

Just last week there had been two suspensions over fighting, and the principal had threatened to begin expelling students who fought. Many of the native students would instigate fights with the immigrant students, targeting the immigrant students with insults and incessant bullying for reasons that I couldn’t understand. It was mostly girl on girl, as was our case. I had never thought there could be so much unsolicited hatred and meanness in America…

In le Côte d’Ivoire, America and New York City were portrayed as a heaven. Everyone wore a suit and worked important jobs in a skyscraper. Money rained from the clouds on to the streets, and everyone was a millionaire. I wondered, how does a man know he is a millionaire? Has he counted every dollar he owned? Sometimes I tried to count as high as I could, never too seriously though. I usually gave up before two thousand.

Whenever my father sent a package to le Côte d’Ivoire from here, he always included some candy bars. That was my favorite part. America, the land of candy! Once, I asked my father what one dollar could buy in America, and he told me that it would buy exactly one Snickers bar, my favorite candy, of course.

In the next package he sent, I made sure to take a ruler and measure the dimensions of a Snickers bar. Ten centimeters long, by three in width, and two in height. I calculated the space that would hold a million snickers bars, and that was sixty cubic meters. Now I knew how much a million dollars was. If I totally filled my bedroom 5 times with Snickers bars, that would be a million dollars. I couldn’t wait to move to America and become a millionaire.

I remembered back to my first time in New York, months ago, when I was in the car from the airport going to Harlem. It was December, and the lights for Christmas were everywhere! I was elated and excited and thought for certain that all of my dreams and preconceptions were true. About a half an hour into the drive though, I knew something was off. The buildings started to get darker, dirtier looking, with less fancy lights and more concrete. The beautiful lights that I had awed at were totally absent when we stopped, in front of a brownish, dingy, old six story building.

As we climbed the stairs, I looked down the hallway on each floor, and saw the same door a hundred times. On the fourth floor, we opened one such door, and still trying to take everything in, my head started spinning.

The living room was so small! Two couches, a tiny table, and a bunk bed took up all the space. I didn’t even have my own bedroom. I thought, what is going on? How can this be America, my old house in le Côte d’Ivoire is much bigger than this! Is this all for real? I couldn’t understand how we had come to America, and suddenly become much poorer.

In the coming weeks, it all was too obvious. America was not a dreamland. I saw no suits walking in my neighborhood. There was no money raining on the streets, only garbage. There were homeless people sleeping in the subway, or out in the cold at night, and everyone was incredibly unfriendly. It was a bit more tolerable now that I had friends in school and the weather was warming, but sometimes I wanted to swim across the Atlantic Ocean back home, to tell everyone that America is all a lie, and take back my warm and happy life there.

At lunch time Atinama and I rushed through the hallways to get to the front of the lunch line. Friday was pizza day, the best day of the week as far as school lunches went. I was having a love/hate relationship with American foods. Some things that I liked the first time I tried weren’t as good the next time. Pizza had been very dependable though. Today, there were fries too, which made things even better. However futile, I wished for milkshakes for dipping the fries. I had discovered that the week before, when my sister took me to a McDonald’s.

The lunch line curved around a barricade, and as we were getting our food, I noticed Allacia and her two friends leaning over the railing.

Reaching and plucking a French fry from Atinama’s tray, she said, with a blubbering french faux accent,“You don’t need that, you are French enough.”

Allacia and her crew were the really big bullies in this school. They were nasty to almost anyone. Their ridicule of choice for bilingual students was to make fun of their accents.

She licked the fry and then tossed it back towards Atinama. It landed on her tray, but missed hitting any other food. It was senseless and disrespectful! I could never understand. Aminata and I were both shocked at the event, and further provoked as Allacia and her friends were now laughing profusely at more fake french accents by several of the group.

I saw rage boiling in Atinama’s eyes, but I pushed my tray against her back and nudged her through the open door to the cafeteria. I knew that Atinama wasn’t going to take that harassment easily, and it was my job to convince her not to overreact. We sat down across from each other at a long table, and I immediately grabbed her hand under the table. I told her, in French, that she must not do anything stupid. The lunch monitor was in the room so if anything happened, that would be bad news. Suspension, expulsion, shame on my family. But would that be worse than abandoning my friend? I was angry too, my sense to resist reaction had only barely prevailed with the french fry.

I eased our moods by talking about plans for the weekend. Her family was going to visit a family member on Long Island, and my sisters and I were planning on going to Central Park both days, now that the weather was getting pretty nice.

Before long we had finished our meals, and the bell rang to move to the next class. As we got up, we both looked for the three girls, in my case to make sure to avoid trouble, in Atinama’s, looking for trouble.

Across the room, Allacia, Dakala, and Tynice were still sitting, talking without a care. These girls were rebellious, and always loitered in the cafeteria after the bell rang, until they were told to leave. Everyone, but them, were standing and filing out of the cafeteria.

Even though I knew what was about to happen, I didn’t try to stop her.

It couldn’t have been executed more perfectly. Two of the girls were sitting with their backs to us, and Dakala was across from them, sitting in a way that she could not see us anyways.

The slingshot fired without any sound, and I turned quickly as the projectile was flung, and out of the corner of my eye I saw it reach it’s target.

A fair shot, at no less than 20 meters distance, the wad of gum impacted with considerable force, imbedding deep into the back of Allacia’s curly mass of hair.

It was brilliant. No one else saw it, and we were both turned in a line walking out when Allacia let out a screech and began incoherently yelling and pulling at her hair. No one really knew what had happened, and certainly not who did it.

When we reached the hallway, I had a pit forming in my stomach, that Allacia would guess who might be responsible. I was relieved to see that Atinama was keeping it cool after her hit, but nonetheless I was nervous of what might ultimately come of it.

The rest of the day went uneventfully, but I had a pit in my stomach the whole time because of the drama that was unfolding. The conflict scared me, and brought back memories of when the civil war would bring turmoil to my Côte d’Ivoire hometown. It was rare, but there had been nights when men could be heard shouting in the streets, and faraway gunshots could be heard. On those nights, we stood the mattresses against the windows, and laid huddled sleeplessly on the thatched carpet with knots tied in our stomachs. The memory of those times brought added turmoil to my guts, and I couldn’t wait to get home to my apartment and my mom.

When the final bell rang, I got out of the school as quickly as I could. I was waiting by the lamppost Atinama and I always meet up at, when I realized I had left my English workbook in Mr. Sow’s room. I couldn’t risk missing another assignment so I hurried back up to his room to get it. Luckily, he was still there and I retrieved the book, reciting my English pleasantries before I was allowed to leave.

Hurriedly, I made my way back down to the street. Atinama was very good with the city buses, and I was always afraid of getting lost if I did not travel home with her. I saw her rounding the corner across the street and hurried after, running across the street when the traffic had cleared. She was walking with two boys that we often took the bus with, Ibrahim and Ousmane. She heard my steps and turned proclaiming that she really wasn’t going to leave me behind. They were just going to check out a new flatscreen TV in the window of the electronics store on the corner.

The boys were amazed by the TV, so compact and modern they raved, but after seeing it, Atinama and I both laughed. It was so tiny, our tube TV’s at home were twice the size! The price was a whole other thing, it was 5 times as expensive as the same size tube. Nonetheless, the boys insisted on going in the store while we waited for the bus.

I was beginning to unwind a bit from the day, and the spring air was very refreshing. Next to the garbage can there were a few blades of grass working their way up through a crack in the concrete. I wondered if they would still be here next week. I tapped my feet on the sidewalk, and observed some crushed packets of ketchup on the sidewalk a couple feet in front of me. Two were broken, oozing the red sauce on the sidewalk, but a third was laying unbroken. I was focused on the unbroken one, committed to watching it get trampled and exploded by the next person who took an unlucky step.

Atinama and I were totally unaware until the last second that the three girls had stalked us. We only looked up for the moment we heard their footsteps as they jumped us from around the corner.

I had been leaning against the corner building wall, and two of the girls pushed me over before I could react. I landed on my elbow and my side, hard. Atinama was a few feet from the corner, so she had a second to defend herself. Before I could get back to my feet, Atinama and the three girls were spinning around and punches were being exchanged. I knew Atinama was a good fighter, but these girls were big, and there were three of them.

I got to my feet and pushed into the pile-up, not really sure what to do, but trying to help Atinama, who was surrounded.

As soon as I entered the scuffle, Tynice grabbed my hair from behind and pulled me back. I tried to turn to face her but she twisted my hair away from her. I was swinging wildly and blindly trying to land a punch, but she was really tall and her arms were so long. I could not reach her. She slapped me on the cheek and I tasted blood. Twisting my head away from her, I watched my blood drip onto the sidewalk next to the busted ketchup packets. I pushed all of my weight forward towards the ketchup and blood, and then kicked back as hard as I could.

With my kick, I landed a boot solidly on Tynice’s shin. She yelled and let go of my hair, hopping up on one foot as I turned around. She was still close enough that I pounded her with two quick fists in her ribs and she fell backwards.

Atinama was still on her feet and thrashing around whenever one of the other two girls came close enough.

Across the street a teacher noticed the fight and started yelling. After another second or two, Allacia and Dakala were backing off, and then the three of them turned and ran the opposite way. Atinama had a puffed eye and a fat lip already, and I could taste the blood flowing in my mouth. We both stood breathing heavily, shocked at what had transpired.

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