I remember the day I met Jefferson. It was only a month or two into my senior year. The bell echoed through the empty hallways; each student and faculty member were already in their respective places in the classrooms or hiding out in a restroom somewhere. My class was rather empty with 5 Juniors taking their seats in Ms. Wheatley’s math class and 4 seniors back for another round of her endless formulas and conversions to kill our overall GPAs. After the screeching of the beginning bell Ms. Wheatley took the usual attendance with an all too common “PRESENT” in response and an occasional “YO” for the ones itching to break from formality even just the tiniest bit.
The day seemed normal until one absence was noticed by the attendance sheet. “Jefferson,” She called out. We all looked blankly, silently waiting for any response so she could continue. “Jefferson Davis?” Her eyes darted around the room, a bit troubled by the missing student. I hadn't noticed anyone was missing but in her confusion I got a little curious and looked around the room as well, noticing the empty seat in the middle of the classroom. I had never noticed anyone sitting there before. Must have been a Junior, I knew the seniors in class, and they were hard to miss, just look for the ones always spreading gossip.
A few seconds later the door to the classroom opens from behind us, we turn to see a short kid who could be no more than 5’5” and that’s being charitable.
His whole outfit looked like a kid trying on his dad's clothes, baggy sweats, oversized shirt and hoodie. As he passed on the way to the front of the class, I noticed the sweat dripping from his forehead. He walked up to Ms. Wheatley as we looked on in silence waiting to hear his excuse and whatever punishment he will inevitably get for throwing the two things she hated most in her face, being late for her class and excuses.
“I'm sorry for being late, I have no excuse Ms. Wheatley.”
His words came out unfettered by guilt, fear, or even a hint of exhaustion from clearly hauling ass up 3 flights of stairs. His face was stone, not a flinch from him as he spoke; simply standing there, waiting for her to say something. She looked at him, wiping the confusion and frustration off her face before telling him to go sit in his seat.
Calvin, a Junior in the class stood up in a huff, “Ms. Wheatley, with all due respect that's bullshit! I was late last week. You gave me detention for two days.”
“Sit down Calvin!” she replied in a stern and irritated tone, “you weren't only late to class, you also gave a half assed excuse about leaving your phone at home, after I had caught you in the Hallway texting.” The two locked eyes for a moment before Calvin slumped back down into his seat, mumbling to himself. Ms. Wheatley went behind her desk and began sorting the assignments we handed in. While looking through the papers she said, “we all make mistakes, I'm even late for my class sometimes, but what I punish you for is lying to me when you can simply try to do better.” She looks up at Jefferson, “Don't be late again. And if you know you're going to be late, text a friend to let me know.” Jefferson nodded quietly as he took his books and pencils out of his bag.
The class continued as normal for the next hour until the bell signaled the end of class and a 10-minute warning to get to the next. The seniors picked up their bags and hurried out at the first sound of freedom. I lagged behind a bit, keeping an eye on the Jefferson kid, he was interesting to me. I couldn’t recall anyone who ever just sat ready for a punishment without trying to talk their way out of it. He was definitely a strange kid. I waited until he left the classroom and followed him from behind. I had time to observe for five minutes before the bell rings. I'll just book it for my next class. I followed him down to the second floor, into Mr. Malins’ English class, which was my next class. I followed suit and sat down early. The teacher was nowhere in sight, so I just pulled out the books for class. The seats fill over the next couple of minutes before Mr. Malin walks in at the bell, he waits a few seconds to pass before he begins.
The class went undisturbed for the first thirty minutes or so, then the usual pass around started as Mr. Malin started reading a passage from “Of Mice and Men.” Jacob Begins walking around passing out business cards for “When you need performance enhancement or relaxing VITAMINS!” it read. Jacob fancied himself as the school’s local hard ass. He used to be a running back for the school’s football team before he was held back for grades. At 6’5” and 240 lbs he was one of the biggest kids in school. Jacob had no direction or outlet and became a small-time drug dealer who does not like being rejected, especially in front of others. It’s “bad for business,” he says. Mr. Malin closes his book and sorts us into groups for a discussion. It was just my luck to get the Blockhead druggy, Jefferson, and Jamie, a senior who skipped his junior year and one of the smartest of the seniors this year. The class is immersed in quiet discussion until the teacher steps out to take a phone call: the moment the door closes Jacob scoots his chair closer to Jamie’s and holds up his card with a quick flip of the hand. “Must be pretty hard for you kid, skipping grades, separated from your friends, all those expectations to excel,” Jacob took the card and scratched under his chin a bit and flipped it back to Jamie, giving a sleazy car dealer smile. "I got a few things to help relieve some of that stress and get you back to focus when you need it” he whispers slightly, giving Jamie a quick wink and half smile.
Jamie puts his hand up between the card and his face, “Thank you but I do fine on my own, it's not really that stressful, some of this stuff is pretty easy for me!” he carelessly replies while gently pushing away the card.
I slump over in embarrassment for the kid and Jacob shoots me a look of pure anger as if I had something to do with it! His eyes darted around the classroom as most of the seniors' eyes were on him, He crumpled up the card and stared into Jamie's eyes with that same look of rage and embarrassment he just gave me. “Are you saying that it's not easy for me? You calling me stupid?! You think you're better than me just because you skipped a grade huh?” he was getting more agitated and his voice deeper and more distressed with each phrase.
Jamie was startled by the sudden accusations and couldn't find the words in time to refute anything Jacob had said before Mr. Malin walked back in, placing everyone back to their original seats to go over what we forgot to discuss. For the rest of the period Jacob did not take his eyes off Jamie. I couldn't do anything but feel for the kid. He was either unlucky enough to not hear about Jacobs unreasonable temper or stupid enough to still go and shatter such a fragile and volatile ego. When dismissed for the next class Jamie stuffed his books and notes into his bag and scurried off into the hallway, Jacob eyed and nodded to two other seniors then followed Jamie out. I'm not too sure what ‘nihilistic’ part of human nature drives us to watch a train wreck, but everyone moved in unison to watch what came next.
I was pushed, shoved and damn near man-handled by the others around me to try and get the best view possible for the inevitable confrontation! We knew to some degree that the crowd gathered would just make Jacob want to act out even more to prove a point to everyone watching. Even if the kid just apologized and took the offer, it wouldn't end there and wouldn't stop them from circling like vultures. Jamie stood with his back against some lockers speechless and confused… all of this from what seemed to be a polite refusal. I could see his thoughts racing, his brain working overtime to figure a way out of it, but he just stuttered endlessly as his knees shook. “So, you think because I flunked you're better than me?” Jacob began as he paced the ground like a wild animal waiting to let loose. “Too good to accept a helping hand? You might not know it, but I don't tolerate disrespect…” clenching his fists so tight, I swear I heard his knuckles cracking! “especially no punk ass mama’s boy!” And with a swift right hook, Jamie hit the ground, blood and tears rolling down his face.
We could all see the fear in his eyes ever present, we all knew that he didn't deserve this, but nobody moved to stop it. Some people just screamed for Jacob to leave him alone, some even cheered for the kid to get up and fight back even though it was clear he would only make it worse on himself. I wanted to move, to at least shout! But standing in that crowd a few feet away froze me in fear of what would happen to me if that unreasonable anger was pointed towards me…I would be just as helpless. I survived High School for 3 years now and I planned to finish it without putting a target on my back, not for someone I barely know, deserving or not. As Jamie lay on the floor sobbing and the crowed shouted encouragement and insults, Jacob leaned over the crumbled boy and began kicking him. A twisted smile spread over his face as we all fell silent…with only the thud of Jamie's back against the lockers being heard. One hard kick after another, with each one my heart wrenched as I was slowly building up the sympathy to intervene. Before I opened my mouth to say anything, a short kid in baggy clothes pushed through to the center of the crowd. He stood expressionless. He dropped his bag with a loud thud, as to get someone’s attention, and stood up straight. Jacob looked up; a tilted smile pierced across his face as he laid his eyes on another victim. “…da fuck you want?” He said with all the base he could muster up in his 6’7” frame.
Jefferson stepped forward, looked up and said with a face devoid of fear, “Just because you can pick on someone doesn't mean you should. It makes you look small!”
I could hear his voice crack and straighten out, hands shaking, he didn't look like he could come close to handling the senior but scared and all his face never showed it.
Jacob’s face twisted in pure rage! From being the star on the football team, to being an aggressive drug dealer, I had never witnessed anyone intentionally insult him to his face, his overreactions to the smallest slights made sure of it! “You calling me small?” Jacob’s fists tightened again to get ready to pounce on the next doe in the wilderness.
Jefferson instinctively flinched and took a step back from Jacob, but with the same instinct stepped forward again; his next words echoed through the halls for what seemed like forever. “WHY ELSE WOULD YOU NOT HARASS ANYONE YOUR OWN SIZE????.” Immediately, there were several quick gasps.
I blinked for only a second before Jacob and his gang were on top of Jefferson stomping and punching him! Each impact and cough from Jefferson rang in my ears, it was the only sound that could be heard for a while as everyone just stood in fear of what would happen if they intervened. People started to leave quietly and shamefully as the three continued to beat on the kid. Nobody tried to stop him! Nobody offered help! Nobody went to tell a teacher!
By the time the bell rang we had all left the scene. I felt too ashamed to just go to class so I waited down another hallway until I could no longer hear Jacob and his friends grunting. I waited for them to pass before heading back into the hallway. Jefferson laid on the ground, bruised, nose bleeding, one of his eyes swollen shut. His beating was obviously worse than Jamie’s. He took a deep breath before getting off the ground and going to help Jamie. No tears, just that same straight face he’s worn all day as he lifted a mess of Jamie off the ground.
I slowly walked up, embarrassed to look either of them in the eyes as I was one of the people who simply watched as they were assaulted. I picked up Jefferson's bag and handed it to him. I locked eyes with him and instead of the disgust I was expecting to see, he simply said, “thank you” and wrapped Jamie’s arm over his shoulder and made his way down the hallway. I stood there racking my brain for a few seconds as to what would lead someone to what would essentially be social suicide, and maybe some broken bones? I couldn’t come up with a good answer myself. I finally mustered up the nerve and said, “Jefferson, dude…why would you do that? You just got yourself fucked up more than Jamie did.”
Jefferson stopped to look back at me and calmly replied “I've taken beatings from much worse people than him; I knew I could handle it and Jamie couldn't.” He turned back around, adjusting his bag and Jamie over his shoulder before continuing. I couldn't help but feel pathetic after hearing such an answer. I ran up from behind and grabbed both of the bags, “So where to?” giving a guilty half smile.
Jefferson gave a small chuckle and looked as if my question was unnecessary, the first bit of emotion I’ve seen out of him today. “The nurses office, duh!”
Jefferson carried Jamie and I carried their bags to the nurse’s office, watching as he slightly struggled with Jamie. We had a flight of stairs and about 200 feet to go. “I still don't quite get it,” I said, “you could have at least gone to get a teacher instead of getting beat down like that…”
Jefferson gave a sigh of exasperation. “I tried that, they were all on lunch and if I kept looking, he would have kept getting hurt. My father used to tell me that ‘if you could do something better than someone else, you should help them.’”
“SOOO…you just jumped in, not afraid of him hurting you?”
“Of course I was afraid, who wouldn't be? But I've let fear keep me from doing what I felt was right too many times already; When you make the decision to help someone, it doesn't always go as planned, for better or worse, you have to be ok with the consequences.”
I ran out of excuses for not wanting to help Jamie, it just all seemed to boil down to me being too damn scared to do anything.
As we arrived at the nurse’s office I ran in front of them to open the door. I could hear the nurse hop out of her chair before she came out from the back office. “Oh, my goodness what happened!?” She yelled as she anxiously looked over the two of them a bit more closely. After a deep breath, a look of pained understanding fell over her face as she locked eyes with me. We both knew that things like this keep happening because people fear the retaliation from Jacob and his friends for telling.It wasn’t unreasonable to fear the wannabe drug dealer after his public beatdowns instilled the fear he hoped it would. Neither of us expected Jefferson or Jamie to say what actually happened, I know I never have, and I didn't plan to.
Jefferson laid Jamie down on one of the beds, lifted his head looking at the nurse, “We were assaulted by a senior who deals drugs! Me and Jamie would like to call our parents; I don't think either of us should go back to class.” Jefferson’s tone and expression mirrored the same confident air he had back in Ms. Wheatley’s class.
The nurse turned towards me, maybe a bit relieved at what she heard? “Is that true?”
Just thinking about what would happen made my throat dry up. My palms began to sweat. All I could imagine was Jacob and his friends cornering to give a worse beating than Jefferson or Jamie; being left in a crying heap or worse! I looked around the room, not even sure for what, I guess I could have been having a mini panic attack with my imagination running wild at the thought of impending death? I looked at Jefferson sitting down next to Jamie who was laying still holding the side he was kicked in. He didn't say anything, his gaze didn't seem to hold any expectations. If I could describe it, it felt like a look of determination, that he would continue on even if I was too scared to.
I finally was able to take a deep breath, and wet my mouth…even though I felt my heart beating through my chest, I stood up straight, held my head up high, and managed to form at least one word through it all, “Yes!”