Saturday, May 08, 2004

Afraid to Go Home

I had my back to the door.

I was busy shuffling papers on my desk, and trying to recall the color of the Formica surface I was attempting to uncover. Feeling the presence of somebody behind me I spun around into the chest of a very big man.
"Hey there!" I was greeted by a deep voice and a bear hug that made me feel very little.

It was Sam Jones.
Sam was a student of mine many years ago, when I taught Art History at the Cleveland School of Science. When he was a kid, he always reminded me of a young, lanky, Magic Johnson.
I became reacquainted with Sam several years ago as I headed down a stairwell at Max Hayes High School. Sam was coming up the stairs dressed in the ochre colored leather gear and mask of a welder.

"What are you doing here?" we exclaimed in unison.

Sam was unaware that I had changed schools, and I learned that he was taking the adult welding class, just down the hall from my room on the third floor.
Although he is now a certified welder, he occasionally stops by to say hello. We catch up on each other's news, and reminisce.

Today, we talked about the old Cleveland School of Science, and we remembered the most terrible day of school, for either one of us.


It began as a typical day at the School of Science. It was Sam's senior year. I'd been teaching visual art at the 6th-12th grade magnet school for a few years. It was lunchtime, and I recall sitting in the teachers lounge engaged in the witty banter which was commonplace amongst the most creative and intelligent faculty I've ever been privileged to work with.

We were interrupted by loud pounding on the wooden door.
"Help! Please help! A boy just jumped out of the third floor window! He's laying in the parking lot...He's not moving!"

We dashed out the door.
Several people ran through the backdoor to the parking lot. I bolted up the three flights of stairs to the wide open window on the top of the landing, and looked down.

Twelve years later the picture in my mind is as vivid as if I had just now turned away.

There, at the spot barely beyond where concrete met asphalt, lay Andre Cooper.
He was a smallish boy of about 12, short hair, and dark brown skin. Although I'd not had him in my class yet, I recognized him from the halls. I'd heard about him from other students and teachers. They told me that he had excellent drawing skills and that I should look forward to having him as an eighth grader.

On his back, his knees were bent, his eyes closed....and blood.
More blood than I had ever seen before....pooling around his head....the puddle growing larger..past his shoulders ...his waist...
Good God where was the ambulance?...Where were the sirens?
Keith Coolick and Bill Dimateo knelt at his head talking, talking, comforting.
Somebody got a blanket.
Still no ambulance.
My eyes were riveted to Andre's chest...was he breathing? I could see a little movement...barely...
He was breathing.
The puddle of blood continued to grow...Still no siren.

By this time students were crowding the windows, looking out over the parking lot.
Sam was one of those faces.
Some staring silently, some weeping openly, and then there were the others.
These were the children who were laughing. Laughing and mocking, pointing and joking. I could hear them from my post at the top of the stairs. I was horrified, and angry, they were driving me to disgust...far beyond driven. Ready to explode....
But, but, ...was that the sound of a siren?


The paramedics were there. Andre was carried into the ambulance and whisked away to the trauma center at Metro.

Remaining on the asphalt was that puddle...more blood than I had ever seen before. I watched as the custodians came out with the hoses and washed it away.

I called my sister-in-law, Leslie, a pediatric nurse. She worked the ICU at Metro. What could she tell me?
"Brain dead" she confided. "He's not expected to recover."
Andre died shortly after.

The events of that day overwhelmed me. My son, Ben, was the same age as Andre.
I drove home in tears. When I walked in the door, I grabbed hold of my children, and held them tight.


What happened ?

From what we could gather the story went something like this:

Andre was no stranger to the principal's office.
He seemed to have a problem controlling his temper, and had a record that year for getting into trouble. He'd just returned to school, back from several days of suspension. While in math class that morning, he created a disturbance and was asked, by the teacher, to leave the classroom. On his way out the door, he hit the window and shattered the glass. The security guards took him to the assistant principal's office, where he was given another 10 day suspension, handed an RTA bus ticket, and told to go home.

He took the ticket, left the office, and went into the boys rest room down in the basement. A short while later, two of his classmates walked in on him. He was crying and slamming his head repeatedly against the ceramic block wall.
"I can't go home!" he wailed. " My father will kill me!" Andre lay down on the floor. "He said if I got in trouble again at school he would kill me. I'd rather kill myself!"

With that, he stood back up and headed out of the restroom, around the corner, and up three flights of stairs to the window at the landing on the third floor. He pushed open the window and was climbing onto the sill, when his classmates caught up with him and pulled him down.

"C'mon man, you don't wanna do that." They grabbed hold of each arm and led him away from the window, down the stairs, and toward the second floor.

Andre seemed to relax.
"Hey, you can let go now, I'm cool." he said, as they reached the bottom of the stairs. The two students released their grip. The three of them stood together for a moment silent, relieved...when, suddenly, Andre bolted back up the stairs, and dove head-first through the open window.


Several weeks later, the detectives, the counselors and the psychologists where gone. School had resumed its routine. I was in my classroom, discussing abstract expressionism with a group of 11th and 12th grade students, when I caught a glimpse of a woman through the window of my door. I stepped into the hall, and asked if I could help.

I recognized her from the funeral. It was Andre Coopers mother.
She was alone in the hallway, crying softly.
"I came to the school to see the place where it happened." she said quietly.
"The woman in the office told me he jumped from the third floor. Which window?"
I gulped at the insensitivity of the administration, to send this woman up here, alone.

"Here, I will show you."
I put my arm around her shoulder, and led her to the window on the landing, now nailed permanently shut.

Together we looked down at the spot where the concrete meets the asphalt, and grieved for the boy who was too afraid to go home.

1 comment:

Zai said...

I was a student at Cleveland School of Science and I was there the day that Andre jumped. I can still remember the day like it was yesterday, and the 2 weeks afterward with all the psychologists that came to talk to us daily to help us get through it. I believe the windows were sealed shortly afterward. That was a really sad year for me, I had known Andre for most of my school years, he was the class clown, really silly. I remember that he said his mom was really strict, that his stepfather abused him. And that if he got in trouble again his mother had threatened to send him to Jamaica to live with his grandmother, and he did not want that. A week before he started talking about killing himself but no one took him seriously. I wish we had saw the signs.

I believe I was in your class, my name is Zaidat Bombata.