Image. A representation of the external form of a person or thing. An artifact that depicts visual perception, that resembles a subject, that produces a general impression embodied by said subject for public presentation. Producing an image requires a fascination with lines that cultivate yet demarcate one’s sense of self. Our professor told us to begin with a light sketch. We were to add realistic shadow effects and to smudge them. The fine details come last, followed by an appropriate frame that immortalizes the image. I never knew how nor sought to sketch a portrait of myself, a portrait of my blackness. I struggled in successfully grasping the form of the light sketch and creating the lines of symm-
“Mr. Morgan? said the Professor. “Please show the class your work. Tell us, who are you?”
With no time to stall, I showcased my masterpiece to the class. For all to see. My identity on full display, or at least that was what I think my teacher was going for. The image itself was not much more than a sad attempt of erased shadows, each trying to make sense of their existence. One day, my image will blossom. You’ll see.
“Thank you, Ezra,” said the Professor. “I appreciate your vulnerability and honesty. Let us continue…”
After class, I packed my bags, left the room, and headed towards the bus on the main terminal. School: a tedious process of repetition. Get good grades, do what you’re told. Don’t draw attention to yourself, and attention won’t be drawn to you. Words to live by, or so my mother taught me.
Every school, in some way, has a reputation, its own identity that distinguishes it from other schools. Some have funding, diversity. Maybe even happiness. Mason High (Mace for short) was our own little playground, located in West Baltimore. A new principal appeared this semester, our third in two years. I liked the last one. He had an animation about his personality. A hopefulness. Here’s to hope. Teachers come, and they go almost as quickly as they come. We take it one day at a time.
Leaving school each day is an interesting experience. As the final bell tolls the end of the learning period, you might view this as a signification that classes are completed for the day. However, we are not permitted to leave before completing a few inspections. Security guards scatter across each classroom in search of contraband, any item threatening the purity of our playground. Stay seated. Stay quiet. Stay sane. Wash, rinse, repeat. Then, and only then, are you allowed to dismiss yourself. A class of its own. I always look forward to observing our souls gravitating towards the freedom of the terminal, as though this reality won’t await us the next morning.
I find an empty seat on bus #17-2, the one that takes the quickest route to my neighborhood in Lane Park. Looking out the window, I cannot help but cast my own inspection of my school. I never noticed the rigidity of it all. It lacked color and emotion. I look at the figure of our new principal, surrounded by sentries of guards. Mason High looked more like an impenetrable fortress than ever before. But at whose expense? A question for another day. Meanwhile, I notice a figure approaching my space out of my peripheral view.
“Yo, ‘Ra! What’s your night looking like? Me and Joe were thinking of hitting the blacktop over on Crenshaw boulevard. Run a few scrimmages. Let loose for a bit. Jaire said he might be down, too. Probably around 7:30. What you think?”
The figure speaking is my friend Dominick. My first and only friend at Mace. Growing up in the same neighborhood, we’ve known each other for most of our lives. We spent so much time together that our lives felt inseparable. As such, I could not help but wonder at his mysterious absence in class earlier. I saw him this morning on the bus, but he was nowhere to be found by the afternoon.
“Where have you been?” I said.
“What?” said Dominick.
“I didn’t see you at lunch today. Or in class. Mr. Davis wanted to push that identity-mapping assignment onto us.”
“Oh, my fault. I was in I.S.S again. I didn’t realize that my shirt was untucked, and Officer Clemson said it was my third infraction, whatever that means. I must not have gotten the memo. What does it matter anyway? You wildin’ out with us later, or what?”
“I need to see to my chores, first. Then I have to run this by my moms. You know she doesn’t like me being out too late.”
“So, finish them! 7:30 is not that late. Plus, we just got this court built a few months. It isn’t a hot spot. We aren’t doing anything wrong. We will be fine. Anyway, let’s get off here."
I.S.S. In School Suspension. One of the disciplining strategies enforced at Mace. Teachers sent students to I.S.S. at their earliest convenience. They call it behavior management, an effective way to reduce repeat offenders and prevent out-of-school offenses. You leave the classroom and finish your work in an isolated trailer located across the street for the duration of the day. As part of new administrative policies, the school terminated the services of our counselors for this accommodation. Why hire people to do something that can be resolved with a few hours, days, or weeks of self-discipline? Any violation of the rules can and likely will be grounds for in school suspension. Dominick does not invite trouble, yet attention seems to be drawn to him in all sorts of ways.
Although 17-2 stops at the entrance of our neighborhood, we make a habit of disembarking two stops before. Lane Park mostly houses people of color, with a population that is 75% African American and 15% Latino. Dominick is from the Dominican Republic. He moved to Baltimore when he was seven with his mother and older sister after an unanticipated recession damaged the country’s economy. His father stayed behind to search for jobs and makes telephone calls every so often. He doesn’t like to talk about those things, probably for good measure.
We get off the bus two stops ahead for protection. In the past, on our way home, we’ve been followed by members of a street gang known as the Latin Kings. Although the head of this organization was sent to prison a few years ago, numerous members still roam about the interior of Baltimore. In our encounters with them, their agenda was evident: they wanted Dominick. He represented a new face, a new opportunity for expansion to the next generation. New flesh ripe for recruitment. Dominick has rebuffed their advances for years despite their persistent activity, to no avail. They’ve since increased the intensity in their strategies to entice him, showing him how they respond to rejection. Mysterious harassment turned into chases, maybe even a few bruises. We take it one day at a time.
Eventually, we approach my house and attempt to make plans. After we part ways, I enter my place to see my mother in the living room reading a newspaper.
“Hey mom,” I said. “You’re home early today. Did your students not show up to class?”
“Hello, my dear. I felt sick at lunch and decided to take the rest of the day off.
“I understand. Do you mind if I hang out with Dom’ tonight?”
“And what does that entail?”
“We planned on going to the basketball court on Crenshaw. He said around 7:30.
“I don’t know. I am not sure about that. I love Dominick, but I am growing uncomfortable with the amount of time he’s spending outside of his home.
“What do you mean?
“I think he might be becoming a bit of a bad influence on you. I’ve seen the police talking to him on my way home last week. Something about his association with the Kings.”
“Mom, he was there because he was reporting them. They have been harassing him for years now, and he wanted to tell someone he could trust.”
“Well maybe he should have thought about that before he attracted so much attention. They wouldn’t stop him for no reason. Plus, Rose can’t continue to worry about his wellbeing while trying to sustain the lives of two teenagers.”
In the midst of conversation, a news channel covering the recent debate on DACA rang almost inaudibly on the television. My mom, as if to illustrate her point, turned up the volume.
She continued: “Lately, there has been heavy news coverage over DACA students. The Supreme Court might even do away with it before we know it. It’s a difficult time for immigrants, indeed. Until then, Dominick’s antics could jeopardize not only himself but his entire family if he’s not careful.”
Antics. I wonder what she meant by that. Dominick always invited attention. We both did. It was a reality that we shared, always being seen through the gaze of crime and malice. even though we are both boys of color, I found that we faced different racial problems. Dom’ tried to explain the DACA policy like a working permit, something that allowed non-native born USAmericans to live in the U.S. So long as you met a few requirements, it provided temporary relief from deportation. It is not open to everyone, though. Mrs. Vargas, Dom’s mother, is a domestic worker for two separate families several blocks away. An undocumented immigrant, she lacks the ability to push for anything beyond minimum wage because her employers shamelessly leveraged her status over her head. At any point, the fear of deportation looms, and her invisible citizenship denies her the reality of applying for better employment. Despite bringing her children to the United States in search of economic stability, DACA does not apply to her. Dominick calls himself a Dreamer. Maybe he is right.
After somehow convincing my mother to allow me to hang out later, I quickly finished my house chores and homework over the next few hours. I met Dom’ and Joe at the corner of Crenshaw. It was not too late yet, but the neighborhood felt deserted, lacking in humanity. The dark atmosphere seemed to enliven and quench the thirst of our shadows as we traveled from empty lot to deserted building past empty people. Homelessness is a huge problem in this community, a quandary we have yet to solve. We meander through the streets together for protection.
Surrounding the court was a small fortress of a chain-linked cage, a barricade to keep out unlikely visitors. It was 8’ high with a gate and a top. The gated door lined up the middle of the front side of the fence, and we accessed it accordingly. Time to play.
An hour of two-on-two scrimmages. Each game to twelve points, 1 point for regular shots and two points behind the arc. The rules of deuce. Slip through the cracks, dime. Skip through that lane with a jellied finish. Hyper-masculinity running rampant with each score. No fouls here, do or die for the next possession. Ball don’t lie. Bang. Bang. Bang. What was that. The sound of innocence deferred. Keep dreaming. Take it one life at a time.
Shots rang out in triplets of thunder. An anonymous figure visibilized around the corner, absconding fast down the street with someone else’s belongings, eventually receding out of existence. In what seemed like no less than several moments later, sirens blazed the streets of Crenshaw to signal the unquestionable arrival of Baltimore’s Finest. In a daze, we stayed where we were in the court. The police officer, stepping out of his car, walked towards the space with eyes that refused to avert their attention from us.
“You boys out pretty late tonight, no?”
The spacing between the officer and us was glaring. We stood on a cross-sectional plane built on risky advances. The policemen moved in an L-direction, walking up the baseline of the court, then pivoting under the goal to meet us at half court. A closed-space. We were in his domain. To de-escalate whatever tension had been rising, I moved one step forward, a vertical shift:
“No, sir, officer. Not too late. We recently came in here, no longer than an hour.”
“You should be home, all of you. There is no reason to be out this late, unless you are looking for trouble. And I am not entirely convinced that…wait a moment. Do I know you, young man?”
The policeman’s gaze gave him away, piercing straight through me to reach Dominick. The conversation took on a completely different form.
“No, no you do not.” Dominick responded disgruntledly.
The officer changed his stance and walked up to him. In his motionless eyes was a keen desire to provoke, incite, and size up.
“What is your name, kid?”
“Dominick. Dominick Vargas.”
“You look familiar. Where have I seen you before?
“Not sure. Maybe walking home from school. Same as every other day.”
“We are not amused. Look up when you speak to me. I won’t stand for little punks wasting my time. Be a man when speaking to one.”
With a cynical disposition, the policeman forcibly nudged Dom’s chin upward so as to create direct eye contact, to Dom’s immediate chagrin. A daringness typified these movements.
“You boys want to explain to me why you all are really out this late?”
“Officer,” said I. “We were playing basketball. Nothing more, nothing less”
“There was a tip recently reporting a disturbance in this area.”
“With all due respect Officer, why aren’t you investigating that? How exactly does a group of teenagers wildin’ out in a self-contained space figure into your imagination of wrongdoing, Officer?” questioned Dominick.
Not the response he was looking for, yet just the response he had hoped for. A grin of sustained amusement crept upon his face.
“Wilding, huh?” he smirked. “What gives you the audacity to think you can tell me how to do my job? You kids, roaming about the streets when you should be home. I thought I knew you from somewhere. You’re one of those boys from the Latin Kings. It all makes sense now. We spotted you at the office the other day. My patience is running thin. I think it’s time you tell me what I need to know.”
Dominick’s face erupted in anger. The familiarity of being unheard and inaccurately labeled had weighed on him. I quickly intervened. “Officer, we were honest with you about our activities. We don’t have the information that you want. My friend here is not affiliated with any gangs in any possible way. We can all attest to it.”
The grin dissolved into nothingness. Pure malice realigned his face with a disturbing immediacy. Our fate was in his hands, and we all knew it. With resolved composure, the policeman reversed his steps in the identical L-formation he used to enter the court. There was intentionality in his steps. An agenda marked each and every pace that furthered the distance between him and us. Something was different. We stood in silence.
“As I’ve said earlier, we are not amused, and I do not take well to rejection. You had an option. You had a way out. You did this. Not me.”
9:30 PM: The officer closes the gate with an impenetrable lock. Encloses us in the storage container while he looks on smugly. No more talking, only gauging.
10:15 PM: Reinforcements arrive on the scene. Four cars, four boys. A perfect 1:1 ratio. We are directed one by one into separate vehicles, transported to the local precinct, and placed individually into cramped rooms assumed to be interrogation units.
11:00 PM: A voice sounds off in the lobby area, the urgency of which suggest family relations. The voice emanates from a hysterical woman speaking almost entirely in Spanish, desperate to communicate the need to find her child. ¿Dónde esta mi hijo? The voice rings seemingly to no avail, as the officials try halfheartedly in helping her. The voice fades over time into silence.
12:00 AM: Sounds of footsteps become more audible until an unknown officer opens the door to my interrogation room. I follow him out into the lobby to see none other than my mother, who holds an unspeakable look of disappointment on her face. Her countenance expresses nothing less than a desire to disown the figure standing in front of her as her creation to the world. Her burden.
The ride home was utter silence. Upon entering into the house, before anyone could think of enjoying some sort of comfort, my mother stopped me in my tracks.
“I want to be very calm with what I am about to say, so I will do it through a series of questions. Do you understand what it is like to be in constant anxiety when your child’s phone sends you to voicemail over and over again? Do you know what it is like to receive a phone call at 11:00 at night from an unknown caller, regarding the whereabouts of your child? Do you know what it is like to hear the words ‘Ma’am, are you the mother of Ezra Morgan?’”
Her gaze fixated on me as she was mentally struggling to understand who I was in that moment. I somehow came to murmur, “Mom, I-”
“Save it. You don’t know because you couldn’t possibly know. I called you for hours, Ezra. You know how I feel about you being out late. I trusted you, and you betrayed my trust. What happened?”
“We were, we were playing basketball at the court, exactly what I told you, Mom.”
She stared at me with disdained incredulity. “Right, but of course. That’s what ‘wildin’ out’ means right? Stealing? Running wild on law-abiding citizens? You continue to lie to me for some reason. I raised you to use your head and think you for yourself. But you disappoint me. So, tell me something: Who are you?”
I was stunned by this interrogation, my attention arrested by the cruel finality of my mother’s lecture. An eerie silence controlled the room. I saw humiliation, embarrassment, indignation at the woman who named me. “Mom, I’m Ezra. Your son! I haven’t changed or done anything wrong. All we did tonight-I promise you-was hang out at the court. We heard some shots from a few blocks over, right before the police arrived on the court. I’m being sincere and honest with you.”
Still disbelief. I lost my validity the moment she picked me up from the station.
“You want to act like a thug? Be a man, huh? Is that what you think your father wanted? For you to embrace the stereotype? Be exactly what the world expects of you as a black man? It does not take much for you to lose everything I raised you better than this, Ezra. You’re smarter than this. Do you know what they told me? That you all might potentially have been connected to theft. The only reason they let you out was because they had no concrete proof. They told me I wasn’t disciplining you enough. Frankly, I think they are right. This new walk and this his new talk you picked up? I refuse to let you embarrass me. You seriously want to throw your life away?”
“Why won’t you listen to me? You took their side and didn’t listen to a word I’ve said this entire night. It’s like you want me to be in jail.”
That one hurt her pretty deep. She was not expecting me to be so responsive. “Go to your room. I can’t look at you right now. You’re not the same.”
I wake up and go to school. I lost all sense of time, having no recollection of the sequence between leaving the house and walking into the main entrance of Mace. The metal detector greets me with its familiar coldness as I enter the front doors of the school. The hallways seem tighter, more constricted. I feel eyes. Everywhere. I attempt to discard those thoughts, only to have my thoughts reawaken upon passing each figure of authority. It seems like I am being watched, much more than normal. I walk through a maze of a hallway while an endless of array of spectators view my movements with care. It was all in the eyes. Thug. Criminal. Hoodlum. Officer Clemson, appearing out of nowhere, broke the silence as he matched my steps while walking with me.
“Heard about you boys last night, Morgan.”
Small world. I hadn’t realized how fast new can travel in this community. “Is that right, Officer?”
“Oh, indeed. You were wilding out! Letting loose. You want to know how that worked out for the lot of you?”
“What do you mean, sir?”
“Have you noticed anything different about your morning?”
I was not interested in entertaining his mind games today, but his last comment intrigued me. I jogged my brain briefly in spite of all my interactions slowly meshing together. Officer Clemson looked on with smug approval in witnessing me piece the puzzle together. “What happened to him?” I said, my eyes straight ahead. Bingo. It was exactly the question the officer wanted to hear.
“Mr. Vargas remains in custody following the events from last night. His Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status is currently pending an investigation. There is a serious possibility that he will be forced to return to wherever he came from. He’ll be someone else’s problem now. Still feel wild?”
Deportation. A threat that always hung in the balance but one that now poses an imminent reality. Dom’ never left the police station. His night had only just begun. The attention drawn from last night extended to our family members, which included his mother. Dom’s mother, with no legal materials to support her residency, had no chance. It was only a matter of time.
I sat in dismay as Clemson delivered the painful news. No longer hungry, I went to class and sat in the back corner of the room to collect my thoughts. It was really over, just like that. Someone’s future decided in an instant. Who would have thought?
Class passed by in a blur. At some point, I checked the clock: 1pm. Two more hours. I said nothing and spoke to no one. My trigonometry professor, dissatisfied with my nonexistent participation, found me through a crowd of raised hands, in an attempt to immerse me in discussion.
“Ezra, how would you suggest we attack this problem set?”
My teacher was met with silence. I made no attempt to acknowledge his existence, let alone his desire to include me. Not to be deterred, another attempt was made:
“Ezra, you there? You haven’t spoken or even looked up from your desk this entire class. If you are in this class, you have to participate. It’s the rules.”
I looked up and directed my attention to the speaker.
“I am not in the mood, today.”
“Be that as it may, Mr. Morgan, the rules are the rules, and we all have to abide by them. Feeling under the weather does not exempt you from taking part in this learning environment. I called on you, so it is up to you to respond as accurately as you can. With that being said, what is the best way to solve this problem set?”
I was unmoved. In my entire education career, I had never so openly moved in defiance of an authority figure. My eyes never left my desk. I did not want to be here or anywhere, for that matter. The room continued to box me in its confines. I was all alone.
My teacher, instead of writing me a referral, decided to call in an officer waiting nearby. It was time for me to go. I disrupted the space, tarnished its purity. I stood up and walked to the door, finally trading glances with my teacher. This time, the roles were reversed: he could not look me in my eyes. In his eyes was not the stern disapproval that I was expecting but rather a melancholic expression of regret. His eyes suggested that he didn’t want to do it, that he lost someone else. I was escorted out of the room to I.S.S. where I spent the final few hours of the day. Maybe they were right about me. If they want a show, I’ll give them what they want. They think I’m an animal? So be it. They don’t care about me, so why should I? It’s all the same. Stay seated. Stay quiet. Stay sane. I played by these rules, and these rules played me. Now it’s my turn.
A lifetime of scrimmages. Pass the ball Dom’ I’m open. We slip through the cracks, abiding by the rule of abuse. Do or die until the next rejection. Skip through that blame. Life don’t lie. Life don’t lie. Life, you pass me by. Three fouls, Joe, and you’re out this time. ‘Ra, we have all the time in the world. You wildin’ out with us, or what? Take it day by day, one youth at a time. No soul left behind.