|Otis and Andre
a short story
Gregory Alan Norton
|"Otis and Andre" is from a forthcoming collection of short stories entitled The Infinity of Days in the Psychotic Atomik Empire. It first appeared in the June 1999 issue of The Princeton Arts Review.|
| I met Andre for the first time in a run-down commercial building on Chicago's Exchange Avenue that had been converted by a local community group into a makeshift school. They ran a variety of social programs from the building including a program that tutored high school dropouts for the high school equivalency examination. It was an unofficial program put together by some folks who had been members of the Black Panther Party back in the 1960s. I knew one of the founders from the "old days," and I had been recruited as a teacher despite the fact that I was white and the school was located in the vast African American ghetto on Chicago's South Side.
I had a teaching degree and full state certification, but had never managed a classroom. As a member of an extremely sectarian Marxist-Leninst vanguard group, I had been sent into Chicago's factories to "organize the revolution" upon my graduation from college. It seemed plausible at the time because I worked my way through college laboring in machine shops. That was the logical consequence of my entire family's long sojourn in Chicago factories. Of course, any organizing project seemed plausible to the members of the generation of 1968.
Anyway, my Panther buddy, Cedric, who I hadn't spoken to in 20 years, phoned me up one evening and aksed me to volunteer. I told him I was concerned about my safety in the neighborhood.
"Peter MacNaughton is scared to come into a black neighborhood, now? What's happening, man? You turn into a sissy?"
I rode the funky old Illinois Central electric train from the Loop. The South Chicago branch runs down the middle of 71st Street like an ancient interurban electric. The train glided past the old South Shore Country Club, once the jewel of the neighborhood. Andre, my first, and, as it turned out, my only student, welcomed me that wintry Saturday morning.
I more or less jogged the long block from the station to the school's storefront. The homeless tended to cluster in the entryways of apartment buildings in the neighborhood. Young men openly sold drugs on the corner, yelling "Rock and blow."
The South Shore neighborhood had seen successive waves of ethnic groups move southward from places like Washington Park. Originally a middle class Anglo-Saxon neighborhood, it had been overrun by the Irish, German and Russian Jews, then middle class African Americans. It had most recently been inherited by the African American lumpenproletariat. Terrified of the neighborhood's inhabitants, I found it reassuring to have a tall, good-looking teenaged kid welcome me without reservation..
"Good morning, Mr. MacNaughton. I'm Andre Boyd. Can I get you a cup of coffee?"
Andre didn't fit my racist preconceived notion of a poor ghetto kid who had dropped out of high school because of the Third World style poverty that existed on the South Side. He didn't have a trace of a street accent. He didn't wear garish and baggy street clothes or gang colors. And he was polite.
As I got to know him over the next few Saturday mornings that Winter, I found Andre didn't really need any tutoring. His grasp of mathematics exceeded my own, and his scientific knowledge had definitely reached broader vistas than my own. In fact, during a couple of our sessions he took me upstairs to the new agency's office and taught me how to construct a data base with a computer.
"So, what the hell are you doing here, Andre? You're better educated than me. You don't need a teacher."
"I made a deal with my father. If I promised to get drug rehab and take a high school equivalency class, my father agreed to pay my apartment rent. If I go to the college he wants, he'll pay me an allowance."
"What does your old man do for a living?"
"Oh, he's the deputy director of a State of Illinois transportation agency. He works in the Loop. My mother is a lawyer."
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