We’ll call him Kenyatta,
that wasn’t his name
but you get the picture
It was second grade in America
the land of testing and more testing
and the test he was being tested for
was one of those tests by which
little boys and little girls are divided
into those who do and those who don’t,
those who advance and those who retreat,
those who end up in the Ivy
and those who end up in the weeds
This little one was just as smart
as any child of seven or eight might be
if he had computers in his home
if there was food on his table
if there was a home
if the sound of gunshots
could have been confused
with an automobile backfiring.
But he didn’t live in such place,
he lived in that place
where innocents get punished
for crimes they never committed.
That day, the day of tests
Kenyatta sat at his desk
like all the other children
and while they diligently spelled out the words
answered questions and advanced
Kenyatta only saw letters swirling
refusing to resolve into words.
He couldn’t read.
He hadn’t gotten help
from his teacher who carried too many
nor from his principal in her office detached
not from the librarian who might have helped him
no Hail Fellow, Well Met or Good Samaritan stepped up
So he did what anyone might do,
he roared, he wadded up his test and threw it on the floor
he jumped up from his desk and stormed out
while the other children shook
—this display disrupted their concentration
derailed their best intentions,
constrained their responses,
it might even have changed their life’s course.
That day I came home,
…after speaking with his teacher
and hearing her say
— and she was a good teacher,
loved by her students :
“they don’t give us any help,
the children are so many
and there’s only so much of me.”
…after speaking with his principal
and hearing her say:
“teachers must learn how to deal with this on their own.
We can’t come to the rescue
every time a child falls behind.”
I came home that day
and told my wife:
“If this kid is not given a hand,
he’s not going to survive.”
Then I went about my business,
aiding where I could,
looking away when I couldn’t
and I forgot about Kenyatta.
I’d see him from time to time
sullen and angry
but there’s nothing worth noting
when a child who eats irregularly
glares, stares, makes mean eyes.
Ten years later I was in New York on business
my wife sent a newspaper clipping
the once promising young man
had been gunned down in the street
a deal didn’t go down like he’d planned.
A different boy or girl,
might have been dealing a different product
might have been selling automobiles
or building computers or
might have been teaching in a local school.
But he didn’t get a helping hand
all he got was indifference at best
malevolence more likely
cruelty and oppression as his allotment
compounded, amortized, and institutionalized
on a daily basis
until all other options disappeared
and then we ask…
and then we ask…
what went wrong?
What do you think went wrong?
and how much longer
will we allow this wrong to go on?