If I had first seen Carlos standing on the street corner with his baggy jeans and shaved head, I probably would have registered him as a dangerous person. I would have averted my eyes, held my bag closer to my side, kept my head down. Fortunately, I did not first meet him there. Instead, I met him in my first class, and in trying to be a good teacher, I worked at suspending those assumptions.
He seemed older than the other students and this fact turned out to be true. He was sixteen and in the ninth grade. He explained to me that he had not failed a grade. Instead, his immigration status kept him from enrolling in high school at the same grade level as the other students his age. He was tall, with broad shoulders and a round face. His skin was tawny and reddish and he had freckles speckled over his nose and face. His hair, a slight stubble spread over his skull, was also of a reddish tint. His eyes were a dark brown, and he walked slowly, his head held high.
On the first day of school, I struggled into the room carrying a box full of math books. I plopped them to the ground and asked for help to put them away. He volunteered immediately and brought in other boys to help. He had that quality. Other students listened to him. And I liked Carlos immediately.
Of course, at that time, I didn’t know anything about gangs. I thought the media and nervous teachers, who saw the bad in the students before they saw the good, over-amplified the whole gang situation. I didn’t recognize the signs. I imagined gang members to be older than the 9th graders I worked with. They had to be. My students seemed so young and naïve. And after all, just because they were black and Hispanic and lived in the South Bronx didn’t mean they were criminals.
Carlos was quickly moved out of my class and into an ESL class where he flourished. Busy with other matters, other students, I barely noticed a growing layer of beads around his neck, a symbol of gang life. One band of necklaces was earned after each apparent act. The first string of beads is earned when you are “jumped in” or initiated by a beating. I can only imagine what subsequent beads are earned for.
The following September Carlos was in the tenth grade. He was not in any of my classes, but I frequently saw him around campus. One day I saw him standing looking melancholy outside the principal’s office. He was often in trouble, and was frequently suspended. More and more fights were in the hallways. He was a regular figure, if not in the fights, in the dealings behind them.
“Are you waiting to talk to the principal?” I asked.
He shrugged. “I guess so.”
“What happened? This isn’t like you.”
“Miss,” he began, shaking his head. ”You don’t know. I just want to pass math.”
I was puzzled. “What do you mean? What does that have to do with your fight?”
“That kid. He never shuts up. I can’t think in that class.”
“Is it a rough class?”
He sucked his teeth and shook his head. “Nobody can do their work. They never listen to the teacher. I just want to pass this class.”
“You’re not going to pass if you keep getting into fights. Who started it?”
“I told him to shut up. He didn’t like that so we took it outside.”
“You can’t solve your problems like this.” Did I actually believe that?
“You don’t know how it is, Miss. This here is the way things are.”
I went to the counselor to see if he could get transferred to another school. I certainly wasn’t the only teacher to take up his cause; most teachers who knew him saw the goodness in him that I saw. He was intelligent, talented, compassionate. I often talked to him about writing, as he considered himself to be a poet, like his rap idol, Tupac Shakur. The counselor was intimate with the details of his case, and was certain he could not be transferred. Seventeen, a gang member, an absent parent, a file in the dean’s office two inches thick. Of course he could never get a transfer.
Carlos suffered through several suspensions that year--some deserved, some not. He gained a reputation with the principal and other administrators that he was undesirable, a negative impact on the other students. “He is a gang member,” they’d say, as if that alone was enough incriminating evidence to have him kept away from their school.
And he was a gang member, a part of the Bronx “Bloods.” But this alone was difficult for me to take seriously. These “gang members” wear red bandanas and enjoy the privilege of being protected from one another. The gang members that I know are usually shorter than me, experienced in petty crimes, obsessed with ordinary high school gossip, but rarely any real trouble in class. Few know how to read or write, at least not well enough to have any power outside of their own neighborhood. Most are like Carlos, unfailingly polite, on their own in the world, and utterly lost. Sometimes I try to imagine them in other New York neighborhoods. On the street corners of the Bronx they may be feared, but if transported to Union Square or Wall Street, they would be small kids dressed thuggishly, like some inner city cartoon.
The last time I saw Carlos was in September. He was back in school, and he seemed fine. Everything was quiet in our hallways. Even gang activity seemed to be still. We were hopeful, like you should be at the beginning of a school year.
On September 17, 2005, Carlos shot a rival gang member and a ten-year-old girl who was walking next to him. I have to preface this by saying he was never arrested, he was never tried in court or found guilty. I didn’t see him do it. But the students, the teachers, the administrators, the police, the word on the street all feel it. We feel it to be true. The gang member was shot in the hip and shoulder. The girl was sped to a nearby hospital where she spent a very long recovery.
The principal held a meeting and told us about the incident. “One of our students shot someone,” he said.
“Allegedly shot someone,” a young teacher reminded him.
And I immediately thought to myself, his life is over. If Carlos did it his life is over. If he didn’t--his life is still over. The police were after him now, and the gangster thugs would be looking for him too. I also knew Carlos well enough to assume that even if he felt little remorse for the shooting of the 19-year-old rival gang member, he would feel something about that little girl. He couldn’t live with that, could he?
“If anyone sees him,” the principal continued. “They should let us know right away.”
We never saw Carlos again.
He remained at large until he was shot to death on December 30th. He was killed by five shots on the basketball court near an inner city housing project. According to the New York Times, two youths wearing red bandanas fled the scene.
I guess it would be easy for me to moralize about the danger of gangs, but that isn’t what I want to do. I want to just remember Carlos, and not pretend he is so different from me, or the kids I grew up with, or the other kids I teach now. I want to remember him in his new school clothes, baggy jeans, and bright polo shirts. Forever he will sit in my first classroom with his fresh notebook, thoughtfully poised to discuss literature. Because even murderers were innocent at one time.