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Authors: Jason Reynolds

All American Boys

BOOK: All American Boys
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For my younger brother, Christian—

May you never be made to feel small.

May you always be unafraid to stand up.

—J. R.

For all the organizers and educators who live and work with love—thank you.

—B. K.

“History can only teach its lesson if it is remembered.”

—Carmelo Soto

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

But if I am only for myself, what am I?”

—Hillel the Elder












our left! Your left! Your left-right-left! Your left! Your left! Your left-right-left!

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

I left. I left. I left-left-left that wack school and that even more wack ROTC drill team because it was Friday, which to me, and basically every other person on Earth, meant it was time to party. Okay, maybe not everybody on Earth. I'm sure there was a monk somewhere on a mountain who might've been thinking of something else. But I wasn't no monk. Thank God. So for me and my friends, Friday was just another word for party. Monday, Tuesday, Hump Day (because who can resist the word “hump”?), Thursday, and Party. Or as my brother, Spoony, used to say, “Poorty.” And that's all I was thinking about as I crammed into a bathroom
stall after school—partying, and how I wasn't wanting to be in that stiff-ass uniform another minute.

Thankfully, we didn't have to wear it every day. Only on Fridays, which was what they called “uniform days.” Fridays. Of all days. Whose dumb idea was that? Anyway, I'd been wearing it since that morning—first bell is at 8:50 a.m.—for drill practice, which is pretty much just a whole bunch of yelling and marching, which is always a great experience right before sitting in class with thirty other students and a teacher either on the verge of tears or yelling for some other kid to head down to the principal's office. Fun.

Let me make something clear: I didn't need ROTC. I didn't want to be part of no military club. Not like it was terrible or anything. As a matter of fact, it was actually just like any other class, except it was Chief Killabrew—funniest last name ever—teaching us all about life skills and being a good person and stuff like that. Better than math, and if it wasn't for the drill crap and the uniform, it really would've just been an easy
to offset some of my
s, even though I know my pop was trying to use it as some sort of gateway into the military. Not gonna happen. I didn't need ROTC. But I did it, and I did it good, because my dad was pretty much making me. He's one of those dudes who feels like there's no better opportunity for a black boy in this country than to join the army. That's literally how he always put it. Word for word.

“Let me tell you something, son,” he'd say, leaning in the doorway of my room. I'd be lying on my bed, doodling in my sketch pad, doing everything physically possible to not just stop drawing and jam the pencils into my ears. He'd continue, “Two weeks after I graduated from high school, my father came to me and said, ‘The only people who are going to live in this house are people I'm making love to.' ”

“I know, Dad,” I'd moan, fully aware of what was coming next because he said it at least once a month. My father was the president of predictability, probably something he learned when he was in the army. Or a police officer. Yep, the old man went from a green uniform, which he wore only for four years—though he talks about the military like he put in twenty—to a blue uniform, which he also only wore for four years before quitting the force to work in an office doing whatever people do in offices: get paid to be bored.

“And I knew what he was trying to tell me: to get out,” Dad would drone. “But I didn't know where I was going to go or what I was going to do. I didn't really do that well in school, and well, college just wasn't in the cards.”

“And so you joined the army, and it saved your life,” I'd finish the story for him, trying to water down my voice, take some of the sting out of it.

“Don't be smart,” he'd say, pointing at me with the finger of fury. I never managed to take enough bite out of my tone.
And trust me, I knew not to push it too far. I was just so tired of hearing the same thing over and over again.

“I'm not trying to be smart,” I'd reply, calming him down. “I'm just saying.”

“Just saying what? You don't need discipline? You don't need to travel the world?”

“Dad—” I'd start, but he would shut me down and barrel on.

“You don't need a free education? You don't need to fight for your country? Huh?”

“Dad, I—” Again, he'd cut me off.

“What is it, Rashad? You don't wanna take after your father? Look around.” His voice would lift way higher than necessary and he'd fling his arms all over the place temper-tantrum style, pointing to the walls and windows and pretty much everything else in my room. “I don't think I've done that bad. You and your brother have never had a care in the world!” Then came his favorite saying; it wouldn't have surprised me if he had it tattooed across his chest. “Listen to me. There's no better opportunity for a black boy in this country than to join the army.”

“David.” My mother's voice would come sweeping down the hallway with just enough spice in it to let the old man know that once again, he'd pushed too hard. “Leave him alone. He stays out of trouble and he's a decent student.”
A decent student.
I could've had straight
s if I wasn't always so
busy sketching and doodling. Some call it a distraction. I call it dedication. But hey, decent was . . . decent.

Then my father's face would soften, made mush by my mother's tone. “Look, can you just try it for me, Rashad? Just in high school. That's all I ask. I begged your brother to do it, and he needed it even more than you do. But he wouldn't listen, and now he's stuck working down at UPS.” The way he said it was as if the lack of ROTC had a direct connection to why my older brother worked at UPS. As if only green and blue uniforms were okay, but brown ones meant failure.

“That's a good job. The boy takes care of himself, and him and his girlfriend have their own apartment. Plus he's got all that volunteer work he does with the boys at the rec center. So Spoony's fine,” my mother argued. She pushed my father out of the way so she could share the space in the doorway. So I could see her. “And Rashad will be too.” Dad shook his head and left the room.

That exact same conversation happened at least twenty times, just like that. So when I got to high school, I just did it. I joined ROTC. Really it's called JROTC, but nobody says the
. It stands for the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps. I joined to get my dad off my back. To make him happy. Whatever.

The point is, it was Friday, “uniform day,” and right after
the final bell rang I ran to the bathroom with my duffel bag full of clothes to change out of everything green.

Springfield Central High School bathrooms were never empty. There was always somebody in there at the mirror studying whatever facial hair was finally coming in, or sitting on a sink checking their cell phone, skipping class. And after school, especially on a Friday, everybody popped in to make sure plans hadn't been made without them knowing. The bathroom was pretty much like an extension of the locker room, where even the students like me, the ones with no athletic skill whatsoever, could come and talk about the same thing athletes talked about, without all the ass slapping—which, to me, made it an even better place to be.

“Whaddup, 'Shad?” said English Jones, making a way-too-romantic face in the mirror. Model face to the left. Model face to the right. Brush hairline with hand, then come down the face and trace the space where hopefully, one day, a mustache and beard will be. That's how you do it. Mirror-Looking 101, and English was a master at it. English was pretty much a master at everything. He was the stereotypical green-eyed pretty boy with parents who spoiled him, so he had fly clothes and tattoos. Plus his name—his real name—was English, so he pretty much had his pick when it came to the girls. It was like he was born to be the man. Like his parents planned it that way. But, unstereotypically, he wasn't
cocky about it like you would think, which of course made the ladies and the teachers and the principal and the parents and even the basketball coach even more crazy about him. That's right, English was also on the basketball team. The captain. The best player. Because why the hell wouldn't he be?

“What's good, E?” I said, giving him the chin-up nod while pushing my way into a stall. English and I have been close since we were kids, even though he was a year older than me. We were two pieces of a three-piece meal. Shannon Pushcart was the third wing, and the fries—the extra-salty add-on—was Carlos Greene. Carlos and Shannon were also in the bathroom, both leaning into the urinals but looking back at me, which, by the way, is a weird thing to do. Don't ever look at someone else while you're taking a piss. Doesn't matter how well you know a person, it gets weird.

“You partying tonight at Jill's, soldier-boy?” Carlos asked, clowning me about the ROTC thing.

“Of course I'm going. What about you? Or you got basketball practice?” I asked from inside the stall. Then I quickly followed with, “Oh, that's right. You ain't make the team. Again.”

“Ohhhhhhhhhhh!” Shannon gassed the joke up like he always did whenever it wasn't about him. A urinal flushed and I knew it was him who flushed it, because Shannon was the only person who ever flushed the urinals. “I swear that's
never gonna get old,” Shannon said, laughter in his voice.

I unbuttoned my jacket—a polyester Christmas tree covered in ornaments—and threw it over the stall door.

“Whatever,” Carlos said.

“Yeah, whatever,” I shot back.

“Don't y'all ever get tired of cracking the same jokes on each other every day?” English's voice cut in.

“Don't you ever get tired of stroking your own face in the mirror, English?” Carlos clapped back.

Shannon spit-laughed. “Got 'im!”

“Shut up, Shan,” English snapped. “And anyway, it's called ‘stimulating the follicles.' But y'all wouldn't know nothin' about that.”

“But E, seriously, it ain't workin'!” from Shannon.

“Yeah, maybe your follicles just ain't that into you!” Carlos came right behind him. By this point I was doubled over in the stall, laughing.

“But your girlfriend is,” English said, with impeccable timing. A snuff shot, straight to the gut.

“Ohhhhhhhh!” Of course, from Shannon again.

BOOK: All American Boys
4.08Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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