“Now on this day in 1489, Christopher Columbus proposed his plan to travel to India,” Mr. Adams, the middle school social studies teacher explained. He looked around at the class, maybe checking for signs of interest.
Marty leaned back in his chair, remaining as silent as everyone else. Sometimes he contributed to the subject, if it was intriguing, but he hadn’t learned anything new about Columbus since fourth grade.
A few minutes later, Mr. Adams finished his monologue and then asked,
“Does anyone have any questions?”
A girl named Maggie raised her hand.
“Can you explain what’s going on with the riots and everything? I don’t understand why the city’s getting destroyed over what happened to Rodney King?” she asked, twisting her long red braid between her fingers.
“I don’t think that’s an appropriate topic for this class,” Mr. Adams said, giving Maggie an awkward smile that was clearly meant to end the topic.
“What’s inappropriate about it? This is a Social Studies class and what’s happening right now is history in the making,” Marty interjected. Ignoring Mr. Adams’ look of dismay, he turned to Maggie. “And people are protesting because four cops just got a not guilty verdict even though they beat on an unarmed guy for fifteen minutes.”
“Marty, that is greatly oversimplifying the situation. We don’t know exactly what happened and I’m sure there were many extenuating circumstances in play. Those policemen were just trying to do their jobs.”
Marty shook his head in disbelief, sitting straighter and holding his hand up, not waiting to be called on.
“It sounds like you agree with the verdict,” he commented pointedly.
He saw Mr. Adams’ eyes tighten slightly as he turned his focus on Marty. They’d butted heads more than once this year. Marty was always a little too outspoken and got in trouble a little too often for the middle-aged man’s taste. Instead of shrinking under his stare, Marty sat as tall as he could, uncrossing his arms so his shirt was plainly visible. He wore a simple black t-shirt, emblazoned with the words “Burn, baby, burn”.
“Marty, I didn’t say that. There were mistakes made on both sides, but we really need–”
“Mistakes?” Marty laughed harshly. “You call four cops ganging up on one guy a mistake?” Someone behind Marty swore under their breath and a few other students made sounds of agreement.
“My mom says those cops should be fired for what they did,” Maggie added, sounding nervous. A rush of comments and questions followed her statement, easily overriding Mr. Adams’ attempts to settle things down.
“I think they should go to jail,” another student said.
“My brother’s going down to join the protests tomorrow.”
“That’s enough, class!” Mr. Adams ordered loudly, clapping like they were little kids. “We need to get back on track with today’s lesson.”
“Why? What happened to Rodney King is a lot more important than learning about how Christopher Columbus died.” Marty stood up, stubbornly facing the teacher head on. “Just answer the question, whose side are you on?”
“Marty, as I said, that is a very complicated situation. I understand that people are upset, but those police officers were simply performing their duties. Retaliation is not the answer.”
“Then what are people supposed to do? Clearly the police aren’t protecting anyone,” Marty said with an insolent shrug.
Mr. Adams clenched his jaw; the tips of his ears were beginning to flush and his eyes gleamed with barely controlled anger.
“If these people want justice then they should behave like civilized human beings.”
“Civilized human beings? Those cops didn’t act like civilized humans. If I were them, I’d feel like burning things too.” As he spoke, more students were adding their input, agreeing with him.
“Maybe it’s the only way to get people to listen.”
“Someone should make them pay,” Terry Goodwin called out from the back of the room.
“Terry, that’s enough. Marty, please sit down, you’re getting everyone overly excited.”
He ignored the request, now as angry and outraged as he was when he first heard about Rodney King.
“Eventually people get tired of knowing that no one cares when terrible stuff happens to them and they do desperate things. Just because you pretend it’s not there, won’t make it go away or stop us from knowing the truth.”
“Martin, this topic is closed for discussion.”
“Sure, just shut us up. Cause that’s worked so well in the past. I mean, isn’t that part of the reason people are rioting right now? Because you and everyone else want to pretend that there isn’t a problem?”
“Marty, that is enough!” Mr. Adams shouted. He was breathing heavily, like he’d just run a marathon, nostrils slightly flared as he glared down at Marty. Grabbing a notepad from his desk, he scrawled a few words on the paper, and shoved it towards Marty. “Get your things and go to Principal Seward’s office.”
Marty glared at him as he grabbed his book and took the paper with a shaking hand. He barely resisted the urge to slam the door as he left.
When he reached the front office a few minutes later, Principal Seward was waiting outside his office for him.
He regarded Marty for a moment, nodding his head, lips pursed as though he was summing him up on his head. He was a large man, in his early 40’s, and easily towered over 13-year-old Marty.
“Mr. Deeks, I understand you caused a disruption in Social Studies today,” he said, ushering Marty through the door. It was a fairly familiar room to Marty at this point.
His expression was grave, but unsurprised as he sat behind the large oak desk that took up the majority of the room. Marty remained standing, even when Principal Seward gestured to a chair.
“I’d call it more of a disagreement, Sir,” Marty replied, managing to keep a note of civility in his voice.
“Mr. Deeks, you know we have a no violence policy at this school.”
“All I did was ask a few questions.”
“That shirt incites violence, as did the rhetoric you were spewing,” Seward bit out, jabbing his finger at Marty’s chest.
“I wasn’t ‘inciting violence’, Sir,” Marty protested tightly.
“The very words encourage people to burn things. Your classmates were very unsettled.” Principal Seward leaned forward with his hands folded on his desk. “You will remove your shirt immediately.”
“No.” The words practically rang into the resulting silence. Marty shook his head and repeated, “No. There’s nothing in the dress code that says I can’t wear this shirt.”
“I said take it off!” Seward said, reaching across the desk and grabbing at the collar of Marty’s shirt. He scrambled back before Seward could get a solid hold on him.
“Don’t touch me,” Marty warned him, holding up a fist, ready to defend himself if necessary. It was ludicrous, given than Principal Seward could easily incapacitate him if he wanted to. Stopping short, Seward glanced at Marty’s defensive posture and seemed to suddenly remember himself. He stepped back with a vaguely embarrassed expression. Straightening his tie, he returned to his seat and cleared his throat.
“Very well then. I’m suspending you for two weeks. Maybe that will give you enough time to consider if this is the path you really want to follow.”
“Two weeks,” Marty blurted out in mild shock. The most he’d ever been suspended for was three days after he’d been pulled into a fight with Ray against three other kids. “For what?”
“Arguing with school staff, ignoring staff directions, and violating school code to name just a few,” Seward listed off quickly. “If you remove that shirt immediately you can reduce your sentence to one week.”
For a moment he considered the offer. Telling his mom he was suspended for a week would be bad enough. He imagined her look of disappointment and everything he’d miss in the next two weeks. Then he shook his head, looking Seward directly in the eye.
“No. You can’t make me change my mind.”
“So be it. Enjoy your two weeks at home. I’m sure your mother will be thrilled as usual.”
As the principal left the room, most likely to call Roberta to come pick him up, Marty sat down and wrapped his arms around his raised knees. He felt miserable, but he was sure he’d made the right decision.