I was the smart one when I counted the years, the months, the days my dad would be gone away from our family when they took him to prison. I still remember him saying goodbye and saying, “You deserve a better life.”
I was the smart one when I went food shopping with my mom and kept counting the cost of the items so we would not be embarrassed at the cashier for not having enough money. She would sometimes steal too and I was smart enough not to say anything. That was before mom left us too. She did not go to jail. She kept going to buy drugs and kept going to rehab. Then she stopped coming home at all.
I was the smart one when Grandma would do homework with me when I was little and look over my shoulder when I did my homework when I was older.
I was the smart one when my big brother joined the neighborhood gang when he was a teenager. He said that he did it to keep our family safe and that he would make sure the gang did not come for me.
I was the smart one in the class when the teacher praised my work and thanked me for raising my hand. I was the smart one when the kids in the same neighborhood would beat me up because the teacher praised me.
I was the “smart one”. They all kept saying this to me. My brother repeated my father’s words, “You deserve a better life.” He joined the gang because he knew not everyone gets out of the neighborhood and since he was the big brother he would make sure I did. He gave up his own life, his own future for me. My Grandma worked two jobs to keep our tiny home. She worked nights when we were asleep cleaning the offices of those with a “better life”. She would work while I was at school in a diner feeding others hoping she got enough tips to feed us. I saw the weight of the world on her shoulders through my young eyes, as she was always making sure I had paper and plenty of No. 2 pencils.
I was the smart one. My brother joined the gang so I could have a better life. My Grandma worked hard so I could have a better life. The teachers kept encouraging me and fostering my love of learning so I could have a better life. The neighborhood kids had no interest in a better life for me or sadly for anyone else.
On that fateful night none of it mattered. It was right after the evening news and I was at the dining room table doing my homework with my grandma sitting next to me singing an old gospel song from her Southern roots that she left behind a long time ago to come north for a better life. I do not remember when I heard the screech of the tires outside the front of our home. I do not remember the bullets shattering the glass of the porch window. I do not remember the bullets smashing into the wall behind us, knocking old family pictures off the wall. I do not remember when Grandma threw herself on top of me.
I do remember when Grandma could not get off of me. I kept pushing Grandma and she would not move, it was as if she was deadweight. I then I said, “Oh My God! Grandma! Grandma! Grandma!” My screams turned into sobs and then I knew no matter how smart I was, no matter how safe my grandma pretended I would be, no matter how safe my brother thought he could keep me, I was not safe. I was not smart enough for that.