Lost and Found
My Name Is…
Partners in Crime
Mr. Cohen Can Play
Breakfast in Desk
Elements of the Universe
Court's In Session
Shot In the Dark
Limping Through Life
Blame It on the Funk
Lost and Found
My father was gunned down when I was five
years old. Seeing him lying there in that coffin was so
spooky that the image has haunted me my whole life. I
never had the chance to say goodbye to him and
barely even had the opportunity to say hello.
Being an undercover cop had its advantages for
my dad, Dennis Mitchell. He grew up in Oakland,
California in the late 1960‟s as a member of the Black
Panthers. The Panthers were the black community‟s
answer to oppression and injustice. In the early 1970‟s
he moved from the city by the bay to Harlem, New
York. The purpose of this exodus was to bolster the
Panthers presence in New York‟s premier African
A few years after he arrived at 135th Street, dad
met my mother, Angela, at a Panther rally. A year later
they had Malcolm, their first child, who was named
after Malcolm X. Shortly after Malcolm arrived in the
world, Dennis Mitchell married Angela Baines. With the
glory days now fading in the glow of Harlem, my family
picked up and moved to a new community on Long
Island called Branchville. With the promise of a new
career in law enforcement waiting for my dad and a
new house to live in, the family had come a long way
from the tension-filled, big city streets.
My parents had three more kids in seven years,
ending in the early 1980‟s, as Rosa, Martin, and finally
Julia were brought into the world. Rosa was named for
Rosa Parks; Martin got his name from Martin Luther Ling;
and Julia was coined in love for Diahann Carroll‟s TV
character bearing the same name. With four kids and
barely enough room for everyone in the house, my
mom‟s baby making days seemed to be over.
A decade went by and the family was flourishing.
My dad worked his way up the ranks and out of the
shadows and dangers of undercover work into a
coveted position of Captain. After his last undercover
operation in the early 1990‟s, he and my mom spent a
few days getting reacquainted. Nine months later, I
was born with the name Darius Theo Mitchell. The
name Darius was an original concoction, but Theo was
taken directly from the son on The Cosby Show, who I
grew to appreciate by watching Nick At Night reruns.
Being an “Oops!” baby didn‟t exactly give me the
explosive head start I needed in life. The one
advantage I did have was that my dad was around a
lot more than he was when my brothers and sisters
were growing up. Working nine to five instead of being
away from the family weeks at a stretch left my dad
with a lot of free time. Luckily, I was the immediate
beneficiary of that extra time.
My dad must have felt some guilt about not
having spent so much quality time with my brothers
and sisters. He would take me to the park when I was
real small, and then we went to a few basketball
games together once I was out of diapers. By the time
I realized who my father was and what he meant to
me, he was gone. I heard people talking about an
“old score” that a few local drug dealers wanted to
settle with him. Seems that dad had infiltrated their
operation and the dealers served about ten years of
hard time for their indiscretions.
I still remember the night he left us like it was
yesterday. We had just walked back from watching
Branchville High School beat its archrival Pritchett High
School in a basketball game. Branchville High was
down the block from our house and so was the local
elementary school I was going to attend the following
year. As we were walking into the house my dad told
me to go inside, and he went to set up the lawn
sprinkler in front of the house.
Just as my mom asked me about the game, we
heard the roar of an engine barreling down the street.
My dad must have heard it too, because he was
reaching for the gun in his ankle holster before the car
had approached our house. His nine-millimeter was no
match for the machine guns these guys were packing.
Instead of trying to run into the house and jeopardize
his family, Dennis Mitchell became a hero on his front
lawn. The sprinkler he just turned on washed away
much of the blood trickling out of his new holes, but
failed to wash away the memories of my main man: my
The pain of my father‟s death extended way
beyond my little head; my mother received a huge
sum of money from the state and the police
department. She proceeded to live the good life and
leave me behind. The subsequent virtual passing of my
mother exacerbated the grief of losing my father. She
had no time or energy left for me and I was on my own.
The years rolled by between kindergarten and the
end of fourth grade. Being a kid that was always
surrounded by women of color at home, it was a
surprisingly easy transition to be bossed around by a
bunch of uptight white ladies at school. The sound of a
woman‟s voice seemed to connect to some sort of
obedience mechanism in my brain. Conversely, the
sound of a man‟s voice never made it past the outer
reaches of my ears. It would sound interesting to say
that male speech went in one ear and out the other,
but the noise was deflected even before it had a
chance to be processed.
I was like a wild Mustang running with no sense of
control or purpose. Once my sister Julia graduated
from Branchville High School, she was home about as
often as my mom. Being a fourth grader with a key
and an empty house gave me license to do just about
anything I damned pleased. My life had come a long
way from park strolls and basketball games with my
Looking back on my life in those days is often
painful and a constant reminder of the person I might
have become -- the person I might have become if not
for Mr. C. Lucas Cohen picked up where my dad left
off. He cared about me even after I no longer cared
about myself. What I had lost he had found. What I
had forgotten he had remembered. What I couldn‟t
see he clearly stated. Without Mr. C I would no longer
be living on this earth. I would have been just another
punk who had a death wish. Dying time will come, but
I have plenty of living to do before that fateful day.
The summers are really hot and humid in New
York. The humidity clings to your body like a sopping
wet t-shirt. The heat also has a way of turning boredom
into trouble for the small, deviant minds of ten year-old
boys. My crew and me were growing and we were
bad, in every sense of the word.
I used to hang out with two guys – one guys name
was Edgar Ellison, or Easy E as we called him; the other
dude was simply known as Beast – this brother was as
wild as he was strong. I was never really sure of his full
name because we didn‟t go to the same school. In
fact, I don‟t even know if he went to school. Someone
once told me his name was Harold, but I didn‟t dare
call Beast by his formal name in fear that I would get
beat down. My nickname was D Mitch, but Beast just
called me D.
Easy E, Beast, and me made quite the trio of
trouble. I was the brains, Easy E had arms like an
octopus, and Beast was the muscle in case we got in
trouble. Beast always had some level of protection for
us when we walked around; he carried anything from a
screwdriver to a piece of broken glass but we always
knew we were safe when he was around.
One liquid August afternoon we took our usual
stroll up to the Korean market about half-a-mile from
my house. We had a few close calls with the owner of
the store, but enjoyed the challenge that the market
presented us. This guy had seen every trick in the book;
he even saw through my distraction tactics of asking
questions while my friends use their five-finger discounts
to get us some snacks.
We were out of tricks and out of money, but we
were going to try to rob the vault with little more than
speed, strength, and my devious mind. It was about
100 degrees outside and it had to be at least 110 inside
of the store. I was tempted to crawl inside of the small
soda refrigerator just to get some relief from the heat.
The three of us worked the store pretty good – stuffing
drinks and chips in our pants and shirts. We were about
to leave when this huge white guy walked in, blocking
any sun that was beaming through the swinging front
I thought Larry Bird‟s entrance would be the
diversionary tactic that we needed to escape, so I
motioned over to E and Beast that it was time to go.
We quickly shuttled toward the door but were blocked
by the owner, Mr. Morioto, who somehow had beaten
us to the door. I swear I never saw the man move but
he was so quick that any escape attempt on our part
seemed pointless. Morioto yelled, “You punks rob me
for last time! I call police!” E said, “Easy, Mr. Miyagi,”
making a reference to the wise Asian man in The
Just as Beast was about to pull something
dangerous from his pocket, the big white dude spoke.
“Excuse me, sir. I just wanted to pay for all of our stuff.”
He looked at me and said, “Bring all of your stuff up
here so we can get back to school.” My friends and I
looked at each other in shock as we slowly moved up
to the front counter. Mr. Morioto said to the man,
“What are you doing with hoodlums?” The white guy
responded, “They‟re n my class as part of a summer
program. I‟m sorry I should have told you when we
walked in.” He then nodded at me like he wanted to
know my name. I whispered, “Darius.” He then said,
“Darius, make sure you and the guys get a few candy
bars, too. We don‟t want you guys running out of
energy this afternoon. We have a lot of work to do.”
We grabbed three or four candy bars each until
the white man gave us a look and put up two fingers.
He then asked Mr. Morioto for a lottery ticket and then
gave it back to him once it was printed, “That ticket is
for you. Thank you for your help. C‟mon guys, let‟s go.”
We left the store and walked toward the man‟s
blue PT Cruiser; he got in the car, rolled down his
window, looked at us seriously and said, “Next time
don‟t be so obvious.” We exchanged slaps and the
man stuck out his left fist and I banged my right fist on
his in affirmation. As he drove away I thought, “Who
was that tall white dude and why was he in
That was the first time I met Mr. C; he was on a
break from new teacher training and he came over to
the store to get a bite to eat. Little did I know what
awaited me a few weeks later when school started?
Destiny had a way of setting me up for things before I
even knew what was happening. Easy E, Beast, and
me talked about getting away with stealing stuff from
Mr. Morioto all day. The extra bonus that the Candy
Man threw into our bounty, made our getaway even
sweeter. Little did I know that nothing in life is handed
to you for free – there is always some price to pay
down the road. But, for one shining moment, I was
enjoying being a kid who could do no wrong… or was
that do no right?
My Name Is…
The summer seemed to drag on as slowly as a
Social Studies lesson. With the month of August moving
off into the blazing sunset, it was time to get my groove
on and head back around the corner to school. Fifth
grade would be my last year at Acorn Road
Elementary School, and would signal the end of my not
so innocent youth.
I had spent so much time at the school during the
summer when the air was calm and the spaces were
wide open. Workmen had built an overhang to protect
the kids in the portable classrooms from being rained
and snowed on as they traveled to the main building;
me, E and Beast often sat in the shady steps right in
front of my new class. I was in the front of the line that
first day for Mr. Cohen‟s class. Not that I knew who Mr.
Cohen was, or what torture he had foolishly signed up
for. As the line for my class grew longer, I could sense
that this would be a memorable year. It was like
someone picked all of the bad kids and put them
together in one class. I smiled as the other fifth grade
classes looked at us both in horror and relieved
I was talking to my friend Vernon, when the line
suddenly grew quiet and everybody looked up. I was
laughing as I turned directly into the bottom of a large
rib cage. I looked up and saw a slightly familiar white
man staring down at me with a big smile. He beamed
and said for the class to hear, “Darius my man, this is
your lucky day!”
Embarrassment and I were the worst of friends. I
didn‟t like it when somebody made me look like a fool
in front of my friends. While it was cool what the big
white dude did at Mr. Morioto‟s store, this was school
and it was my turf. The teacher led us into the
classroom and we looked up at the board for our
He waited for everyone to nestle into their
wooden desks before introducing himself, “My name is
Mr. Cohen, but you can call me Mr. C.” He then wrote
his name on the board and kept talking, “This is the first
year for me as a teacher and, by the looks of this class,
I‟m hoping it won‟t be my last. I expect you to come
prepared to work every day, because I will be
presenting the material a little different than what you
have become accustomed to at Acorn Elementary.
We have 24 students in this class that I expect to be
freethinking individuals. While we will do many tasks
together, I want your creativity to be the dominant
force. Be respectful but don‟t ever act like a robot.
Now that you know what I‟m about, let‟s go around the
room and hear your stories.”
One person after another babbled on and told
their names and life stories. Every other teacher I‟ve
ever had would have cut each person off after only
about a minute; Mr. C. gave each student between
five and ten minutes to exhaust his or her tension.
Twenty-three people and a few hours later, it was
finally my turn to speak. Before I had a chance to
open my mouth Mr. C. interjected, “There won‟t be any
„My name is‟ with this last speaker. Class, this is Mr.
Darius Mitchell. Mr. Mitchell, this is the class.” I felt both
embarrassed and special at the same time. While just
about everyone in the class knew me, I felt a great
deal of pressure to live up to the expectations of my
words. I think Mr. C. sensed my anxiety and he helped
me through my ten minutes of fame.
In my five previous years at Acorn Elementary I
was never made to feel anything more than average.
Occasionally I would get a B on a test or a project, but
no teacher ever gave me a second chance. Mr.
Cohen saw right through my ordinary student smoke
screen and helped me clear the fog that surrounded
From the way I am talking, it sounds like it was all
smooth sailing from the moment I walked into that class
-- it took quite some time for the two of us to achieve a
harmonious balance -- proving once again that
nothing good comes easy.
The one mistake that Mr. Cohen made was that
he was trying to be so supportive that we took
advantage of his generosity. To be honest, that‟s what
kids do if you don‟t set some kind of limits for them. Mr.
C. often talked to me about the guidance he got from
fellow teachers and administrators. Among the gems
of advice included, “Don‟t smile until Christmas” and
“Give them so much homework in the beginning that
their heads will explode.” I couldn‟t imagine Mr. C. not
smiling at some point in the day. I‟m not really sure how
he stopped himself from exploding, but he managed to
make it through that year without completely melting
There wasn‟t a day that went by during that first
month of school that I didn‟t test Mr. Cohen. The funny
thing was that he was testing me right back. I had
finally met my match on the stubborn scale; Mr. C. was
determined to break down my walls and unlock the
riches in my protected mind, but I had other ideas.
I waited a few weeks before I told Mr. C. about
the death of my father. He told the class that he was a
big kid and that he loved being with us – but the real
reason he became a teacher was because his wife
had passed away a few years prior to becoming a
teacher. I identified with his loss and instantly latched
on to his unwavering spirit. I could sense that he was
hurting inside but he wouldn‟t let us into that world. He
told us “You have to be able to separate the
professional from the personal in your life.” There was
nothing that wasn‟t personal about Mr. Cohen‟s
professional life. He treated all of us like we were part
of his extended family. We all could have used a good
ass-wupping every once in a while, though.
That first month was rough; the classroom became
sort of a battlefield because Mr. C. was giving us room
to be ourselves. We had never been in a classroom
where our thoughts were listened to; life before that
was all about learning random facts and winning
useless certificates for good behavior. We must have
changed the configuration of our desks at least once a
week in the beginning. With relationships shifting almost
every time we stepped in the room, it was difficult to
find a group of four or five people you got along with
at any given time.
All of the fifth graders had to take a big state
Social Studies test In November. That didn‟t give us
much time to get to know each other and also put in
the hard work needed to do well on the exam. Mr. C.
would say almost every day, “I‟m not changing what
we are doing for a test. I have a responsibility to
prepare you guys for the future, not just the present.
While the other three fifth grade classes studied Social
Studies facts for at least three or four hours a day, we
did our usual one hour per day.
At first, I questioned Mr. C.‟s methods; I think the
whole class was wondering what he was doing. We
weren‟t used to a balanced attack; whenever we had
a major test in a subject, the preparation was usually
exhaustive. I remember giving Mr. Cohen a real hard
time during those first few months. I made sure the
majority of his lessons were as broken as my heart. I
clung to Mr. C. at every opportunity but made him
suffer when I thought he wasn‟t paying enough
attention to me.
Mr. Cohen said to us often “When you sit down to
take this test, I want you attack it. I have found when
you walk into a test and you‟re afraid, you have no
chance to succeed. Failure always comes to people
that look for it; we are all winners in this class. There is
no reason to fear a simple test – I will give you the tools
to succeed and all you will have to do is listen and
execute the plan. I was a poor test taker most in my life
because I wasn‟t focused. You will be focused
because nobody outside of this classroom thinks you
can do this.” It was a classic Us Against the World
speech that hit home for a group of cast-offs that were
used to finishing second best.
Partners In Crime
It seemed the closer Mr. C. and I became, the
more I tried to push him away. It usually didn‟t take this
much effort to separate myself from the average adult.
However, as disappointed as Mr. Cohen was at my
attempts, he kept coming back stronger and stronger
ever day. That was, until I joined forces with my new
buddy Javon Trumane.
Javon wasn‟t your average fifth grade student. In
fact, his diminutive size put him closer to the average
height of a second or third grader. But, what J Bug
lacked in height he made up in guts. He was the
toughest kid in our school, but that didn‟t stop other
stronger, bigger kids from beating him up every day.
It was natural for Javon and me to be friends. He
had a special talent of getting under people‟s skin and
I could look into anyone‟s eyes and influence their
judgment. I remember this one time when I was called
down to the Vice Principal‟s office. Mrs. Daniels was a
large, Nubian princess who was the main authority
figure in our school; Principal Lewis was the white
figurehead, while Mrs. D did all of the dirty work and
kept all of his hoodlums in line.
Mr. Cohen was in Mrs. Daniels‟ office talking to her
about his unruly mob. Mrs. D. asked him, “Who is this
boy named Darius Mitchell in your class? You‟re not
going to believe this, but I had four girls in my office the
other day because they were fighting. I asked them
why they were fighting and they said, „Darius Mitchell.‟
I have to see this for myself.” Mrs. Daniels picked up the
phone and called the gym and had me sent down to
I walked into the small office and looked at Mr. C,
who put his head down and smiled. While my pearly-
white smile and riveting hazel eyes might have cast a
spell on every female within a 30-mile radius, it did little
to make my teacher‟s legs weak. Mrs. Daniels took one
look at me and told me to go back to the gym. She
waited a few seconds, changed her work voice to a
more casual tone and said, “That boy‟s has gorgeous
eyes.” I think I even saw Mrs. D. fighting with a few of
those girls the next day on the playground.
Rumor had it that my man Javon had a chemical
imbalance. We always knew he was a bit volatile, but
none of us thought that it would go as far as him
needing medication to balance his brain waves.
Javon lived with his grandmother, who was in a wheel
chair, and his little brother. Dispensing medication
wasn‟t the first thing that crossed Mrs. Horton‟s mind
every morning. It took her at least ten minutes to get
out of bed and climb into her chair. By the time she
emerged from her room, Javon had already eaten a
donut and was well on his way to school.
Medicine that was previously distributed twice
daily by the school‟s nurse was now given first thing in
the morning in a time-released formula. Forgetting to
take the medicine each morning slowed the release of
the feel good formula to never.
We all knew each morning whether Javon had
remembered to take the medication before he left his
house. I could tell by the look in his eyes whether I
could leverage his instability for my own pleasure and
gain. Javon and I were literally partners in crime,
leaving destruction and devastation in our path. Mr. C
decided to separate us from the rest of the class, but all
he did was give me the chance to create even more
With J Bug directly in front of me, my thoughts
were focused on directing him toward the most
unusual of stunts. There was this one morning when we
finished a lesson and Mr. Cohen had us work in groups.
The activity was a little slow, so I told Javon to do a flip
on to the carpet in the middle of the class. Before I
knew it my words were quickly turned into action;
Javon had jumped onto a chair and quickly bent his
knees and then headed airborne into the thin air of the
The thud of Javon landing flat on his back
resonated through the class like an earthquake. He
had every intention of doing a flip but only made
about halfway around. Mr. C looked at Javon in
amazement as he jumped up off the carpet as quickly
as he had hurled himself into the air. We all got a good
laugh at flying J Bug’s expense, and then quickly got
back to business. We had become used to his zany
antics and didn‟t let any of his moments last any longer
than were necessary.
Most of my ideas about stirring up trouble were
pretty tame; that was until I came up with the mother
of all pranks. I was pretty disturbed at Mr. Cohen for
not agreeing with me in class the previous day. He
asked the class, “If you could go out to eat with
anyone, who would it be?” We were doing a history
lesson, but the answers were anything but historical. He
probably expected answers like “Harriet Tubman” or
“George Washington,” but what we heard was more
like “50 Cent” and “B2K.” My answer was sweet and
simple; “I would go out to dinner with my dad.” I then
asked Mr. C who he would go out with and when he
hesitated, I said “Wouldn‟t you want to go out with your
wife?” He tried to avoid the issue but I pressed him for
an answer, “Don‟t you miss your wife?” Mr. Cohen had
talked about getting remarried, and he even had a
picture of his new wife on his desk. Since I hadn‟t
moved on, why had he? I didn‟t think he ever gave
me an answer, and it was one of the rare occasions
when he didn‟t have an opinion.
Mr. Cohen‟s silence fed my lack of clarity of my
own situation. I figured that it was better to have a
wallowing partner than one who could so easily move
on from tragedy. I was in rare form the next morning
and was planning to do something big to get Mr. C‟s
attention. With Javon as my vehicle and rage as my
ally, it would be a day that none of us in Room 232
would ever forget.
We were in the middle of another long, slow
Social Studies lesson, when I looked across at Javon
and noticed something shiny sticking out of his pocket.
From the looks of Javon‟s wild eyes, it had been a few
days since he had taken a hit of that mood-softening
medicine. I motioned to him to show me what he had
in his pocket and he pulled at a metal protractor.
When the metal glistened from the fluorescent
classroom lights, I flashed back to the summer and the
way Beast was able to turn virtually any item into a
weapon. I have regretted what happened next ever
since it occurred.
Mr. Cohen was up at the board with his back to
us, writing down a few things for us to focus on in the
chapter. I smiled and motioned to Javon to get up
and stab Mr. C with the protractor. He got to his feet
quickly – Javon did everything quickly – and stabbed
Mr. Cohen in the right side of his lower back. Javon
removed the pointy end of the protractor and dropped
it on the floor. He ran back to his seat and started
crying as Mr. C gently grabbed his back. He walked
over to his phone and quietly called the main office, so
that the Vice Principal and the nurse could come to
Mrs. Daniels came to get Javon and check on Mr.
Cohen. It was time for recess so the class filed out to
the playground and Mr. C. and some of my classmates
quickly told Mrs. Daniels what had happened and he
then walked to his car to go to a nearby clinic.
That was the longest lunch hour of all time! I felt
so guilty at first that I couldn‟t focus; about midway
through recess, the guilt was replaced by sadness. I
asked one of the aides if I could go to the bathroom,
and I then proceeded to cry in the bathroom for the
next ten minutes.
Why did I want to hurt someone I had such strong
feelings for? Did I get rid of the one person that
actually cared about me? I made sure that no one
knew that I was crying before returning to recess. The
whole class was depressed at lunch and Mrs. Daniels
ushered all of us into the vacant gym to have a talk.
We all couldn‟t believe what had happened, but
nobody knew that I was just as much to blame as
Javon. Mrs. Daniels told us that Principal Lewis had
suspended Javon indefinitely, pending a hearing on
whether he would be sent to an alternative school.
We all wanted to know if Mr. Cohen would be our
teacher for the rest of the year. Mrs. Daniels did not
know Mr. C‟s status and if he would be healthy enough
to return. By the end of lunch, we were picked up by
one of the aides and brought back to our classroom.
As we walked into our classroom we were shocked at
what we saw; Mr. Cohen was in front of the classroom
writing the afternoon‟s lesson on the board. He was
wearing the same white dress shirt and there was a
bloodstain over the spot where Javon had stabbed
him. I‟m sure he could have changed his shirt but
knowing Mr. Cohen, he was wearing the shirt to prove
The weapon‟s point missed puncturing Mr.
Cohen‟s kidney by a fraction of an inch. He got
patched up, got a few tetanus shots and was back
fighting the good fight within the hour. I walked up to
the front of the class, gave him a hug, and whispered,
“I‟m sorry.” Mr. Cohen bent down and whispered in my
ear, “Next time we both might not be so lucky.”
I remember that I ran and ran for miles through
the streets of my neighborhood that afternoon. Not
only wasn‟t I sure what I was running from, I also had no
idea where I was going. I was completely lost in
recognizable territory, but had no idea how to get
I saw Mr. Cohen‟s familiar PT Cruiser rolling down
toward me and I waved my hands for him to stop. The
car came to a stop and the driver-side window
gradually rolled down. Mr. Cohen smirked at me and I
slowly stuck my head in his car until my forehead
connected with his; we banged fists and I then
punched my hand to my chest, put my head down
and walked away. That man did care for me but I
wasn‟t sure how to return the favor. What if something
happened to him just like it did to my dad? It
frightened me to see blood on his shirt – I‟ll never forget
the image of my dad‟s bloodied body on our front
lawn. The image comes to me almost every time I
close my eyes at night, or I see blood.
I wish I could have jumped into Mr. C‟s car that
day and escaped from that place – even if it was for a
few minutes, or an hour, or for a few days. What I‟ve
learned is that you can‟t run from your past, because it
will hunt you down like an angry mob. No matter how
fast I ran, my inner demons would always be a few
steps ahead of me.
Mr. Cohen Can Play
I love basketball more than anything else in the
whole world. The only things that can deflect my
attention away from playing ball are girls. Girls and
basketball must have been ingrained in my head at an
early age, because my dad used to point out both the
finer points of the game and the finest cheerleaders.
The apple didn’t fall far from that tree.
It was plain to see that Mr. Cohen was a tall, white
man. The way I saw it was not only can‟t white men
jump; they also have no basketball skills. I also thought
that girls were put on this earth to drive me crazy. All
right, that second one was right but Mr. C put that first
one to rest one afternoon in the gym.
Mr. Cohen never missed an opportunity to make
our day more interesting. Simple things such as a few
extra minutes on the playground or going to gym class
while the previous class was still outside, gave us
additional chances to blow some steam off. Mr. C was
walking over to the sidelines when I called out his name
and threw him a basketball. Without hesitation, he
turned and shot the ball through the hoop and then sat
down on a stack of gym mats. One lucky shot did not
convince me that Mr. C could play basketball. I called
him out to play one-on-one with me and he happily
I have never played against someone who knew
my every thought before I had chance to react. I tried
to embarrass Mr. C by dribbling through his legs on the
first move but he stole the ball before I had a chance
to collect the ball behind him. He said, “You didn‟t just
try to put the ball though my legs.” Then he talked as
he shot the ball, “You‟re gonna‟ have to come out
here and play me.” The ball swished through the net as
he finished talking. For a change, I was speechless. Mr.
Cohen had proved his point, but I knew he let me score
a bunch of times. I really can‟t remember who won the
game; in fact, I don‟t think our game was about
keeping score. It was so much fun competing against
somebody who knew how to play, and Mr. Cohen
The other kids in the class smiled at the sight of
their teacher playing with them. I took his participation
to a completely higher level. This was a man who got
me – who felt my pain and did everything in his power
to ease my brain burden.
Mr. Cohen would usually let us out five or ten
minutes early for recess. Sometimes he would follow us
to the basketball court on the playground and even up
the sides a bit. The funny thing was that Mr. C and I
never played on the same team. He very rarely shot
the ball, preferring to give kids a chance to shoot that
rarely could create their own shots. The more we
played with Mr. C, the more I felt my game changing.
Before we met, my game consisted of breaking down
the defense with my Allen Iverson-inspired crossovers.
As the weeks went by I found new joy in passing and
bringing my teammates along for the ride. As long as
the ball was in my hands it was my choice to lead, not
just take for myself. It was easy to get what was mine;
Mr. Cohen taught me that it was all there for me to
take what my opponent gave me. The game and life
were so much easier when I let things come to me,
instead of forcing the action.
Mr. Cohen kept telling the class that he had no
favorites among the 24 kids in his class. However, he
and I shared a connection that went beyond the
average student-teacher relationship. The class used
to go to Computer Lab every Friday after lunch. Mr.
Cohen initially resisted the temptation of letting us go
on the Internet and play our favorite games. He always
went through the motions and gave us some lame
educational assignment, only to give us at least 30
minutes of playtime. It only took a matter of minutes
before Mr. C would pull up a chair and sit next to me.
A few minutes later we were locked up in an epic
battle of Slam Dunk! I was always the brother and Mr.
Cohen was always the vertically challenged white
The action of Slam Dunk! Got so intense that we
often lost track of time. It was a good thing that Mr. C
wasn‟t a scheduling freak, or he would have really
cared if we missed a science lesson, or two. For Mr.
Cohen, school was more about real-life lessons than
facts listed in a textbook.
For me to say that my teacher spent all of his free
time with me would be a false statement. There were
many times that Mr. Cohen circulated throughout the
computer lab and played games against other kids. It
was plain to see how much he enjoyed the interaction
with all of us. We seemed to have our best moments
outside of the limiting confines of the classroom.
Maybe Mr. C felt as uncomfortable as we did in that
class. He often talked about how much he disliked
school, and said he was “here to make the experience
more pleasant for you.” None of us could have argued
Breakfast in Desk
To say that my mother was not a morning person
would be a complete understatement. Come to think
of it, she didn‟t smile much in the afternoon and
evenings, too. I‟m sure that part of my mother died
along with the passing of my dad; a part of all of us
was taken when I heard those thugs barreling down the
street toward our house. I spent at least five years
looking for a reason to carry on and it took me even
longer to stop beating myself up over not being able to
I was constantly disturbed by the memories that
hovered around our house. For most kids, the smile on
their face would mask the pain that was gnawing
away at their insides. My smile was certainly genuine –
too bad for me that it was genuinely a disguise. I rarely
hung around my house, using it only as a place to sleep
and stay out of bad weather. I use to wake up at least
an hour before school started and bolt out of the house
as soon as I was showered and dressed. Eating
breakfast at home was not an option for any of us –
that was dad‟s favorite meal to eat with us. He was
always so busy running around during the day that he
often ate lunch and dinner on the road or grabbed a
bite to eat when he came home late at night. None of
us could stomach sitting at that kitchen table and
facing each other every morning. It became a lot
easier to skip breakfast or grab something quick at 7-
Eleven or Dunkin Donuts.
Even though I wasn‟t a big fan of the learning part
of school, I loved being in school. I used to get there
early and sit on my favorite stoop in front of the class.
One morning I even fell asleep waiting for Mr. Cohen to
show up. I was so small and he was so big that he
scooped me up off the ground and carried me in the
classroom. Good thing no one else was there to see
that. A few minutes later I awoke at my desk with the
blurry sight of Mr. Cohen at the board preparing our
lessons for the day.
Before I could even speak I looked down into my
desk and picked out a box of breakfast cereal with my
right hand. I felt like thanking Mr. C but he played it
cool and went about his business and the other kids
started filtering into the classroom. When things settled
down later that morning I turned to him and said, “Fruit
Loops.” He smiled and replied, “Next time I‟ll go to
I didn‟t go in early every morning looking for food.
Some mornings I was able to fend for myself and eat
leftovers from the night before. Cold pizza tastes a lot
better the piping hot, skin-scalding, greasy pizza. Mr.
Cohen started coming in later and later as the
temperature dropped. It must have been as difficult
for him as it was for me to get out of bed. Besides, it
would become increasingly difficult to fall asleep on
the porch of the class when the temperature dipped
below the freezing mark.
It was a rare occurrence that Mr. Cohen would
say “No” to us. The relationship he had with the class
bordered on abusive, but he could not deny us if the
cause was right. Pretzel and cookie sales were prime
examples of Mr. C‟s generosity. His bigheartedness
must have been contagious because I swear that kids
started to give him things in return.
I remember this one time when some of the
women of the PTA walked into our class in an attempt
to sell the final batch of pretzels from a daylong sale.
There must have been over 30 pretzels on the tray – Mr.
C. said to Mrs. Smith, “How much for the whole tray.”
She told him “15 dollars” and he didn‟t even blink.
Money wasn‟t the issue for him – he always looked past
the money, or the time, or the difficulty, and zoomed in
on a greater good. Buying the tray of pretzels was an
opportunity for Mr. C to support the PTA, but more than
that it was a chance for all of us to interact as people –
not teacher and student. We sat there on the end of
that day and ate pretzels until our stomachs were
about to burst. After he bought us the pretzels, I
whispered in his ear, “You want me to get some
sodas?” I looked at the five-dollar bill in his hand and
slid the green from his fingertips. Little did Mr. Cohen
know that I had pocketed the five spot and lifted some
cold sodas from the cafeteria. At least that‟s what I
thought before he approached me the next day.
“I hope you didn‟t spend all of that money I gave
you yesterday,” Mr. Cohen said in a sarcastic tone. I
shot him an inquisitive look that said “What money?”
but he wasn‟t buying it. “I left ten dollars with the
people in the cafeteria yesterday afternoon after I
realized that you failed to inform anyone that you were
taking the sodas.” Mr. C knew that the money he had
given me was nearly gone and he was going to make
me squirm a bit before letting me off the hook. He
continued talking, “This is why I‟m the teacher and
you‟re the student. You still have a lot to learn, D.M.” I
knew the lecture was over as soon as he called me
D.M. Mr. C wasn‟t my dad but he did know how to get
into my head without laying a hand on me.
It was very comforting to know Mr. Cohen was
thinking about me even when he went home. I would
imagine that he would go to Costco and walk up and
down the aisles for food that would fill the bottomless
pit that was my stomach. Not that I even knew what
the inside of Costco looked like, being that I had never
been inside the warehouse club at the time -- although
I did peak inside one day while riding around the
neighborhood with my Beast and Easy E. It looked like
the inside of a warehouse to me, but it did give me a
good visual when I thought of Mr. C walking around
looking for cereal, or Pop Tarts, or candy, or cookies.
You know, the good stuff.
Mr. Cohen‟s generosity extended far beyond my
classmates and me. He would even give leftover
candy to the smaller kids of our school. They would
crowd around him at the end of the day like bees
buzzing around the hive. Although I didn‟t like sharing
my teacher with other kids, it wasn‟t really up to me
how other kids acted around him. Mr. C was a fun guy
to be around, and he also let me be myself… whoever I
was back then.
Elements of the Universe
Music was always a big part of Mr. Cohen‟s
classroom. He figured that “Music Makes Moods,” and
he never hesitated to slide a CD into his portable player
so we could relax. Whether it was Jay-Z or Andrea
Bocelli, we usually enjoyed any music that took us
outside of the usual day. Our class was anything but
ordinary and our leader wouldn‟t have had it any other
Kids in other classes were always telling our class
that we were “Crazy.” In fact, I think some of the
teachers were starting to question Mr. Cohen‟s unique
methods. Mr. C had met with the parents during
Parent-Teacher conferences and assured all of them
that he “would not forego the children‟s‟ education to
only focus on a Social Studies test. You could feel the
pressure building for the states Social Studies exam, but
somehow Mr. Cohen was able to shield us from the
stress. We didn‟t realize that his methods would
prepare us to take any test, whether it was English, or
Math, or Social Studies.
The first thing Mr. Cohen did was taught us how to
write. Now, we all knew how to write -- we just didn‟t
know how to effectively get our points across. Any
moron can write, but the true test comes if the reader
can stay awake for the duration of your words. Mr. C
was not only teaching us how to open or minds he also
insisted that we open our mouths. Again, we all knew
how to open our mouths, but it became debatable if
anyone wanted to hear what we had to say.
I had become an expert at giving teachers just
what they wanted. It was a rare day when I would give
them any more or any less than what was expected of
me. I knew from the moment I walked into Mr. C‟s
classroom that my days of minimalism had come to an
end… at least for a year.
Simply writing words on a piece of paper were not
good enough for our teacher. He made us divulge our
precious, confused feelings, too. When we used verses
like “I felt bad” or “I felt good” he immediately went
digging for more. The confusing part for us was always
that teachers couldn‟t to put their directions in words
we could understand. Simply telling us to talk about
our feelings never got us to open up. Mr. C told us
repeatedly, “Use you senses people! When you write a
story tell me what you see, what you hear, what you
smell, what you feel through touch, and even what you
taste!” We often questioned the taste part of the
senses package but often explored it as a means to
complete the task.
I had never been able to talk about my dad‟s
death in any other terms than “it hurt.” Yeah, of course
it hurt but the pain went much deeper than a truckload
of mental and physical anguish. My dad‟s dramatic
passing limited so many aspects of my life that I
couldn‟t see the walls that had surrounded me. With a
broken heart and a matching shattered family
structure, I was living a solitary existence that left me
with nowhere to go.
When you don‟t care whether you live or die,
most likely you‟re going to wind up six feet under the
ground with a crappy tombstone. Many of my friend‟s
brothers were the subjects of eulogy after eulogy, and
many of us little thugs in training were following a similar
path toward destruction.
Mr. Cohen tended to keep his emotions in check
while he was with us in the classroom. I guess you
could say that he never got to low or too high while
babysitting us. That‟s not to say that he wouldn‟t smile
a great deal, but I sensed a sadness surrounding him
that he wouldn‟t share with us.
One morning before lunch I wrote an essay about
my dad. I believe the topic of the day was “If you
could change one thing about your life, what would it
be?” We all have things we would change if we had
the ability, but somehow I think he gave us the
assignment to help me open up about my dad. I‟m
here to tell you that talking about the past and virtually
reliving it are two completely different stories.
The thing I‟ll always remember about that day
was how hard I cried when the rest of the class left for
recess and I was alone with Mr. Cohen. It took me the
better part of two hours composing this one page
essay. Mr. C. had sent me back to my desk at least five
times to dig deeper and deeper as I was composing
this tearjerker. Once the classroom cleared out I
handed Mr. Cohen the essay and took a seat across
from his desk. Mr. Cohen took a deep breath and
started to read my words:
I’ll never forget the look in your eyes when we
were together. I wish I could see you now because
being with out you hurts. The pain in my heart hurts so
much sometimes that I think it will explode.
I walk on the front lawn and I still smell the smoking
guns and I see your blood stains on the grass. I can
taste the salt from my tears and every time I hear the
revving of an engine my stomach drops to the ground.
Sometimes I wear your shirts so I can feel you close to
I miss you daddy and I will see you again. I love
Mr. Cohen put the paper down and tears started
streaming from his eyes and down his stubbly cheeks. I
started hysterically crying and jumped into his arms. It
had been a long time since I got a hug from an adult.
He told me, “Everything is going to be all right.
Everything is going to be all right,” and for a few
moments I believed him.
A few weeks and a couple boxes of Kleenex later,
the class devoured the state Social Studies test. Mr.
Cohen told us over and over again that we “had to
attack the test” and “If you walk in thinking you will fail,
you probably will.” We were calm and nothing
surprised us; I didn‟t feel that the other fifth grade
classes were as calm as we were. Pressure from
parents and teachers was intense, and it wasn‟t difficult
for a 10 year-old to crack under the pressure. Mr.
Cohen‟s “Us Against the World” stance worked and we
all did better than expected.
It was amazing that 15 out of 24 of us got a
perfect score on the writing portion of the test. Only
one person in our class got a below average score, but
he was a Special Education student.
Mr. Cohen was so pleased that we did well on the
test that he invited us back to the classroom during
lunch for all of the pizza we could stuff into our faces.
The boxes of Domino‟s were stacked to the ceiling and
our spirits had never been higher. I was standing next
to Mr. Cohen‟s desk when he opened his drawer and
pulled out a CD. He said, “Guys, get ready for the
elements of the universe.” He slid the CD into the
player and the class was immediately sent into an old-
school groove. What had started for me as simply
meeting a white dude who gave us free food turned
into a surreal experience with Mr. Vanilla Funk. The
color of this man‟s skin concealed the depth of this
cocoa brother‟s soul. There was no doubting that the
elements of the universe on this pizza celebration day
were Earth, Wind, and Fire.
It was pretty ironic that I decided to participate in
the play Annie in the spring of my last go-round at
Acorn Road Elementary. I was one of the orphans
singing “It‟s a Hard-Knock Life” and nothing could have
been closer to truth about my world. I was on the fast
track to a thug‟s life and being a virtual orphan left few
obstacles in my path. With my mom rarely around to
keep me in line, it was open season for me to explore
the boundaries of my impending manhood.
I‟ll never forget the look on Mr. C‟s face when I
told him about the gangs in the neighborhood. He
said, “I‟ve been living next door to this town my whole
life, but I never realized that Branchville had gangs. I
detailed for him the constant turmoil between the
Bloods and the Crips, fully thinking that these gangs
were the modern-day version of my dad‟s Black
Panthers. In the traditional East versus West showdown,
the Bloods and Crips gang members were the heroes
of the neighborhood. Once I heard that the Crips were
responsible for gunning down my dad, I knew I would
be in the Bloods for life.
It was a good thing that I didn‟t tell Mr. Cohen
that I was already involved with the Bloods. I could see
that his mind was already on overload about basic
information, so I didn‟t dare tell him that I was already
earning my stripes and working my way into the gang.
It was never too early to start making deliveries or going
on food runs for the guys. My buddy Beast had already
seen action and been stabbed a few times by the time
I became involved.
It was kind of innocent how I got my first taste of
the thug‟s life. I was playing basketball on my street
when I heard the sound of a car with a huge engine
slowly creeping down the street. I immediately had my
dad being gunned down flashback and stood
motionless watching the chrome-rimmed tires spin
down the block. There were four guys in the old
Cadillac convertible, which came to a halt in front of
my house. Three of the guys got out and started to play
basketball with me. The other two kids I was playing
with ran in their houses at the sight of the car. It was like
we were swimming in the ocean and the music from
Jaws started playing when they came by.
I started to relax after a few minutes and even
crossed-up this one skinny dude, Allen Iverson style. I
looked over to the car as this big dude got out and
said, “You‟re D. Mitch‟s boy, ain‟t you? He used to
have that same move when he played against my dad
over at Groves Park.” I nodded my head and the guy
smiled and asked me, “What‟s your name, boy?” I
replied, “Darius.” He laughed and proclaimed, “Look
what we have here. It‟s the second coming of D Mitch,
Deuce Mitch.” I had my first and last gang named
attached to me that day. The big dude, named B Rob
-- „cause his name was Billy Robinson – and sometimes
they called him Big Rob -- led me and his crew over to
my house. We were all facing the front of the house
when he said, “This is your house, right?” I said, “Yeah”
and he continued, “I remember when the Crips did
your dad.” He walked right over to my dad‟s final
resting spot. “D Mitch was a good man. He fought
hard so us brothers could get some power back on the
streets. My dad filled me in when your old man was
killed.” He turned and looked straight into my eyes with
his cold, brown eyes, “That can‟t happen in our house,
right Deuce?” “No sir,” I quickly replied. “You come
see me sometime. I‟ll make sure the Bloods take care
of one of their own.” I nodded as B Rob shook his head
and muttered, “It was a damn shame.”
It didn‟t take long before I paid B Rob and his
boys a visit. Don‟t ask me how I found their hideout – if I
tell you they‟ll come after me. My association with the
Bloods started slowly with food runs and small cash
deliveries. The boys were testing me out at first to see if
I was trustworthy. There were many times that I used
my blazing speed to get away from the Crips chasing
me to steal my stash. My initiation into the thug’s life
was filled with scrapes, bruises, and profitability. Within
three months of joining the Bloods, I no longer had to
worry about stretching mom‟s meal money over the
whole week. B Rob gave me fifty bucks per week,
which worked out to about ten dollars per delivery. The
smell of money was intoxicating and kept me coming
back nearly every day.
My blood money wasn‟t the only thing that
helped make my life easier and more exciting. Word
was getting around school that I had joined a gang
and you know how much the ladies love a dangerous
man. At 11 years old and a diminutive five feet tall, I
was turning the corner quickly from adolescence to
manhood. Although I hadn‟t been a steady drug user,
I did take the occasional toke of a joint every once in a
while. If one of the older guys offered you something,
you either took it or got your butt kicked in. I‟d rather
be floating on a cloud than bloody and bruised any
It seemed that I could fool everyone with bright
smile and sunny personality; everyone except the
person that knew me from the inside out, Mr. Cohen.
He was more concerned with my well being than the
fact that I was living the dangerous life a gang
member. Mr. C. was much more into where my head
was at, and he could tell what I was thinking even
before the thought was formed. Maybe my ideas were
unoriginal -- maybe he had seen it all before -- maybe I
had finally met my match in life.
I was careful to show too much to the white
establishment at school. I‟m not even sure if Vice
Principal Daniels even understood what I was going
through. Although she had the same skin color as most
of us in the neighborhood, she drove her Range Rover
every afternoon out of our world and back into her
upper middle-class existence. I often thought that she
lost touch with who she was; it‟s easy to do that when
you can listen to the birds chirping when you walk
down the street rather than wondering if you‟re going
to make it home safely every day.
I think deep down Mr. Cohen knew that I was
digging a deeper and deeper hole for myself. At the
time, I never even thought I was struggling. In fact, I
viewed my situation as ideal; to be a member of the
greatest gang in the world was both an honor and an
extremely powerful position. No one even bothered to
mess with me at school and all of the girls knew whom
to come to if they wanted some action. I was 11 years
old going on 20 and I never wanted the fast ride to
I used to see my buddy Beast every once in a
while when I hung out at the not-so-secret hideout of
the Bloods. The guy had been with me all summer and,
in only nine short months, had become a full-fledged
member of the gang. He had grown like six inches over
the year and was now 6‟2” and had muscles exploding
from just about every part of his body. Beast must have
been 15 or 16 years old and had me wondering why he
had been hanging out with a 10 year-old kid and his
friend. Beast was the kind of dude who needed to be
pointed in the most efficient direction because he was
born with the brawn not the brains.
I had heard that Beast had been shot at least
three times and managed to walk away with barely a
scratch each time. The guy was a living legend
because he always managed to get the job done no
matter how long the odds were. This version of Beast
was a significantly advanced predator than the one
that had my back over the summer. The one constant
Beast brought to the table was that he had absolutely
no regard for his well being. He would have given his
life to save mine, and he put his life on the line for the
Bloods every day. The guy had dropped out of school,
although I was never convinced that he ever went to
school beyond the first grade.
I was strolling through the neighborhood one
afternoon when I saw Mr. C‟s familiar PT Cruiser rolling
down the street towards me. It was 4:30 and I was in
full Bloods mode and on my way to make a delivery.
He rolled down his window and I leaned in and we
“Hey DM, what‟s up?” Mr. Cohen said.
I looked around and replied, “Not much, just
doing my thang.”
What he said next has stuck with me ever since;
he looked me straight in the eyes and softly said, “If you
ever get in a jam you can‟t get out of, or you just want
to talk outside of school, call me.” He reached over
and tore a page out of his notebook and then
scribbled his number on the piece of paper. I acted all
cool as I stepped away from the car saying, “Ayight,
As his car rolled away from me tears streamed
down the side of my face as the impact of love caused
me to have temporary paralysis. Little did I know that
the pain I was causing my teacher, and my friend, was
equally as debilitating. Little did I know that Mr. Cohen
drove his car around the corner and tears started
flowing out of his eyes, too. You see, as cool as we
both seemed on the outside our insides were like an
active volcano ready to blow at any moment.
In the world of the average man, public
emotional displays are few and far between. We like
to keep every mushy and squishy moment to ourselves;
no matter how much pain it causes us down the line.
Don‟t hate us for it; we feel things just like women, but
we don‟t like to show weakness. Apparently, the only
weakness I showed was anger; I was angry that the
Crips had gunned down my dad and I wouldn‟t rest
until I got revenge. I did keep that piece of paper Mr.
C gave me in my pocket everywhere I went. It made
me feel somewhat comforted to know that he had my
back. The only problem was that if I really got into a
tight spot, his white butt would be the last person that
would be able to pull me out of a black hole.
Court‟s in Session
I love basketball. Back then, basketball was the
only thing I had control over. I could dribble that
basketball like it was dangling from a string connecting
my fingertips to the ground. I could crossover guys
twice my age, just like my idol Allen Iverson. I got so
good at making people look foolish that guys in the
neighborhood would call me A.I.
I could always find moments of calm in my life
and my mind by shooting around by myself. In my
neighborhood, it was pretty tough to find an open
hoop but I took any free shots I could find. The block
where I lived was rarely ever quiet; there were so many
kids always parading around that it was often difficult
to get some privacy.
Mr. Cohen would often look at me when we were
approaching lunchtime. He probably wanted to get
out of that stuffy classroom as much as the rest of us, so
he would give us an incentive to finish our work in a
timely fashion. He was not one for details, so we were
all usually on the playground a good ten minutes
before any other class. This gave us plenty of time to
run our own hoop game before it got too crowded.
Mr. C. always played with the weaker athletes in
our class and I ran with my squad: Jessie, Gonzo, D
Train, and T, who were the only girl on our team.
Tunisia, or T as she was called, was nearly six feet tall
and weighed close to 200 pounds. We figured that she
must have been on the frequent leave back plan
because nobody had ever seen her before the year
Kids in our school had a way of appearing out of
nowhere in the beginning of the year and disappearing
in equally mysterious fashion at the end of the year.
We all liked Tunisia so we never really questioned where
she came from, we were just happy she was there to
protect us. She could throw a ball farther than any kid
in the school and she could take out three average-
sized kids when she went for rebounds. She gave me
enough daylight so I could shake the kid that was trying
to guard me.
I had never seen anyone play like Mr. Cohen
before. He rarely ever shot the ball, but when he did it
usually went in. It was more important for him to get his
teammates involved than steal all of the glory for
himself. There was really no difference between his on
and off-the-court attitude. It was like he was able to
transfer his unselfishness from the classroom to the
court. What did that say about me? Was I a self-
centered person and player? Damn straight!
I never really evolved into a Mr. Cohen-type
player, primarily because I had many more god-given
skills. I‟m sure if he heard me say that it would bring a
big smile to his face.
It was spring and there were only a few months
left in the school year. The class had become so
overbearing and obnoxious that Mr. C often sat in front
of the class and wrote in a small notebook. Some kids
would ask him, “What are you writing about us?” and
he would reply, “Why do you think it‟s always about
Mr. Cohen focused on empowering even the
meekest kids – by the end of the year, even Jayla Smith
was acting like the rest of us. You have to understand
that Jayla, or “Jail” as she was called rarely spoke and
was testing every year for a hearing problem.
All Mr. C had to do was look in Jayla‟s eyes and
he knew that she could hear him. People were so
crazy around J at school and at home that she was a
little shell-shocked. She became embarrassed every
time a teacher would call on her and would curl up
into a protective shell. Mr. Cohen not only called on
her all year, he also made her stand up in font of the
class and voice her opinion.
We were on the basketball court the first time I
heard Jayla talk. I stole the ball from her and was
headed the other way. She whispered, “Foul” and I
stopped short and said to her, „What did you just say?”
She said meekly, “You hit my on the arm, you fouled
Although I felt for her lack of speech, I nonetheless
went after her. “You never talk and now you‟re going
to call a foul on me! I never touched you!” She rolled
up her sleeve to reveal and long scratch and on her
forearm. She looked at the scratch and then at me as
her eyes instantly widened. “Not a foul! I‟m gonna‟
I started running as she chased me all over the
playground. The guys were cracking up while
watching us from the basketball court. From that
moment on the mystery of Jayla “Jail” Smith was solved
and she was free to talk out of turn like the rest of us.
The last few weeks of school were merely a
microcosm of the rest of the year. The four fifth grade
classes were in the auditorium every day practicing for
their graduation ceremony, but our class was
constantly treated differently.
Why did the other students and teachers think
they were better than us? Mr. C had pumped us full of
so much confidence that we felt that no one was
better than us. Teachers would scold us every time we
breathed wrong or talked out of place.
There was this one teacher, Mr. Tool that loved to
talk down to me in a tone that made me wan to kill
him. In fact, I almost borrowed a gun and blew his ass
away. It was a good thing for Tool that Mr. Cohen saw
the look on my face and talked me out of it. He said
something like “You‟re going to throw your life away for
that sorry-ass human being. Even the bullet would be
insulted.” Mr. C didn‟t like the guy either and he had a
knack of making me laugh when I didn‟t want to laugh.
While most teachers saved their comments and
grades for the viewing of parents only, Mr. Cohen felt
that every student should be informed of their progress.
Mr. C took the time to meet with all of us personally and
discuss what we were doing well and how we could
make things even better.
He was able to find a positive even for Javon,
who had come back to rehearse with us after being at
the alternative school for the last half of the school
“Did I ever tell you how great you did on that
Social Studies test? You didn‟t even study and you got
three out of four on the writing part,” Mr. Cohen said in
a positive tone. I‟ll never forget the happy look on
Javon‟s face; you could tell that he was nervous about
being around the class and Mr. Cohen.
Javon looked up at Mr. C and they hugged each
other briefly away from the class. He knew that Javon
didn‟t mean to stab him and wasn‟t even going to
mention the incident. Javon eventually got the right
blend of medicines and went on to become an
upstanding citizen and graduate high school.
I‟ll never forget what happened at the end of the
school year. We were taking final exams and Mr.
Cohen was doing his usual motivational tour around
the class. He always knew the exact incentive to give
to us so we would reach a little higher.
One last afternoon we were sitting in our usual
reading group and I walked over to Mr. Cohen‟s desk.
“You ready for the ELA final?” he asked me. I was not
only unprepared for the English Language Arts final, I
hadn‟t ven looked at the book. “Yeah” I said in a
pretty unconvincing tone. “Well, if you can get better
than an 80 I will have a surprise for you after
graduation” He responded.
Some students responded to candy, others to
comic books and food. I had been talking about this
cool Allen Iverson jersey all year and Mr. C knew that
was my button. “What‟s the surprise?” I asked. He shot
back, “Well, if I told you it wouldn‟t be much of a
A few days later Mr. Cohen caught me as I was
running out to recess. He left every day at lunch to
spend some time with his wife and was in the process of
walking to his car. I followed him on the school side of
the fence until he stopped and we were face-to-face
on opposite sides of the fence.
“Allen Iverson jersey,” Mr. C said and then strolled
out of view. It took me a few seconds to get what he
said but then I jumped around and ran all over the
playground like I had won the lottery. The only problem
was that the test was two days away and I hadn‟t even
cracked the seal on my books.
Those next two days I worked hard and made my
Bloods deliveries right after school. I knew I couldn‟t fail
as long as I gave it my best try. Before Mr. Cohen‟s
class I would never try as hard as I did on the basketball
court. On the court, I would leave everything I had out
there and the results were usually positive. Schoolwork
was hard and it was only hard because I didn‟t make
exert any effort.
When I got the test back the afternoon following
the test, I knew the jersey was mine. The circled “87”
with an equals sign and a jersey with the number three
on it accompanies a smiling Mr. Cohen. He bent over
and whispered, „See, you can do anything if you put
your mind to it.”
My report card was the best I had received since
kindergarten. Five B’s, an A in gym and a B+ in ELA
were probably the apex of my schooling experience. I
was starting to get a little edgy the day of graduation.
It had been a few days since my stunning 87 on the ELA
exam and I still hadn‟t received the jersey. On the one
hand I was sure that Mr. C would come through, but on
the other hand I was an anxious kid looking for
School ended and still no sign of the jersey. Mr.
Cohen kept telling me not to worry but I was like a kid
on Christmas morning. School was over for the year
and a bunch of the kids in the neighborhood were
handing out outside my house playing basketball.
In the middle of the game I saw a familiar car
headed toward us at the end of block. I completely
forgot about the game going on and floated toward
the driver side of the car. Mr. Cohen‟s smiling face
came into view as he slowly stopped his car. He
reached over and flipped the red and white Allen
Iverson jersey at me through his open window. He
looked me in the eye and nodded in approval as I
pounded my chest with my right fist. The jersey was
about three sizes too big for me and I wore it for a
good four years after that. It was both a happy and
sad moment for me – I finally had my dream jersey but
felt a little blue because my time with Mr. Cohen was
Shot in the Dark
I wish I could say that my life became easier once
I graduated from Acorn Road Elementary. Getting
through Turtle Creek Middle School was a real struggle
trying to balance my gang time with playing hoops on
the school‟s team.
It was a daily battle trying to stay in school and I
often skipped class to take care of gang business. By
the middle of sixth grade, I would see my mom in the
vice principal‟s office more than I saw her at home. By
the end of sixth grade, she stopped coming to school
and basically walked out of my life.
By the end of seventh grade my mom met this
guy from Atlanta, Georgia and decided to sell our
house and move down south with him. She asked me
only once if I “would like to come with her.” My
brothers and sisters were scattered all around the
country, with the oldest, Malcolm in California, Martin in
New Jersey, Julia in South Carolina, and Rosa latching
on to my mom and her money train. Rosa should have
given back her name because she was nothing like the
courageous Rosa Parks. If someone told her to sit in
back of the bus she would have gladly taken her seat.
I had the option of going to Atlanta or staying
with my mom‟s cousins, who lived on the other side of
Branchville. I decided to have my Aunt Angela as my
legal guardian so I could stay in school and play
basketball. I had been spending my all of my time at
the Bloods hangout and hadn‟t been home in weeks.
It is still a bit fuzzy in my head whether I actually
said goodbye to my mom. She was far from the wishy-
washy, hug me „till you squeeze the life out of me type.
She had become so numb that the moving truck was
there only a week after she told me that she was
leaving. It was a good thing that me and my boys
went in the house and cleaned out everything of
value. We figured it would save mom the time and
aggravation of getting all of that junk out.
I really only had a few things that I couldn‟t let go,
but most of my stuff fit in a few gym bags and a box.
Keeping some of my dad‟s possessions was always on
my mind; I made sure to get his badge, uniform, and
the American flag they gave me at his funeral. I also
went through the house by myself to find every picture I
could find of the two of us. My dad had a way of
keeping me strong and weak at the same time.
Once my mom cleared out of town, my family
was now the Bloods. Although her move only made
the formality a reality, I still harbored some anger over
being abandoned. As usual, I would find my way back
to Mr. Cohen‟s class and be able to talk to the one
person on the earth that really knew me.
I would walk in talking about basketball and walk
out talking about life. Mr. C would always tell me that
“basketball is a microcosm of life.” Once he told me
what “microcosm” meant I was good to go. He was
right – basketball was just like life – sometimes the ball
goes in and sometimes it doesn‟t. Sometimes you get
knocked down and have to dig deep to get back up.
Sometimes a referee‟s call or a bounce just doesn‟t go
your way and you have to keep your head up.
My freshman year at Branchville High School was
interesting. I still wasn‟t going to class much but I was
the starting point guard on the varsity basketball team.
Not only was I starting as a ninth grader, I was also
leading the team in scoring and assists.
High school was a lot different than middle school
– the teachers mostly left me alone and the principal
and vice principal made sure I was comfortable, not
distracted and hassled. This lack of discipline not only
expanded my creativity on the basketball court, it
basically gave me free reign of the school and town.
By the time my sophomore year rolled around I
was taking more and more stupid chances, feeling as if
I were invincible. I especially remember this one day
after a game when I hooked up with a bunch of my
crew and we thought it would be fun to terrorize the
people at Kmart. We usually grabbed a bunch of carts
and sprinted up and down the aisles grabbing anything
of value within reach. The 30-second romp was
designed to keep up sharp and get some cool stuff at
the same time.
In hindsight, I guess it wasn‟t the smartest idea to
hit the same Kmart four times within the same month.
We raced out into the parking lot and people
scattering everywhere like Godzilla was stomping
through. I was feeling like Godzilla until five police cars
came at us from every direction, rendering us helpless
to escape. I thought about running for a split second,
but the feeling of a cold pistol pressed against the
back of my neck took away that desire.
Sitting in the back of a police car with my cuffed
hands behind my back wasn‟t exactly my idea of a fun
afternoon. I knew that I couldn‟t be stopped and once
they found out who I was, I would be free. Three hours
and many interrogations later, I was still sitting in the cell
with my Bloods brothers when a cop came to the bar
and told me that I could make a phone call.
My reflex reaction was to call some of the Bloods
to get me out but quickly realized that most of them
were wanted criminals and the police would surely
scoop them up if they rolled into the precinct. I
reached deep into my right pocket and pulled out a
piece of paper with Mr. Cohen‟s faded number written
in black ink with the words “ANY TIME” written in bed
For some good reason I had kept Mr. Cohen‟s
number in my pocket, probably realizing that he would
help me if I got in trouble. He was also the only person
on the earth that understood me and my tortured soul.
My instincts proved right as Mr. Cohen came quickly
and had baled me out within the next half hour. He
also appeared at my hearing the next day, despite a
confrontation we had, and help get me off with just a
little slap on the wrist.
About that confrontation… Mr. Cohen took me
from the 3rd Precinct and took me out to eat at Banini‟s
Italian Restaurant. This restaurant was in Mr. C‟s town,
which was a few steps from the border of Branchville. I
must have eaten just about everything with red sauce
and it felt good to fill my body with something other
than McDonald‟s or KFC for a change.
I could tell that Mr. Cohen was getting ready to
talk to me about something serious, so I said, “Think we
can win it all this year?” He looked me in the eye and
said, “Darius, you can do anything you want if you put
your mind to it.” I had heard this kind of talk from him
before, so I shrugged it off and kept eating my lasagna.
“What is going on with you anyway?” Mr. Cohen
asked me. I kept me focus on the food and shrugged
me shoulders. “If you don‟t stop doing this you‟ll wind
up either in jail or worse,” he said trying to get my
attention. I continued to ignore him and ate the last
piece of the lasagna.
I could hear by his breathing that he was starting
to get upset. He inhaled and went for the jugular,
“What do you think your dad would say if he could see
you now?” I became instantly incensed like I was face-
to-face with the person who jailed me, not the one that
had bailed me out. “Mother fucka! What the hell do
you know about my old man? You ain‟t my old man!
Never was, never will be.”
I looked angrily into Mr. Cohen‟s eyes as he
waited for me to calm down so we could talk. When I
refused to back down, he got up slowly from the booth,
reached into his pocket and pulled out a couple of
twenties and tossed them on the table. He put on his
coat and said, “Darius, good luck to you” and he
walked out of the restaurant.
I was surprised to see him the next day at the
hearing but I wasn‟t surprised by all of the nice things
he said to the judge about me. He said his piece and
left the hearing without even looking my way. I had
hurt the last person in the world that deserved it but I at
the time there was no other way.
Mr. C had become a fixture at our home
basketball games because the high school was right
next to the elementary school. The 4:00 games gave
him plenty of time to get his room in order after school
and then be home in time for dinner. After I yelled at
him, I didn‟t see him in the stands for the whole second
half of the season.
I made All State that year and was being
recruited by over 100 colleges. The state championship
was ours and a full scholarship seemed like a formality
when I graduated in a couple of years. If they allowed
me to skip from tenth grade to college I would have
done it right then. I figured that once I made it to my
senior year, college would be an afterthought to
jumping right to the NBA. Talk about an enormous
My celebrity on the court did little to slow my
activity down off the court. I had survived the state
championship, flying bullets, and knife fights, so in the
spring of my 16th year I was feeling like nothing or
nobody could take me down. I was the one that took
down everything in my path, including my relationship
with Mr. C.
We got tired of running around retail stores, so we
started to focus on our enemy the Crips instead. It was
no secret where their hideout was and we would wait
until they left before entering through a back window.
These guys became pretty predictable and soft after a
while; every night they would pile into the Escalade
and get some dinner. They used to have a few guys
getting dinner for the gang but we kept stealing it from
It was a game of cat and mouse and we thought
we were the sly cat again when the back window was
open that night. In a strange twist of fait, I had been
reunited with my original crew, Easy E and Beast. Beast
had taken more bullets than 50 Cent and had been
assigned to protect me full time. I didn‟t know he was
there to protect me because I didn‟t feel that I needed
protection. It was good to have him on my back
Getting into the hideout was easy enough – we
were able to find a big stash of cash and a load of
drugs and stuffed everything we could into the
garbage bags we brought. We were on our way out
when Easy E went back in to get this rocket launcher
he had seen. We helped him out of the window with
his new toy and started running around the dark
Once we moved into the light we could see the
white Escalade screeching to a halt and thugs about 8
thugs coming at us from all doors. Once again, my first
instinct was to run, so that‟s what I did. Easy E reached
for his gun and was greeted by a storm of Oozie
machine gun bullets. Beast wasn‟t the running type, so
he hoisted the rocket launcher onto his right shoulder
and quickly aimed it at the Escalade. Bullets were
flying all around him by the time he unloaded the
I looked back and saw the rocket exploding into
the Escalade and the power of the blast sent me flying
about 20 feet through the air. I must have been
knocked out for a few seconds because when I
regained consciousness, I saw a bloodied Beast
standing over me offering a hand to get up. We
limped over to Easy E’s dead body and then got out of
sight when we heard the police sirens coming closer.
The rocket blast had not only blown up the
escalade but it also started a fire that also destroyed
the Crips hangout. By the time we got back near our
hangout, the place was also engulfed with flames and
bodies were scattered around the street. I must have
been out for more than a few seconds because the
war had shifted and then came to a bloody end.
The next thing I knew, I was in a hospital bed next
to Beast. It was light outside, so I must have passed out
and had been sleeping for a while. A doctor came in
and said, “Mr. Mitchell, I‟m Dr. Cooke and your lucky to
be alive son.” I took as much in as I could and then he
continued, “You‟ve sustained extensive damage to
your left knee as a result of two bullets that you were hit
with last night. I‟m sorry son, but I don‟t think you‟ll ever
play again. It would be a miracle if you walked without
I rolled up the sheet with my left hand and saw my
left knee bandaged up and in a brace. I didn‟t
remember getting hit but the adrenaline was pumping
so hard that I didn‟t remember passing out either. I
looked up at the doctor and asked, “Is my friend going
to be all right?” as I looked over at Beast who was on
life support. The doctor looked at him and replied, “It‟s
up in the air. He‟s just hanging on by a thread.”
Limping Through Life
That night I was in the hospital I started to feel the
pain in my knee and I started to cry. Beast had died
only a few hours earlier and I had been moved out of
the Intensive Care Unit.
I must have been crying for a while because a
nurse came in and gave me a few pills to numb the
pain. The events of the past 24 hours started to sink in –
the Bloods and the Crips had been virtually destroyed
in Branchville – the explosions came as such a shock to
people in the town that they instituted a curfew for
years after that.
I started to think back to what the doctor said
about my knee and his opinion that I wouldn‟t play
basketball again. Just as my mind was surrendering, I
heard footsteps at the door. My first visitor would be
the one and only Mr. Cohen. “I got next” he said as he
walked toward my bed. When you say, “I got next” in
the schoolyard that means that you are going to play
the next basketball game.
My smile quickly turned to full tears once Mr.
Cohen leaned over and hugged me and cradled my
head in his long arm. Any thoughts he had about
letting go were squashed by my Kung Fu grip on his
“The doctor said…” I blubbered after a few
“Shhh, I know, I talked to him” Mr. C interjected.
We released from the hug and Mr. C pulled up a
chair close to my bed. “Remember when we first
met?” Mr. Cohen asked.
“Yeah, you were the Candy Man” I replied as I
wiped away my tears with my fingers.
“Yeah, the Candy Man. But that was a time in
your life when you didn‟t feel special. When nobody
really believed in you. Words can only take you so far.
If you want to believe everything you hear than you
might as well throw your brain and spirit away.”
“But, what if I can‟t play again?” I asked.
“Is that all you are, a basketball player?” Mr. C
I shrugged my shoulders. “I‟m a firm believer that
if you take care of the mind, the body will follow.”
“What does that mean” I asked.
“It means that if you focus on other good things
besides your knee than your life will be balanced and
good things can happen to you.”
I just shook my head and my thoughts seemed so
jumbled and distant. We talked for another 20 minutes
until I started getting groggy from the drug‟s the nurse
had given me. Mr. Cohen took a business card out of
his pocket and wrote his cell phone number on the
blank side. He once again wrote the words ANY TIME
on top of his number. We banged fists and he walked
through the door as my eyes closed.
Three days later I was walking with crutches out of
the hospital with my Aunt Angela, who had come to
visit me and told me I could live with her. She was
tougher than I had remembered when she said, “You
start any of that nonsense again and you‟ll feel the
door hitting your ass when I kick you out!”
It was a good three weeks before I could get up
and walk again. It was the summer and my aunt‟s air
conditioning was no match for the New York heat. My
skin was stuck to the plastic covers of her couch and I
needed to get out and get some stale, humid air.
Walking around the block with my metal cane
was a sobering experience for a guy who could race
around the block and make a big breeze. The hospital
offered to provide physical therapy as part of my
aftercare but I had no way to get back and forth from
the hospital. I thought about calling Mr. Cohen but he
was on summer break and I wanted to save that call
for when I really needed him.
No, I would let my knee heal naturally and when it
came time for the season to begin I would be ready. It
was that simple in my young mind.
School started and I found myself walking better
and going to classes. It was my junior year and it was
time for me to step up. It was amazing but my average
had not suffered greatly from my lack of caring. By
virtue of my basketball talent, teachers had let me slide
with an average that approached 80.
As each day passed my confidence was being
mended and restored. I was walking better and feeling
as comfortable in school as I ever had. Practice was
about to begin and I thought I was ready to take on
the challenge, although I had played sparingly in
My teammates were amazed to see my on the
court but my coach had been pushing me to return the
minute he saw me the first day of school. He hadn‟t
visited me in the hospital and barely said two words to
me since then. But it was winning time, so DMitch
needed to get his groove on again.
I made it through the lay-up drills, although it was
apparent that I had lost over half of my 40-inch vertical
leap. As my knee loosened up I tried to do more and
more. Twenty minutes into the practice I was started to
feel like my old self again. My knee felt so good that I
tried to do one of my Allen Iverson crossover dribbles;
my body seemed to leave my knee behind as I felt a
huge pop and collapsed to the floor in excruciating
Forty-eight hours later I had my knee “scoped”
and Dr. Cooke came into talk to me like a he had
months earlier. This time he was a little sterner, if
possible. “Was I wrong last time? Under no
circumstance can you play again! Unless you want to
be crippled and walk with a huge limp the rest of your
life, just put your hoop dreams away.”
Later that day, Mr. C stopped by the hospital after
school. I was still a little dazed from the surgery and
was trying to digest my crumbled life. This time when
he sat near my bed his words never got near my ears –
they seemed to float away like a kite with a broken
When I got out of the hospital I returned to school
the next week. Things seemed to be calming down a
bit and I was able to get back into my schoolwork.
That was until the basketball season started. It wasn‟t a
problem for me when the team was just practicing but
when I went to the first home game and was watching
from the sidelines, reality hit me really hard.
Nothing could have hurt me more than to watch
my team lose that first game. The guys were looking at
me like I had let them down. Every time they made a
bad play they would like at me like I could save them
from their trouble. It had been a month since the
surgery and I was falling off the end of the world.
By the middle of the next game, I couldn‟t stand
being Darius Mitchell anymore. After that my
schoolwork started slipping and I started drinking at
least a couple of 40’s a day. Since I wasn‟t the man
that carried the team anymore, the school‟s
administration had a real short fuse with me. I didn‟t
care at that point what happened to me – the pain of
my life had brought me to a place where I needed an
I took the gun I kept in my sock drawer and put it
in my pants -- then and scooped up my third 40-ounce
Colt 45 for the afternoon and decided to take a little
walk. With no particular destination in my clouded
mind, I wound up in strangely familiar territory.
It was 12 years to the day that my father had
been gunned down and I was feeling it. That
remembrance was definitely the straw that broke my
back that day. As I drew closer to my house thoughts
of ending it all were in the front of my mind. Being
without my father all of those years was a burden I
didn‟t want to carry anymore.
It appeared no one was home so I walked up the
driveway and proceeded to walk left up the path to
the front door. I then stopped at the spot where my
father was killed and took a seat. At the time I didn‟t
even realize that I had started crying. Tears were
streaming down my face and onto the ground just like
the sprinkler when my dad died.
I reached for the gun in the back of my pants and
lifted it to the right side of my head. I was so far gone
that I didn‟t even hear a car speed and screech its tires
in the street in front of me. My index finger started to
squeeze the trigger but a strong hand moved my hand
away in time for the speeding bullet to fly harmlessly
into a neighbor‟s tree.
I even thought about trying again but a voice
woke me from my death daze. “Darius! Darius! What
the hell are you doing?! Mr. Cohen screamed as my
eyes were finally able to refocus. “Oh, hi Mr. Cohen.
What are you doing here?” I replied in a clam voice.
Mr. Cohen was sweating as he said, „Son, it‟s not your
time. It‟s not up to you when you leave this earth.”
Mr. Cohen helped me up and led me to the
passenger side of his car. His PT Cruiser had been
replaced by a large SUV, but I was happy to be finally
driving in the car with him. Before we sat in the car he
emptied the bullets out of the gun and threw the gun in
the garbage can near the garage. Once in the car he