Sometimes at the beginning or end of the hour, before I began the day’s lesson or after I completed it, we would veer from social studies into sports, philosophy, and even quantum physics. One day I told three tardy students that they should try to make time run backward so they wouldn’t be late to class.
“Right, Dr. T.—too bad that’s impossible.”
“Actually, it’s not,” I told them. “Both space and time become distorted when moving objects approach or attain the speed of light. It’s possible for two light rays from a single star to travel by two different paths of different lengths and end up at the same place simultaneously—even though one of the light rays would take longer to get there.”
“Right, Dr. T.”
Some of them had already told me they wondered sometimes whether I was a bit insane, and this way-out statement of mine simply made them wonder more. The hypothetical notion of some ultra-virile cosmonaut being able to make a return trip to Earth from the far side of the cosmos to encounter some nubile great-to-the-nth-power grandmother of his and engage with her in the procreation of his own ancestor and thus f— himself into an endless circle of existence and non-existence and existence and non-existence by cosmic remote control was too far a psychic bridge for them (and for most people) to cross.
However, some of them believed me; and Charlie Hudgins—who never ever said much in (or out of) class—said something that day which I’ll never forget:
“When I travel back in time, I’m going to go back to 1967 and kill James Earl Ray.”
He said it softly and flatly, with no discernible emotion. He was looking at a picture of Martin Luther King, Jr. that I had on a front bulletin board.
Charlie had proved his activist (or anarchist) potential with this one statement, and it earned him an ‘A’ for the day: James Earl Ray, of course, is the man who murdered the great civil-rights leader in 1968.
Varsity running back/sprinter Clay Brewer and two other soldiers in my newly-formed Finney division of my historic All-American Activist Armies performed their first actual AAAA (All-American Activist Act) when they grabbed Charlie—who had been about to put a school social worker in the hospital—and pulled him off the social worker. I pointed out to them that their activist act had indeed been a certifiably bonafide AAAA, and I commended them for it. The social worker had put his hands on Charlie after he and the social worker had had angry words in the hall as the tardy bell rang.
Those three strapping soldiers in my 86-student-plus army forcibly pulled Charlie off the social worker, tugged the resistant Charlie through the door into my classroom, and then—with considerable difficulty—kept him away from the social worker. I came out of the lavatory next to my classroom just in time to help them (my pesky prostate had made me a few seconds late), because Charlie was trying to get loose from us so he could still go after the social worker.
The social worker wanted me or Mr. Ward to expel Charlie, but I asked him to let me resolve the problem in a different way. I promised the social worker that my way would guarantee that he would have no more trouble from Charlie. I closed my classroom door and postponed the day’s lesson on the economic and societal repercussions of a drought in Kenya for a few minutes to discuss the situation between Charlie and the social worker, because this incident had provided me with a Teachable Moment.
First, I pointed out to the class that their three fellow AAAA soldiers had demonstrated the very sort of social activism I was expecting from them by preventing Charlie from maiming the social worker and saving their fellow soldier from getting expelled from school, or worse. I asked Charlie to thank them, and he did.
Then I led a discussion regarding ways in which Charlie could learn to manage his anger better in order to prevent his recurrent engagement in this kind of incident. I shared with them a few experiences that I had had with my own anger mismanagement when I was their age, and I told them that I had had no fellow soldiers in an All-American Activist Army like ours to help me, then.
“Soldiers in our All-American Activist Army,” I said to the class (mostly for Charlie’s benefit), “must be able to manage their anger—and Charlie has a serious anger-management problem he needs to work on—and which we need to continue to help him work on.”
Indeed, Charlie was by disposition a silent, ticking time bomb with a short fuse. He was also one of the few seniors in that 11th-grade class, and he was slated for graduation in June. He didgraduate—but without his classmates’ activist intervention in that one incident, he wouldn’t have.
At his prom on the Detroit Princess riverboat in the Detroit River, Charlie came in his elegant tux to the table where Gina and I were sitting and spoke with us for a few minutes. It was the longest conversation I had ever had with him. I pray that now that he is out in the unforgiving world, he will be able to manage his seething rage—because despite the ascension of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States, there remains a multiplicity of injustices out there that can still make Charlie and young black men like him very angry.