Chapter 3: James
I’m a good person, y’all, and I really don’t mean nobody any harm. I just need to get that off my chest right from the beginning, because I know how people are out here in this world, honey. I’m black, gay, and proud of who I am, and some people can’t handle me being a straight-up, in-your-face type of person like Johnny’s phony-ass people who are at the center of this controversy in the first place.
I don’t understand why those people won’t simply leave us alone. Me and Johnny love each other and have been through so much to be together, y’all, that it doesn’t make any sense for us to be going through anything else. I was almost killed by one of Johnny’s own cousins, honey. Shot me down like an animal in cold blood, but I survived, like a cat with nine lives. You better believe I came back to Johnny after near death, so you know I ain’t about to lose him now. I’ll fight a bitch between two drops of rain for my man, honey, and walk through plates of hot iron and fire to be with him, too. I really want y’all to know how serious I am when it comes to my love for Johnny. So everything I tell you from this point on will make a whole lot of sense. I ain’t even gone lie, y’all. I did some crazy shit trying to hold on to Johnny. So if you hear about me slashing somebody’s tires, just know that it was love that made me do it. It was my love for Johnny, honey.
And I also would like to say up front that I’m very proud of Johnny and the fact that he’s a college student and making something out of his life. I’m not jealous of him at all. Baby, nobody knows better than me how hard it is for black men out here. The world ain’t trying to give a brother man nothing for free. You see, that’s what makes what me and Johnny have so special. I understand him on a level like nobody else does, because we both been down similar roads. What I’m trying to say is that me and Johnny have done our share of time behind bars. We ex-cons, honey. And right now it doesn’t matter why I went to jail, but just know that I ain’t going back for nothing in the world. I changed my life around and found God. Period. Nobody in this world is perfect, anyway. We all make mistakes, and I made quite a few in my time. But that’s all behind me–behind us. Me and Johnny wanted greater things out of life. We often talked a lot about what our lives would look like once we got out of jail. One of Johnny’s main goals was to get his GED and go to college. My baby is living his dream, honey. As for me, I wanted to do something in fashion, because I’m a fierce designer and love the spotlight. Always could eat up a motherfucking runway, honey. Move over Tyra and Naomi, James Santiago have y’all beat hands down. You don’t have to believe me though. Just ask around the gay scene in New Orleans. I’m legendary, honey. You think Oprah’s Legends Ball was a spectacle? Back in the day, all you had to do was stop by Club Circus in the French Quarter on a Wednesday night and there you would see me onstage giving them children–the gay boys and girls, honey–the performance of a lifetime. Baby, I was serving them children drag, commanding attention every time I took to the stage. The children lived for me, and that’s why I had so many enemies, too. When you got it going on, you gone get people hating on you. I’ve been stabbed and kicked around and bruised so many times that it ain’t even funny.
So what I’m saying is, I know firsthand that they have some cutthroat people out there in the world, and that brings me to Ms. Bitch, who sparked this beef between me and Johnny. I’m talking about Sheila, commander in chief of Advantage Principles, a big corporation whose sole purpose is to steal government money under the guise of helping poor and underprivileged kids from the inner cities. Yeah, I said it, because it’s true. That company didn’t have a damn clue on how to go about reaching those kids from southeast DC, where I was a teacher’s assistant. We were doing just fine, anyway, before they came with their principles and bullshit doctrines like the United States Army demanding and telling folks what to do. Poor Mr. Johnson, the principal, didn’t have a say in the matter either. James Baldwin Academy was a charter school started by parents, and they ran it with a closed hand and tight fist, honey. Although the parents felt Mr. Johnson was a good leader for the school, they also criticized him. Said Mr. Johnson was too timid and wasn’t stern enough. But bottom line, the man was simply nice and genuine and people took his kindness for weakness. Mr. Johnson believed in giving everyone a fair chance, including me.
Personally, I think once word got out around the school that Mr. Johnson was one of the gay children, honey, heads began swirling and all of sudden he wasn’t doing a good job as principal. And when Mr. Johnson hired me, that’s when all hell broke loose around that school, honey. They thought he had completely lost his judgment for letting a wide-open punk walk the halls at Baldwin Academy, at least that’s what I heard they said. Baby, them parents and teachers were outraged at Mr. Johnson.
They tried to pressure that man to give me my walking papers. Said I was not the right fit at the school and that I was giving the wrong impression to those kids regarding my sexuality. But the truth of the matter was, those kids loved me, and that was the real reason a lot of them teachers and parents up at the school hated me. They were jealous. You should have seen me in action. I came in that school like the grand diva I am and got those kids together, honey. They assigned me to an English class with Ms. Greene, bless her heart. Ms. Greene was a sweet old lady who wore round frames and talked very proper like you would expect of an English teacher. Her class was supposed to be one of the toughest in the whole school. The rejects they were called: a bunch of knucklehead eighth graders who nobody wanted in their classes.
The problem with Ms. Greene was that she was too softspoken and she didn’t command the kids’ respect. With our kids–I’m talking about black kids, honey–you gotta go at them with authority in your voice and let them know who’s the boss. I don’t care what grade level or age they at, they are kids. Period. That meant no talking back to me or speaking without raising their hands to get my or Ms. Greene’s attention. I told them from day one that they were at school to do their work and to take learning seriously. If they had a problem with the rules of the class, then I kindly pointed them to the door. Of course, some of them tested and resisted me at first. Said I was not their teacher and that they didn’t have to answer to me. I even had one boy called me a straight-up faggot to my face.
Shawn was his name and he was the class clown. He had everyone laughing at my expense. But, baby, I had been called worse, so it was not like he hurt my feelings or anything. I got up in Shawn’s face, informed him that it didn’t matter who I was screwing because that was none of his damn business. And whether he liked me or not, I was an authority figure at the school and he was going to respect me regardless. Moreover, if he thought he could beat my ass, then he was welcome to meet me outside and try.
Honey, those kids respected me as a result of keeping it real with them, especially upon hearing about me going to jail. I was honest with them about having been arrested for everything from fighting to stealing. I even showed them bruises and cuts on my body. And you could hear a pin drop in the room as everyone stared at me in shock, including Ms. Greene. After that incident with Shawn though, I never had a problem out of one of those kids. They not only respected me for keeping it real, but saw me as someone who understood where they were coming from being teenagers.
The problem with a lot of teachers and administrators today is that they can’t relate to these kids because they’re so busy trying to talk down to them. Our kids are intelligent and advanced beyond their years. Chile, you can’t be talking about the birds and the bees with them these days. You gotta tell kids about how fucking without condoms can get their asses caught up with HIV. You know what I mean?
Like I said, I kept it real, and within a month I had become a favorite around the school. Some of those kids called me Ms. J and others referred to me as Mr. Santiago. It didn’t matter what they called me as long as they addressed me with respect. And, honestly, I adored those kids. Gave that job onehundred- plus percent. I spent a lot of time counseling kids with their problems and many of them became my friends. When they had a problem with one of their peers or a serious issue going on at home, they came to Ms. J for advice. You would not believe some of the things I heard from those kids, too. Abuse. Drugs. Sex. You name it. They were dealing with some serious shit both at school and at home.
Anyway, two months at the school, and here comes Ms. Bitch, Sheila Doggett, and her entourage, white business execs who had a vision of taking the school in the hood to new heights. But it was bullshit that I smelled a mile away. Advantage Principles received millions of dollars from the government to help disadvantaged schools, but we never saw a dime of that money. They couldn’t have cared less about those kids, and Ms. Bitch was the biggest joke of all.
Sheila was a bourgeois black girl who grew up with a silver spoon in her mouth and was now trying to do some good in the hood. But she was being used by Advantage Principles as a token. Sheila was the only black in the entire company, and they assigned her to the poorest school in the worst neighborhood in DC. What I didn’t like about Ms. Bitch was that she got up in my face her first day on the job.
All of sudden I couldn’t wear pumps or carry purses or anything that made me look like a woman. Ms. Bitch said that I was unprofessional and too friendly with some of the kids, particularly the male students. She was suggesting that something inappropriate was going on, which was totally out of line. Just because I’m gay, she assumed that I messed around with little boys. Ms. Bitch was ignorant and that was all there was to it. She had no idea who I was or what I had accomplished at that school, and didn’t give a damn either. Ms. Bitch and Advantage Principles were all about appearances and grandstanding for the public.
Before long though, Sheila took center stage and Mr. Johnson faded into the background. Advantage Principles, with Ms. Bitch’s guidance, started a uniform program and turned our kids into robots. They had to march down the halls in a single file line, as if they were in boot camp or something. We had to teach them lessons that were already scripted, and the kids gave their answers in unison.
Furthermore, they couldn’t run or throw a football on the playground. What kind of school doesn’t allow students to actually play at recess? Suddenly, Baldwin Academy resembled something out of 1940s Germany when Hitler was in power. Of course, I couldn’t take it, so I voiced my opinion to the charter board. I told those parents–in front of Ms. Bitch’s face–that Sheila and Advantage Principles were doing the school a great disservice. That the kids had become unhappy and showed much apathy toward learning. Ms. Bitch took my statements as a direct slap in the face and vowed to get rid of me, somehow. And the flames were ignited.
When I found out that she and Johnny had been hanging out, I was outdone, honey. Couldn’t believe that Johnny’s brother and entire family were in on the scheme. I was hurt and never felt so betrayed in my life, especially by Johnny. He refused to see the situation from my position. Said I was overreacting and being melodramatic.
Sheila was supposedly introduced to Johnny for the sole purpose of being his mentor. She had attended Wheatley in the mid-nineties and was a member of a sorority. Once Johnny got to college, he wanted to pledge, too. He saw Sheila as his way into the fraternity. You see, her cousin ran the frat at Wheatley. And the only way Johnny could get into Gamma Phi whatever–that was so important to him–was to go through this guy. To be honest, I don’t give a damn what Johnny’s reasons for hanging out with Ms. Bitch were. When he found out that this woman–who he had become close friends with–was the same bitch who was trying to destroy me at work, Johnny should have stood by my side and ended their friendship. Period. But he defended her instead. Spit in my damn face. Johnny had the audacity to suggest that I was jealous of him for being in college and wanting to pledge.
First of all, I had no problem with Johnny desiring to pledge a fraternity that his father and brothers and uncles were members of. I just thought it was a bunch of foolishness for someone at his age. Mind you, Johnny was pushing thirty and most of the kids who were pledging him were nineteen and twenty years old. I couldn’t understand why he would let some teenagers whip his ass for the sake of wearing a bunch of letters on his back that don’t mean a damn thing in the real world. But the biggest problem was: Johnny was changing toward me. The things he once loved about me, Johnny now couldn’t stand. He made me cut my long hair. Clip my fingernails. You see, he was trying to project this image to everyone on campus of being straight and hard-core. Johnny said he would never
make the fraternity if anyone found out that he was gay. As a result, he started seeing me as a threat to his overall goals while Sheila was held in high esteem. She served a greater purpose of helping him get what he wanted. Ms. Bitch was only his cover. Part me felt sorry for Sheila, because deep down I knew Johnny was only using her to get into that fraternity. But whatever the reason for them getting closer, I still didn’t like it. It didn’t feel good to see my man spending so much quality time with someone other than me. Johnny may have been willing to do anything to pledge that fraternity. And I was willing to do whatever I had to do to save our relationship, honey.
So, you damn right I confronted Ms. Bitch at school about her involvement with Johnny. Told her straight up that Johnny was mine and that she better back off. Ms. Bitch turned it around and told Mr. Johnson and the charter board that I had threatened her life. Like I said, this woman would have done anything to get rid of me and she tried her hardest. I went into a deep depression, honey. Felt so alone being miles away from home–from Flo, who had always backed me up no matter what. Although she was my mama, Flo was more like my friend. I could depend on that girl whether I was right or wrong in a situation. You know nobody can love you like a mother.
Me and Flo got separated after Hurricane Katrina though. She went by some of my people in Texas and I came to DC to be with Johnny, who had just started school at Wheatley a month before the storm hit. Katrina was a hot mess, honey. Baby, I’m still fighting Ms. FEMA for my coins. But that’s another story for another day.
Flo begged me not to go to DC, too. Her famous last words were: Them people don’t love you. Flo was referring to Johnny’s family, who had done any- and everything in the past to keep us apart. But bringing Ms. Bitch into our lives was the last straw, and I wasn’t beyond letting them know how I felt either. “I need to speak with Tiffany and Carl,” I immediately said to Mr. Leonard at the front door. He was wearing eyeglasses and holding the Bible in his hand. Mr. Leonard probably was studying the Bible with Reverend Lomack. Johnny told me that his dad and Mr. Leonard were very close brothers. Both of them were very involved with the church, too. But the occasion of my visit was no religious matter, honey. I had come to kick somebody’s ass for getting in my business and causing problems between me and Johnny.
Excerpted from Too Much of a Good Thing Ain't Bad by Clarence Nero. Copyright © 2009 by Clarence Nero. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.