Poignant Moments

The Little Drummer Boy

How do you say goodbye to your best friend? Not the normal goodbye, such as when two teens might head off to different colleges, wishing each other luck. No, Deonte’s friend, Steven, was dying. There would be no college for him, nor even, perhaps, a tomorrow. This would be no ordinary good-bye.

Of course, Steven was no ordinary friend. Deonte had met him in the first grade, and remained in the same class with him for the next five years. As they both matured, so did their friendship. They played baseball, football, and basketball together. In the school band, Steven played the trumpet, Deonte the drums. The two looked forward anxiously to the day when they’d finally don their uniforms, and go on tour with the varsity band.

Over the years, Deonte learned to depend on Steven. As bright as Deonte was, he tried the patience of many a principal, teacher, and coach, including me. He relied upon Steven’s calming presence, his steady example to keep him on the straight and narrow.

Then the fickle hand of fate struck Steven with Leukemia.

Everyone clung tenaciously to hope. There was chemotherapy, and maybe even a bone-marrow transplant. Steven would pull through. He just had to. After all, he was a straight-A student, winning all sorts of academic and service awards. Everybody liked him.

But Leukemia, ever merciless, didn’t take any of that into account. It continued its unrelenting ravage until, finally, Steven left the hospital for the last time. There was nothing more the doctors could do. Steven came home to die.

It was only then that Deonte accepted the awful fact that he’d have to say good-bye to Steven, forever. But how?

That evening, the entire band assembled in front of Steven’s house. Many teachers, students and neighbors gathered as well, hugging and consoling each other, all struggling to maintain a strained smile for Steven.

He finally emerged, doped with morphine, confined to a wheel chair, sucking air through an oxygen mask. Nonetheless, his indomitable spirit had prevailed over his weakened body: he sported a broad smile, and the glittering band uniform he had always longed to wear. No wonder Deonte liked him so much!

How could Deonte play, tucked away in the back of the band with the rest of the drums? It just didn’t seem enough. He needed Steven to see him, to hear him. So, quietly, he moved to the front, and stationed himself right next to Steven. The director, D.C., gave him a nod, and lifted his baton. Then the concert began.

And Deonte played for him, ba-rum-pa-pa-pum. The brass and winds kept time, ba-rum-pa-pa-pum. He played his drum for him ba-rum-pa-pa-pum. He played his best for him ba-rum-pa-pa-pum, rum-pa-pa-pum, rum-pa-pa-pum. He and his drum.

It was an incredibly beautiful, simple, profound gesture--one befitting the birth of a King, and the death of Deonte’s best friend.

Kids Say the Darndest Things

The call from the pool came just before recess. I grabbed my walkie-talkie and headed out the door of my Vice Principal's office at Willard Middle School in Berkeley. A student had injured himself on the diving board during Physical Education Class.

Trying not to run, I hastened to the pool where I found a giant of an 8th grader sitting on the side of the pool, rocking himself back and forth, dangling one leg into the water, bellowing obscenities. One glance at his ankle and I knew it was fractured severely. "I'm here, Freddie," I soothed, putting one arm around his shoulder. With the other I held up the walkie-talkie, instructing the office to dial 911, send down Freddie's emergency form, call his parents....

Freddie. My pet name for him was "Bubba," as he usually towered over me, and hefted, I guessed, at least 200 pounds. He and his friends had hung around my office most days after school, making themselves a welcome nuisance. Nonetheless, I'd suspended the lot of them the previous week for tossing some firecrackers at an elderly volunteer tutor. Even more maddening was the fact that, afterwards, they'd remained unrepentant in my office, lying and laughing about the whole escapade. I'd added an extra day of suspension for the ugly defiance, but had wondered since if I'd been motivated most by my feeling of betrayal. After the suspension, Freddie had avoided my office, and that had been fine by me.

All that was forgotten now. I called for some towels and covered Freddie's back. I debated if I should get him to lie down, elevate that ankle, try to prevent shock. But his steady stream of loud profanity deterred me. Before I knew it, the EMTs had arrived and pulled me gently away.

"Where're my things?" gasped Freddie wildly as the EMTs wrestled his stretcher into the ambulance.

"Up in front with me, Freddie," I assured him. Then I took my place next to the driver, feeling guilty about my excitement. I'd never ridden in an ambulance before. The driver attempted to make small talk while I cast worried glances back towards Freddie.

At the hospital there was no emergency room available, so Freddie moaned on his gurney in the middle of the corridor. I grasped his hand while nurses periodically took the pulse of his ankle, ensuring the fracture hadn't cut off the blood to his foot and toes.

At one awful moment, an aide rushed by recklessly and bumped the injured ankle. Freddie's prolonged shrieks brought curious heads peeking out from doors on either side of the busy hallway. I squeezed his hand even more tightly, and aggressively mopped the sweat off his brow, hoping to distract him from the agony. "Take big breaths, Freddie. That's it. You're OK, Freddie. You're going to be OK...."

Finally his screaming subsided, and his eyes focused again. He stared for a moment at the fluorescent lights in the ceiling, then turned his head and looked at me. And that's when he said it. Lying prostrate in the middle of the emergency ward, orderlies passing back and forth on either side of him, enduring excruciating pain, Freddie murmured, "Mr. Ellison, I sure am sorry about those fire crackers."

"That's alright, Freddie," I responded, stifling a laugh, marveling at this young man.

Kids say the darnedest things.