Jawan was about to lock lips with Janet Jackson.
He was old school. BeyoncÃ©, Rhianna, Ciara, Amerieâthey were all sexy, but they weren't women like Janet was. The media would have everyone believe they knew, but they were still learning about control, about how to truly be nasty.
Sexy-ass Ms. Jackson if you nasty.
Jawan was definitely that and he was going to show her. On the beach, as waves crashed rhythmically against jagged rocks, while seagulls soared and called out to them from the sky that was ablaze in orange, red, yellow, and pink hues.
Sunset and the beachâcould the setting have been any more romantic?
Janet's classic song “Anytime, Anyplace” whispered softly around them within the ocean-scented breeze. Jawan could only smile at the woman of his dreams. He'd been waiting for this moment for a long time. This time, this place.
He looked at Janet with promised intent in his eyes, and LL'd his lips slowly. Janet gave him her famous I-like-to-make-people-think-I'm-shy smile, and dropped her chin.
You can't fool me,
I have the
CD on my iPod. I know there's a freak there.
His nature rose beneath his swimming trunks as he traced his index finger up and down Janet's arm. She was wearing a lace-white bikini top, her nipples erect and aching to be released the way Justin Timberlake had set them free. A pink sarong covered her matching thong.
Janet watched Jawan watching her, the glint in her eyes letting Jawan know that she was enjoying his focus. She gave him an intoxicating smile again as he ran his fingers down her cheek to her neck, and then down to the side of her breast. He throbbed again, his manhood wanting reciprocation. Jawan shivered, then held his breath as Janet removed her bikini top, letting free her perfect B-cups, and then unwrapped her sarong and shimmied out of her thong.
“Your turn,” she whispered, sitting back, giving him a clear view of the sweetness he and millions of other men yearned for.
Without hesitation, he took off his shorts.
He stared at Janet.
She stared at him.
Waves crashed, seagulls spoke from the heavy air above them.
“I promised I'd be worth the wait,” Janet whispered.
She inched toward him slowly. Jawan's heart beat heavily with each sensuous second. The scent of cherries wafted into his nostrils.
he thought. He couldn't wait to kiss, taste her. Janet closed her feline eyes. Puckered her perfectly shaped lips. Seconds passed. Inches decreased. The air became more electric.
And then Grady hopped onto Jawan's stomach.
Jawan opened his eyes and stared at his four-legged companion. “Are you for real?” he asked, his voice tight with irritation.
Grady stared at him.
“Couldn't you have let me have just one kiss?”
Grady stared at him for another few seconds and then meowed.
Jawan groaned and pushed his cat, which was more dog, off of his chest, swung his legs off of the bed, and looked at his alarm clock. Why he bothered setting it, he didn't know. Grady's appearance was clockwork: a half hour before his wake-up time of six o'clock. “Damn Grady . . . that was a long time coming. Why are you hating on me like that?”
Grady meowed again.
“I'm gonna find you a female, and when I do, I swear I'm gonna mess up your flow every time you try to lay it down.”
His American shorthair meowed again and then sauntered out of the room.
“Yeah . . . you'll see. I'll make sure she's fine, too. A Siamese with a sweet set of paws,” Jawan said, following Grady out of the room and walking down a short corridor to the kitchen.
He'd found Grady scrounging through his garbage cans one morning two years ago. As he did with all strays, Jawan tried shooing the cat away, but unlike most normal cats, Grady didn't run. He just simply took a pause from what he was doing, looked up at Jawan, and then after a meow went on about his business, leaving only after Jawan threw something at him. The rest of the day was as usual until Jawan came home and found Grady rummaging through his garbage cans again. As he had in the morning, Jawan shooed, then threw something at the cat, which disappeared only to return the following morning.
This went on for about a week, before Jawan gave in, went to the store, and purchased a small bag of cat food. He figured that if the cat insisted on being around, he could at least give him real food, thereby eliminating the mess the cat left among the garbage cans. He left bowls of food and water for the cat for about a week, before deciding that since the cat had apparently no intention of leaving him alone, he would take him to the veterinarian to get checked out. A clean bill of health given, and with no signs posted by anyone searching for the shorthair, Jawan took the cat in as his own and named him Grady because of his gray fur.
Grady's company was much welcomedâespecially then, as two weeks prior Jawan had just broken up with his girlfriend of three years. Grady was a nice addition to Jawan's apartment, which had fast become one of the loneliest places in all of Queens. Always more dog than cat, Grady craved and loved to give attention. Where Jawan went, Grady followed. The bedroom, the kitchen, the bathroom to take a shit or a showerâno place was off-limits.
Grady was Jawan's pet, child, best friend.
Jawan reached into the cabinet, pulled out a can of Purina, opened it, emptied it into Grady's bowl, gave him fresh water, and then set the bowl down in front of the stove. “Eat up, hater,” Jawan said with a smile.
Grady purred and then dove into his food, while Jawan set the hot water to boil for his tea, and slipped three slices of wheat bread into his toaster oven.
As he waited for the bread and water, he looked at Grady and thought about how different life had been just two years ago.
Kim had been around.
Kim, or Kimmie, as he called her. The one he thought was going to be around forever. She'd embarrassed him and broken his heart by betraying his trust. He'd been cheated on once before, but he hadn't considered that a valid heartbreak experience, as he'd only been seventeen at the time. But Kim . . . She'd hurt him, and hurt him badly.
“Who needs her when I've got you, right, Grady-Grade?” he said, removing his toast from the toaster after it dinged.
Grady lifted his head momentarily and then put it back down.
Jawan raised his eyebrows and bit into his toast. A few seconds later, his teakettle whistled.
He fixed himself a cup of Irish Breakfast tea, scarfed down the rest of his toast, and then bent down and pet Grady's head, as the cat was licking his paws.
“Time to get ready, Grady-Grade. It's pop quiz day.” He shut off the kitchen light and went into the bathroom to shave and shower. He didn't close the door until Grady came prancing in behind him.
“Mr. White, why you gotta give us a quiz on a Friday?”
Jawan smiled and looked at his most talkative student. “We
have a pop quiz today, Eduardo, because we
make sure you stop using the word
, and use proper English. This is an English class, after all.”
“Come on, Mr. White,” his class clown said. “You know we don't be usin' no proper English in the streets.”
“So are you telling me that after you finish high school, the streets are where you plan to stay?” Jawan asked with a frown. It was a question that should have been answered with a “Hell no!” but he knew all too well, the streetsâthe very place he'd come fromâwere where many students ended up when or if they made it out of Franklin K. Lane High.
“That's exactly what he's saying, Mr. White. Eduardo has no goals in life. He wants to be strolling down Jamaica Ave with his boys twenty years from now, with his pants sagging below his ass, broke as a joke.”
Eduardo turned to his right and looked across the room at the person who'd answered Jawan's question. “Yo, for real, LaKeisha, why you runnin' your mouth, yo? Especially when I saw your pops rollin' dice down my way with his pants and Tims on two days ago.”
LaKeisha nodded as the other students in the room laughed and “ooh'd.” The snickering didn't faze her. “My father's a bum, but at least he's a bum who graduated from high school,” she said, her voice strong. “Your dumb ass probably won't even make it that far.”
Eduardo gave her a hard stare as students laughed at her comeback. “Yo, you ain't special, LaKeisha,” he said, stressing the “La.” “You act like you gonna be somebody and shit.”
“I am going to be somebody,” LaKeisha responded, leaning forward on her desk.
Eduardo sucked his teeth. “Man, whateva. You go ahead and get your straight As and shit. You'll still be graduatin' from Lane High. And we all know nobody from Lane makes it anywhere but just past C-Town.”
LaKeisha folded her arms across her chest defiantly. “Oh trust me, Eduardo. I'll be making it much farther than the grocery store.”
“Yeah, a'ight,” Eduardo said, turning back around. “Mr. White, you believe her ass? She be on some pipe dream shit. We all know Jamaica Avenue is like some quicksand. Once you on it, there ain't no gettin' out.”
Jawan raised an eyebrow, leaned against the front of his desk, folded his left arm across his chest, and cupped his chin with his right hand. He looked at Eduardo and shook his head. As sad as it was, Eduardo's words were the very same words he'd heard from some of his fellow students when he attended F. K. Lane back in the nineties. As Eduardo said and fully believed, the majority of the high school's graduates never went anywhere past the boundaries along Jamaica Avenue. It was sad really.
Like many of the people he went to school with, Jawan lived around the way also. But his living there was by choice. After high school, he went to college at John J. University, where he earned a degree in business. He moved away from his old neighborhood and went to work in the corporate world as a rep for Citicorp. He wasn't making an exorbitant amount of money, but as far as he was concerned, he was a success, earning more than $50,000 a year. He had a nice apartment in Brooklyn, and took the subway into the city every day.
He'd been one of the lucky ones.
His nephew hadn't been.
He'd only been sixteen when he was gunned down after an argument with another young kid from the same block he lived on. The argument had been over a girlâneither one's girlfriend.
The death of his nephew hit Jawan hard. He'd grown up in the days when fists were used to settle disagreements. You had beef, you settled it man to man, while everyone stood around and watched. There was a winner and a loser. There was no retaliating. You manned up. If you lost, you took the loss and kept it moving. But over the years times changed. Fathers were either locked up or completely absent, and mothers, if they weren't strung out, had to work two or, sometimes, three jobs just to keep a roof over their heads and put food on the table. This of course left their kids alone to basically raise themselves. Some, if they were lucky, had their grandparents there, but the grandparents could only do so much.
Jawan's nephew was a product of that broken-down environment. His father was in jail for murdering a man during a carjacking. He actually hadn't seen his son since his son was five years old. His mother worked two jobs, and when the income from both jobs wasn't enough, she began stripping and selling her body. Jawan's nephew had no one to guide him, and, as a result, the streets and the wrong people in the streets helped to raise him. No one ever taught him how and when to walk away.
Jawan hadn't been to blame for what had happened to him, but he did feel responsible. Work kept him busy and he never had the time to keep tabs on his only nephew. After he died, Jawan quit his job at Citibank, moved in with his sister, who was dying slowly from depression, went back to school to get his teaching degree, and worked part-time to maintain. He couldn't do it for his nephew, but he wanted to make a difference in another youth's life.
After earning his degree, he walked into F. K. Lane and applied for a job teaching eleventh grade English. Five years had now passed, and, despite the city's shortcomings in providing the necessary materials and tools to help students excel and succeed, and the struggles with parents to get them involved in their kids' lives, Jawan's determination to make a difference hadn't wavered.
He looked at Eduardo. “Why does her wanting to leave the neighborhood behind have to be a pipe dream?”
“'Cuz . . .” Eduardo paused, looking for the words. “It just is, son. I don't know nobody who's made it out of here. Ain't no one in my family ever made it. No one in my girls' families. My boys' families. Nobody, son.”
“I made it out of here,” Jawan said, his voice even.
Eduardo looked at his teacher. “You grew up here?”
Jawan nodded. “Over on Grant Street.”
“Word?” another student, DeSean Garrett, said.
“I used to live at the end of the block,” Jawan said, smiling. “I graduated from here in '96.”
“So then what, you went to college?” Eduardo asked. Jawan shook his head up and down. “I did. I got my degree in business and then went to work for Citibank.”
“So if you made it out, then what are you doing here?” DeSean asked.
Jawan clenched his jaw for a moment and looked around the room at the students in his class, as they watched him with attentive eyes, waiting for his answer.
he thought, looking at them. Young and desperately needing people to believe in them, to show them that anything was possible. That if they put their hearts and souls into it, nothing and no one could stop them from achieving their dreams.
His eyes scanned over a framed photograph of President Barack Obama on the wall behind them. He'd had his students watch the inauguration of the forty-fourth president. He wanted them to see what hope and persistence could deliver. It was a day Jawan would never forget and one he never thought he'd ever see.
“I lost someone very close to me,” he said, looking from DeSean to Eduardo and then to LaKeisha. “My nephew. He was sixteen and, just like you, Eduardo, he believed the streets was all there was. He was shot and killed senselessly. I came back to Lane High because I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to try to keep other kids from winding up like my nephew did.”
The classroom was silent as Jawan took a breath and let it out slowly.
After a few seconds, Eduardo said, “My cousin was killed for his silver chain around his neck.”
“My older brother's doin' ten years for killing his ex,” DeSean chimed in.
“My best friend's brother was shot. He didn't die, but he's paralyzed from the waist down,” LaKeisha added. “He was trying to be down with the Latin Kings.”
Jawan sighed. That was the problem with inner-city kids. All of their stories sounded the same. “Being a graduate of F. K. Lane doesn't define you guys. And, contrary to popular belief, you can escape from Jamaica Avenue.”
“Escape to what though?” Eduardo asked.
Jawan looked at him. “To your dreams,” he said. “You just have to want whatever it is that you want bad enough, and go after it with absolute belief that no one and nothing is going to stand in your way. See. Believe. And attain. You have to see what you want. Believe you can have it when you do. And then just go after it and attain it. See. Believe. And attain.”
“Preach, Mr. White,” LaKeisha said, garnering laughter from the students.
Jawan shook his head and smiled as sadness simmered inside of him. Despite his encouraging words, and no matter how hard he worked to keep it from happening, he knew that only a small majority of the students sitting before him were going to move on to life beyond Jamaica Avenue. It was a sad statistic that just seemed impossible to overcome. But Jawan would keep trying to do just that.
“OK,” he said, reaching behind him and grabbing a stack of papers from the corner of the desk. “It's quiz time. Books on the floor.”
A collective groan rang throughout the room as the students closed their books and placed them beneath their chairs.
“I know,” Jawan said, walking around the room and placing the pop quizzes face down on their desks. “I'm losing cool points for doing this to you.”
“You're losing mad cool points,” Eduardo said as his teacher walked by him.
Jawan let out an exaggerated breath. “I'll have to find a way to deal with that,” he said. “But even if I can't, at least you'll all have one hundred percents to show for it, because I know that everyone has been paying attention in class and studying extra hard at home at night. Right, DeSean?”
DeSean looked up at him as he paused by his desk. “Right, Mr. White,” he said with little enthusiasm.
Jawan gave him a nod, then finished passing out the rest of the papers, and went back to his desk. He sat down, folded his arms across his chest, and said, “I want all papers on my desk in fifteen minutes, ladies and gentlemen.”
Another collective groan rippled through, and then there was nothing but silence and the sound of papers rustling.
Ten minutes into the allotted quiz time, one of his best students approached the desk and laid down his quiz.
Jawan looked up from a crossword puzzle he was working on. “Done already, Brian?”
Brian Moore said, “Yeah.”
Jawan nodded and then caught a glimpse of some bruises on Brian's knuckles. Quietly, he said, “Stick around after class, OK?”
Brian gave a nod and walked back to his desk.
Jawan watched Brian walk away, and shook his head. His story was similar to many of the kids in the high school, but unlike many of the knuckleheads who had brains and the ability to succeed but didn't use them, Brian did use his. He, along with LaKeisha, was an A student in the class. Although he never said much during class, Brian paid attention and put the time in at home. Acing tests, surprise or otherwise, was never a problem for him.
Staying out of trouble was.
Jawan had always seen something different in Brian's eyes. A seriousness and maturity level that many of the other kids didn't seem to possess. In a lot of ways, Brian reminded Jawan of the nephew he'd lost. Without being too overbearing, he'd made it his personal mission to guide, or at least try to guide, Brian.
Twenty minutes later, after all papers were turned in, the students rushed out of the class to enjoy their weekends. As had been requested of him, Brian remained behind in his seat.
Jawan finished running red marker over one of the quizzes, and then neatened the stack of papers and placed them in his briefcase. He stood up and walked over to where Brian sat. “You got an A on the quiz,” he said, looking down at his student, who was fiddling with his pencil.
Brian shrugged. “Yeah, I know.”
Jawan smiled. Brian wasn't being smug. A's were just what he'd expected. “So what's up with the bruised knuckles?” he asked.
Brian looked down at his right hand, flexed it a couple of times, and then shrugged his top lip. “Just got into a li'l somethin' last night.”
Jawan looked at him disapprovingly. “A li'l somethin', huh?”
“Yeah,” Brian said. “Just a li'l.”
Jawan frowned. “Your mom know about this li'l somethin'?”
Brian shook his head. “Nah. Wasn't nothin' for her to really know.”
Jawan nodded. “Brian, you know, you're too smart to keep getting into these li'l somethin's all the time.”
“I was just defending myself.”