Bad Wheel, Son

It was December 2013 when they returned.

They walked through the door something like apparitions--familiar, but not quite themselves.

They were taller than when last I had seen them they had close-cropped hair and their heads reached only as high as my stomach. In the interceding years, they’d grown to within a head of me--taller, even, if you count their bushy, curly locks.

This was the year when I was responsible for co-coordinating The Homework Club, a weekly after school program held in a church common room and gymnasium in Baltimore. Most kids, like Daquan and Angelo, stopped coming around the time they started high school, and I rarely saw them again.

A younger boy, the spitting image of Daquan when I had first met him, knelt on the floor, pulling a cord time and again before he let his toy car race across the common room floor. It veered badly to the left, crashing into a table leg.

Daquan picked up the car, inspected it for a minute, then handed it to the smaller kid. "You got a bad wheel, son."

I asked Angelo how he was doing.

“Good, sir,” he said. “We came to tutor.”

The tutor corps were mostly Hopkins undergrads, a few grad students, and a ragtag collection of young professionals like myself who lived in the area. We’d never had an alum of the program return as a volunteer. The romantic in me fell in love with the idea on the spot. The realist in me recognized they probably came on that wintry day more in the interest of shooting hoops in the gymnasium than in helping anyone with homework.

They seemed reasonably sincere, though. More sincere at least than the friends they brought with them, Caydence and Sharnell, who, in the opening minutes of their tenure, took to chasing neighborhood girls they knew rather than stopping them from running.

But homework time proceeded more successfully than I would have anticipated. Though the young women paid more attention to their attempts at braiding Angelo’s hair, the boys actually did help two of the other neighborhood kids through their math worksheets and then set to playing chess at a reasonable volume.

As homework time wound down, I assigned groups of tutors to walk kids home at the end of the night. I included Angelo, Daquan, Caydence, and Sharnell as I would other tutors, though I kept them in a cluster and only entrusted the kids they’d made it clear they knew and liked. Angelo nodded along as I explained the responsibility. The others looked past me, at each other, or at the floor, but when I asked if they understood, nodded their heads amidst mumbled a chorus yeses and OKs.

In the gym, Daquan and Angelo joined the older boys in playing “Fifty”--an every man for himself game in which the player who scores earns the right to shoot free throws, then three point shots en route to accumulating fifty points. They showed little interest in facilitating the game, every interest in winning. Daquan had grown big and fast enough to dominate the better part of the field. Angelo, though bigger and stronger, lacked the coordination to fare much better the next oldest cluster of boys. Caydence and Sharnell sat with their backs to the walls, alternately sending text messages and heckling the game.

Jamal, one of the older boys, had opted not to participate in Fifty, instead shooting around, mostly with younger kids, on the opposite side of the gym. There, chasing after a loose ball, he slipped.

It wasn’t unusual for the kids to fall and play possum either as a gag or to save face after an embarrassing tumble. But Jamal stayed down, writhing on the ground as a crowd of children thickened around him. I dispersed them to let him have air, dispatching two to fetch ice from the kitchen downstairs.

“I twisted my leg,” he said between winces.

Gym time expired and I offered my usual countdown to the finish, half-heartedly, standing beside Jamal to guard him from errant throws or unexpected bounces off the backboards.

Typically, the end of gym time was met with a clamor for each kid to get one more shot--a ploy I’d caught onto years before because one shot was never really one more shot. I grew wary of Daquan and Angelo adding to the resistance to return downstairs rather than helping.

They surprised me. Rather than continuing to shoot or pleading for extra time, they corralled loose balls, and corralled the kids, too. Daquan’s voice took on an edge as told a particularly rambunctious younger boy, clutching his toy car in one hand, a half-deflated basketball in the other, to “Come on.” These older kids--neighbors, cousins, siblings to the younger set--commanded a respect outsiders like myself rarely could. They had grown up in the same neighborhood, under the same adults, the same reprimands, the same rules. They spoke the same language.

And so, it came be just me and Jamal in the gym. I asked if he had a cell phone. He took out a small, silver flip phone. I asked he would like to call his parents or if I should. He made the call.

Like most of the Homework Club kids, Jamal’s family lived within a couple blocks of the church. Inside five minutes, his mother and father were both there. Mom’s bosom heaved from the sprint down the street, her stomach distended at just the size and shape that she may have been pregnant, but I didn’t dare to ask.

They checked on Jamal. “I didn’t realize it was just his leg,” Mom said. “When I heard he fell, I thought he might have cracked his head or something.” She continued to breathe heavily, then clutched my hand between hers and pressed by palm to her chest. “Can feel how fast my heart is beating?”

I looked to Jamal’s Dad, ever conscious of my hand all but cupping his wife’s breast.

Fortunately, he was focused on Jamal, trying to get him to stand up. Dad shook his head, accepting the boy was really hurt. “Goddamn it.”

“Charles!” Mom said, letting go of my hand at last. “You’re in a church.”

Dad turned to me, a hand over his mouth. He apologized, just as I became cognizant that, as the person working with their son, still clad in a collared shirt and khakis from work, I looked every bit the loyal church-going saint.

I waved him off. “Don’t worry about it.”

Dad left to fetch a set of crutches from home while Mom told me about how she had hardly sat down, much less slept in the last five days, just removed from the Thanksgiving holiday.

Soon enough Dad was back. He and I helped Jamal up, supporting him with his arms over our shoulders while Mom adjusted the crutches to the proper height. We started the journey out of the gym, but halfway through Mom grew dissatisfied with his crutch technique. Dad and I supported him again while she demonstrated proper form.

Then came the stairs.

The gym was located one floor above the rest of the church. In lieu of a more elegant solution, Dad grabbed Jamal by the back of his jeans and his belt, and tucked under his arm again. He half lifted the boy, as Jamal balanced on the banister with his opposite hand, and otherwise hopped down the stairs on one foot.

Visions of lawsuits danced through my head.

But they made it out down all right, and all the way out the front the door, where Jamal’s parents thanked me and started their journey onward.

The last I heard of them that night, Dad clapped a hand over Jamal’s shoulder. “You got a bad wheel, son,” he said, an unconscious echo of how the night began. “But you'll be all right.”