It’s my turn now. Hesitatingly, I ask the two girls in the back to turn around their tables so they face me instead of the wall. Here it goes.
“So is there anyone here who can point Belgium on this map of the world?”
“Oh I know Belgium”, the black kid by the name of Ricardo says, “is that in Asia?”
“You stupid”, Jose the Puerto Rican kid with the large golden earrings says, “I’m tellin you it’s in Africa! Belgium is in Africa! It’s an African nation.”
I can’t keep from laughing, but these kids aren’t joking. A small African-American kid with an Afro like the young Michael Jackson comes up to the blackboard and points at France. “Is this it?”, he anxiously asks. “Almost”, but he deserves an applause. Now the class starts rolling, starting with an introduction on the petite kingdom of Belgium. “You guys gotta real king?”, Jose asks, “he like moving around that city of Brussels on a horse with a cape?”
“No Jose, he wears normal clothes. Fashionable though.”
“Have you ever seen the king?”, one of the girls on the side asks.
“Yes, but back then he still was a prince. He wasn’t wearing a cape then either.”
“Excuse me”, the black girl with braids on the first row asks with a voice that, much like her look, expresses bewilderment and despair, “so you tellin us before that them people in Belgium have kids at an earlier age than us New Yorkers, right because o tha societal pressure and all?”
“Well, that’s what I’ve heard up till now.”
“What age is that?”, she asks.
“Well, somewhere between twenty five and thirty.”
“But that is old”, she laughs, “oh man, you wouldn’t believe how many girlfriends are havin babies. Them not even eighteen!”
“So how many babies tha people havin? Can ya tell us tha?”, Jose interrupts with a surreptitious glance.
“Two, sometimes three. But not everyone is having babies, which is why our population, like in many other European nations, is actually shrinking.”
Now he smiles regally. “So if you’re not havin a lot o babies, that means there’s not a lotta lo-ove in tha country o yours.”
While stressing the love part, king Jose sits in even more, spreading his legs some further.
“Jose, there’s more ways of not having children than just not making love. You know that.”
The class chortles and Jose shrugs with the same smile.
“But talkin bout love and work and societal pressure”, he continues, “you tellin us you been all tha way to Japan, right?”
“That is correct, Jose.”
“So I hear that in Japan there is somewhat of a problem with mothas not havin anymore babies because the men only wanna work. So in fact, you could say that less babies in Japan are bein born because of a lack of love. Is that true?”
“Largely yes, Jose. But I don’t have the time to go into that right now. I’d be more than happy to answer your question after class.”
It’s time for the part on journalism. “So the main thing, before you start any piece or news item, is asking yourself: what is it that I don’t agree with? What in my surroundings feels like an injustice? Can anyone come up with an idea? What is it that you don’t feel comfortable with?”
Not a sign of life.
“I’ll give you a hand. For instance: when I walked into this school this morning, I was checked by a police officer with large sunglasses. There’s a steel maze covering the windows of the first floor. Why is that?”
“Coz them older kids, them shootin”, the black girl on the front row says, “you didn’t know that? Them not shootin in Belgium?”
“No, people don’t shoot at schools in Belgium. Who is shooting?”
“It’s the older kids on the streets”, she answers.
“No it’s not”, Jose disagrees, “some o them young kids bring them guns to school, why else is there be a cop in the entrance?”
“To arrest us and put us in jail when we fightin”, she fires back at him.
“Okay”, I interrupt, “wait a second. Can someone answer me why kids are shooting at each other?”
“Hea the rules”, Ricardo in his airspace jacket, silent up till now, says, “you can’t be caught looking at some other guy’s girl. Gotta respect that.”
“So kids shoot each other because of girls?”
“Gotta be vigilant”, Jose explains, “you know, them girls can be easily charmed. But them neve shoot the girls. Them shoot the boys lookin at their girls.”
“Not always”, the black girl in bewilderment interrupts with a high-pitched tone, “it’s so sad, you know, sometimes girls get shot at, and sometimes they get shot at when they already split up. Or the new boyfriend gets shot at.”
“That’s also a rule?”
“Nah, not really”, Jose replies, “I’m different. From the moment the relationship is over, the girl can do what she wants. But not everyone thinkin like me.”
“How noble of you”, I say, “so how can we prevent these situations from happening in the future?”
“Easy”, Jose replies, “don’t look at the girl.”
“Thanks, Jose. Alright, so can everyone please take a piece of paper? Now think of something that happened in your neighborhood which you don’t agree with. Write it down and we’ll take it from there.”
I walk into the class. First the girl with braids.
“I’m tryin, I really am. But I can’t think of anything.”
“Okay. Where do you live?”
“In the projects down Myrtle Avenue”, she says with a decent amount of shame.
“Nothing happening there in the last couple of weeks?”
“Oh yeah, sure, my neighbour got shot in the back.”
“Two weeks ago.”
“…and how did you feel about it?”
“That shit was messed up. I was afraid to go out of the door all week.”
“Okay, we can start with that. Write everything down you know about what happened.”
Ricardo, shoulders up high and hands in his pockets, hasn’t noted down anything all class and doesn’t seem intent on changing that before the end of class. I skip him and walk over to two black boys on the last row. “I can’t think of anything coz I’m so tired”, the boy on the left, pale black skin and goatee, says.
“He comin all the way from Staten Island man”, his darker friend on the right answers.
“So why do you come to school in Brooklyn?”
“No other school would be havin me”, he says softly with resignation.
“Where do you live?”
“In the projects.”
“You like living there?”
The two boys chort. “Nobody like livin there man”, the boy on the right answers.
“So anything happened in the projects lately?”
“Yeah”, the pale-skinned boy answers, “my nephew came back home this weekend with a cut in his neck, like a wound this big.”
“You know what happened?”
“Yeah I know, but I can’t tell.”
I turn to the girls I had asked to turn around. I had forgotten to mention they were both quite chubby, one dark black with long curls and the other Latina in a jeans dungaree. “I told you he was comin this way”, the one whispers to the other and they both chortle.
“So there’s nothing you can think of?”
They both shake their heads.
“Where do you live?”
“Uhm…we both live in the projects.” The Latina girl makes it sound like prahjects.
“The ones just off Utica in Bed-Stuy.”
“So is there anything that happened in those projects the last weeks?”
They stare. “Oh yes”, the black girl says, “I know something! Last week this guy was shot dead just a couple o feet from my door. I mean, my mother’s door.”
“How did it make you feel?”
“I was upset. That shit is fucked up. Everyone was upset, my mom couldn’t sleep for a week.”
The bell rings and this was it. The students leave. “Yes Jose?” The Puerto Rican kid is standing before me, backpack on his back, large black hat and golden earrings. “You told me I could ask after class about them Japanese…”
“Come sit with me.”
He avoids my gaze, looks at the ground and nods with a smile. “So you sayin them like thinkin like groups…them workin so hard to show loyalty to be part o tha group, right?”
“So them real different from us, like them not choosin for themselves but for tha group, right?”
“I wanna go see tha with my own eyes.”
That’s what Jose said. I walk back from the coziness of the Mexican market into the graffiti-clad lanes of gentrifying industrial Bushwick and get stopped by a Mexican man dressed like the statue of liberty, advertising for tax services. The sun is gone, the lane loses its colors but it’s heating up. I can’t suppress an intense feeling of gladness.
24 January, 2016. A small flash-forward.
I’ve been walking for hours. Snow is up to my waist. In the middle of this street in a black neighborhood in Crown Heights there’s a bridge over snowed-under railroad tracks. Attached to the fence over the bridge there’s letters. The letters form words and the words form a sentence. I walk to the middle of the road.
The words say: “Guilty are not the ones who commit the sins, but those who create the circumstances.” That is debatable. But I sympathize.