Tameka* was a high school student who was enrolled in one of those special programs for delinquent students. She’d arrive at noon and leave by three and would be on campus with no books and no backpack. Tameka had only a pencil in one hand and three sheets of folded paper in the other. All of it — school and these instruments — was a weighty load for her to carry.
I was an eleventh-grader with a different kind of load. I carried my life in my backpack — 25 extra pounds of textbooks, notepads, pencils, tampons, snacks, and my stories — all on my shoulders, already weighing on me. And on Fridays and after school, we’d lose those burdens and dance in the outdoor lunch area together. Always hip-hop, always jumping and swirling, rolling and pop-locking, our scrunchied ponytails swinging in brush strokes, painting musical notes in the air.
So I was surprised to see Tameka one Tuesday morning at 7 a.m. I had arrived early for basketball practice and found her walking through our dance space, carrying a large tree branch. “Hey, Meka,” I said.
She seemed extraordinarily happy to see me, hugs and smiles, a departure from the serious expressions we’d make during our dance-offs, when we’d talk to each other saying, “Gurl, this …” and “Gurl, that …” We were from the suburbs and learned how to speak that way from watching the movie New Jack City, the same way the white kids had.
Tameka told me she was looking for Darnell. Saying his name made her suddenly angry. That’s when I noticed her gold hoop earrings were already taken off and her braids were pulled back into her dance-off ponytail. She said, “Grab a stick and come with us.”
When she said us, Heather and Kristy came from another part of the lunch area and joined us there — Heather, a redhead, and Kristy, a blonde. They had already picked out their own large sticks.
“What are y’all doing?” I said.
“We’re gonna beat his ass,” Tameka said. “Then we’re going to beat Mr. L’s* ass.”
“Coach?” I said. Darnell was often getting expelled and suspended, fighting and bullying people, but Mr. L was the track coach and people liked him — students and faculty. He was one of the most popular and dedicated teachers at the high school. He’d take students home from school when their parents no-showed or were coming too late from work. None of us ever had to sit alone in the dark waiting to be picked up.
“Here,” Tameka said, “take my stick. I’ll find another one.” I held her tree branch loosely in my hand as she searched the dry patches next to the lunch area.
I waited for her, bounced my backpack higher over my shoulders. “You’re seriously going to beat down Coach?” I said.
“And Darnell,” she said. “He messed with Kristy’s sister.”
“Shouldn’t we just tell the school dean? I can tell my counselor, Ms. B.”
“Does that mean you’re not coming?” Tameka said. Her expression transformed into her dance-off mask.
“I have to go to practice,” I said, handing back her branch, foreseeing a consequence to my own safety elsewhere, but I didn’t say that. Instead, I said, “I don’t want to get dropped from the team.”
“Come on,” she told the others. “Let’s wait for them on the track field. They both go that way from the parking lot.”
After that day, I didn’t see any of them for months. Darnell I saw the next day, his eye bruised, his elbows scraped, still talking mess to everybody, especially intimidating the girls with what he thought were gifts to us: promises and stories about the feats of his penis.