Biographical Non-Fiction posted December 24, 2018


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Boy sent to summer camp after writing about school massacres

Saboteur (an excerpt)

by Sis Cat


How did I end up at a NCCJ camp to learn tolerance? Perhaps I shouldn't have shared with my tenth grade English teacher, Paul Berry, my essay in which I wished death and destruction upon the entire student body and faculty of Verdugo Hills High. But he gave us this homework assignment to write an essay on what we would do if we had $500,000, and I told him. I wrote in my diary later that evening, "Hope Mr. Berry can swallow it," not knowing the double meaning of my words.

Clouds bumped against the San Gabriel Mountains and pissed on my northern outpost of the Los Angeles Unified School District on Valentine's Day in 1980. I didn't care. As I filed out of Berry's class, he asked, "Andre, can you come see me after lunch?"

I knew he wanted to talk to me about my essay. I began to rehearse what I was going to say: You can't censor what I write. The Constitution says so. I'm guaranteed freedom of speech and of the press. Our school is a democracy, not a dictatorship. Sure, 1984 is four years from now, but we don't live in George Orwell's book. I’m an American and I know my rights.

When, lunch in hand, I entered room 111 a half hour early, it startled Berry at his desk. He turned. His bespectacled eyes stared at me as if he thought I might be the next Brenda Ann Spenser, the sixteen-year-old, who, a year earlier in '79, had shot up that grade school down in San Diego, killing its principal and janitor, and wounding all of those kids and a cop. I don't know about me becoming the next Brenda Ann Spenser, but the year I followed her trial, my mind replayed the Boomtown Rats' song and video about her, "I Don't Like Mondays." If Berry were to ask why I had wanted to see our entire school massacred, I would have answered in the words of that song, "I want to shoot the whole day down." In three months, I would be the same age Brenda was at the time of her school shooting.

I plopped into a student desk across from Berry and resumed eating my lunch. Imagine, I'm eating lunch in class, and he didn't say a thing about it. He picked up and fidgeted with my essay. He said, "I can see from some of your stories that you are interested in antique furniture."

I don't remember what I said. Perhaps nothing as I shrugged and chewed, but I do remember what I thought: You didn't invite me in here to talk about Louis XV furniture. So stop with the jabber and get on with it.

As expected, he shared his interest in antiques, and then pivoted. "Now, about your essay. You said that if you had five hundred thousand dollars, you would leave Verdugo Hills High and make sure your little brother and sister didn't come here. Why would you say that? Do you think it's right for you to prevent them from coming here and getting an education?"

Despite all the rehearsals of what I would say, I sat there and said nothing. I took another bite of the cafeteria's mystery meat sandwich just to have an excuse not to talk with my mouth full.

His finger stabbed a paragraph. "And here you said Verdugo Hills High was like the New Mexico State Penitentiary. Why would you say that? Don't you know that a lot of prisoners died in that riot there two weeks ago? Hundreds were injured. Do you really want that to happen to your school? Do you think all of the students—your classmates—are inmates and the teachers are guards? Do you want them to riot and kill each other?"

I shot Berry a look.

"And here you said the Sunland Park Apartments where you live is 'unfriendly.' Why would you say that? What's unfriendly about them?"

I cleared my throat. "It's the apartment manager and the kids."

I declined to give him truer reasons and details. Uppermost in my mind was an incident from three weeks earlier in school. I had sat at the corner of a lunch room table. Because there was no other place to sit, as time passed, my table filled up with kids who packed around me cheek to cheek. They talked around me, ate around me, sat around me, laughed around me, looked around me and through me. Always around and through, as if I wasn’t there. They never said, "Hi," or, "Will you please move over?" Even a "Will you please find another seat?" would have made me happy, but they said nothing. I gobbled my lunch, ran to a corner bench atop the bleachers, and cried for the rest of lunch.

Now I sat in Berry’s class on Valentine's Day. I blinked at him, relieved that someone had finally seen the Invisible Boy, that my essay shouted loud enough to get someone’s attention. I trembled, not knowing what was going to happen next.

Berry lowered his voice and tried to look me in the eye. I averted my gaze so that he wouldn’t see my eyes about to tear.

“Andre, I noticed that you don’t seem to have any friends here at school.”

I shrugged.

"A boy with your talents—you’re a great writer—could easily make friends."

I half frowned. Where am I going to find another boy interested in antiques?

"There are lots of clubs and activities here at school—drama, chess, the school paper. I’m sure you’ll find something. Andre? Andre!"

I glared at him.

"Can you promise me you'll try?"

I told him what he wanted to hear. "Sure, I guess."

He leaned back in his chair, not entirely convinced.

The bell rang. Students began to file in. I picked up the remains of my lunch and stood.

"Andre, remember what I told you. Try."

"Sure."

I left, not thinking much of what he had said.

*

A day after spring semester ended, I, a newly minted sixteen-year-old, packed my sleeping bag, pillow, suitcase, and ChapStick, and joined a bus caravan with one hundred and fifty teens from throughout Los Angeles for a weeklong summer camp run by the National Conference of Christians and Jews. Nestled in the San Bernardino Mountains east of LA, the camp was supposed to teach us racial and religious tolerance. I don't think I’ll have a problem with religious tolerance because my best friend in grade school was a Jewish kid named Lance Fogel, and I’m a Christian.

I do know Blacks and whites have a problem with tolerating me. One word, one step, one gesture from me and Blacks look at me as if something is off. Their faces screw up and freeze for a moment, and I can see their minds working out an equation behind glazed eyes. They answer by turning away from me, muttering under their breath, "Oreo."—black on the outside, white on the inside. On the other hand, whites consider me to be a Black Icarus for flying too close to whiteness. They ask, "Shouldn’t you like disco or soul instead of New Wave or punk?" I would like to have given Popeye's answer, "I yam what I yam." Instead, I said nothing and cry in bed at night, unable to make friends with any race. Maybe I'll have better luck at camp.

As the bus drivers bumbled their way into the San Bernardino Mountains, making many wrong turns, I gazed out the window as the scenery changed from houses to trees, not knowing what was before me. I largely believed, at the time, that Mr. Berry orchestrated getting me into this camp, because I knew my mother couldn't afford it. I never thanked him, and he never told me, but I knew he did this. Left at home was my red yearbook with a picture of clasped hands on the cover. The day before I left for camp, Berry had autographed his smiling photo of himself wearing a sweater over a plaid shirt. Even though he squinted behind his glasses in the picture shot outdoors, I still saw . . . no, I felt the twinkle in his eyes. His grin sparkled beneath his push-broom mustache. I chuckled at the irony of his inscription above his name: "Straight ahead!"

I spent the first day of camp getting acquainted with the six fellas in Mansfield cabin. Repeating introductions and looking a guy in his eye, I tried attaching names to faces—Anthony Nunez, my bunkmate, who took the bottom while I took the top; Errol, whose mother was a Barbadian who practiced voodoo; Steve and Daniel, who TP'ed Yale cabin and squirted toothpaste on its windows; Robert Cooper, who corresponded with me for years after camp; and John, who left no impression on me.

Our cabin staff person, Hal, was a tall blond of about twenty-five who always smiled as if he was having as much fun at camp as we kids were. His cabin first had exhausted debate about who would win the election. I said, "I don’t care if Reagan was our governor. No one is gonna elect an actor President of the United States." 

Next we argued over whether or not a new draft for men and women was a good idea. I put in my two cents, "If I have to be drafted, it's only fair that girls have to be drafted, too."

Then we discussed if the Ayatollah would ever free our fifty-two American hostages in Iran. After we told ghosts stories that devolved into nasty sexual jokes, we finally went to bed.

On the second day of camp, a girl approached Mansfield cabin from across the ravine where the girls' cabins stood. She was a white girl, possibly Jewish, with auburn hair that cascaded in waves to her shoulders. In the sun-dappled shade of the pines, she stepped gingerly up the path bordered by roots and stones. The Mansfield boys watched through the opened sliding glass door of our cabin. We knitted our brows and wondered what she wanted. She arrived, panting, although it wasn't that far of a walk. She seemed nervous. I saw it all over her face and trembling body. Her eyes fixed on me, standing behind several guys. "Is Andre here?"

"Yes," I answered and stepped forward as the guys parted. Their faces said, What does she want with Andre?

She blurted, "Hi, my name is Gloria. Can you come with me to the dance tonight?"

"Wha . . . wha . . . what?" I sputtered.

Our camp was hosting a square dance that night in the auditorium. I didn't know how Gloria learned of me, but I suppose that at breakfast she had seen me across the crowded dining hall and found I was somehow different from the other boys. She took a chance and the initiative by asking around for the cabin I lived in.

I remembered the last time I square-danced. "I . . . I don’t know how to dance."

She looked crestfallen.

The guys slapped my back. "C'mon, Andre. Don't be shy. It'll be a lot of fun."

I noticed that none of the other boys in my cabin asked a girl to dance, and no girl asked any of them to dance. My pulse raced. I would be alone.

Gloria waited, unwilling to move or breathe.

Hal squeezed my shoulders and gazed at me with his perpetual smile. "Come on, Andre, it will be fun. That's what camp is for."

I gaped at Gloria and gulped. "Okay."

Her face relaxed as she exhaled. "Great. I’ll pick you up at seven."

"Seven," I repeated.

A brief smile flashed across her face as she turned and headed down the path across the ravine. She seemed to float over the earth rather than skip on the dirt.

The boys in my cabin teased, "Andre got a girlfriend. Andre got a girlfriend."

Someone, perhaps Steve, said, "Hell, yeah. I’m going to this dance just to see what Andre does."

"Me, too," another echoed.

Suddenly, I grew an entourage of six uncoupled boys. What did I get myself into?

 


Recognized


I hate saying goodbye, but this will likely be my last FanStory post as I am closing my account to focus on writing longer, riskier pieces I may turn into a book. Based upon my 1980 journal entries, "Saboteur" is an excerpt of a 7,200 essay. My editor Marcia Trahan recommended I start with the present scene.

I would like to thank everyone here on FanStory, those who have reviewed and encouraged my work and those whose works inspired and challenged me. You have been great and I will miss you all. You are more than I can name but you know who you are.

I would like to thank Michelle Morton for use of her "Christmas Moon" photo she shot in the same San Bernardino Mountains where the National Conference of Christians and Jews Brotherhood/Sisterhood camp was located in 1980.

Pays one point and 2 member cents.

Artwork by Michelle Morton at FanArtReview.com

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