Mr. Machellis whipped away from the smartboard.
-So what have we learned about Adolf Hitler?-
Silence masked apathy as well as a ham sandwich. They had eyes of gold and tongues of flames, but the children of the south and the east would give nothing to Mr. Machellis. Just stony silence and a willing defiance that was admirable, and just plain dangerous. So the school told him.
-What have I been doing up here for the last 6 weeks? Looking cute?-
That got some laughs. Dismissive mostly. Some admiring glances. But mostly the home languages, spoken barely under their breaths, betrayed their affiliations. The wrong side of the border. He had come to learn it was him who was on the wrong side of the tracks, laid down long ago by blood and manly sweat and the willingness to renew oneself in acts of self-obliteration.
And so it began, at least today, the unsure first hands of 21st-century America.
First came Kamela, her with the two jobs and the sick mom and the dad who kept going back to the Philippines.
-Hitler…he was a vegetarian.-
He spun back around to the smartboard and electric sensors lit up a trail of LCD penmanship that his pedagogical training called student-centric.
Answers began to arrive like a hail of bullets on the Amazonian plateau.
-He liked dogs!-
The class laughed and Mr. Machellis gave the student (Esteban? El Salvadoran?) the benefit of the doubt—and the complete answer Hilterologists looked for—adding the word “German Sheppard!” next to the word dog. He hoped Esteban didn’t mind adding his addition. These Salvadorans were definitely the sharpest tools in the shed that the late, great American empire would use at will for any future adventures. If it was smart.
He turned around and there, bless their little hearts, a sea of hands had begun to rise. Like Moses he walked into the middle of the room and parted the sea, wishing he had a staff or yardstick to strike against the ground.
He signaled to the closest hand. From Ariana, la jaliscana who’d taken this class before and failed, and retaken the class. And failed. She was a supersenior, or as her classmates called her, supersenorita.
-Hitler liked his mom, meester…-
Mister, someone joked. So Mr. Machellis called on him. Miguelito. A startled look betrayed his lack of an answer, as his comment had revealed his jackassdom.
Machellis rolled his eyes, strobed it upon the smartboard, lighting up with his other addition to Miguelito (Durango!), Hitler was from Austria.
-Mr. Mack, he was an artist.-
He didn’t need to turn around to know Serra’s answer. He just wrote it down, adding an exclamation point as an unnecessary flourish. He turned back to the class, where one more hand rose above the crowd.
-Hitler had one testicle!-
-He had sex with his niece.-
-He farted a lot.-
-He was into people pissing on him, and pooping…meeeester….-
The triumvirate of responses from Theo, Blade and Viggo (America’s Best Dance Crew!) was drowned out by a wave of laughter. Mr. Machellis had to regain control of this class, or he was finished.
But it was Tony’s response that heralded pandemonium of shouts and all the different languages of Ronald Wilson Reagan High School. All 165 of them.
The front door of the class opened and, as one of many sources of frustration, it distracted the classes’ attention from him, the teacher, that he usually had to struggle for the next few minutes to win back.
In walked Mr. French. The very short principal of a school on a much shorter list of educational institutions facing the loss of accreditation. He would go down with the ship in his administrative shirt and tie, the walkie-talkie on his belt a signal of doom to any class he stepped into, the swept forward hair barely covering his sunburnt scalp.
It was getting hotter in the Commonwealth of the Californias.
-Mr. Machellis, can I see you during lunch?-
The car stopped with great reservation in the rotary just beneath the sign that graced the front of the school. Ronald Wilson Reagan High School. Home of the Challengers! Here and there, a student walked across the covered bridges that linked buildings. A lone security guard talked into a walkie-talkie, walked over to the car, peered inside—they just looked. Another car pulled into the rotary, its slide door open before it had stopped, and out ran two kids yelling with great consternation, as the music interrupted the halls of knowledge before the door could be slid closed again. Sealed away, gone away.
Chavo looked out the window of the car. The school was the last place he wanted to be. He waited as long as he could, before he had to acknowledge the fact of the matter. They had arrived. He had to jump out.
He ignored all the obvious prompts. The loud norteño music was lowered, the turn signal was still on, the door locks clicked open—and still Chavo ignored the signs of his first day at RWRHS.
-Its time, hijo. You have your money for the bus to go home.-
Chavo straightened his glasses, looked at his mother. Waited. She looked tired and distracted by the things that would not go away. But her black eyes shined compassionately, for he was her only, and that would never change. Even though things at home continued to make less sense.
His hand struggled for the door. It stumbled a little over the lever. Seeing this, his mother bent towards him, kissed him on the cheek, her black hair making his ear itch a little. He tilted his shoulder up, relieved the itch, said something back, and stepped out with the hope that no one had seen the exchange.
His mother drove off, lingered partly, for he could see her watch him. Just to make her feel better, he began to walk towards the office. She guessed all was fine, so she drove faster. He made sure not to stop and watch her go. Letting go of the little boy made things easier for both of them.
Tony whipped around on his skateboard, until he grinded on the concrete flowerbed, and landed in the path of the Emiliana, the T-40 security guard. A few seconds of defiant Spanish, with Tony making sure not to laugh at her Catalan lisp, and the skateboard was hers. The last thing Tony saw was the Black Flag bars on the underside of the deck. Mrs E.—as the kids called her—never saw his middle finger.
Tony heard some students laughing. With knowledge they had seen the loss of his board, he went into a rant of cursing in his home language.
-Go fuck yourselves, you damn assholes. That’s the end of that board, Goodbye. Chestweller, the man whore, won’t give it back. He told me that. So go fuck yourselves.-
Shasta. The small school within a school, and the area that held most of the classes of the English Language Learners. Most schools kept the ELLs in portables. Not at RWRHS. Here, they were front and center. The portables were left for the Special Ed kids, also known as the Redesignated African Americans.
Tony gave some high-fives to the hecklers in the Shasta seating section of concrete planters and overhangs of brittle, sunburned plastic. Plastic wrappers from vending machine snack food rolled down the main street. A few crushed aluminum had gone airborne, their flight arcs taking them everywhere except in the trashcans. At least they tried.
Tony watched a group of kids standing around another one with his shirt off. They took turns using their belts, hitting the poor kid. A crowd had gathered to watch. It looked like fun, but Tony thought the Nicaraguans were crazy. So he dismissed the scene and all that gathered with a look of derision. Not everyone could be smart like him.
Miguelito strode over to him, running a comb through his hair to make it stand on edge.
-Hey slut. You have a dollar for the machine.-
Miguelito looked at a loss, stung a little by his fellow jaliscano.
-I just used it for my breakfast, you fucker. Get a fucking job.-
Tony looked at his hands. He still had dried cheese on them. Fiery red hot.
-I had a job, but your mother is a whore, and everyone wants to give her some.-
Miguelito dismissed him with a wave, sat down next to him. Five fives went the distance. Now came the cavalcade of Shasta luminaries. To Tony, none shined so bright.
Alessandra trolled over, looking hung over. She looked rough and tidy, the head of a home (her mother worked in the MZ.) She always said she never had enough time for fun. But every party you could count on her to show up. This time, though, she brought nothing with her.
-Helloooo, Mr. Antonio. How are you my great friend?-
She stood in front of Tony, her arms folded.
-Ah, sit down bitch. I can’t see the Nicaraguans beat each other.-
Alessandra looked behind her and laughed.
-Oh, you never know what you’re talking about. They are from Colombia!-
Miguelito must have laughed with Tony, when he dismissed them.
-Damn assholes! I like them even less!-
Miguelito pointed beyond the hedgerows.
-This whore looks…-
Tony saw Yessica, but not before she exploded on Miguelito.
-Who you calling a whore? Is your mom here? I need to buy some cocaine.-
Tony smiled at his best friend.
-Sit down slut…and chill.-
Yessica had long brown hair and big brown eyes with thick brown eyebrows that gave her a weary expression of steely sneers and a perpetual smirk. She was also very beautiful. Tony knew she just didn’t talk that way.
-We going to be late, Mr. Tony?-
He kicked her playfully in the shin. Alessandra whispered in her ear. They began to bust up. Tony looked up in time to see Esteban cruise by. On his way to class.
-Where are you going you little bitch?-
Esteban didn’t break his long-legged stride. He had recently been working out, so Tony gave him that, if anything.
-How come you Mexicanos are always late to class, man?-
Yessica beat Tony to it. As usual.
-How come you like to fuck yourself, man?-
Tony leaned back in the long summer of the California sun. He waited for the first bell, the second bell, and the third bell. He ignored each one, then, with his Shasta luminaries, headed to class. Usually this was enough to get him kicked out of class. Not for Mr. Machellis. That gringo actually liked los immigrantes….
That would change.
Class had begun 12 minutes ago and already Chavo wished he had never set foot in this class.
After a very disorganized entrance to a class of kids yelling at each other, and the others dancing outside the classroom—with the loudest sound systems that could be imagined—Chavo gave the teacher a piece of paper he could barely hold straight.
The first thing he noticed was how the teacher was just as nervous. The class schedule from a new student? He seemed to care less about Chavo’s credentials than a more visible threat. The teacher had more a mind to stop the children from taking apart the classroom.
In came the RWRHS soccer team. Loud. The first people they said hello to? Mr. Machellis. The teacher of the class. They said it loud. Over and over again, until the teacher finally acknowledged them.
At this time be seemed to barely struggle through all the other things that happened simultaneously.
Two swaggering Filipino kids had met at a vending machine (Tee-Pain and Massia), danced and sung to a free-sensor bud they shared in both ears. Back and forth they swayed. They had a good number going. The teacher had said once or fourth-thrice for them to knock it off. Since given up, they went on. They were now into the chorus and erupted out of their chairs. Boom and boom off the tops of their desks.
In and out had come another swirl of children. They hovered at the door, in the hall, which was really a balcony over repeated images of pandemonium. The first bell had not even rung yet. Time did not exist.
Finally more began to enter class. When they did, they entered as packets of quantum disruption—little packets of trouble that came in, looked around, dropped off their bags, and hovered. Right outside the door.
In came Lucia (his mother’s name, and he’d met her during Integrated Science), wearing her bullet-belted denim and her hair teased up to rip-your-eyes-out. She scowled and, almost on cue, began to pound a fist into an empty palm. Maybe someone would pay attention to her. The teacher didn’t seem to care. He just passed her off.
Chavo thought this must have been hard. He didn’t think he could ever forget the thickness of her eyes and the black things they brooded on. She was so heavy and that was that.
Lucia looked over her shoulder, as another girl taunted her from behind. She wore the team soccer jersey, girls squad. Varsity red and white, vertically striped. The minute she (Yeymi, from ELL Oral Skills II) began to speak, Chavo saw her obscenities streak across the width of the class. Everyone started in. Time to curse. The Challengers’ Soccer Team, the World’s Best Dance Crew. All of them.
Everyone was fucking their own mothers. Even the MCs (Tee-Pain and Rassia) joined.
One bell. Nothing. Two bells. Slight movement. Three…return to loudness.
They had ignored every single bell. Chavo looked at the teacher, Mr. Machellis, to see what he would do.
He was a bit on the paunchy side, the too many tacos and beer diet. Greasy black hair covered a receding hairline. He looked contorted when he spoke. Uptight. Not really healthy. He bulged at the back of the neck. His facial expressions belonged to comedy.
-You are coming in the class. I will kick your butt into this class. Believe me. I will hurt you.-
They trickled in. The last to come was a spirited brown dart of loud speech that interrupted even the loudest who sat in their desks. She always looked ready to make a joke. About a mother and a prostitute.
Chavo sat down and looked at the board. The agenda said something about “I don’t give AF.” That had produced a moment of pause from the class.
Some wrote on. Chavo noticed this. A patch of kids who willed the class to new heights. Even the MCs had died down, given it up, and begun to write.
Except for one spot. And they talked. Over the heads of everyone else. And when new students showed up in class, they greeted them with bellows.
None of that group had a pencil. No paper. They had walked in with book bags. Still, nothing.
Chavo looked at the agenda again. The question to be answered, how the hell did an asshole like Hitler get to be president?
Had he read that right? He needed to know. His desk neighbor was a very quiet girl with big glasses and bangs that covered part of her face.
-Is…that..right? Your teacher…the teacher…talks like that? In class?-
The girl, a pretty Asian girl, flashed her teeth and nodded. She looked embarrassed. For the teacher.
The loud section of class continued to talk, and when questioned by the teacher, they responded with a bunch of crazy responses of no pencils, paper, or combination of the both. But the best one came from a kid who had hair down to his shoulders.
-We are immigrants, Mister.-
The body temperature of the room hovered near dangerous levels while the teacher stood (safely?) behind the podium. In front and behind of him, papers and binders and computers held his attention, which he wrote and danced fingers upon. Yet he still had the time to never take his eyes off the long-haired boy. Dedication.
-Tony. The day will come when no one will care that you’re an immigrant. They will be ready to bulldoze your house. Like in the MZ. And you ‘re going to have to say something in English.-
The long-haired boy dismissed him with a swipe of his hand. Chavo noticed how the teacher seemed indifferent to this too. He’d moved on. Once again.
-There shouldn’t be talking while you do your warm-up! You should be writing.-
A hand went up in the front of the class. One of the kids from the boy’s soccer team.
-What if you don’t understand the question?-
The teacher looked at the question, repeated it out loud, asked how do YOU think an asshole like Hitler got elected? He even issued multiple versions of the question. The teacher finally advised for students to work with a seating partner. This seemed to only encourage them to talk louder. Whatever control the teacher had established over the din of chatter, things being rubbed together, and shoes and fingers being tapped, that was all gone now. New noise.
Chavo noticed the way the class was set up, clusters of chairs, only encouraged the other students to talk with each other. So much for small group learning. There was only little petty kingdoms of chaos.
10 minutes later, the teacher was able to get them to begin sharing answers. One by one they came up and wrote on the smartboard. They started each answer with their name, usually with some embedded comment about their home country (Esteban, the Salvadoran guy). Most answers had a variant of Hitler blaming some group. The most popular scapegoat….
He blamed the Mexicans.
The teacher broke up the class chaos that had merely migrated from their desks to the front of the class. It took 10 minutes for them to make it back to their desks, and sit down, and stop talking…and pay attention.
-Fine. Hitler blamed the Mexicans.-
-But what did the Germans call Mexicans?-
He targeted a brown haired girl who had not stopped talking since the beginning of class, and waited for her answer. Chavo thought she had pretty brown eyes. Very deep feeling.
-He called them Chicanos, Mr. Machellis.-
-No. You’re thinking too much of the MZ. What did Hitler call the Mexicans of Germany?-
Tony raised his hand.
-South Americans, mister.-
Laughter. Spanish. A half dozen other languages Chavo had never heard before.
The teacher gave a mocking laugh. Chavo heard a few students mutter. Asshole they called him.
-When you have a country that can no longer govern itself, it turns to blaming others as a way to compel everyone else to action. This blame is like money, which it spends, to get people to do things. But everyone knows its blood money.-
The students began to talk. Chavo could see the anger swell on the face of the teacher. It was funny. If only the teacher knew. The students only asked one another if anyone understood what the teacher had just said.
The lights were dimmed, the teacher had crossed the room in a flash. A digital projector went on.
Chavo was forced to deal with a set of distractions. The soccer team began to immediately talk to each other. The girl with the long brown hair still continued a conversation with Tony across the room. Smartz went out, everyone’s face a ghoulish blue death.
And Mr. Machellis began to yell.
-I should not have to be reminding you to open your tabs and begin taking notes!-
In between articulated images embedded in the notes, sentence stems remained. Students merely had to pick the right word from a list to complete the sentence. The notes advised them, guided them, to the right combination—and that all elusive answer when you don’t speak the language. The help was appreciated even if the gesture seemed insincere.
Who cared about immigrants?
Chavo spaced out on images of Hitler stomping his fists into the Weimar state. Streetbrawls and shanks. Too much like where he’d come from. He saw what looked like a court building begin to burn. Reichstag set on fire.
He finished his sentence stems with the rest of the advance guard.
The voice came from Alessandra (Integrated Mathematics). She sat next to someone with an unruly principality of long brown hair. Tony seemed to serve from the near abroad. He seemed the ambassador type. The girl with the long brown hair sat at the elbow of Alessandra. Definitely the cacique. Every now and then, she would give Alessandra a whisper, a nod, to speak on behalf of the nation.
-You. Boy. Durango?-
Chavo shook his head. Alessandra seemed like she might have been a friend of his sister.
The girl with the long brown hair spoke.
Whistles. This provoked the teacher to battle stations.
-You should be taking notes. I did the subtitles myself. You’re welcome, you terrible people!-
Someone sat beside him. Chavo turned. It was the long-haired brujo. Tony. He had migrated over, so silently.
-We’re going to go out. Sing and drink. You should come along.-
Chavo took notes as the Reichstag burned and the enabling wave followed. He already thought about what he would tell his mother.
Many of the bars along the old river district had a strict policy. Entry meant showing a national identification card. But that was not the case where the Re-Americanization had punched back the MZ miles into Mexico. Now El Paso was where the Diversionaries staged their attacks and Ciudad Juarez was occupied territory.
Refugees and guest workers still had to enter the city, to work the jobs that ran El Paso. And the river district was a mess of off-duty security-soldiers and contractors. So it was possible to get around without a national ID card.
Kids from RWRHS had taken advantage of this since when the first worker crossed the border, gone to some of the more forlorn bars in the river district. Most of the bars complied with the laws and scared the paperless away.
Not the Friendship Bridge. It ignored the laws like it ignored the passage of time, standing out as it had since the last revolution with its chipped white paint porch and its rattling aluminum side coverings. Ropes rattled against the aluminum flagpoles, but with only one sheet to the wind. The flag of the eagle and the snake had long ago been taken down. The stars and stripes should have soon after received a merciful release. Frayed and faded, it waited to disintegrate upon the mast.
Tee-Pain and Massia came as a package, and Chavo came to think of them that way. They added to their group Kamela and Cately, two of the best students in Shasta. Now the two girls kept their boys in line, got them to where they had to go—the rest was academic.
They set up their mix-booth on the stage of the Friendship Bridge. Two turntables and a microphone, they didn’t have. So they had to borrow some of the electronics from the old cowboy who ran the bar. Legend said he’d been a trumpet player for the División del Norte. That would have made him well over a hundred years old and no one believed that.
Except for Tony.
-Any fucker who shows any disrespect in this place will have their balls cut off and thrown into the MZ with no hope of getting them back!-
Yessica of the long brown hair partly agreed.
-Is that where yours went, Tony?-
Chavo watched Tee-Pain and Massia set up, as the rest of Shasta poured into the place. An island chain of tables and chairs were set up as an obstacle course in front of the stage. Most of the proprietors sat at the bar. It was open space and nothing for miles in the back of the joint, so Tony organized the rest to clear some space to dance.
The first sounds erupted through the tin woofers of the speakers and, before Tee-Pain and Massia had equalized the levels, the first requests arrived via smartz from the ones who would arrive late.
The first number was a rattle-tat-tat tempo against a synth driven loop of urban angst, a good number to begin the evening’s festivities—and it wasn’t even the end of the week. A black haired, long-limbed girl from class named Serra danced with Lucia, and Alessandra had already set out a 12-pack of long necks. The tops were pulled and the kids had already begun to suck down beer on the dance floor.
More numbers were requested. Dance numbers from the faded ages where the last spent energies of their burned-out working class families, seemingly dispossessed on the shores of 21st-century America, but with a soundtrack of nostalgia that featured the golden beats of the last decade of the 20th.
Kids didn’t care and danced. Pretty soon the requests came for la banda,
Miguelito showed up with more beer. Yeymi poured shots of something that none of the Mexicans would drink until she called them pussies. And Yessica was smoking something that Tony made her finish outside.
The place began to stink with teen spirit. The front door that might have been kept open to let out the hormones also let the last minutes of light into the bar. Where the bar was once dark with the neon signs of cerveza, a brief golden light touched all of their faces and for a brief second they were the best of the late, great United States. Youthful. Risk taking. Nothing for granted, no wasted opportunities. They could sprout wings if they had to, fly over their earth, their shrill voices laughing out…
The sun had set on their behaviors. Their back-slapping and songs turned monstrous. Drinks turned into more drinks. They were angry and their energy infected the choice in songs. The dances became more frantic…
The proprietors watched as the future grew dim.
-You smell like cigarettes.-
Chavo had struggled through the morning. He now stumbled hrough a conversation with his mother. She had been silent through the gloom of his state of the morning, seen something, kept it to herself over a breakfast he nearly missed, until they were in the car. On the way to school, she was steely with her silence. Her black, black eyes never left the road blocks that always made a trip through El Paso a hazard avoidance course. Blame the Uprisings. It reminded Chavo of the word blood money.
She kept her eyes on the road, her attention, on him.
-I know you went out last night. I know what you did. I can smell the cigarettes. I can smell the beer, the booze, whatever else it was you did, or those you were with, did. You won’t end up in a sky-jail like your father, but you will force me to kick you ass repeatedly. Then, you’ll wish you were outside U.S. territory and in the hands of Jay-sock.-
All roads to RWRHS went through downtown. That route now was closed. All traffic was backed up and honking. Public officers waved them down, gestured towards the safety orange pylons and a flashing arrow sign. Detour.
Chavo’s mother flipped the car around and went another route, perpendicular to the street in the opposite direction. They completed the turn and cars blocked their path with the same idea. Before she could make another turn to take another street, the traffic began to move. Slowly. But it went towards the school.
Up ahead, smoke. Thick columns of it. Deep dark. Moving fast both upwards and across the yellowed skyline of the morning sun.
His mother said something under her breath when she saw the line of fire trucks and public officers. They surrounded the high school. Fire erupted from one of the smaller buildings. Fire crews dashed around with ladders while hoses sprayed water from a safe distance. There were a few fires.
You had to go to areas of the border swallowed up by the MZ to see this many officials. It reminded Chavo of his father’s place in Los Angeles. The fire might very well accomplish the same fate, here, in this school. The only sign of control was the fire line.
No one was going to school. Cars began to stop, people began to get out, a large crowd had gathered to stare.
Across the fire line of trucks and city vehicles a group of public officers had begun to congregate. Squads of security soldiers also began to appear, their different uniforms of blue and gray and black added to the general sense of disorganization.
Chavo saw someone he knew from school. The Salvadoran. Esteban. He held his smartz up to the fire to take picts. Suddenly emboldened, Chavo left his mother’s side, and walked over to Esteban, his long limbed shape a fair contrast against the hazard lights and men in uniform. He greeted him in his home language.
-Eh man. Fire broke out more than an hour ago. During zero period. In a bunch of places, man. It’s crazy! You’re not going to believe who did it…Mr. Machellis…-
Esteban seemed unable to decide whether to laugh or cry.
The congregation of public officers was joined by the security soldiers. There was yelling.
Chavo looked away. Esteban had stopped with the picts of the fire, his thumbs punched away at the keyboard.
-That’s crazy. A teacher? Set fire to the school?-
The congregation of officers began to shove each other. Some broke it up, some dragged others apart. The shoves ended when the mob broke up. The public officers had someone in their…Mr. Machellis was in their custody. He had his head down, his hands were behind his back. Handcuffed maybe.
Esteban slammed the keyboard shut and held it up again to take picts. Chavo looked on, aghast.
-Why are you doing that?-
Esteban laughed. It sounded like tortured cats.
-Hey! Mister! Mister Machellis! Look over here!-
The congregation could have gone many directions. It did not. With the entourage of police and a swirl of emergency personnel, the wave of action arrived, and Chavo could better see Mr. Machellis. He wore a brown camel hair jacket. It looked soaked with something. His greasy back hair covered his eyes. Partly. He looked upon hearing his name.
A wave of activity—everyone had their smartz out now—surrounded the congregation, and Chavo and Esteban were part of it. Just for a second. Mr. Machellis saw them, looked at them, his face colorless and sucked of life.
He said…he looked at Chavo and Esteban, and despaired.
Chavo felt someone pass behind him, then lean over him, clearly taller than him. He looked over. It was Tony. He winked at Chavo, and Esteban continued to torture a cat.-We are immigrants, mister.-