In the sixth grade at St. John’s School there was a new boy we had never seen before. His name was Chango which in Spanish, I was told, means monkey. He had brown skin, very short, nappy hair and big ears that stuck out noticeably on the sides of his long face. I could see how he got the nickname. I never knew what his real name was. Even the teachers called him Chango. It seemed to be his preferred name.
The boys and girls told me that he had been in public school but he kept getting into trouble so his parents sent him to the Catholic school. They told me that he had flunked a grade so he had been put back one class. He indeed was taller than the rest of us.
He liked to talk and smiled a lot, I noticed, when I was introduced to him. In the schoolyard he liked to talk to us boys in his class. He liked to tell stories and found a receptive audience. It wasn’t long before he started talking about how he was always shoplifting. He mentioned stealing pencils, erasers and crayons from a drug store that was across the street from the school. He kept bragging more and more about all the things he would steal. It wasn’t long before some of the other boys started to brag about stealing things like pencils from the drug store. “How many pencils?” Chango interrogated. The bragging about shoplifting seemed to be increasing.
At this time some boys I knew in my neighborhood and I were really into comic book heroes. We talked about being like them and trying to fight crime. I was disturbed about Chango’s bad influence on the boys at school. On a Saturday I went into the store with my two friends and asked to speak to the manager of the store. The man in his short sleeve, white shirt and black tie came and listened to me. I told him about Chango. He asked me to describe him. After I described him the manager said he would be looking out for him. He thanked me. My friends and I left the store. That was about it. It wasn’t exactly like being a super hero but it was a start. My friends seemed to be impressed that I wasn’t all talk.
It wasn’t long after that Chango started something new. He was sitting on top of one of the little bicycle racks we had in the schoolyard. It was under a shady tree next to a wall of the convent. The boys in my class were gathered in front of him, some to the left and some to the right. I walked up to see what was going on. I walked to see up the center of the boys who were on each side with Chango straight ahead of me on his seat. Chango was telling the boys stories when he pulled out a switchblade. He held it up and pressed the button. The double edged blade shot out from the side and locked into place with a click. This was no ordinary switchblade. I could tell that the blade was long enough for this knife to be considered an illegal, deadly weapon. Chango wielded the knife and passed it over to his other hand. He was brandishing the knife while telling his stories of how tough it is in public school. I watched for awhile and walked away.
The next day was the same in the schoolyard. Chango was on his seat on the bicycle rack with his audience of boys from my class. He was brandishing the switchblade knife. He was telling his public school stories. He was getting a feeling of power from his display. Once again I walked away. I had held switchblade knives in my hands myself. Some Mexican boys who were neighbors had brought them into my back yard. They told me that these knives were legal because their blades were less than three inches. People bought these knives in Mexico and brought them over the border in Nogales.
There are two kinds of switchblade knives. One kind has a blade that shoots straight out from the handle when the button is pressed. The other swivels out at lightning speed from the side when the button is pressed. There is a spring inside that makes the blades shoot out so fast. With both kinds of knives there is a familiar clicking sound when the blade locks into place. Even with a blade that is over three inches if it is only sharp on one side it is not illegal, I was told. It is the knives that are razor sharp on both sides that are considered to be dangerous, concealed weapons. I had held all of these kinds of knives in my hands and pressed the buttons. I knew the feeling of the lightning fast response and the clicking of the blades into place.
Chango’s was the first switchblade I had seen that was illegal. I made up my mind that I would not allow this in my school. The next day when the other boys were in the schoolyard I walked into the principal’s office. I had never been in the principal’s office before. I walked in out of the hot, Tucson sun. There was a middle aged woman with a round face behind a desk who asked if she could help me. I said that I wanted to talk to the principal. Before she could ask me what it was concerning the principal looked out from her office door and told the lady to send me in. I noticed that the front office where the lady was and the office where the principal sat at her desk were very tiny and there were piles of papers and folders everywhere. The principal, Sister Ynez, in her white habit asked me what it was about.
I started telling her about Chango. I told her about how he bragged about shoplifting and had gotten the other boys to start bragging about it, too. She listened intently, looking thoughtful with her little, gold, wire rimmed glasses. I told her that he was bringing a switchblade knife to school and showing it to the other boys. She asked where he kept the switchblade knife. I said, “In his pocket”. The principal thanked me for coming in and telling her. I walked out of the cluttered little offices into the bright sunlight of the schoolyard. I could tell that the lady in the front office had been listening as she made busy with her paperwork.
It was the middle of the morning in class at St. John’s school. All the students were looking down at their desks working on their assignment. The principal appeared at the open, front door in her white habit. At her side was a tall, athletic looking, young man who was dressed in a dark suit with a tie. I knew what was coming. The principal commanded, “We want to see Chango!” Everyone was silent. I sat up straight in my desk. All the students were looking down at their desks. Even the teacher, a pretty, young lay woman with brown hair, looked down and then she looked up from her desk just a little bit. I looked at Chango. I was sitting in the same row, a few desks behind him. He had been looking straight down at his desk. With his head still down he looked around to his right. Then he looked around to his left. I could see his eyes moving this way and that. He lifted himself slowly from his desk as if he had a heavy weight on his soul and mind. When he came to be standing he looked around himself and at the students in the class. His mouth was pursed. All the while his head was bowed. He sluggishly started walking forward. He turned from the aisle. He walked to the right, past the teacher’s desk, toward the principal and the young man in the suit who were waiting for him at the door. The three of them turned from the door and walked away with Chango in the center.
I looked at the boys and girls in my class. They had been looking down at their desks the entire time. They continued to look down as if afraid to even look to the side. I went back to doing my school work. We never saw Chango again.
One of the three Roberts in my class started bringing a switchblade knife to school. It had a blade that was less than three inches so it was legal. He sat in Chango’s place on the bike rack brandishing the knife and talking like the way Chango had. I watched him and walked away. He did this about three times and then stopped. He was one of the Roberts whose family owned a ranch in Tucson. Everything returned to normal at school. Chango had been in with gangs. I probably saved his life.
Mark Alberto Yoder Nunez reading his poem, Rare Love, from his book, The Spider Lady and Other Short Stories and Poetry.