‘Were there gangs in Detroit when you were growing up, Mr. M?’
Kevin’s question came on the heels of finding out that Mr. Martin grew up in Detroit. Kevin was tall and older than the others in the eighth grade math class, and had a fascination for dangerous things. He claimed he had a Glock which he kept under his pillow. He was one of ten students in the class known as Math 8, which was the ‘regular’ eighth grade math, as opposed to ‘Algebra’ reserved for those students who qualified and resented by some who did not. His questions rarely pertained to math.
Alex Martin – Mr. M as his students called him – was seventy but didn’t look it, though he didn’t look young either. Teaching was a second career for him after he had retired. He had taught in various schools and now in mid-May, was completing his first year at a small Catholic school in California. He taught math as if it mattered, but without the hard sell of why it should. His students liked that he answered questions in a direct way without obsessing over the depth of their understanding of the concepts behind the procedures. They also liked that he told stories.
‘I suppose there were gangs,’ Alex said. ‘I wasn’t aware of any, though.’ He would have left it at that, but before he could decide otherwise, provided clarification. ‘Unless you count the Barry Meyers gang.’
‘Who was Barry Meyers?’ Kevin asked.
‘A boy who lived the next block over from me.’
‘He had a gang?’
‘Not really,’ Alex said sneaking a look at his watch. ‘The kids he hung around with we called his ‘gang’. They threw stones at one of the kids in our ‘gang’ if you want to call it that. And other things. So a friend of mine and I decided to get back at him; for lack of anything better to do.’
‘When was this?’ Kevin asked.
‘It was the summer after I finished eighth grade,’ Alex said. ‘Nineteen sixty three to be precise.’
‘And how old was this Meyers kid?’
‘Same age as me.’
The class was now listening to the tale of a time well before they were born. A time as far away from their world as the early 1900’s would have been when Alex was their age.
‘My friend Steve and I decided that we would be like the superhero crime fighters we admired. Steve was younger than me. We spent a lot of time that summer in his attic reading Batman and Superman comics. Which is where, I suppose, we got the idea that we would have secret identities. But if we had secret identities, we had to have a purpose, which is where Barry Meyers comes in.’
‘What were your identities?’ Kevin asked.
‘I was ‘The Shadow’. Steve was ‘Green Phantom’. What we knew about fighting we learned from reading comic books and watching TV. So we considered ourselves well prepared. We knew where Barry lived, so we wrote a letter to him telling him to meet us at a certain street corner on a certain date and time and we would take care of him. We signed it ‘The Shadow’ and ‘Green Phantom’.’
‘That has to be the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.’ This was from Barbara, an outspoken girl who was sitting in the back.
‘It was stupid, yes,’ Alex said. ‘But what was even more stupid was actually showing up where we said to meet. We were confronted by two members of the gang. They asked us what we were doing here and we took that as a cue to start fighting. We found out they were a lot better at fighting than we were. One of them grabbed hold of my friend, but he got loose and I told him to run for it, which he did. They grabbed me and paraded me to Barry Meyer’s house.’
‘Did they beat you up?’ Kevin asked.
‘Sort of. They pushed me around and threatened me and called me names, and then let me go.’
No one said anything, and after a moment Kevin said ‘Cool.’
Each day at St. Stephens began with the entire school of two hundred students, plus teachers, gathered around the flagpole to say the Pledge of Allegiance, sometimes a Gospel reading, and then the Lord’s Prayer. Before he started at St. Stephens, a friend, referring to Alex being Jewish, asked him if he knew how to cross himself. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘But at this point it’s procedural; the ‘deeper understanding’ will come later.’
No one at the school ever asked what his religion was and it was evident to him that no one cared. He maintained a faith in a circuitous way. Alex’s parents were not religious; his father did not believe in God and his mother was undecided. ‘We’re secular Jews,’ his father would say, adding ‘We’re humanists.’
Because of his lack of religious upbringing, it was a non-issue for Alex when his wife, a non-Jew, brought up raising their daughter with Christian beliefs. He remained agnostic and undecided about religion, though in the process of attending church with his wife and daughter, began to think more about it and at times was envious of the faithful. During a difficult time in his life – job loss and marriage difficulties – he prayed for the first time in his life. He prayed in desperation to both God and to Jesus. He came through the difficult time, and out of his sense of loyalty to anyone who he believed helped him, spiritual or otherwise, he decided to remain faithful to God and Jesus. His faith was not without conflict, however, being mindful of his father’s admonition that ‘You’ll always be a Jew no matter what you believe and there will always be someone who will hate you for it.’ Nevertheless, he believed that both Jewish and Christian beliefs could co-exist and sustain one another – in a roundabout way. Somehow. The details eluded him.
The gathering at the flag pole was one moment in which he felt that the co-existence was eminent, and reveling in his enjoyment at working with people of strong faith. The flagpole ritual would then be over. As he and other teachers made a speedy walk to get out ahead of the students making their ways to various classrooms, he carried with him a peacefulness through all the tumult and noise that followed him.
The day after his story about the Barry Meyers gang, Kevin spotted Alex in the throng of students. Kevin shouted out ‘The Shadow!’ and waved to Alex before each went their separate ways.
Kevin’s greeting did not escape the notice of Marianne, the principal, who, about to enter the building module that housed the school office, called out to Alex: ‘I thought you were Batman. Are you The Shadow now?’ She laughed her cackling and infectious laugh. She was in her mid-forties and had a cheerful air about her. ‘I heard Kevin call you The Shadow,’ she said, both of them now standing by the office entrance.
‘It’s a long story,’ he said. ‘And I don’t wish to tell it, but I do want to clarify that I don’t call myself Batman. I just call my classroom the Batcave.’
‘Noted,’ she said. ‘And the Shadow?’
‘You don’t give up, do you?’
‘No,’ she said, cackling again. ‘Actually, let’s go to my office, I want to talk about something with you.’
‘As long as it’s not about the Shadow,’ he said.
Her room was pleasant; there were two chairs and a small table between them, and the principal’s paper-littered desk. She sat in one of the chairs, and motioned for Alex to sit in the other one.
‘I’m concerned about Kevin,’ she said. ‘I’m hearing from teachers that he’s not putting in much effort and riding out the rest of the year. Is he doing any better now that we transferred him out of your algebra class into Math 8?’
‘He’s blowing it off,’ Alex said. ‘I think it was the right thing to transfer him. He was in over his head in my algebra class. I saw him crying one time when I handed back a test that he did poorly on. I’ve been teaching my Math 8 class some topics from algebra. A bit simplified, but things that aren’t normally taught in Math 8. I figured it would do them some good and at the same time since he’s had these things before, I thought it would give him some confidence.’
‘How has that worked out?’
‘Good at first. But that’s died down. The end of school is on his mind.’
Marianne nodded. ‘That’s what I hear from others. I had a talk with his dad the other day. I told him I was concerned about this slacking off.’
‘What did he say?’
‘He didn’t seem too concerned.’
‘The fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree.’
‘Absolutely,’ she said, laughing. ‘I reminded him that he called Kevin’s repeating eighth grade a ‘business decision’.’
Her brow furrowed and she looked sad, her gaze focused beyond Alex. ‘I sometimes wish I had said no when he approached me in the fall, or at least advised him that he should go into ninth grade. You know the idea was to have Kevin stand out as a candidate for high school football and have a leg up. He wants to get into a college football program.’
‘I told him that if Kevin wants to play football in high school, he has to keep up a grade point. They’re not going to let him play if he doesn’t get decent grades. And if this is all part of a business decision, he needs to have a lot better work ethic than he does now, or it’s going to fall through.’ She looked at her hands, and then looked up.
‘He’s not in danger of failing your class is he?’
‘No. He’ll skate by with a C or a C minus, depending on how he does with the final. That’s a few weeks away. Did his father say anything else?’
‘He said he’d talk with Kevin, but you know how that goes.’
‘Yes,’ he said, sighing. ‘I know very well how that goes.’
‘I have a meeting with a parent. Keep me informed about him,’ she said and then rushed out the door.
There was more to the story about Barry Meyers as there are to most stories told in the interest of brevity, attention spans, and details that Alex felt best not to disclose. In particular, he did not disclose that the Barry Meyers gang all attended Precious Blood, a Catholic school. Over the years this became an increasingly relevant theme in his mind. Alex and others in his neighborhood at times bore the brunt of aggression of various Precious Blood kids, not limited to Barry Meyers and his followers. Whether the bullying was directed at Jewish kids in particular or kids who went to public school, was not something Alex thought much about, though over the years he found it grew in relevance.
After his initial confrontation with and capture by the two boys who met him at the designated spot, Alex was paraded down the street where Meyers lived. It occurred to Alex that the punishment wouldn’t be that severe in the middle of a neighborhood where presumably there were adults nearby. No adults intervened that day.
He was delivered to Barry who waited with his arms folded. Nearby were five or six of his faithful followers who made up the rest of his gang, gathered to watch the proceedings.
‘So you’re the guy who sent me that letter,’ Barry said. He was taller than Alex, though not by much, and had his voice had not yet changed. From the look of it, Barry was the oldest one there. His gang now shouted taunts at Alex, and mocked him for the fear that he now showed – and which he felt was advantageous to show.
‘Look at his arms,’ someone shouted. ‘They’re like rubber!’
Barry looked Alex over. ‘The Shadow, huh? Why’d you do it, kid?’
Alex mentioned the stone throwing at a friend, the name-calling and the spitting on of others, and other acts that had occurred.
‘Awww, too bad,’ Barry said. ‘I’m cryin’.’
The two captors who had hold of Alex’s arms threw him down to the ground. Others now joined in. Two were hitting him, one spat at him, and another dragged a stone against the top of his head until Barry told them to let Alex up. He stood weakly in front of Barry.
‘You know, I oughtta make you eat that card,’ he said. Others shouted encouragement for Barry to do it, until he said ‘Naah, forget it. But if you ever do something like that again, we’ll beat you shitless.’
Someone else shouted ‘We’ll put your mouth on the curb and stomp on your head.’
‘Yeah! It really breaks up the jaw,’ said another as if having witnessed such an event.
‘I’ll give you three to get out of here,’ Barry said.
Alex ran, and after Barry gave a very quick count, the gang followed. As he neared his own neighborhood, Alex was blocked by another gang member on a bike at which point Barry confronted him again. ‘You’re just lucky we didn’t kill you,’ he said. They let him go, and as he walked away, a stone grazed his elbow.
Whether Barry had shown the letter to his parents or whether he kept it a secret from them, Alex never knew. What he did know, or felt that he knew, was that Barry was capable of violence, or at least inciting it. What Alex ultimately chose to believe was that Barry had showed him kindness and mercy.
Nevertheless, for the next year he feared that Barry’s gang might decide to attack him. He kept the events secret from his parents for most of that year until one night when he tearfully confessed everything that happened. They didn’t know what to make of it, and much like the outspoken girl in his math class years later, told him it was a foolish thing to do. In a discussion his parents had later and which Alex overheard, his father said ‘What should we do?’ He couldn’t hear what his mother said, but it was never spoken about again. Alex and his friend Steve would talk about it, but never for very long.
A few years later when both were seniors in high school, Alex saw Barry Meyers. Barry was working as a cashier at a drug store. He didn’t indicate that he recognized Alex. He was polite to customers and looked like a decent boy. The episode, if Barry remembered it at all, was likely to be one of many things from a childhood that he had long ago outgrown. They were now just two boys grown older, looking toward the next phase in their lives.
The bell rang for second period when Alex was least expecting it which was the usual way things worked. Students filed in, many of them carrying copies of Elie Wiesel’s ‘Night’ which was now required reading in eighth grade in many schools in English classes. Kevin greeted Alex with his usual question. ‘Hey, Mr. M. are we going to have homework today?’
‘What do you think?’
‘I think maybe you’ll say no.’
‘You think wrong,’ Alex said.
‘Just thought I’d ask.’
‘I’m glad you did, because it reminds me, that the final isn’t far away, so you might want to pay a bit more attention to what we’re doing in class.’
Kevin took his seat; the rest of the class had started work on the warm-up problems that were on each desk.
‘Actually, I’m thinking of skipping the final,’ Kevin said.
Alex looked at him. ‘I strongly advise that you not do that,’ he said drily.
‘What would happen? Would I fail the class?’
‘Let’s just say your grade wouldn’t be very good, and it isn’t a good idea to start high school with poor grades.’
Kevin said nothing and after a moment Alex spoke again. ‘It also doesn’t show much loyalty to your classmates.’
‘What does my skipping the final have to do with loyalty?’ he asked.
‘I’m sure you can figure that out.’
Kevin shrugged his shoulders and started to work on his warm-up sheet. Before long, the rest of the class, which had become silent during Alex and Kevin’s brief exchange, started talking again as usual. Nothing more was said that day about Kevin possibly skipping the final. There were also no questions or discussions about Barry Meyers, or anything about Detroit in general.
Kevin didn’t skip the final, but he did skip graduation. Alex gave him a C minus in the class, knowing that he really deserved a D. Kevin’s year at St. Stephens would likely fade from memory, Alex knew.
Alex remembered how sad Kevin was when not doing well in the algebra class. He had sensed a kindness in Kevin and saw beneath his bravado. How Kevin would end up in life, it was difficult for Alex to say. Maybe he would make it in football, or maybe something else, or maybe stumble onto a profession he hadn’t counted on as many others do. He might be embittered and swept up in the confusion of an increasingly polarized, divided and dangerous world. Or maybe he would find comfort in the strong faith of others and do good and sometimes wonderful things.
About the author
Barry Garelick has written non-fiction pieces that have been published in Atlantic, and Education Next. His fiction has appeared in The Globe Review, Cafe Lit and Fiction on the Web. He lives in Morro Bay, California with his wife.
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