74: Before and After

74: Before and After

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teens Talk Middle School

Before and After

There is no education like adversity.

~Disraeli

The sound of gunshots woke me up in the middle of the night. I turned to my alarm clock. The red numbers read 2:00 A.M., blurring my vision. “Ah man,” I said, realizing that I had to wake up for school in five hours. Now I wouldn’t be able to sleep. I wondered who was shooting the gun outside, and if this had something to do with the day my cousin brought a silver pistol to the room we shared. Looking down to his bed, I heard our black iron bunk bed screech. I screamed, “Ricky did you hear that?” When he didn’t reply, I worried that he was dead. I jumped down to the freezing cold floor and my feet felt as if I were standing on a bag of spikes. “Ricky!” I yelled frantically, but he still did not budge. I put my hands on his shoulders, moving him over. Finally, after what seemed like an hour, he awoke.

“What the hell are you doing?” he said. I started to say that I was worried, but I didn’t want him to think I was “soft,” so instead I said I needed to ask him a question.

“It’s two in the morning; wait until tomorrow,” he yelled. I went back up to bed, with the boulder of my cousin’s death off my shoulders. I closed my eyes, which felt like they had been open for decades.

I awoke to the sound of my clock. It was 7:00 A.M. My bed felt like it was made of bricks, but my body wouldn’t move. I knew I had to get to school.

I washed my face, brushed my teeth, and then put on the blue slacks and white button-down shirt that we were required to wear. Walking out of the living room, I realized that I was the only one awake in the whole five-bedroom apartment. Twelve of us lived there, and out of the ten that attended school, I was the only one ready. My aunt and uncle were the two exceptions who didn’t have to get up.

As I opened the big, metal door, the wind rushed into my face, giving me chills. I walked to school quickly, trying to avoid my friends who refused to go.

My best friend, Kenneth, spotted me. “Darren!” he yelled through the morning sky. Running up, he said, “Where are you going?”

“To school. Can’t you see the book bag, stupid?”

“Why are you going?” he yelled. “Your aunt doesn’t care if you do or don’t.”

Annoyed, I just walked away from him, not giving him an answer. It was true; I could do anything I wanted and not get into trouble, at least not with my aunt and uncle. “Why am I going?” I asked myself, as I walked up the school steps. It was simple—I needed school. School was my way to get out of the ghetto. It was what would give me a better future.

I walked into my class and sat at my designated desk. Everyone was quiet and their eyes were red. My teacher, one of the toughest people in the world, stood up in front of the class with tears flowing down his face. I looked at the desk next to mine and realized my friend Jose, who usually sat there, wasn’t at his desk. Jose always had my back in everything.

“Where is he?” I whispered to Ashley, to the right of me. She started to cry, and I suddenly realized that my friend would not be in school that day—or ever again.

“He was shot and killed last night,” she sobbed. I felt my eyes start to water. One of my closest friends was dead, and memories of death in my own family started to run through my head like a movie I couldn’t forget. Anger filled my body and I became tense. I walked out of the class, through the frigid streets and up to Jose’s apartment. I found his mother weeping in her room. I could not look in her eyes. She hugged me and told me that he was gone and we sat there together, crying.

In the funeral parlor, it was quiet and smelled like old people. Tears were in everyone’s eyes. My friends were there, anxious to get the people who did this. I, on the other hand, only wanted to make my life better before something like this happened to me. I stood up in front of everyone and gave a testimonial. “Jose was always there for me. I love him and know he is going to a better place, to heaven. Many people want to get the people back who did this to him, but we have to let it go. If we don’t, it will be a constant revenge circle and life will end for all of us. It’s time we actually started to work and go to school. Higher education is the key for us to live in a more civil society. There is a struggle of poverty and violence in the African-American society as a whole, and we need to change that.”

As I walked back to my seat, I got stares of disbelief. I looked at Jose’s mother, and she looked at me with agreement. I knew she was proud of me, and I knew life had to change. “Rest in peace, Jose,” I said as I walked out of the church.

That was all in eighth grade.

•••

I wake up to the sounds of raccoons bashing through the metal garbage can and birds chirping. Looking across at my roommate, Ramin, I realize that I’m late. I quickly rummage through my clothing to find something suitable for school. Now I live in Swarthmore, a sleepy suburb of Philadelphia. I put on a wrinkled shirt and blue jeans so I can run down the street to catch the yellow school bus with all the other teens in the neighborhood. I attend Strath Haven High School, where I am an ABC scholar. The ABC program takes academically inclined inner city students and brings them to live in a better school district. The brakes of the bus screech as we stop in front of the main entrance. I slowly walk into the school and down the stairs to my English class. My new school is difficult, but it assures me that my hard work will soon lead to college, a great job, and hope for the future. I am one step closer to my goals.

~Dan Haze Barten

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