After school Friday, half of the softball team is hanging out in my classroom. "Can we grab the bats and balls and do some hitting?" one of them asks. We weren't supposed to practice. I'm not feeling well, and our assistant is in the hospital with an infection.
"Yeah, go ahead," I say, "but not for too long. It is Friday, you know." I always pretend that I have a lot going on during the weekends so my students don't think that I'm the loser that I am.
"You coming out with us?" another kid asks.
"Sure," I say, "just let me put my stuff away."
It's after school Friday, a gorgeously hot autumn afternoon, and we end up spending an hour and a half playing "Piggy." The concept is that whoever catches the ball on the fly or one bounce gets to hit next. It's very informal, with good-natured taunting and competition. A couple of girls join us. A couple of guys I don't know join us. This is the way softball should be, for everyone. Fun.
The good times are interrupted by some shouts from the street around the corner. We see a group of students running back into the school parking lot. "Here we go," I hear one of my players say. Chasing the group are three or four gangbangers, wielding short metal poles, swinging wildly and yelling something.
I glance around at the kids with me. They're Latino, African-American, Asian, a mix. Most just stand there watching, but some congregate together into small groups. "Stay here," I say, "don't do anything stupid." I reach for my cell phone, dial 911, but while doing so I see the gangbangers already running out the way they came in. There are other adults in the parking lot, teachers and security staff, on their phones. I put mine away.
"Just another typical day," one of my guys says.
Another guy, the one at the plate with bat in hand, turns to everyone. "Can we just continue?"
I shrug, toss him a ball, and he cranks it. The kids in the field chase it.
I see a group of six or seven kids standing near the field. They're African, probably in the ESL program. "Hey guys," I say to them. "Come into the field. It'll be safer here."
They hesitate but walk over slowly when I yell for them to come over. "What is this game?" one asks.
"It's softball," I say. "Get out here and try to catch the ball. When you catch it, you get to hit."
They come out, join us, and now I've got a whole mass of teenagers running around, laughing and sweating.
Ten minutes after the fight, a couple of squad cars roll through the neighborhood, sirens blasting. I'm distracted, trying to remember the details in case they want witnesses. The thing is, I wouldn't be much help. What could I say about the attackers? They were pretty small, Latino, dressed in baggy clothes and baseball caps, swinging their metal poles like ninjas, though not exuding the calmness of ninjas. They hopped around in short, staccato motions. Looked scared and angry. One African-American guy seemed to have taken the brunt of the assault, and he was taken into the school, face bleeding.
"You know what," I say after a few more minutes. "Why don't you all head home now? With the police presence, at least it'll be safer."
"Yeah right," a guy says. "They'll just harass us, say we were the ones involved."
I don't care and take the balls and bats back to my classroom.
Heading out, I notice four of my players slowly walking down the street. I catch up to them.
"Hey, give us a ride," one of them says. "We'll fit."
"Sure," I say, "except do you see my car? I walked today."
"What kind of loser has a car but doesn't drive it?" I'm asked.
"It's a beautiful day for a walk," I say, and we walk a few blocks together. I wonder if it's a good idea. Would these guys act as protection for me if there were more trouble? Or could we be targeted? It doesn't matter, because we walk without incident, and I ask them about the fight we witnessed. They know a lot more about gangs than I do.
"Those were Latin Kings," one of them says.
"What about the other guy? The one that got hurt?"
"Oh him? He's just a punk. A wannabe GD."
We walk on, and their conversation quickly turns to girls. Eventually I turn down one street, and they keep walking.
"Have a good weekend," I say, adding, "A safe weekend."
"We practicing on Monday?"
"Monday? It's Columbus Day. No school. I'll see you guys on Tuesday."