- Pages: 384 Pages
- Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
- Imprint: Nancy Paulsen Books
- ISBN: 9780593462102
An Excerpt From
I take the biggest gulp of Manhattan air and brace myself to enter, reflexively checking my phone. There’s an alert. A message from Dad:
Gil sorry I couldn’t be there for your first day. But know that me and all your family in Jamaica are cheering for you. When I was your age, I could only dream of the feats you’ll accomplish. Big tings a gwaan fi yuh, mi son
Me: Thanks dad.
It’s not the same as him being here. But I feel myself relax, ready to take on the day.
Students pile through the entrance, bumping each other like it’s rush hour in Times Square. A group of boys push into my back as I enter. I’m not sure if they were trying to get past me or what, but I do what any New Yorker would do during a morning commute: I make a slight turn with my arm bent and extended so it looks like an accident when I elbow the closest in the chest. Renee would be proud of that move. The group of matching blond-haired students look like they are on the way to a Future Republicans of America photo shoot.
Blue eyes and burgundy cheeks give me a confused look and I respond with the oh, I didn’t see you there look. Then keep it moving.
Dean Bradley, the dean of students, welcomes everyone as we walk past the school’s reception desk. He’s got on loafers, gray corduroy pants, a pastel-yellow dress shirt, a green sweater-vest to match the school colors, and a striped tie that may be uglier than mine. I’m not a fashion guru. But if I were to give a name to his style, it’d be: busted.
He says something, pointing to my head. I turn down Rej’s mix to hear him repeat it. “Take those earphones off, son.” Did this dude just call me son? “No earphones or caps on in the building or I’ll take them. You’re inside. This isn’t the ghetto.”
Ghetto? Who says that? Shoot. Grabbin someone’s belongings when you didn’t pay for them sounds ghetto to me. He being extra for no reason. I remove the earbuds, then trace my tapered fro, drop fade, with my palms, thankful for the fresh cut. Ain’t no way a hat going over this.
“Morning, Mr. Powell,” Ms. Willis greets me, adding the subtle nod that says, I see you. She looks like she’s older than my mom, probably above forty. But Black don’t crack, so who knows. Her twists are pulled back in a bun, so her squat neck can be seen above the collarless gray pantsuit with the white blouse. She’s the only Black teacher I met during my interviews. So I remembered her name. And she made it a point to know mine.
“Morning, Ms. Willis,” I say before joining the pre-class locker rush.
Everyone is fixing their ties, some putting on athletic letter sweaters they can wear instead of the blazer. The first floor is filled with glass trophy cases highlighting Augustin’s varsity athletics program and its accomplishments. Looks like almost every other year the football team’s got a championship. The antique wood adds to the stuffy atmosphere that feels like a mausoleum. I don’t spot one Black student in the wave of white faces.
Everywhere I turn, there are pockets of people catching up with each other, chatting about all their shared experiences. I shouldn’t care. But it’s another reminder it’s just me here. In martial arts competitions, we may fight alone, but my team, the dojo is there, cheering me on. At least I’ll have robotics next week. A group of people competing together in science. We do good, Mom will prob tell everyone I’m up for a Nobel Prize.
I jam my gym bag inside my locker, sighing at the gang of textbooks I gotta haul. I notice the clock on the wall. Ten minutes until my first class. Wait . . . what do I have first period? Is it AP Physics? Nah, maybe it’s AP Lit. Ah man, I can’t remember.
I dive through my book bag, folders, locker, then my pants and blazer for my schedule, but it’s gone. I reach for my phone to try and pull up the doc.
Of course. It’s dead. I slam my locker closed and swing my book bag over my shoulder to head to the dean’s office for a new schedule. And then I crash into a wall. It’s the chest of someone twice my size with a neck made of muscle. He’s got wavy black hair long enough to tuck behind his ears, dark brown eyes, and a chiseled jaw. His arm, clothed in a varsity sweater, hangs around a slender girl with a styled lob and highlights, holding a luxury handbag that’s too small to carry a laptop or notebook. They cling to each other, not a single pimple between their white faces. It’s like they’ve practiced this pose nonstop and are ready to be on the cover of a magazine.
“My fault,” I say reflexively. I actually don’t know who bumped who, but his expression says it doesn’t matter and it’s definitely my fault.
I move around him and he steps into my space. “That’s right, it is your fault,” he says as if it were a matter of scientific fact.
“Hey, Terry, Jill.” A girl slides between us, wafting the gentle scent of coconut oil from the curls puffing out from rubber band twists. Her skin is like the moon touching the trees at night. She’s the first Black student I’ve seen all morning, and here she is flying in to save me. “You better hurry or you’ll be late for class,” she says to the dude. “Even football players get detention.” She grabs my hand assertively, sure-footed, pulling me away. “You must be new.”
“Yeah.” The lone word flutters out, my hand warm in hers, as she pulls me down the hall to the staircase. She may be five six, and glasses with a blueish tint hover below strong eyebrows. Her back moves like a swimmer’s as I follow. I pull my hand from hers and it slips easily away from the heat and damp anxiety. “I forgot my schedule,” I say, as if she needed further information on my newness.
“You don’t got a phone?” she asks.
“Forgot to charge it,” I reply.
She smirks. “You look a little old to be making freshman mistakes.”
“Just had a lot on my mind, transferring to a new school and all,” I say.
“Oh,” she says, tilting her head in. “You got them transfer-student blues. Gonna write a poem about it?”
“Nah, nothing like that,” I say, channeling Stretch, trying not to laugh and play it cool.
“I’ll show you the dean’s office,” she says with a turn. “Not the place you want to go on your first day. Dean Bradley loves giving out detention more than he likes cigarettes.” She gives me the quick tour, highlighting different places of interest as we go up the stairs. The school’s Legacy Wing. Business offices. But all I see are her curls leading me on, now giving me hints of peaches drifting off each movement. I keep my eyes up, not tracking the skirt as it moves rhythmically with her hips, and the charcoal leggings beneath.
“So, what’s your name?”
“Gil.” My eyes shoot to the ceiling.
“You a sophomore? You look too old to be a freshman.”
“Nah.” I add bass to my voice. “Senior.”
“Don’t lie. Augustin doesn’t admit senior transfers. Against policy.”
“Well, they made an exception.”
She’s got jokes. “Pssht. Yeah, right. You think I’m one of these white kids bouncing from country to country during the summer?”
“Well, we’re here.” She gestures inside an open door. “I got Calc on the fourth floor, so I better get going. By the way, since you were rude enough not to ask, my name is Tammy.”
Damn. It’s like not getting Nakia’s number all over again. “Sorry. Was about to ask.” I’ve been looking for other Black students since orientation. Finally find one and I don’t ask her name.
“You should come out to the Black Culture Club.”
“Oh, we got a club?” I ask. She nods. “Yeah, maybe I’ll come through.”
“Chill with the maybe and do that,” she says with authority. “Today. After school.” I dip my head to say yes, even though I know I can’t make it. “It’s cool,” she adds, spotting my hesitation. “New school. You a little shook. I get it.”
“Whoa. Ain’t nobody shook.” Rej and Stretch would like her. No opening missed.
“Getting defensive,” her voice sings. “Anyway, you owe me for your rude introduction.” Her lip curls to one side and I feel the blood rush to my face.
“Somebody being rude to Tammy?” This Asian cat with a sleek rasp to his voice like he’s always in chill mode limps over on crutches. His hand brushes the black hair with brown highlights from his eyes, then he and Tammy exchange a friendly hug.
“What happened, CJ?” she asks.
“That influencer life.” He chuckles without smiling. “Perils of me being me.” He uses his crutch as an extension of his arm to motion to the door. “Had to pick up the elevator key ’cause, you know. Anyway, got Calc with Abato. I better go.”
“Hey, I’ll go with you.” Tammy turns to me to say, “Don’t forget, after school, fifth floor.” I watch her as she fades down the hall and out of sight.
The dean’s office is broken up into two rooms. The waiting area has a bench, bookshelves, and a desk on the right for the dean’s assistant. To the left is a door leading to the dean’s private office.
The dean enters, the more prominent side of his receding hairline poking out first. His short brown hair has turned gray at the sides. Up close, he’s got a funny smell. He’s clean-shaven, so it might be aftershave, but it’s like inhaling coffee and air-fried gym socks. I get the feeling this guy rarely smiles.
“Let me guess,” he says, eyebrows raised in judgment. “No schedule.” I nod apologetically. “I get it. First day. But you’re not a freshman. You’re a senior.” Never had a conversation with this guy before, if I can call it that, and he knows I’m a senior. Guess it makes sense since there aren’t that many Black people here. They made a point to know the transfer. “There’s no excuse for tardiness. This is the real world you’re in now.”
Sup with this? He Morpheus? Have I been living in the dream world? “The bell hasn’t rung yet.” I try not to clench my teeth too hard. If you give me my schedule, I’ll get to class.
“We don’t use bells at AP,” he says as if it’s a crowning achievement. But checking the office clock, yeah, I’m late. One strike against me in his book. “This is preparation for college. We trust our students to be adult enough to keep track of time. Don’t you have a phone?” That’s the second time this morning. Literally just got the cell last night, one that can actually use Google Docs without blowing up. Phones weren’t even allowed in class at Union. “Now I have to print out a new schedule,” he says. “Which wastes paper. And we’re eco-friendly here.”
But not Gil-friendly. Instead of giving me a lecture, he could press the button, print the schedule. Not everything has to be a teachable moment. But no, some part of him is enjoying this. Like he took the job to flex authority over people half his age.
My old school never had a dean, only a principal, and he wasn’t much better. He got some twisted pleasure out of telling us that college wasn’t necessary or that we would never achieve the successes of private school kids. We butted heads more than once.
The dean finally prints my schedule and I head through the empty hallways to AP Gov. I can still feel his gaze on me as he shakes his head.
I let it go . . . as much as I can. First days of school are forever trash. Next week, robotics team starts. Things can only get better.
Read more about this book and author