by Mensa Smith
6:30 AM: September, 2011.
It’s the first day of my senior year, and the alarm is blaring louder than it usually does. Now anybody that knows me knows that waking up in the morning isn’t my strong suit, but this morning felt different. My last of four years at Francis White Technical Academy, and I felt ready, or at least more ready than I did the last three first days of school. I felt alert. I felt like everything that happened in the summer was behind me and that I didn’t have anything to focus on but school. I know what you’re thinking. “What does a thug like Ivan Jones want with school?” Frankie Tech is actually the top high school in The Grass, and I’m not the delinquent you think I am. At school, I’m not even Ivy Ice. I’m just Ivan Jones, here. And you still don’t have the right to call me that.
I get out of bed and head to the bathroom. Take a fifteen minute shower, brush my teeth, and run a comb through the fresh fade I got yesterday. Not one of those tacky, “ball is life” fades, but a real throwback Nino Brown fade. After I get out of the bathroom, I go back to my room and put on my clothes. I choose a denim shirt to go with some khaki chinos and a fresh pair of Air Jordans I just bought the week before. The fit was excellent, so I spent another two minutes in front of the mirror hitting my dougie until my mom called me to leave.
I leave my house at 7:40 and walk to the train. The train always came at 7:46AM, so I was right on time. I caught my man Cassius on the train and we chopped it up about how swag less 99% of the guys at our school would be. I hadn’t seen him for a while, but Cash is my best friend at Frankie. A short, dark-skinned brother who wears a low caesar haircut with a part and street wear brands like Bape. Our first conversation was about these 2002 Raptor 7s I was wearing, and we’ve been like brothers ever since. We caught up about things that happened over the summer, but I only told him about my trip to Virginia and some college research. When we got to the building, we broke off and went our separate way.
School was much of the same stuff, but since I was a senior, my teachers were talking about how much we should try to fight senioritis blah blah blah. By 5th period, I remembered the only reason I was excited for school so that I had something to think about besides the summer time. I didn’t have any classes with any of my friends except London Barcos and Marc Nash. I had AP Bio with London and chorus with Markie, so that was nice. I sort of expected that, anyway.
After school, I linked up with my friends just to hang out for a bit in front of the school. Usually that meant making fun of kids, and I was the ring leader. I was ruthless back then, especially if you thought you were something you weren’t. A lot of kids I went to school with had inflated egos, and I was no different. Being a bully was different, though. Most people knew you, the girls all had an opinion on you, a lot of guys hated you, and the nerds avoided eye contact with you. Truth be told, I’m not a bad person. I just like a good joke and so do my friends. That day, some kids started a handclap and then danced on the street corner and we all gathered around. I didn’t like one of them, so I had to let him have it.
“My nigga, what is that? The Harlem Struggle? Look at this bum ass nigga right here, boy! And I know you practiced that in front of your mirror! Pack it in, my guy!” I shouted.
“Yo, why don’t you shut up and let’s see what you have!” the loser kid retorted.
“Alright, but this ain’t what you want!” I replied.
I put my bag down and proceed to hit my dougie con fuerza. The same dougie I was practicing in my mirror for two minutes this morning came in handy. I even slammed dunked a cat daddy so everyone would go crazy and he would feel like a turd. Dancing is what I did back then, so I really wasn’t the one to call out. I guess he learned his lesson that day.
Time passes by in the school year, and the murder just keeps weighing heavily on my brain. I would wake up in cold sweats and I would not come to school somedays. My friends thought I was just cutting school, and I let them believe that. I dove deep into a state of depression, and as the fall rolled along, you would see less and less of me. A five day week became a rarity, and I knew I was throwing away my future but I felt like I didn’t have anyone to talk to. I was running from myself, but the weight of my conscious was too heavy for me to leave my bed sometimes. I guess the biggest travesty in all of this was that I was a pretty decent student before I let myself get in the way of my advancement as a human being. I stopped getting haircuts and spent most of my days playing NBA 2K on my Xbox. I’d tell myself “yeah, tomorrow I’ll go,” and the next thing I knew I was out of school for 10 days in a row.
It also didn’t help that I picked up a nasty weed habit when I went to Virginia. Being a murderer is very tough to deal with when you’re sober 24/7, so I decided to turn to drugs. Getting high was like winning my first dance competition or getting my first kiss. They call it getting high because it really puts you in a zone where basically nothing can bother you. When you’re high, you laugh at the ironies that would usually depress you. Marijuana was my night nurse, and she took away the pain better than the Pokemon Center. Being away from Mary was different, though. She’s a lady that calls you back when you’re not around. She makes you want her when she’s away, and being away from her wasn’t something I could handle at the time. I’d always come running back every night. I guess running was in my mental make up. I’d murder somebody and run to Virginia, then I’d run from my conscious by smoking weed. I’d go to school, and run from success because of the same conscious I was running from. No wonder I needed a break from school; I was too busy running from the pressure. I ran, but I couldn’t hide.
I saw everything I ever built in high school come to a crash, and all I could do was sink with the Titanic. Luckily for me, I had friends who cared more about me than me at the time. Teachers, advisors, alumni, and classmates. What really turned the ship around for me was when I had a late night conversation with my brother. He didn’t even know what happened that summer.
“Ivan man, why haven’t you been going to school?”
“To be honest with you, I just haven’t been feeling it lately.”
“Yeah man, you know I get that. But I just wanted to tell you that everyone is real proud of you. You’re not like these other niggas out here, man. You have a future. You’re going to college and you’re graduating from Frankie. You know I didn’t graduate high school, man. It means a lot to me that you learned from my mistakes and you’re gonna walk across that stage. You’ll make mom and dad proud in ways I can’t, because we both know that you’re the one everyone puts faith in. And me? I’m just a weed head looking for his place in the world.”
I was stunned at how much he said that night. This was the first time we actually had a conversation of this magnitude. We weren’t really close before this day because he has a temper and I had a legacy to build and expectations to keep high. The same legacy and expectations I was tearing away at for the past few months.
“Thanks, man. That means a lot to me,” I replied.
“Nah, I’m serious. I wanted to tell you that because I meant every word and felt they were important for you to hear.”
“Yeah, I understand completely. Sometimes you just need to put egos aside and just tell somebody how you feel.”
“Exactly, man. I knew you’d get it. But I wanted you to ask you a favor, even though I know you’ll do it regardless.”
“Yeah, what do you need?”
“I wanted to ask you to walk across that stage for me.”
I paused for a moment, holding back tears. At that moment, I wanted to break down, but I couldn’t due to the image I painted for myself. My brother and everyone else views me as a stoic individual that is rarely, if ever, rattled. I couldn’t break down there, even though that was the perfect time and place to do so. It’s crazy how a minute ago I was just talking about putting egos aside to set your emotions free, but in that moment the only thing keeping me from speaking were my emotions. The hypocrite in me was very strong that night.
“No doubt, man. I won’t let you down.”
“Thanks, man. That means a lot to me. I just don’t want mom to feel like she’s failing as a parent.”
We had one of those awkward bro hugs, except it wasn’t awkward because it was a genuine moment. I couldn’t let my brother down. That night was the night I broke out of my downward spiral. Facing my teachers for the first few days was very tough, but getting back into the groove of being a student wasn’t. The truth is I’m good at being a student. I pay attention, I take good notes, and learning always came easy for me. Academically, I caught back up within a marking period. I was still depressed, but, much like the rest of the student body would claim, I was a functioning depressed student. But it was nice to focus on things again, and whenever I felt like I didn’t want to get up in the morning, I’d get up anyway. I can’t say my attendance was perfect forever more, but it was markedly improved. My one hundred days of sullen were over.
While I was getting my academic life back together, The Grass was still active. You know the world doesn’t just stop spinning for one man, and I found that out in the worst of ways on my way home from school one evening when I ran into Dawg:
“Yo bro, I got bad news. It’s about what happened last summer.”
“Really? FUCK. what’s up?”
“Remember the superstar ball player with the D1 scholarships?”
“How could I forget son? I shot at him.”
“Haha, you right! But I go to school with son. He tore his ACL in practice a week ago and all of his D1 scholarships got pulled, bro!”
“That’s a shame, but I’m not seeing how this has to do with me my nigga.”
“Uhh, you right I guess. But the only thing that kept him from acting were his scholarship opportunities”
“Shit, you’re right. What do you think he might do?”
“I have no clue, but you might wanna keep your eyes on the situation.”
“Yeah, good looking. Since you go to school with him, just let me know what’s up if shit starts to shake.”
“No doubt, bro. You know I got shit locked like a locker.”
“Locked like a locker? Dawg, you still corny as shit!”
“Haha, fuck you! But iight man, imma holla!”
“No doubt, no doubt. Imma catch you later.”
“Yeah, just stay low like you been doing. Haha, Lowkey Iceberg! Like the Titanic!”
“What does that even mean, bro?”
That’s the worst part of living in The Grass for me. You show your face enough times, or make one wrong move, and you’re a marked man. I don’t like living like a marked man; it makes me nervous. You can’t walk down certain blocks, you can’t go to certain parks, take certain buses, and you have to make excuses about why you can’t do those things because the more people in your business, the worse. Try telling your mom that you can’t go to a certain store because you’re worried somebody might try to kill you. Try telling a girl that lives on a block you have beef with that you can’t come cut it up. Luckily for me, I don’t really entertain girls from my hood, so I don’t know that problem very well. But this beef stuff? It’ll have you wearing a black hoodie on a 90 degree day.
I ask myself everyday how I let things get this bad. How do I paint myself into such a corner both in The Grass and at Frankie? I can sit here and blame it on being young and not having a father around, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s about taking responsibility
So here I am trying to juggle not screwing up my senior year of high school with staying alive. I think I’m going to try being vegan for the rest of the year. If you’re having girl problems, I feel bad for you, son.