The Alma Mater Chronicles: Street scene

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Every day, the cars and trucks speed by past the donut shop where some guy got shot in the butt about twenty years ago, the shop where you can get Doritos nachos, a turkey sandwich on French roll, cherry Icee, or a bag of donut holes, the shop where students think they can cut class for one or two hours, only to realize that every other day, the assistant principal, the one who used to be a student at the school across the street, will be buying a bagel with cream cheese and tomato or a  bag of cheddar and sour cream Ruffles and give you that look.  Today, the front of the donut shop is more crowded than the store itself: dark guy with bug eyes in filthy gray sweatshirt, chunky dude with pencil-thin goatee and sideburns, cut so thin they look painted, skinny fool with the bad acne on both sides of his face in the white Raiders jersey, and short guy in striped button-down shirt. Everyone just pretending they can see through the cars like glass, pretending the assistant principal and security guard staring them down are invisible, standing, not smiling, hands in pockets, eyes to the front.  Until the pimp clomps by in high-heeled platform boots and a brown poncho with two big horse heads on the front, like the ones you get at the pulga in San Jose, or on a street corner in Oakland or Hayward, struts by, large sunglasses covering his thin face.  The guys all stare at him like they’ve seen a ghost. Pimp man looks at the guy in the striped button down and says, “How are you?”   Striped-shirt is so freaked out that he cannot say a word or give the head nod.  Across the street, the principal and security laugh and laugh, and share the gossip over their walkie-talkies. 

The Alma Mater Chronicles: The Lockdown

“What fray was here? O tell me not for I have heard it all…” from Romeo and Juliet

Sometimes, he is simply a heart. Muscle, blood, a drum-drum, pounding faster and faster. There is no personality, conscience, regrets, values, fears, memories. Only the blood.
You got me f****ed up, brah, gonna talk all that mess and then not do nothing. Let’s do this, n*****. I ain’t scary. What you gone do?
Oh shit, brah, that’s my principal.
Sometimes, she is simply a pair of eyes. Small. Brown. Like her. They are full, though, those eyes, full of all the hope, love, compassion, forgiveness, and mercy any child could ever want to see in another human being. She knows her eyes show emotions she used to wish for in others—and never received. So her eyes must take action.
The day begins like any other. The sun rises as always. The sky is blue. Brown leaves fall from trees. Teenagers giggle and chatter over soft drinks and cinnamon rolls. Teachers open classroom doors and pass out assignments. The haunted hallway is ghostless.
And then, the crowds. A human chain. Handcuffs. Boys running through the campus. Locked doors. Heartbeats.
They call him the Scorpion because he is skinny and mean. He stings them daily with his glares and whistling. He wears his color proudly but not blatantly: shoelaces, piping on a shirt. They hate his good looks, his pretty girlfriend, the way adults like him, how the younger kids look up to him, his good grades. They are overweight and won’t graduate due to poor grades and low credits. They don’t have girlfriends. They are not popular, not even with their fellow gang members. They hate him because he is everything they wish they could be, everything they never will be. They are going to crush the Scorpion. He is the reason they are going to risk it all.
Ms. Galindo carries a secret in her heart. She carries several, some belonging to the children she supervises, most of them her own, with the heaviest being the secret of the summer. So many days and nights spent hoping her life might end. But this day, she carries this secret down the hallway. She runs on small feet down the hallway, outside where a large crowd follows one boy. She pleads with him. He shakes off her hand. They make their way down the hall. Another boy turns. There is an awful moment. The boys have seconds to decide whether they will put hands on one another, whether they will put hands on her. In those seconds, the secret unfolds within her heart and mind. She remembers her anguish but mostly she remembers her desperate desire to be whole, healed, free of pain, to be alive. She recognizes that she has endured pain so she could be standing here, at this moment, with these boys.
They choose not to fight.

The Alma Mater Chronicles: Cry later

William used to want to kill himself. They took him away in an ambulance. The voices were telling him to take poisons or use knives to take his life. After that, his parents were afraid and they made him go to counseling. He continued to feel sad. One afternoon, he sat in the office and wept without saying a word, fat tears rolling down his cheeks. Then Ms. Galindo told him about her own struggle with depression.
They are everywhere. As if marked with ashes on their forehead, she recognizes who they are. In her stronger state, she wonders if they can see her.
This is where they meet to take revenge. This is where they gather to watch. This is where the gangbangers drop rags and drop fools. This is where grown men show up with chains and Master locks and sixteen-year-old basketball sensations hold them at bay so the fight is fair. This is where you kick that bitch’s ass, don’t stop until she’s bleeding or you mess up her light-skinded face. This is where ghetto mamas drive getaway cars or turn away when they go through the loser’s belongings. This is where you jack that new white boy in your math class, take his chain and his phone. This is where the ambulance pulls over.
This is where three students died way before we were born. The pretty girl literally lost her head. They had been drinking and driving.
This place is cursed.
Niece is a compulsive liar but Auntie loves her anyway. Auntie’s been there, in that dark place of self-pity and emptiness. Sometimes she still goes back there but Niece does not understand. Niece has phantom stomach pains and sometimes cannot breathe. She is a beautiful girl, strong and feisty most of the time. But like Auntie, she loses sight of her own beauty, loses hope, falls to the ground. Auntie never stops reaching out to her.
I lost my best friend here. I wrote him a letter, one in which I accused him of betrayal. It was full of jealousy and rage. I had seen him with that other girl and despite his firm rejection of me, I refused to accept that he did not return my devotion. He was clever, my best friend. He acted as if nothing had changed. He said he had not read my letter, that he left in his locker or on his nightstand. What did the letter say? he wondered. I told him lies. He listened, paused for several moments. Then, he smiled and told he had read the letter.
It was the last time he looked me in the eyes.
Up, up, up, the rocket soars into the blue sky of Washington D.C. Lily can be seen on the student television channel news report, looking up into the clouds, an ethereal smile on her face. Lily is full of wonder. She had spent weeks at the hospital where they stitched together her wrists and helped her stitch together her mind. Now all is different.
Lily smiles at Ms. Galindo when they pass one another in the hallway. Lily does not know how she knows but she senses a truth about Ms. Galindo.

The Alma Mater Chronicles: Laugh now

They remind us of jackals or hyenas. They are a pack, small yet fiercely loyal. Together, they hunt and scavenge, carcasses strewn for vast distances. With the tiny but sharp fangs of wit and wisdom, they tear flesh, crunch bones, all the while cackling gleefully. Their laughter is the jagged howls of jungle beasts. They are as dangerous as lions.
Mrs. Hernandez calls it the Pervert Voice. She uses it to mock the deputy, his odd fascinations with young girls, her single colleague, and sex crimes fodder for the ongoing jokes. She takes on the posture of a macho peacock and deepens her voice. “Yes, well, what color were her panties? Can you describe the act? Was there penetration?” Ms. Galindo screams with laughter. Sometimes she uses the Pervert Voice. “Did you miss me? Have you thought about me? Can you describe your thoughts? Were they sexual?” She scores major points the day they take Mrs. Hernandez’s Jaguar into the ghetto to hunt for some kids who left campus without their suspension paperwork. As they drive through the awful neighborhood, Ms. Galindo spots a boy who was expelled for fondling a girl. He is gawky, a beanpole with insect eyes. He walks past two older women and Ms. Galindo speaks in the Pervert Voice, “Ladies! I have magic hands.” Mrs. Hernandez nearly drives onto the curb as they laugh their jackal laughs.
Emmanuel Buenrostro is no stranger to being suspended for blatant defiance. He has learned to tell Ms. Galindo the truth.
“Everything that is written on there is true.”
“You told him you’d break his projector?”
“And then you called him a crazy ass fool?”
“A pussy ass fool.”

When Mrs. Hernandez hears the retelling of the story, she declares, “Emmanuel Buenrostro for President!”
The good doctor is screaming like a banshee, “All I ask for is courtesy!”
The students look at the security guard. Three boys, who stink of drug store cologne, follow him to the office.
The Underwear Caper begins innocently enough. Ms. Galindo walks into Mrs. Hernandez’s office as she does most mornings to catch up on personal updates and make her usual smart-aleck remarks. She notices a plastic bag of laundry on the floor but does not say anything. An hour later, Mrs. Hernandez walks into the lobby.
“All right, which one of you dirtbags is responsible for this nonsense?”
She marches into Ms. Galindo’s office.
“Did you see any of these jerks come into my office?”
“No. What happened?”
“Look at it what they’ve done. They’re going to get it!”
She hands Ms. Galindo a bright pink post-it. In a man’s crooked print, it reads, “Honey, please wash these before I get home. Love, Greg.” Greg is Mrs. Hernandez’s husband.
“Where did you find this?”
“With the bag of laundry.Did you see it here before?” Ms. Galindo follows Mrs. Hernandez back to the office. She points at the bag. It is full of white athletic socks and BVD briefs.
“It was here this morning.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?”
“I don’t know. So what are you going to do now?”
“We’re going to get to the bottom of this.”
After hours of interrogation, the two women decide to take revenge. At Ms. Galindo’s prompting, they don latex gloves and open the laundry bag. They scatter briefs and socks all over the security office: a small pile on each chair, one in every cupboard, one on the computer monitor, one on the keyboard,one tangled up with the phone receiver. Their work done, they resume their duties, giggling every so often to themselves.
One of the security guards enters the office. His voice is then transmitted over the walkie-talkies, “We’re going to need a haz mat team in our office. It’s a mess.” He leaves.
Ms. Galindo convinces one of the secretaries to snap pictures of their handiwork with her camera phone. They are giggling when another security guard suddenly jumps up outside the window, “What are you up to?” They scream and run. “I saw you!”
“Shut up, you dirtbag!”
“They’re going to get us back.”
“Let them try.”
“What if they put it on our cars?”
The two women once again put on gloves and quickly gather up the underwear and socks in boxes. Their plan is to target the PE coaches next. They peer out into the hallway and their colleague comes rushing out of the main office.
“You need to check your email. She’s mad.”
“Hurry up and read it. We’re in trouble.”
Ms. Galindo gets back to her computer first. The message reads, “I know about the security office. This unprofessional behavior will not be tolerated. I expect that office to be cleaned immediately.”
The principal bursts in, stomps past them, and walks into the empty security office. She starts to laugh while the two other women look around wide-eyed.
“Did you get my email?”
“We cleaned it before we even read it.”

Later, they decorate the PE coaches’ office. They stuff drawers in every drawer. They pull a pair of underwear over the desk chair and write, “Nice Try,” in black marker.
There are three phrases that work for any situation that may arise:
“Yes well…”
“You know what?”
“Shoot me now!”
“Why did I ever tell you we eat guinea pig?”

The Alma Mater chronicles: Trevor

She called Trevor and Humberto the last bastion. They were the last stronghold of that gang’s place of power at Alma Mater. Like two sentinels, they stood across the street in front of the liquor store, one tall and light, the other short and dark, scowling in the sunlight at the petite woman at the streetlight near campus. Sometimes, red devil tails would dangle from beneath their white T’s or heavy flannel shirts. With surliness, Trevor would puff himself up, knowing she was watching him.


Trevor Benitez, half Portagee, half Mexican, 100% f*** the world. Once he had been a rocker, all wallet chain and girlfriend in Avril LaVigne wife beater and necktie. The next, he was claiming the set down the street, wearing the color, picking the fights. In time, Trevor became the third man, next in line after the main players. His large green eyes, which had always been of anger and arrogance, grew shiny with mercilessness.


Suspended again. Over some bullshit. I didn’t even touch that nigga. I should’ve taken his ass out right then and there. He knows he broke that window. Or one of his boys did and he’s taking the blame. I don’t care. Not about him or this stupid school. That stupid little bitch, she always takes their side. Everybody knows she’s down with them scraps. She’s practically one of them. Speaks their language. Family like theirs probably. Look at her over there every day, just laughing with them, never saying anything when they wear their colors, pretends she doesn’t hear them talking their smack. I heard she’s got family on that side, some OG’s. That don’t scare me. She don’t know though. She’s nothing. She don’t know what I could do to her. If my boy Z wasn’t down for her, I’d do something to her. Slash her tires, key up that piece of shit she drives. Something to let her know she can’t keep punking me. She better watch her back. Let’s see where her little friends are at when I catch her on the street.


El Scooby claims they knocked him unconscious, stole his chain. He names the two leaders but can’t remember if Trevor was there. Ms. Galindo presses him. In her mixed up heart, she hopes Trevor was involved. She has started to hate him and it scares her, but not enough.


The tardy bell rings. Trevor crosses past her, feels her little Asian-looking eyes fixed on him. He glares right back, hopes she’ll say something. She looks through him like he’s glass but then looks at his belt.
“I’ve warned you at least three times to not wear that on campus.”
“Let me put it away.”
“No, you’ve done this too many times.”
“So it’s not hurting anybody.”
“Watch your tone.”
“Man, you always got something to say to me.”
“Because you are defiant, Mr. Benitez. Come with me to the office.”
“I ain’t got to go anywhere.”
“Excuse me?”
“You heard me. You always got to mess with me and my patnas. How come you don’t say nothing to your folks by the tree? Yeah, you think no one was gonna say nothing. I’m sick of it.” “Mr. Benitez, come to my office. You’re being suspended.”
“I know. And I don’t care.”
“You don’t. Good.”
They stalk into the building, past the stares of all the kids on the front porch. Trevor’s breath comes quickly. He is dizzy with hatred.
Once they are in her tiny office, they sit across the desk from each other in silence. Then her glare softens and she speaks, her voice no longer strident and hard, now calm and soft.
“Trevor, we can’t go on like this. We have to be able to talk this out.”
“Nothing to talk about. You’re gonna suspend me. Do what you gotta do.”
“Trevor, some of the things you said didn’t sit well with me. I think we do have to talk. I think you’ve misunderstood me.”
He looks at her quizzically. A voice in his head tells him she’s being real but he is unsure.
“I want to do a good job here. My job is to protect the campus and all the students. You seem like you don’t believe that.”
“I don’t.”
“You don’t think I’m here for all of you?”
“No. I think you’re only here for some people.”
“So how do we change that? How do I make things right? I want to be here for you and your friends. I know you don’t believe that. Now you have a chance to tell me what’s what so we can squash this.”
“You wanna squash this?”
“And you’re not gonna suspend me?”
“Well, you yelled at a vice principal. That has to have some consequence.”
“And what I say in here won’t be on my suspension?”
“No, what we say in here is just part of our conversation.”
Trevor decides to take a chance and begin to trust her.


You taught me something that afternoon. So I gave you my word. I will protect and support you if you keep your street nonsense off my campus. I will make sure you walk that stage and make it, so you won’t end up like your boys.


Ms. Galindo and Trevor made peace. As she promised, she learned to stand at the wall with the other gang. She talked to him about his little brother, his mom, and his grades. They laughed at other students as they walked by during passing period. She helped him with class schedule changes, walked him to class, checked in with his teachers. She made him feel like he mattered to her. That made him want to prove her right.

*Please keep my student, Daniel, in your prayers and thoughts. May he survive tomorrow’s surgery and his current struggle to live.

The Alma Mater chronicles, Ch. 1

The Four Horsemen: War, Death, Famine, Pestilence. The original members were also known as the Brothers, a diverse group of football players. War was the unofficial leader: tall, handsome, smart, strong. Pestilence was the playboy of the crew: edgy, rugged, promiscuous, arrogant. Famine was the little one: short, scrawny, feisty. Death was the oddball: pale, nervous, solitary. Together, they took on a small-time thug after a stupid adult ratted him out. After he threatened to shoot Death, the Horsemen pushed past a hapless administrator and stomped the boy. Literally. It was the punches from War that caused the most damage. And so the Apocalyse came to our alma mater.


The Good Doctor looks mad. Angry. Crazy. Insane. Her hair has gone from a mass of wild red curls to a close-cropped bullet shape, first two-toned, then gray, now ash blonde. Her skin is a raw red map of scars, reminders of chicken pox or acne. Her eyes are two dark pieces of flint. She snaps her head like a whip. Glares with fiery fury. We run and hide in warm dens.


Whatchu lookin at, you ugly ass broad? Hella big with a flat face. Your man? He ugly too with those damn scary devil eyes. I’m not one for light eyes, so he does nothing for me. You think you so hard, kicking doors and throwing attitude at the principals and shit. Hella stupid. I heard what you did. Trying to start mess with that boy just cuz he punked your man. Your man so weak he need you to get his back. You just makin him look even more scary. You not so tough without your ugly cousins to back you. Keep walkin.


It is springtime. In the early hours of the morning, she walks. Sometimes she sings. Laughs. Bounces a ball. She is a little girl who wants to play. She does not know she does not live. Her heart continues to beat, if only in this lonely hallway. The children during the day don’t acknowledge her. Maybe the strange ones. The ones whose hairs rise at odd times. The ones whose ears pick up noises and whispers. The ones who want to run when they walk through that hallway, even on a spring afternoon. But most of the time, she is alone.


Miz Simpson bursts into the office with her clan of sloppy children: her niece with the dirty headwrap, her nephew with bad teeth, her oddly pretty daughter with the greasy face, the toddler with the runny nose. Miz Simpson demands to see the administrator, the little one with the Asian eyes. The secretary tries her best to calm her but she raises her voice. She wants answers. The little girl comes out of her office, her heels clicking like castanets on the linoleum. Miz Simpson looks her up and down. Her children show grinning fangs, hope for bloodshed. The little girl stares back at her, back straight, good hair shiny. Miz Simpson falters, steps back. She isn’t scared, not this one. The door closes. Miz Simpson turns her attention back to the secretary, demands to see evidence. The children, bored that no drama has ensued, step out into the hallway to answer cel phones. The administrator comes back out, still calm. She invites Miz Simpson into the office, offers her a chair. The girl has a little voice. She goes through the statements and copies one by one, shows her just what a mess Miz Simpson’s no good son is, thanks her, shakes her hand, ushers her back to the office with a sweet smile. Miz Simpson doesn’t know what to think or feel. Who is this woman?


If you know him as well as you think you do, you’ll see what’s in his heart.


The promotion of Mr. Hess teaches us valuable lessons: Look the part, suck up, and use as many people as possible.


The police car sits across the street, like an alligator sunning itself on the river bank. Inside, the deputy looks at the campus from behind his sunglasses. On the porch, the girl with the curly hair whose mother complained to the assistant principal about him. At the burger joint, the crackhead who stalks middle school girls. At the crosswalk, the young single administrator always hiding herself in the black peacoat, even in 60-degree temps. The deputy shifts in his seat, sighs, curses in his mind.