“What Can You Pen” Second Place Prose Prize

Why Not College?
By Michael Gaulden

I wrestled with the Mexican boy. I had him in a headlock and continued punching him in the face. He swung madly, occasionally grazing my head. I looked up to see another approaching and tossed him loose to defend myself from his comrade’s attack. I ducked under the oncoming punch and countered with my own striking the boy in his nose.  Blood trickled down it as he stumbled back and two more of his friends lunged for me as the original boy I was fighting fled.  We were out numbered, there was about thirty of them and ten of us. It was after school and a mob of teenagers mobbed down the street towards the Park Blvd trolley platform. Racial tensions between Blacks and Mexicans had been high lately. There had already been three riots that month, this was the fourth, and my second. I’ve always been colorblind, friends to everyone, which was why I was warned at P.E. by some acquaintances of mine, in particular my friend Saul. He was from a Mexican gang. He told me it was going to “go down” after school because some of the “blacks” have been tripping. He said he know I have to side with my friends so stay on the right side of the area and they’ll make sure to attack from the left. I appreciated that from him.

The concrete landscape raged with chaos like an epic greek battlefield. Everyone was mad at each other but no one knew why, except that they were supposed to be. The Vulcans cried as they approached from above waiting to feast off of the fallen. Except this was the inner city and there are no vultures, those were helicopters.

One of the boys swung at me as the other lunged for my legs. Another hit me from behind and I fell. I writhed to get my arms and legs in the fetal position covering my face as they started kicking me. 

A heard a loud smack and one of the boys fell down.

“Get up Mike!” yelled my friend Charlie, as the second boy engaged him. I managed to scramble up and dust myself off unscathed. I fight in southpaw so I took my stance and jabbed at the third boy who had hit me from behind. I landed two of them on his right cheek and he charged me throwing wild haymakers. I backpedaled waiting for him to open up, then side stepped him. There it was! I hit him with a cross jab and he fell like timber. It felt good. It was an adrenaline rush, but this was a losing battle. I knew I was smarter than that. I never liked fighting. I was leaving school with my friends when we were followed. We weren’t going anywhere in particular. Most of my friends didn’t have anywhere to go, no supervision, no money, just looking for trouble. We all were from the same local area which was why we hung together. Growing up in poverty its better to have togetherness than to be alone. I’ve been alone, I’ve been jumped alone, I’ve starved alone, it’s a no sympathy world. If you have friends, at least they could help defend you. And in return you have to defend them. And if you don’t they will turn on you because not helping them is understood as treason. 

My head started hurting a little. I could feel a lump growing in the back from when I was hit. I kept my feet moving. In rumbles you never want to be stagnant because you’ll get surrounded. Bodies were scrambling around everywhere. I saw a Mexican boy hit a black boy I didn’t recognize with a miniature bat he had concealed in his jacket sleeve. The boy hit the ground bleeding from his mouth. The boy with the bat hit a fellow Mexican this time with the bat, breaking his nose. That confused me.  I saw my friend James getting stomped out under a car and ran towards him. He was surrounded by four of them. James was two grades younger than me, a freshman, and looked like he was about to go   unconscious. I crashed into two of them from behind, discombobulating the group. I socked one in the face allowing me enough time to reach James and stand him to his feet.

“Run!” I said running myself. I saw gleams from the sun flashing off metal blades being slashed around. That only meant guns were next but I kept running. Police sirens flared and everyone frenzied as they crashed the rumble. I sprinted in the opposite direction following Charlie as my other friend Robert followed me. Everyone one was responsible for escaping. You helped if you could but you had to escape yourself. 

Some of the riot’s culprits were caught as the majority of us escaped. I slowed to a trot as I began to rub my jaw from unnoticed pain. I must have been hit in it the way it throbbed.

 Charlie waited for me up ahead as Robert and I caught up to him. Charlie didn’t even go to my school. Out of the ten that fought I knew four of them. Charlie, James, Robert, and John. We were all good friends, caught in the same cycle of impoverishment. James and John were nowhere in sight so we attempted to make our way back to Ocean street where we mostly passed the time. 

Sirens suddenly blared and two police cars swarmed in front of us as one pulled up behind us.

“Don’t move!” yelled an officer quickly exiting the police car drawing his weapon. I instantly placed my hands over my head as they enclosed us. An officer grabbed my hands and cuffed them behind my back laying me flat chested against the street. Charlie on the ground in the same fashion but Robert, Robert had a different reaction. He resisted. He fought with them until they wrestled him to the ground and forced him in the police car. He kicked the car door from inside until the police ran his name in the system. He was documented as being an affiliate to this local blood faction but he was too young for them to understand how far he was involved in gang activity;  him and John alike. They ran his name and found out he was on probation. His probation officer had issued a warrant for is arrest for failing to check in with her and the police car drove away with him inside. Loud sirens emitted through the air over the buzzing of the police radios. They slowly picked up Charlie and I one by one and placed us in separate cars as another police car pulled up. I ducked my head so that I didn’t hit it against the door and crashed onto the cement like back seat followed by a slam of the door. The cuffs were too tight around my wrists and my shoulders hurt from being constrained backward. I sat calm fully aware of my situation. In the ghetto, in impoverishment, you are always guilty until proven innocent and there was nothing we could do about it. Rather than fight with them, I calmly breathed waiting for the officer to address me. An officer walked to my door and stiffly opened it with a pen and piece of paper in his hand.

“What’s your name?”


“Are you on probation?” 

“No sir.” He eyed me suspicious of my pleasant mannerisms. In my soul I felt different from the people surrounding me. I wasn’t a bad kid, but just by looking at me he couldn’t decipher that. To him I looked just like the gangmembers and dope dealers.

“What were you doing?”

“I was walking from school.”

“Were you in the riot?” 

“No sir.”

“Don’t lie to me boy.”

“No sir I wasn’t. Honest.”

“Why are there scratches on your face?”

“It’s from my cat sir.”

He squinted his eyes at me. He knew I was lying. I knew he knew but he couldn’t concretely prove it. He asked for my I.D. and he ran my name. He came back and brought me out the car, removing the handcuffs. 

“Go on home.” He said turning his back on me. “Stay out of trouble.” I walked away from the car and waited for Charlie. Robert was stupid. His resistance may make an interesting story for us to tell our friends but he was going to juvenile hall to be locked away. He’ll be thinking about that one prideful moment for days to come. It wasn’t worth it. In this society of ours, kids like us have no power.

After Charlie was finally released we hopped the trolley together towards where we hung out. None of us really had anywhere to go. There were no stable homes, no peaceful nights. We lived a life of instability and I was growing weary of it.

We got off at the Commercial Street station but I didn’t want to follow Charlie. He was talking about meeting up with some other friends to rob houses. None of us had any money so they always devised quick schemes to get some. 

“You sure?” said Charlie. “I know you need to bring money to your mom and sister. Where are they now?”

“In a women’s home. It’s like a women’s shelter.”

“Alright man, do you. Stay safe.”

“Always.” I said shaking his hand with my departure. I walked in solitude trapped in my own mind. I rubbed my throbbing jaw contemplating my life and my life options. The cemetery was just up ahead. My feet were leading me there. Night had fallen and I tried to stick to the shadows, walking out in the open can get you shot. I entered the cemetery and stopped in front of a tombstone that read, Taylor Michaels. I sat down next to it, completely immersed in the silence of the night. The wind carried whispers in its gentle breeze; the whispers of the dead. Their tone was full of woe, full of sorrow. Sorrow not for them, but for me, this life of pain I am forced to live until I inevitably join them. This is where the statistics said I’ll end up. Here or doing life in prison like my father. Neither was desirable. Taylor Michaels was an old friend of mine. I went to elementary with him. He died last year. Like everyone else I knew, he was in a gang, but he was a good person. Joining a gang doesn’t mean your evil. It’s all about politics. Joining a fraternity is the safest way to navigate college, you meet more people, have access to more resources, and you have protection. In the same respect, joining a gang is the safest way to navigate growing up in the ghetto. It’s dangerous whether you’re in one or not. Many non-affiliates have been jumped, beat, shot at and terrorized just because of where they were born, just like me. Taylor was shot dead by a rival gang. His girlfriend was killed first. My friends poured liquor out in his memory but it is as if they didn’t understand libation won’t bring him back. And no one outside of us will ever know how much of a blessing his life force was. People will just file him away as just another dead minority. That is after all what the statistics projected.

But I wanted something different. I could not accept the life that I was given. I came into this world with no money, no home, scatted family, and generations of criminality and poverty weighing on my shoulders. We all were. But I could not end up dead in my youth. I could see beyond this life. I could see a way out. It was a long shot but I had nothing to lose. W.E.B. Du Bois said that education was the key to upward mobility, and since high school doesn’t last forever, college was the most logical step.

“I know what they say.” I said talking to Taylor as if he was present. “But why not? Look at us man, look where we are…look where you are…you were going to the NFL, remember?…we don’t deserve this.”

I waited for his response but his whispering was drowned out by the endless voices of the dead around me, all longing to tell me their life stories. Some of them died in old age, but almost all of them felt that they died too young, too soon. I’ve seen so many funerals, so many youth buried in this same cemetery. I see what mainstream America sees, I see all these proven statistics. Their individuality is lost among the statistics and they become another number.

“You know, I’ll never forget you Taylor. The world may never know you lived but I will never forget you died. We’re all caught in the systematic cycle of poverty. From the time we were born our life projections were to die…or return to slavery through imprisonment. I want to break free. I want to take everyone with me. But the problem is…no one else is trying to leave. This is all they know. They can’t see beyond their environment and will inevitably succumb to it.” I stood to my feet as the whispers of the wind chilled my jacketless body. I abandoned my friends that night so I’d be wandering the city alone until school tomorrow. My impoverished life was real. There was no getting tucked in at night. No warm meals. No food. This poverty drove everyone to criminality and then inevitable murder or imprisonment, breaking families, killing hope. It’s the same cycle through generation after generation, I watched it happen to my parents generation, I see it happening to mine. But it seems like if you don’t turn to criminality, you just suffer…like my mom and sister…like me…

The Next Night

I stood walking with Charlie and John. They magically came across a few hundred dollars and we were going to the taco shop. They said they had a few stops along the way. I called my mom from the school office earlier in the day. She said she was worried about me but I told her I was fine. She said she was applying for somewhere for us to all go together and if I was till staying at my friend Chris’ house. The truth was I was never staying at Chris’ house. I didn’t want them wandering the streets so I lied to them so they could go somewhere. I’m a man, at least in principle, so I could handle the world’s lashes. They were the two closest people I had to me, I didn’t want them out there. We cut through a back alley as John’s phone rang. 

“Hello?” he said. “I’m right here…hurry up…” he hung up the phone aggressively. John walked stiff, he he had a gun tucked under his waist belt. It wasn’t a big deal, comforting even. At least we were protected. A slim man and woman entered the alley and slowly approached us dressed in tattered clothes. I squinted my eyes at John and Charlie. I told them about bringing me with them on those transactions. The woman looked stern in her face, she looked tired, ready for death, the type of look that becomes permanent from decades of substance abuse. She handed John forty dollars and he set the white crystalized substance on the ground and backed away from it as she picked it up.

“What is this? This ain’t shit.” She said with four teeth missing from her decaying set. She looked repulsive. It’s one thing seeing this type of thing on television, but to grow up surrounded by it, immersed in it, living through it, it changes you. 

“Back up.” Said John emotionless to the woman, reaching under his shirt. The man she came with slowly backed up. “I weighed it out evenly.” One thing I realized is that if drug dealers don’t play about their money, drug fiends really don’t play about their money. Those transactions could go ugly at anytime which is why I thoroughly despised being around it. But I’m around them and they’re around it. And I could only avoid them for so long. Last time I tried to be by myself for too long I got jumped. I tried to get a job but no one’s hiring. None of my friends wanted jobs anyway. The money came to slow and they had children of their own that they needed to feed. The woman held her substance filled hand and inspected the product carefully. “Oh I didn’t see all of it.” She said turning to exist the alleyway.

When the coast was clear I cleared my throat. “I’m not staying here. I’m going to wait at the taco shop.”

“Come on Mike G, we just need a little bit more money.” Said Charlie.

“I thought you already had money?” I said.

“Oh no I meant I got the merchandise to get some money.” laughed John.

I rolled my eyes. “I’m out of here.”

“Hold up.” Said Charlie turning towards me. “We need a look out.”

“You’re trying to eat, you need to do some work too.” Said John. “It’s a group effort.”

I sighed knowing I didn’t really have a choice if I wanted to eat. “Hurry up man.”

“I just need to make my quota.” Said Charlie.

“Whatever.” I said leaving the alley from the direction we entered it. I walked to the main street and sat under the bus stop. Last time I checked it was 11:30 p.m. and they’d be at this for another hour. I kept my eyes alert as I went over Geometric concepts in my head for tomorrow’s math exam. Charlie was a little older than us and I think he got his G.E.D. or something like that. John was my age but he stopped going to school a while ago. No one we knew had ever graduated high school with their diploma. College was never even brought up except for NCAA’s March Madness. The fact that I was still in school made me seem somewhat inferior in my environment. I was less of a savage, savagery was good out there. In school, students received fails on exams and congratulated each other. I received an A grade and was ridiculed. Therefore, students started failing to fit it, but I never did. I just stopped talking about it and kept all my test scores to myself. I knew that beyond our entrapment those who did not go to school were actually inferior. Failure is ridiculed and success is praised. Success is measured by your achievement in capital gain, not capital murder. I knew this. I thought it was common knowledge; but knowledge is not present or prevalent down there where I’m from. Only ignorance. Ignorance that blissfully persuaded you from understanding you are in fact at the bottom of America’s classist hierarchy. Ignorance that cradled you in the illusion that it is cool to be down there, where your life is irrelevant, disregarded then discarded.

After about an hour I saw a police car silently driving down the street with its lights off. I whistled as it turned the corner toward the alley entrance where the first woman and man had entered. I walked around the corner as Charlie and John came running towards me and we took the back streets to the taco shop. They were laughing. John handed me one-hundred dollars in all twenties. We entered the taco shop, ordered and sat down. Taco shops were always open pretty late. 

“You know you’d get more money if you actually sold something.” Said John, stuffing a burrito in his mouth. “I know one-hundred dollars isn’t doing shit.”

“I know Mike.” Said Charlie. “I been trying to tell you that.”

“Nah I’m good.” I said eating my Carne Asada fries somewhat chuckling to myself. It’s funny how when you try and tell people about doing something positive they always tell you to stop preaching, or stop lecturing them. But when they try to tell you something negative they go on long monologues and sermons on the benefits. “I have my on plan.”

“What plan? Hit the lottery? I tried that.” Said Charlie.

“That’s not a plan it’s a hoax.” I said. “I’m talking about something concrete.”

“The military?” said John. “Everyone’s always trying to force me into the military.”

“No not the military. College. If we go to college we can leave the SouthEast. You know we were born here but we can leave.”

“No we can’t.” said John. 

“How?” said Charlie. “College? Be serious. Teachers ain’t teaching us. We’re not prepared to make it to college. It’s for the rich and middle class kids, that’s their world. You don’t know all the things you have to do to get there. You’ve never taken an AP class or honors. You’re broke so you can’t pay for college. You’re athletic but not a college athlete so no scholarship. You have to score high on the SAT’s—”

“What are the S-A-T”s?” I questioned. I heard of the CAHSEE exam in order to get my diploma but that’s as far of a test anyone’s told me.

“My point exactly Mike G. I had thought about college too, I’m not even going to lie. But we can’t dream forever man, get your head out of the clouds. It ain’t for us.” He pulled out some of the money he had made that night. “This is for us. You got to accept it.”

“No I don’t want to wake up, bro. I have a dream. Why not college? It’s the only way we’ll break this cycle.”

“You think you’re Martin Luther King or somebody?” laughed Charlie. “Dreams will get you killed.”

The taco shop door opened and I looked to see two Mexican boys with shaved heads, baggy Dickey shorts, and Chuck-Taylor sneakers. They looked at Charlie and John unenthusiastically but brightened up when one of them recognized me. 

“What’s up Mike G?” said Saul walking over to shake my hand. 

“Not much man. Same ol’ story. You?”

“Just out here doing what I got to do. You know how it is.”

“Yeah I know.”

Saul looked up at Charlie and John who returned his scowl. “Stay safe Mike G.” he said re-shaking my hand.

“You too compadre.” I said as he turned and ordered.

“You just need to wake up bro. “ said John. “You live in the real world. Act like it. You’re head might be in the clouds but you’re body is still right here with us.”

“Stop preaching to me.” I said. I knew how I sounded to them, all of a sudden out of nowhere talking about college. And I agreed, it did kind of come out of nowhere. One minute I’m hanging out the next I was talking about college. I guess it’s because I really did feel different. Early on I realized I wasn’t a cold-blooded killer. Most of my family, both paternally and maternally, were drug addicts; a third of them were dead. When I was born it was already decided how I’d die. Eighteen (If I’m lucky) year old black male shot and killed in a senseless, random act of violence by some other impoverished minority. Or the alternate ending where I end up doing life in prison. I didn’t like that story.  I heard it too many times. I’ve already read it’s plot before. The introduction started with poverty, foreshadowing the end outcome. The character description was mundane.  The narration was rushed and full of mistakes. It’s prose was stagnant. There was always conflict but no resolution. Yeah the climax was always full of action verbs but there was no subject, leaving only flatlines or overrun sentences for the youth. It was just a bad story. I wanted to write my own. I had the ambitious thoughts but I needed the articulation to write my own fate. I believed in education. I’m not entitled. I knew those so called statistics said the world was stacked against me.  But I believed if I worked hard enough, I could overcome my circumstances. Maybe I was right, maybe I was wrong , but at least I added another option to my life choices. And that third option was enough to keep my spirit lit; because the day I’m eighteen, I’d either be in jail, dead, or in college. 

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