He stood out from the other kids
with a spike through his ear and some baby dreads.
A presence about him, an effortless cool.
Students loved him. So did his teachers.
He was smart. So smart.
And absent. Often absent.
He’d return to school,
I’d give him homework detentions
to catch up on work.
As the detentions became more frequent,
a conversation began.
Life, politics, social justice, race.
Even the little stuff, like wearing a zoot suit to prom.
Parents battling drugs.
Two brothers raising themselves.
Getting their own food.
Getting up on their own.
No one asking if they had homework.
But there was no anger or bitterness.
It just was.
Still he looked forward.
Acceptance to college, despite his grades.
And his powerful vote, ready to change society.
Finally one day he said, “You’re the first white teacher who ever cared.”
Caught off guard, “Ten years of white teachers? And no one?”
“Yeah,” he said and shrugged.
After that, he did make an effort to be in school,
and he still came to “detention.”
Then after spring break he wasn’t there.
First one day.
“Word is he got busted,” said another student.
“No, not this boy,” I prayed.
It was confirmed.
A crime with a gun,
partnered with a kid with a record.
A stunned school.
Him? Too smart. Too smooth.
A traumatic jail visit
where he couldn’t meet my eyes.
In a throaty whisper, “I’m sorry.”
I was sorry too.
No zoot suit.
Facing twenty years,
eventually knocked down to
two in, three out.
He wrote me.
He called me.
“Don’t worry,” he said, “I’m doing the time, it’s not doing me.”
Worried if he’d get a second chance.
Still briefly wondering, would he do it again?
Would anyone hire him?
Would he go to college?
Absolutely! I was assured.
In America you get a second chance.
do your time,
Yes, of course!
He’ll get a second chance.
Well let me tell you,
if you don’t already know.
There are very few second chances,
Especially for a now 26 year old black felon
with dreads from the north side of Milwaukee.
Each day he struggles.
He wants out of this country
And its lack of second chances.
Still trying everyday.
Gets the interview.
Then the record appears.
Phone calls aren’t returned.
And it begins again.
No words of wisdom here.
No apologies for his crime.
Just anger at our hypocrisy.
Our lack of compassion.
He won’t commit another crime.
He won’t go back to prison.
But he has a life sentence.
Despite the platitudes,
we’re all complicit in it.
—Diane Hardy, Milwaukee, WI