Back to School

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Here’s my chapter 3 — I already posted a version of chapter 2 as a stand-alone piece in another blog post. I’ll get back to posting material that does not consist of my draft chapters when I get settled from a recent move. Meanwhile, you can read this chapter only, or refer back to my post The City of Souls.

 

April 14, 2016

I parked on Bay Street, on the backside of the Marina Middle School campus in late afternoon. A few weeks earlier, I’d contacted Project Cold Case, an organization dedicated to publicizing unsolved homicides, and as I suspected, they wanted a photograph of Patty. I had none. So I thought to mine the yearbooks that were stockpiled in the school library. 

In order to enter the campus I had to pass the spot where Patty and I had first smoked together, where we slouched against a concrete pillar puffing and coughing until we were red in the face. I remember we sat cross-legged on the cool cement staring at the flats lining Bay Street, passing a slender brown cigarette between us. Bulbous clouds trudged across a Technicolor blue sky, and I thought at the time that was evidence the earth was turning underneath us. I’d never felt so alive.  The wind burned down Patty’s cigarette and whipped her red hair across her face. 

“We can get a free breakfast at Jack-in-the-Box if you want. My boyfriend’s the manager there,” she said, scraping her cigarette on the sole of her sneaker. 

“I have class in a few minutes,” I’d said.

“Cut class,” she’d said.

She stood and swept the ashes from her sweater. Her eyes flickered at the idea of getting into trouble.  

“I can’t. Honor’s English class. It’s the only thing I’m good at.”

“I’m hungry,” Patty had said.

“What about free lunch in the cafeteria? Do you get that? It’s hamburgers today.”

“Yeah, I get free lunch. How does that compare to double cheeseburgers at Jack-in-the-Box?”

In retrospect I realized what first connected us. It was hunger. I could hardly put my finger on what we hungered for back then. Food was only secondary. Excitement, attention, danger — those would become the holy trinity of our teens. Those were the things we hungered for.  What I figured out years later was what we needed was direction, stability, and a sense of belonging.  And contrary to what Mick Jagger was telling us at the time, we could always get what we wanted. 

I was so absorbed by my recollections of the past that I nearly plowed face first into the gate trying to enter the grounds.  I meandered around the schoolyard glancing into the empty classrooms from afar.  Posters of presidents and colored construction paper projects were pinned to bulletin boards, and an aquarium filled the entire window of one classroom.  In other words not much had changed over nearly forty years.  Asian kids were playing a friendly game of basketball. Everything gleamed of new paint — banisters, doors, window sills. Even the four square and hopscotch grids on the concrete had a fresh-coat glow on them. Who plays those games anymore?, I thought. I yanked on the two side door entrances to the building, but they were locked. Finally I got through the main entrance doors, signed in at the office and climbed the stairs to the second floor where the library was located.

Donna, the librarian, had a mane of hair a faded buttercup color. She remembered me from our phone conversation days earlier. After directing me to a reading table in an adjacent room, she pulled stacks of yearbooks from a wooden cabinet. There was only one copy from 1975. It smelled moldy and the pages felt damp between my fingers. I found myself rambling to Donna about why I wanted to look at the yearbooks, about my brief history at the school, about Patty. 

“My best friend’s a cold case,” I said.

Her mouth twisted into an ellipsis. 

“At least she was my friend until she stood by while a girl got beaten. Right here on the school yard,” I pointed my thumb over my shoulder in the direction of the window.

 “The girl and I were very close at one time. She had to have her jaw wired shut,” I said.

“Nothing like that happens here anymore. I would even send my kids here. That’s how safe it is.”

Perhaps all the new money pouring in from the tech boom of late had resulted in a kinder, gentler public school environment in the city.

“I wish I had some class or something to help me understand when my friend was beaten up here, that I should have gotten help,” I said.

I couldn’t honestly say that a class would have changed the way events unfolded so long ago.  I just didn’t know.  But I had to believe that it would have benefitted some students.   

“I didn’t feel safe here. Is there any program here now for the kids that talks to them about bullying?” I said.

“No, nothing. We really don’t see that many problems here. I’d send my kids here. But we live in Orinda.” 

Orinda is a small, suburban enclave in the east bay known for its affluence and superior school system.  It is a place that people flood into, not take flight from.   

“Well, I wish there was a program like that back when I was going here.”

Back in the seventh grade when I was routinely hassled, and once violently attacked myself, the word “bullying” wasn’t the buzzword it is today. Recently when I described the Lord-of-the-Flies atmosphere that existed on the playground to my aunt, a human rights lawyer, she said the word bullying wasn’t strong enough to describe the brutal beating my friend received. Criminal was the word she applied to it. 

Thirteen was an age when I began to see the world differently, when the scales dropped from my eyes so to speak. Still there was much I remained naive about. Nevertheless, there were things that went on in that playground that turned my gut.  More than once I sensed a line had been crossed. But none of my peers, including myself, seemed to know how to respond. I had to concede to my aunt that yes, much like prep school hazings, there were times when our behavior veered into the criminal.  I also had to admit to her that although I pounded on doors to get someone to contact police while my friend was in peril, I gave up at some point.  Ultimately, I ended up huddled in the stairwell of a nearby flat, paralyzed with fear, legs crossed tightly, terrified I might wet my pants.

If I craned my neck just right, I’d almost be able to see that very doorway from the library window.  I turned to the page in the yearbook with the picture of my friend and felt my windpipe clamp up.  Donna began complaining of hunger, of being held captive at a meeting all morning, of having to tutor yearbook students soon. This I took to be code for hurry up. In retrospect, I may have made her uncomfortable talking about my fraught experience here. Clearly, I had more consideration for the manicurist in Daly City.  It was as if I’d forgotten my vow to myself to spare people the details, that I’d forgotten just how sad the details were.

Donna didn’t commiserate with me as much as she defended this newer, shinier version of Marina Middle School.  It was as if the school itself had gone through its own growing pains, and come out the other end a more beneficent institution. It was now a place that needed no lectures on bullying.  Any criminal activity that took place there was just a blip on the radar screen of its history.  Those dark days, perhaps like the peeling, blistering campus itself, could be wiped away by simply applying a shiny coat of paint, a new narrative. That was the position Donna seemed to take.  What happened back then could never happen here now was what she seemed to be saying.  I hoped she was right.

June 2, 2016

I found out today my application to attend the AISOCC (American Investigative Society of Cold Cases) conference was accepted.  I explained to the founder, Kenneth Mains, in a long-winded email that I was seeking help to get my friend’s cold case dusted off.  He wrote back that it was rare to have a civilian attend, but I’d be welcomed with open arms.

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