My childhood memories of Oakland schools are of a system that was plagued by inadequacies. The phenomenally limited budget, coupled with poor materials and a shortage of staff, left the district in a frequently compromised situation much like a frail patient with a weakened immune system.
There were numerous good teachers, parent volunteers, aides, and principals who not only worked hard with the limited resources provided to them but were also both compassionate and dedicated.
However, these devoted souls, no matter how vigilant, were all just treatments for the symptoms instead of a cure. It was morphine keeping us students comfortable as long as possible before the disease eating away at our educational system ultimately lurched forward again.
My 5th grade class reflected this unfortunate vulnerability. It was considered by far the worst class in the entire school. Our teacher, Mr. Metis, functioned more as a beleaguered dungeon keeper than an educator. Many of his students were beyond the definitions of unruly or rude.
These kids not only openly insulted him, ignored his instructions, or often disrupted the class. They would also frequently throw things like paper, erasers, pencils, and books at Mr. Metis when his back was turned. I am no less baffled now as an adult on why this was allowed to continue for so long. Then perhaps it is of no surprise that this situation would soon spiral into misfortune.
We were in the midst of a downpour the day it happened. The storm was not the surprise, however. As I walked to school that morning I could smell the rain before it started. In the 4th grade, during the science portion of class I learned what it meant when someone would claim they could smell rain coming.
Our teacher, in the simplest terms possible, explained to her class that the scent we were detecting was referred to as ozone, resulting from oxygen and nitrogen molecules being split in our atmosphere, causing them to recombine into nitric oxide. This then mixes with other chemicals already in the atmosphere resulting in ozone, which gives off that faint, nearly chlorine smell drifting on the winds arriving before the actual storm. That was a better class with a much better teacher.
This day, like every other school day for weeks now was going absolutely nowhere. Like clockwork, anytime Mr. Edward turned his back on the class, someone threw something or yelled an insult at him. These constant disruptions were a thick mud keeping lessons plans stalled from the first bell to the last. I sat in the furthest back of the room mostly ignoring the chaos while watching the rain fall through the window, reading, or drawing.
On the few occasions turned my attention to the front of the class I found Mr. Metis sitting at his desk with a sort of haggard expression while shuffling through a small stack of quizzes only a very few of us participated in.
He looked so sad, tired, and utterly defeated. It is at this point I could perhaps attempt to paint myself in a beneficial light that depicts me as some sort of special, sensitive child who was deeply moved by Mr. Metis' plight. No, do not confuse my observations with genuine concern.
I felt little while watching events unfold from behind a thick glass of apathy. The truth is my father had been murdered only months earlier. I honestly could not have found it in me to feel anything more than that indifference.
It was shortly after I returned to watching the rain that a loud thud caused me to look up in time to witness a book someone had thrown, bouncing off Mr. Metis desk, and onto the floor. Parts of the class erupted with laughter as he watched them with an angry and flabbergasted expression on his face.
“That is assault!” Mr. Metis warned as sternly as he could. This only caused more laughter. “If one of those books hit me,” He continued despite being mostly ignored. “and I catch who threw it, it won't be me, you, momma, daddy, and the principal! No sir! It will be me, you, momma, daddy and the police!”
Someone mockingly yelled “Shut the fuck up!” from the anonymity of the class causing even more laughter. Mr. Metis looked about the 30+ students in a vain attempt to find the instigators. Visibly his anger slowly ebbed into confusion, then confusion cooled to defeat, then he went quiet.
There were two particular boys who played the ringleaders in this mean-spirited circus, named Eshu, and Kitsune. Both had been held back at least once making them too old for the 5th grade.
Both had serious behavioral issues and frequently bullied other kids. They were weapons-grade troublemakers equipped with an entire gaggle of loyal flunkies. Both were troubled boys who had little to no understanding they were only hurting themselves.
I was only on friendly terms with Eshu, and Kitsune. On occasions we talked about video games but never much else. I made the conscious effort to avoid them as much as possible. They never picked on me, or gave me any trouble, but I figure why risk a possible fight that could be avoided.
Today both boys were in rare form. They rallied most of the class behind them in their relentless tormenting of Mr. Metis. Each impotent warning, or issued threat only seemed to draw more ire and amusement from all involved.
At one point the taunting and disrespect grew so merciless that Mr. Metis marched over to the phone that would contact the office on the first floor. He lifted the receiver as the laughter of the classroom partially trailed off.
But he paused, appearing to change his mind with a shake of his head, before putting the phone back in place. I am not certain as to why Mr. Metis did not follow through. Perhaps it did not bode well for him to call for assistance the 5th or 6th time that week. This only served to further fuel his tormentors.
A knock at the door drew Mr. Metis attention and caused the troublemakers to quickly power down. This always happened in case it was the principal, or someone else with enough power to begin handing out punishments. Mr. Metis answered the door to find a student aide with some sort of message from another teacher.
Before I began searching through my desk for a book to read, I noticed Kitsune and Eshu leaning in close with a few of their loyalest acolytes. Their conspiratorial whispers were punctuated by snickers, and grinning glances at the teacher. It was clear they were up to something. I imagined a mean prank akin to the time they locked Mr. Metis outside of the class. I was soon to learn just how wrong my assumption was.
“Hey, Walter.” Kitsune's whisper drew my attention from the book I had found. I looked up to see him grinning in a peculiar way. “Hey, watch this.” He added before turning back towards Mr. Metis.
I ceased reading and tuned my attention towards where they were all eagerly starring.
As the seconds stretched on my curiosity grew.
I kept watching.
Then nothing happened.
Finally, I shrugged and returned to my book. I figured they changed their minds about whatever it was they were planning. At this point I just wanted the final bell to ring. It was abundantly clear the day was going to end as pointless as it had began.
I was startled by the frightened, high-pitched scream of Kushiel, a girl that sat a few seats ahead of me. I jerked up from my book with just enough time to see the trophy tumbling through the air before its heavy, marble base slammed hard into the wall immediately to the right of Mr. Metis' face just as he was turning to the class from the entrance.
The impact smashed a large hole in the plaster and shattered the trophy into several pieces, startling him into taking a few panicked steps back, where he bumped into the partially closed door, causing it to swing open.
The room erupted into an uproar of amused laughter as he stood there so startled and dumbfounded. Something entertaining was about to happen. Would he preform another ballad of pointless warnings? Would he commence his frantic dance routine towards the phone? The curtain was raised, Mr. Metis was on stage, and the audience was so eager to see him preform.
Yet, the longer he stood there oddly rigid, and starring into space with that frozen mask of fear, the quicker the laughter died off. It was now clear something was terribly wrong.
Mr. Metis finally turned as if he was trying to leave the room but instead his legs went out beneath him, and he fell hard causing his head to audibly bounce off the floor. He rolled onto his back lying halfway between the hallway and the classroom.
Now there was a hard silence after that. A quiet so harsh that only the rain dared to disturb it as the storm continued pouring against the building. What had began as a comedic farce was suddenly a tragedy of their own making. The entire class had front row seats but its doubtful anyone was thanking their good fortunes for the view.
Reality was pissed but at least it was not rude. It announced its impending return with Kushiel's suddenly hysterical screams that filled the classroom. Panicked, and overwhelmed, she bolted to her feet, and fled from the class as if to get as far away as possible from the ugly thing that was happening.
By now blood was slowly starting to form a small pool near Mr. Metis' head, blooming across the beige, brown and black swirl pattern of the floor.
The sight of blood ignited the fears of all the other kids. Many of them began running out of the class room all at once, pouring into the hallway, and banging frantically at the doors of neighboring classrooms.
“Mr. Metis is dead! Mr. Metis is dead!” The terrified chorus repeated over and over.
Yet, even as the screams for help was alerting the rest of the upper floor classrooms to the current emergency, not every student in our class was trying to find help for Mr. Metis. Kitsune, Eshu, and the rest of their followers were now in frightened disarray while blaming and bickering.
Normally the fear of the two older boys was enough to make the others submit but this latest escapade had gone much too far. None of the usual suspects were willing to be caught under the massive, flaming, many wheeled bus obviously speeding towards the class. A reckoning was nigh.
I sat there watching it all occur. I felt calm because most of the situation did not resonate with me on an emotional level. This time I did feel bad for Mr. Metis but I was also aware I could do nothing for him.
I considered getting something soft to prop his head on but I decided against it as I recalled numerous warnings about not moving an injured person. I had no idea if this rule applied to this situation but I was not willing to risk it.
Soon, I stood from my desk, and left the other boys to continue their frantic scramble as I made my way to the downed Mr. Metis. Standing over him, I watched for several seconds to see if he was still breathing. I felt some small relief to see that he was.
“Mr. Metis...” I began with some hesitation. He stirred a little but his eyes did not open. “Mr. Metis, I think help is coming soon.” It was all I could think to say in the given situation. I am not certain if he heard me. He appeared to be barely conscious and there was still so much noise coming from the hallway. After that I crossed over him and wandered out of the class.
By now other teachers were exiting their classrooms while demanding their own students remain seated. Some of the frightened kids were still yelling our teacher was dead. I was uncertain as to what to do next.
I continued watching the commotion around me for a little while longer before walking to the end of the hall, and going down the two flights of steps leading to the first floor. Just as I was approaching the office Mr. Brontes, a very large man who served as security, quickly stepped out of the door.
“Walter,” Mr. Brontes paused upon spotting me. “What happened up there?”
“Someone threw something at Mr. Metis. I think it really scared him and he fainted.” I explained.
“Did you see who threw whatever it was?” Mr. Brontes asked.
“No. Sorry.” I replied.
Mr. Brontes watched me with what seemed to be suspicion before moving on. Maybe he felt like I knew more than what I was admitting to. I suppose if that were the case then there is some truth to it.
Even if I did not see exactly who was responsible for throwing that trophy I was aware of who the conspirators were. Maybe I should have said something. But I honestly just did not want to get involved. How often has someone expected absolution with that excuse?
Soon, Mr. Ladon, the school's principal, emerged from his office. He immediately sprinted up the stairs to check on Mr. Metis. Mr. Brontes began corralling our entire class downstairs near the office. All the kids, even those who were never involved in the craziness, appeared shaken frightened by the unfortunate turn of events. The instigators were all still arguing as each was vying not to lose their head.
This all went on for several minutes until Mr. Brontes moved to the front entrance of the building, only several feet away from the office, and flung open one of the two pairs of large, beige doors just as the paramedics were pulling to a stop outside. A pair of EMT's hurried into the building with a stretcher and a cop following behind them.
Mr. Ladon was furious by the time he returned downstairs. “You should all be ashamed of yourself.” He began evenly as he looked among us gathered children. “What some of you did here today hurt an innocent man. And for what? What did he do to deserve this? He was only trying to teach each of you. Are you proud now? Are you happy about what happened here?”
Many of the students began to cry in the face of this admonishment. I briefly looked around until I spotted Kitsune, Eshu, and their acolytes, who were also crying. Back then, the fact that they, Mr. Metis biggest tormentors, were now crying as if they were expecting some form of pity or maybe a comforting hug, felt almost infuriatingly absurd to me.
However, time changes us. Now, as an adult, I still understand what happened was wrong and accountability for one's actions is necessary. But I look back on those boys with the sympathy I would have readily denied them then. They were just children. Foolish, misinformed, troubled, children. The kind that so frequently slip through the cracks and go off into the night.
“We are going to find out who did this.” Mr. Ladon warned gravely. “The responsible party will be found. There will be real repercussions for your actions.”
The crying only increased as the EMT's carefully carried Mr. Metis by on the gurney. His head was bandaged and there was a glazed look in his eyes. Mr. Ladon continued his lecture but at some point I stopped listening. I was watching the rain fall through the open door until I suddenly wanted to get away from everyone. I did not want to be privy to anymore crying and speeches. So, I turned and left.
As I wandered down the mostly empty halls in search of somewhere to sit alone the world seemed to grow increasingly silent and gray. It was like the constant downpour had somehow saturated everything to such a point that all the colors were being washed out and starting to spill into the gutters, leaving everything colorless and bleak.
I finally settled on going over to the secondary hallway to have a seat on the small flight of stairs leading outside. It was a secluded area few people ever went. I frequently came here during lunch to read, draw, or just think. I sat there on the steps reflecting on everything that had happened while watching the world though the windows above the exit. It all felt so disjointed and surreal.
“Walter?” A soft and familiar woman's voice called me back from the solitude of my thoughts I had been wandering in for an unknown period of time. I turned to find Mr. Sashat, the school's special programs coordinator, and psychologist.
She was a very friendly woman who always wore vibrant, floral print dresses, and scarves around her neck. Ironically, it was my frequent desire to be left alone that resulted in us crossing paths on such a routine basis. She constantly had a new book to lend me. I suspect it was her sly way of having me return so often.
“Hi, Mrs. Sashat.” I said with a small smile.
“What’s the matter?” She asked with some concern.
“Nothing.” I replied. “Why?”
“Well, I just heard about everything that occurred with Mr. Metis so I came to see what was happening. I was told you left. So, I walked around to find you.” Mrs. Sashat explained.
“Oh.” Was all I could really think to say for a while. “I just didn’t want to be there with them. What’s the point?”
“I can understand that. It was all so chaotic when I arrived. But maybe you should come and sit with me in my office for a short while.” Mrs. Sashat motioned for me to follow her so I did. We walked together without speaking until reaching her office, whereupon she unlocked the door, allowing me to enter first, then followed.
Mrs. Sashat's office always seemed to have a comfortable glow about it no matter the weather. There were a pair of large windows that overlooked the entire schoolyard. All about the room were a great deal of bookshelves. Trinkets from various cultures she had studied.
Numerous posters all over the walls warned against drinking, drugs and unsafe sex, mingled with those espousing the virtues of honesty, kindness, and integrity. Besides the sound of rain there was some sort of R&B instrumental playing from the radio she kept on her desk.
“How are you feeling?” Mrs. Sashat questioned gently as she sat down.
“Okay, I guess.” I shrugged after sitting across from her.
“Are you sure, Walter?” She further inquired. “A lot has happened today. It is okay to be sad or upset about any of it”
I quietly contemplated what she was explaining. I briefly wondered if I should feel something before dismissing the question. What happened had happened. There was no point in dwelling on it.
“No. I guess I am alright.” I replied sincerely as turned to look outside through one of her windows. “Its been raining a lot lately.”
“Yes. It has. The forecaster said it should last throughout the next couple of weeks.” Mrs. Sashat said cheerfully but not enough to conceal her concerns. But she did not press. She was always very patient that way. God knows she would need such dealing with me.