“If you help me with Math, I’ll help you with life.” Mohan offered to Donte. Math and the Sciences had always come naturally to Donte. Some went on to call him gifted. As he sat on the porch reflecting on the choice he had to make, he didn’t think of it as a gift. It was more like an escape for him. An escape to a world that made sense, that was predictable and calculable. This gave him reassurance and comfort. That comfort motivated him to dig deeper, study harder. The hard work then made him better at it. And the grades and the scholarships and everything else just followed. All this helped him escape the music that constantly played in his house, and the struggles of being different. He was different from the other boys in his neighborhood and different from the kids at school. He even stood out from his whole family. It was a family of soldiers, strong men and loyal women with values.
Donte did not resonate with the values of his family. He wanted nothing of war, let alone to join the army like his father before him. He was growing weary of the advice at his church too. Sure, he liked the Pastor. The strict rigor with which his family expected him to follow their own interpretation of every word that was said on Sunday was not for him. Nor was the idea to find a good woman to marry and father many babies. He just wanted to solve problems, and help people. And numbers helped him to that.The amount a single hedge fund manager made by investments that he considered rather noncomplex could help wipe out a small third world country's debt. He could figure out that part easily because of the math. That is what he wanted to do.
“How will you help me with life, man?” Donte had replied to Mohan who had a funny smirk on his face. “Come on, I’ll show you.” They had walked out of the school during lunch break to a place, just around the corner. It was an old building, looked like a run down defunct warehouse or something. Donte would never even be tempted to go to a place like that. Mohan was a free spirit though. Perhaps too free spirited for his own good. He had been getting nervous as he had declared, “I’m not into drugs, man!” Mohan just laughed. They entered the building. There were a few other kids he recognized from school at the far end of the building. He heard some beats playing. The place was very strange. It was very attractive to him, though he couldn’t tell why. The walls were spray painted with graffiti. There were some old torn carpets spread across the floor, and some thick industrial looking cables that were connected to power strips. “Where the heck are we, Mohan?” A curious Donte had asked.
“We call it The Escape!” Mohan declared. “It... meaning ummm, like this warehouse you broke into?” Donte asked. “Yes this warehouse. And our work, and us. We are The Escape.” Mohan replied to a puzzled Donte. “We are an arts collective. A family. All of us are passionate about something. Just like you. All of us need support to pursue that. All of us need help with something too. We’re not junkies, we are a family that helps each other. Myself, I play the guitar and record music.” Mohan pointed to a corner of the warehouse to a room that had probably been an office at some point. “That’s the studio. Gabriella here is a graffiti artist, Marcus likes to write stories and Lainey likes to write code. There are many more of us. You can hang with us too Donte, if you like. Escape with us. Help us escape math though!” All of them started to laugh. Donte had felt at home instantly. He had spent the next two years hanging out at and with The Escape every chance he got, after classes, during classes sometimes and on weekends and evenings. They were his “study group.” They helped him deal with thoughts about where he fit in, with troubles with his family, his needs for fun and even money sometimes and helped calm his anxiety. He helped them with math.
Now the word help was a bit of an understatement of course. When the school had started to audit assignments and test papers and run them through stylography checks and advanced similarity testing, something was bound to give. As he stood in front of Mr Raj, stout and pouty faced principle with a big belly, thick set glasses and a suit that meant business, all the anxiety he had escaped from over the last two years came flooding back in. Mr Raj had always liked him, had always tried to push him to do better. Perhaps this is why he was trying to be lenient with Donte, as he put it anyway. He felt a familiar nausea take over his stomach, a pounding in his heart as he looked at an impatient Mr Raj pacing the carpet floor of his office, “I’ll give you one more chance Donte, I know all those assignments were yours. I know you want to look out for your friends. If you don’t tell me though, you will all suffer the same fate. And you can say goodbye to that scholarship to Stanford. Say goodbye to any semblance of the life of an academic. The choice is yours.”
Donte thought of the prayers his family said every Sunday in church. He smiled slightly thinking how funny it was that people thought of God in times of need. He thought of the Pastor. He thought of his father instructing him to join the army when he found out what Donte had done. He thought of how his mother would weep. Donte weighed the variables carefully, and tried to calculate based on decision points. Yet, this problem was not binary. He was not able to rationalize the events that had happened and could not determine the optimal solution. He knew the clock was ticking. The Escape had meant everything to him, it was his lifeline. Yet, he could not escape the principal’s office this afternoon. He could not do it to Mohan or any of the members of the Escape. Yet he could not face Mr. Raj or the uncertainty of a future without academic prospects. It was a lose-lose situation. For the first time since he had entered that warehouse two years ago, he found himself wanting to act in a way that was unnatural for him. He sensed he was at a crossroads again. “So, what will it be, Donte? Your time is up.” Commanded an annoyed Mr Raj. Donte closed his eyes and smiled, then spoke calmly and softly, “Let’s chat about my options Mr Raj. I think you will be surprised by what you find.”