Clyde angles his muscular shoulder in front of mine, forcing me to stop and let him push the gym door open. A sucker punch of acrid air sends my head arching backward, knocking me off balance, one foot mashing the other, arms tightening around two stacks of poetry books. Clyde grabs my elbow with one hand and uses his other to slide “Flying Over Sonny Liston,” back into the stack. Behind us, someone snickers.
“Brace yourself. You’ll get used to it,” Clyde says.
It’s what he and the other brawny male chaperones tell me every Friday night when I arrive for this teaching gig, but my body still recoils at the first whiff of adolescent sweat. Inside the gym, ten teenage boys are playing basketball. Twenty others stand along the sidelines and practice dribbling: crossover, behind the back, between the legs. Balls slam against hands, walls, floors, bleachers. Never against a person—that’s grounds for a permanent cut from this program.
A microphone waits in front of a wooden stool near a section of empty bleachers. Boys blur by, pounding basketballs into the gym’s aging Maplewood planks. I deposit my poetry books on the stool, and squint at the players, hoping to recognize a familiar face.
Marcus waves from the free throw line. A half-moon of boys doff chins in my direction, hands high, and in the game. Marcus raises the ball to his face. It’s bigger than his head.
“Go, man! She’s starting!”
“Throw the damn ball!”
Marcus leans back and propels the ball skyward. It slips through the hoop. Another boy jumps toward the net and palms the ball. A kid I don’t recognize slaps it out of his hand. The boy who lost the ball curses. The other kid is already on the opposite court, hooting with pleasure as the basketball glides through the hoop and smacks the floor.
Boys here have told me they grew up believing they would become pro athletes. In the 1960s, when I was a child and adults asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, my answer never strayed: “I’m going to be an author, a poet, and an entomologist.” When an adult would counter: “Don’t you want to be a nurse or a secretary?” I thought it a strange thing to ask and said so. It was as though my dreams for myself didn’t fit their dreams for little girls like me. I imagined a grown-up self who wandered the jungles of Belize in search of lepidoptera and spent autumns in New York, which is where I thought all poetry books were born.
“Game over,” I say into the microphone. Groans rumble through the gym.
A line forms at the drinking fountain. Boys jostle for the two spots in front of a cart once used for industrial loads of laundry. I unpack pencils and blank paper, looking up in time to see that Javier, and a boy I don’t recognize, have won the prize. I watch Javier catch a ball, bounce it twice, jump high and pretend to hurl the ball into the cart. At the last second, he drops it in gently. Every boy wants to be the last one to hold the ball, the last one to send it pounding into the floor. The ball announces his authority even though putting it aside means he has submitted to mine.
Boys straggle into the bleachers. No one here attends this high school. They have access to the gym on Friday nights if they agree in writing to attend a two-hour workshop or motivational speech halfway through the evening. Attendance is often court-ordered through juvenile detention programs. On my first night, four Hulked-up Black men stood in the gym’s foyer. When I was first told there would be chaperones, I pictured a high school dance. These men are retired military, ex-cops and former parole officers. They tried to get me to quit before I even stepped into the gym.
“Poet-tree? No,” Clyde practically spat after I introduced myself.
I’m nearly six feet tall, but my height offered no advantage on Clyde’s home court.
“Last week, those boys booed a former Raider’s linebacker out of the gym,” another chaperone said. “They’re not going to write poetry. You need to go on home.”
“That’s not happening.”
I gave the men a hard stare, the kind my cop cousins would give the younger kids in our family when we misbehaved.
Clyde rocked back and forth on his feet, eyes colliding with mine. I cemented my shoes to the linoleum, my body to the particles of oxygen in the atmosphere, as though immobility was my superpower.
He sighed and stepped behind the sign-in table, gathering piles of forms and event flyers in hands as big as boxing gloves. There was no way he could know that studying insects as a child schooled me to wait for change, even in opponents.
“Go ahead, then. Go on ahead,” he said when he finally glanced up.
I walked toward the gym door that first night, considering what I was about to gain. I applied to teach here through the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission. I needed the money almost as much as I needed to feed poetry to boys from the kinds of neighborhoods where I had been taught to cherish the coded language of dreams.
My parents had constructed a solid middle-class lifestyle near San Francisco a few years after we immigrated from Belize. I attended a Catholic elementary school, although it was school breaks at my grandparent’s home in Compton that educated me. Every morning, my grandfather would ask my cousins and I about our dreams, carefully interpreting each one, slicing the random images away from the plotline that could move us forward in life. Obsessed with entomology, I often dreamt I was flying. When I would begin describing, in granular detail, how it felt, my grandfather always interrupted: “Where were you headed? What did you see when you landed?” From the remnants of my dreams, he stitched a story for me about my life purpose as a catalyst for creativity and justice.
My weeks in Compton also meant I saw single moms on welfare go without meals so their children could eat. I watched pimps in suits and hats the color of tropical birds driving spotless Cadillacs, beastly vehicles that sailed through the streets, dashboards ripe with faux fur, spongy dice adorning the rearview mirror. Pimps who would stop their Caddy, engine running, at corners where they appeared to exit in one leap to reprimand strung-out looking hookers in hot pants. I took penny candy from melancholy homebound alcoholics and listened to petty thieves boast about hustles. I hung out with hunch-backed old folks while they tended flowers in their tidy front yards and reminisced about the countries they still thought of as home. Compton schooled me on life with an honesty I often wished for while attending Catholic school.
Compton was also why I understood how difficult life is when people behave as though all they need to know about me can be known after one glance. My racial mix is predominately Black, yet my skin is light, eyes green, neither reflecting the beauty of my Afro-Caribbean roots. White people assume I’m white. Latinos hear my last name — Garcia — and assume I speak Spanish (I don’t). Black people ask if I’m mixed (I’m Caribbean, so yes.).
By 1970, I was also being schooled about the danger of gender inequality. I was 10 years old, glued to nightly television news stories about the Women’s Liberation Movement and absorbing the necessity of standing up for myself. It might be partly why I felt compelled to challenge the chaperones’ dismissive attitude. They didn’t want to give me a chance to prove I’m a woman capable of handling a gym full of teen boys. One glance at me and their faces spelled: Never.
It’s the same treatment boys in this gym receive in school, malls, on the street. One look at skin tone, hair texture, or baggy pants and opinions clap together that lock these boys out of opportunities proffered to others. From my own experience, I knew the boys in this gym would benefit from poetry’s ease in cracking surfaces and yielding insight, the way dreams do. Both poetry and dreams free the transcendent while keeping us grounded in what is.
At the microphone, I launch my shtick: “Hey, Hey Hey! Let’s get this par-tay started!”
A boy stands, sticks his butt out, and shakes it the way 4-year-olds do at wedding receptions. We all laugh.
“I’ve got some great stuff for you tonight. Ready to go deep?” I ask as the boys continue to pile into bleachers.
Anthony stands and begins thrusting his hips forward and back, his hands locked on the hips of an invisible partner.
“Yeah, I like it deep!” he shouts.
Salacious comments sully the gym. Marin stands. Belly quaking, he, too, pretends sex.
“YO! R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” I shout into the microphone. “Is what you’re doing what it means to me? NO. Sit down. Hey, HEY, I’m driving this train! Siddown!”
I abandon the mic and jump up to stand on the bottom bleacher, hard staring the two boys down and into their seats. They sit. A few boys are doubled over, one hand over their mouths, the other slapping a ribcage, hysterical with laughter.
“I. CAN. SHUT. THIS. GYM. DOWN. NOW.”
Truth is, I don’t really need a microphone. Back in Compton, I liked mimicking people’s voices, and would make my male cousins laugh when I imitated the rough bark of their athletic coach.
“Okay,” I say, once the boys quiet down. “Tonight, we’re talking about dreams, those movies that play in your head while you sleep. A dream is a conversation in pictures that you have with yourself. Dreams can be exciting, like a dream of flying. Or frightening, like a dream about hurting someone or someone hurting you or someone you love.”
I pause to swipe perspiration from my forehead. The stink isn’t so bad anymore, but it’s humid in here. I start to pass out binder paper and sharpened pencils.
“Think of a dream you had recently and write it out.” I say.
When I reach Javier, he pushes his hands into the front pocket of his hoodie. “I ain’t doin it,” he says.
I extend paper and pencil. “Please,” I say soothingly. “Try.”
“I’ll help,” I whisper.
Javier snatches the paper, crumpling one corner. I place a hand on his shoulder. After a breath, it softens. He smooths the wrinkled corner of the paper. Mushy and translucent, it tears. I hand him another sheet.
“You can write in Spanish if you want,” I whisper.
“You can’t read Spanish!”
“You can help. You can read it to me,” I say, and wince at my pleading tone.
Javier drags his palms on his socks and accepts the paper, without raising his eyes to meet mine.
Up and down the bleachers I climb, listening. Boys are playing the dozens, besting each other. A couple talk in low, halting voices about nightmares in which they are stabbed or shot, or see someone they love killed.
At the top of the stands, one boy has buried his head in his arms. I place a hand on his heaving shoulders, silently praying for his healing. What else can I do? Nightmares can be more violent than video games, more frightening than horror films. A nightmare can feel more real than real life.
About half the boys finish. One by one, they walk to the microphone.
“…You’re going down! Boom-Boom-Boom. Brains flying everywhere and my mama in the corner, crying….”
“…my shoes squish blood across the carpet…”
“…He shoots everyone in my family, then says, “Your punishment is to live. I grab his gun and shoot myself…”
Nausea thrums in my belly, catapulting a stream of nut-flavored chunky saliva into my mouth. I swallow hard. Why did I think writing about dreams would be a good idea?
One of the younger boys sitting in the bottom row starts sniffling. It stops me. So does the taste of blood. I’ve been chewing the inside of my lip. Back to my purse for a tissue, I pretend to blow my nose but spit into the tissue instead.
“Powerful.” I say, turning back to the boys who just read. I clap loudly, giving myself time to gather my nerves. From the stand, anemic claps join mine. A boy at the bottom of the stands wipes his damp face with both hands.
“A little hard to listen to, right?” I add to no one in particular and gesture that they should all take their seats.
“What if I didn’t write a poem?”
I scan the bleachers but can’t figure out who just spoke. “Work with someone sitting near you,” I say.
Samuel’s arm jabs the air again. “I figured it out. Can I go to the mic?”
I motion him forward. He hops down the bleachers, shaking each row, sending pencils in unintended directions. Curses trail him, but he’s too pleased with himself to care.
Samuel grabs the mic and begins beatboxing. Shouts ring out from the stands. He stops suddenly and stands Marine Corps straight while pointing toward the drinking fountain. “In this corner, it’s 5 levels of DOOM!” He raises one arm overhead, his index finger flexing toward the top of his head. “In this corner, Samuel, da genius! Gonna knock you flat!”
“Miz G?” a boy in the front row calls in a worn voice. He drops his head into his hands dramatically.
I step toward Samuel.
“Okay, okay! I dreamed my girlfriend shot me as I was leaving school. Bullets hit me in my heart, leg, brain and my dick—”
“You ain’t taking care of her proper—”
“You said it, bro!”
“No, wait!” Samuel says, growing serious. “It’s a dream, yo! It’s not for real. Anyway, after she shoots me, my spirit leaves my body, floats over me, watching me bleed to death. Here’s what it is: I graduate next year and want to go to college in Texas where my family is from. My girlfriend already graduated. She wants me to stay here in Sacramento, go to City College, and live with her.”
He grabs his chest. “I feel like she’s killing my dreams!”
Samuel’s knees go weak as though he’s about to drop to the floor. Instead, he takes a bow.
I post one hand in front of me, traffic cop-style, as he walks back to his seat. “Your girlfriend symbolizes something. What is killing your willingness to leave a place like high school, where you have been comfortable? What is killing your ability to think, love, move forward in life? To create your own life?”
“Dope,” someone yells. Snickers erupt, thundering through the rows.
“Listen up! In Samuel’s dream, when the spirit leaves the body, it’s putting him on notice that he’s ready for a higher level of existence. It’s okay if the self he used to be dies. Another truer version of him is rising.”
“Caspar the friendly ghost,” a boy calls out.
I roll my eyes.
“Ooooh! Miz G you said rolling our eyes was rude.”
Chagrined, I sigh. “You’re right. Sorry, everyone! Here’s what I’m trying to say: Dreams about death usually mean you’re growing and changing in an important way. It’s the end of the old you, the death of a behavior or attitude.”
I consider my own losses: an unsteady marriage, childless, not yet the writer I hoped I would become. But my nighttime dreams still shimmer with promise. That’s what I hoped these boys would net from deciphering dreams and turning them into poems: how to wake up from a nightmare, shake off the disturbance, find value in the message that filters through, and apply that wisdom to the work of living before it’s too late.
Have I failed them?
When I look up, the boys are staring at me expectantly.
“Does that thing about dreams and death make sense?” I ask.
“Uh-huh,” says Samuel with a wide grin. “It’s deep.”
He points his index finger at me, thumb erect, three fingers curled back. A gun.
“Pow!” he says, “Got ‘cha!” and lifts his index finger toward the roof.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Acid Pix/Flickr Creative Commons