Saving the School (cont.)
She wanted a neighborhood public school, open to all, with dances and crowded bleachers, band performances and yearbooks, Pan-American clubs and teachers who brought books alive. She wanted to restore the school to its founding ideal, its place at the center of something defined only by itself. She wanted to reach out into the middle schools, into the neighborhoods, into homes and families to make people believe in the school again so maybe the cycle would end. She wanted love and expectations.
For one more year, then, win or lose, Reagan High would become it had always been, what every American high school had once been, a wild, confused and conflicted ecosystem of aspiring athletes, musicians, scientists, mathematicians, auto mechanics, doctors, lawyers, janitors, housewives, programmers, criminals, maids, pilots, writers, financiers, nurses and cetera, a population suspended in mid-metamorphosis, hormones raging, teeming with divisions of race and class, religion and ambition, money and no money, united in an increasingly fragmented age by accident of geography, thrown together to receive the sculpting blows of four awful, unforgettable and dizzying years.
And in that mix, bopping down the hall, earbuds in, a head above the crowd, Anabel saw something she could use.
"I don't know what has made JQ JQ, but I see leadership potential in him," she said. "He doesn't see it in himself yet. He's doing it for himself ... He doesn't have to be a man of many words; he just has to communicate to others."
Off the field, JaQuarius preferred to watch. He'd learned a lot that way, by watching. He'd watched his older cousins play football. He'd watched his mother give birth to his younger sister while she was still a teenager herself, then to two more boys in the next four years. Moving the family from Abilene to Austin, where her own mother lived, she'd found work as a home health aide, taken up with a roofer who wore a cheek tattoo and enrolled her children in the public schools.
New to the Eastside, one of the biggest kids at Pearce Middle School, JaQuarius had starred at running back. Trouble noticed soon enough. The summer before seventh grade he got arrested in a big brawl at Highland Mall, where somebody was showing a pellet gun around. As he told it, his night in jail was a turning point: His mother was mad and hurt, and he knew she'd been struggling all her life and he shouldn't have been adding to her troubles.
JaQuarius hadn't figured all that out on his own, though. The middle school basketball coach, who'd been trying to get him to join the team for a year, started talking about what a shame it would be to waste great talent with bad decisions. The compliment connected; JaQuarius joined the middle school basketball team, where Alex Parish and Brandon Golden and Jerold Hill and Willie Powell already had a tight bond. JaQuarius elevated their game with his size and athleticism, but they were all going to Reagan, where the basketball coach was promising playing time. JaQuarius had to think it over. Most of his football teammates were going to L.B.J. High, where the Jaguars had just made the playoffs with six athletes selected as first team all-district. The L.B.J. freshman squad was bound for even bigger things, stocked with kids who would eventually sign up to play for Georgia Tech, Texas Tech and the Air Force Academy. And L.B.J. was rated academically acceptable, so there was no risk of getting shuffled across town just when scouts were starting to notice.
On the other hand, maybe JaQuarius could stand out playing against L.B.J. And of course there was Ashley Brown.
"Don't follow me. Do what you got to do, and I'll do what I got to do." That was what JaQuarius had always told her, all the way back to junior high. Ashley usually called him JaQuarius, not JQ; she had high expectations for him too. That was why she'd agreed to go out with him even though he was a year younger and, she claimed, not very handsome. Their first encounter was less than romantic. The girls were playing basketball against the boys in the Pearce Middle School gym, things got out of hand and he gave her a slap. She told the girl he was seeing, Dominique, that she'd better get her man in line, but Dominique didn't respond in a manner she found satisfactory, so the next time the girls and boys played basketball Ashley gave JaQuarius a slap herself. Ashley would remember it all vividly for years; JaQuarius would just say he was pretty low in seventh grade.
Later on, at a party, one of her girlfriends passed along the information that JaQuarius liked her, to which Ashley said: "I don't care; he's ugly." She thought little of it until JaQuarius and a boy named Michael each asked for her phone number in close enough succession that she suspected they'd made some sort of wager. Eventually she gave the number to JaQuarius. She liked the athletic body type for sure, and JaQuarius seemed ambitious. She liked that too.
There was never any question Ashley was going to Reagan, even though her freshman year in 2006-07 coincided with the state labeling the school academically unacceptable. Her mother, La'Quisha, had graduated with the class of '93, and her aunts and uncles had gone to Reagan too. The Lady Raiders track squad had won state in 2000, and coach Leslie Riggins was still taking girls to the big meet most years. Being an athlete made Ashley popular, and being a pretty one made her more popular, not that she cared about any of that. She cared about the feeling she got when she was running: Stress-free. Grades came pretty easily, but running was the only time she stopped stressing about whether she was going to see her dad again, or when, and other stuff. She had developed an attitude problem, she was the first to admit. People called her Tough Cookie. She'd get mad about something and the anger would just spray out before she could aim it at the thing she was mad about. Still, she was off to a fine start at Reagan, passing the standardized tests, keeping up her grades and even qualifying for state in the 4x100 relay freshman year. So no matter what he said about not following each other, JaQuarius had enrolled at Reagan too.
The weight of history rested lightly on his shoulders. When JaQuarius spoke of Reagan "back in the day," he meant the depths of 2003, when a girl was stabbed to death in the stairwell, not the glory of '67. He wasn't carrying on anybody's dynasty. He was out to set his own legend, or at least his own course. Before bed he did a hundred pushups. Off-season he lifted weights. Hurt, he performed his assigned rehab. Even in his dispiriting sophomore season, when scouts had ranked the team 927th in the state (and 11,258th in the country), he'd thrown 11 touchdown passes to make first team all-district.
By junior year, football was starting to like a real chance to go to college. His mom understood how things worked. When JaQuarius offered to get a money job, she told him to concentrate on schoolwork and sports. The sports part came easily. Football, basketball, track, football, basketball, track, and when nothing else was going on he joined the golf team (he shot in the low hundreds). School work came less easily. Sometimes math problems looked like they were written in a foreign language, but he worked hard, and his confidence was improving. None of that made him a leader, not at the level of the expectations set when the local newspaper put him on the cover of its sports section. The headline said: "Star Daniels could revive Reagan athletics."
This new season didn't look like much of a revival. In the heat of August, the Raiders traveled to Taylor, an exurban outpost of 15,000, to lose 52-0 to the middling Ducks of Taylor High. Their next five opponents ran up 245 points to the Raiders' 26 (Texas does not adhere to the mercy rules some states use to protect fatigued players). All season the losses came by 35 points or more, except for the hardest one. Playing at home against the winless Vikings of Lanier High, Reagan lost by a margin of less than a touchdown.
When the game ended, JaQuarius dropped to his knees on the turf. What had he gotten himself into? When he looked up, the principal was standing over him, right there on the field, pulling him to his feet. He didn't commit her words to memory, but she did: "The minute you look like you've been defeated, we have no hope," Anabel said. "Because people are looking at you."
Football season couldn't end soon enough, and didn't. The Raiders lost their last game, by 50 points, to the Knights of McCallum High School. JaQuarius had expected to lose to L.B.J. He'd gotten over losing to Lanier. But 70-20? The Knights scored so many touchdowns they had two kickers trading off extra-point duties. JaQuarius kept his cool on the field, but not on his mySpace page, where he called himself the one "that shot or shank a nigga."
Losing to McCallum would have hurt no matter the score. It wasn't because the Raiders had a chance; they didn't. Reagan was ranked last in District 26-4A, behind the sorry Lanier Vikings, behind the hated Jaguars of L.B.J. High, and hopelessly far behind the first-place Knights, who'd made the playoffs every season for the past 17 years.
It wasn't because the Raiders were the sentimental favorite; they weren't. Since the McCallum head coach had died of a heart attack at 63 (an occupational hazard of Texas high school football as real as any concussion), the Knights were fixed for pep talk fodder, magnets for maudlin sports page copy and playing the way only teenage boys wearing a dead man's initials on their helmets can play.
And it wasn't because the Knights were a traditional rival; they weren't. McCallum kids looked forward to playing Travis High every year for the right to keep Old Locomotive Bell No. 988 in the school trophy case. Reagan kids looked forward to the annual showdown against L.B.J. at Nelson Field, the home stadium they begrudgingly shared.
It wasn't really even because of football.
It was because McCallum was choking Reagan to death.
Reagan High was used to losing talent to the far-flung exurbs, academic and athletic alike. The most striking example was Reggie Brown, a star linebacker in the 1990s who earned a scholarship to Texas A&M, signed with the Detroit Lions and then bought his mother a house north of town in Pflugerville. His younger brother, Michael Johnson, played for Pflugerville High, not Reagan, before going on to the Super Bowl with the New York Giants.
Black flight wasn't much different from white flight. Families that could afford to move out of the city took their property tax dollars with them. The district had to spread around the budget impact, and come Election Day the mayor had to deal with it and the city council and everybody.
But McCallum was just three miles west, drawing kids with good standardized scores, ambitious parents and reliable transportation right across the interstate. The trickle became a stream in 2006, when the state education agency pronounced Reagan academically unacceptable. McCallum wasn't just winning money and resources by producing high-caliber students. McCallum was winning high-caliber students by producing money and resources.
And so on a warm Friday night in November, with a light breeze blowing south across the field, the Knights of McCallum -- the academically acceptable home of the city's Fine Arts Academy, where teachers earned $1,896 more on average than Reagan's for their 14 years average experience to the Reagan staff's nine, and where twice as many students were enrolled -- beat JaQuarius Daniels and the Raiders by beating Reagan High School, first at the standardized tests, then in the pay stubs, then on the real estate brochures and finally on the field, by seven touchdowns, each more humiliating than the last.
A week later, with another winless season on the books, Anabel Garza walked the halls, dressed in the school colors, smiling wide, stopping to inspect a big green tomato in the garden she'd planted to spruce up the courtyard. In a history classroom, she handed a boy in the front row a hall pass to her office.
"We got some talking to do?" the boy asked. "I'm in trouble?"
Turning on the heel of a sensible flat, Anabel gave a wink but no explanation. In the hall, she selected two Latino boys for hall passes. Outside she came across a football player called Morgan showing off to some girls.
"Don't make me break this up," Anabel said, handing Morgan a hall pass. She was gone by the time he understood he'd been summoned.
"Aw, I don't want to go talk to Ms. Garza," Morgan complained.
Anabel gave JaQuarius a hall pass too. She didn't say anything about what he'd written on his mySpace page.