For a while after it happened, I would snap awake at night, clawing my stomach to staunch the blood I had dreamed was spurting out of me. In the light cast by the Brooklyn Museum looming across the street, I would flip the sheets aside to inspect my body for a bullet hole that wouldn’t be there, and only then allow myself to lie back down as, outside my window, the disinterested rumble of traffic along Eastern Parkway continued.
At the time, spring of 2008, I chalked those incidents up to post-traumatic stress. Fear, I figured, motivated these cold-sweat-and-hummingbird-heart nights, but lately, fear doesn’t pervade the memory. To relive it now is like throwing myself into a well again and again: I can’t explain it better than that.
It happened on the one-block stretch of Eastern Parkway between Classon and Washington Avenues. If you know Brooklyn’s streets, then you know Eastern Parkway as one of the busiest in the borough, but on that day it stood empty, dappled in the violet of a setting sun. Sidewalks usually dotted with pedestrians were barren, save for the one teenager strutting toward me, hoodie pulled over his head. I spotted a second teenager cutting across the street to approach me from behind and knew, in that moment, that something was very, very wrong.
The world slowed around me. The teenager ahead steered straight for me, but, in my daze, I apologized and tried to squeeze past him. Then the kid from behind shoved me into the wrought-iron fence at my back and mumbled something. My sap-sludge brain urged me to lean forward so I could hear what he wanted more clearly, but he told me not to look at him and shoved me again, hard.
The first kid reached into the front of his hoodie and produced a gun, which he pushed into my stomach. I don’t know its make or model, but, silver with a black grip, it looked like it could put a hole through an elephant. The muzzle felt cold, even through my shirt.
The gun could have spoken for him: he wanted my wallet. With a grunt, he forced the barrel deeper into my flesh with enough force to leave behind a small dotted bruise that I would carry around for the next week, but, at the second thrust of the gun, I felt certain I was going to die.
Over their shoulders, Eastern Parkway lay untrammeled. Trembling, I reached into my pocket and muttered, “Okay, okay. You can have it, but there’s not much in there. I’m a teacher.”
Panic burst in their eyes as they turned to look at each other. Without taking even one dollar bill, the armed one flung my wallet at me. It landed on the sidewalk with a clap like a muffled gunshot. They bolted across the street toward Crown Heights as Eastern Parkway came alive in a stampede of braying car horns and revving engines.
Watching them disappear — my brain struggling to catch up with my gelatinous knees and panicked breathing — I realized that teaching had just saved my life. Literally.
When this happened, I was still in the middle of my first year, teaching sixth grade English at a charter school in East New York. I loved my kids, and each one had a story to break your heart: commuting from a homeless shelter, watching a pregnant mother miscarry and bleed out on the living room floor, dealing with a father in prison. I couldn’t make any of that better, but I could use my classroom as a respite from it all as a way to make a difference in their lives.
But my attackers were high school age: potential future selves of the eleven year olds I taught. The egoist in me wonders if they’d ever had a teacher who cared as deeply as I did, but the answer is undoubtedly yes. I bet they had more than one, in fact, who went home day after day, unconvinced of the impact being made and the lives being changed, but toiling — even when faced with certain failure — to bring the classroom out to the streets, two separate worlds sharing the same space and air at last. But if Sisyphus was a fool, then what did that make the teacher?
In the waning sunlight of that spring evening, I’d collapsed to my knees and wept right on the sidewalk. Although no blood pooled around me and no bullet perforated my vital organs, I’d been gutshot just the same.