James Long jumped out of bed and into his clothes. While rushing from his tiny bedroom plastered with photos of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and King’s Quest, he grabbed a bag of computer disks off his work desk. James was 13, black and a young man in a hurry. He flew through a living room littered with junk food wrappers, and past his snoring father crashed on the couch. He was almost out the front door when he heard, “James Long, get your big head back in here.” It was his mother. She needed a drink. James skidded to a halt at the doorway, thought for a moment, then dashed outside. His mamma called, “Who do you think you are, boy? Git here.”
James shook the words from his mind as he ran toward school. He ran past welfare bums sitting on stoops, past drug dealers hustling on street corners, and past gang members leaning against graffiti-splattered walls.
At school, James entered what looked like a bomb shelter in an urban war zone. It was his haven, the school’s computer room. It was 7:30 in the morning and James was the first to arrive. Mr. Jeffers, his computer teacher, welcomed James with a hearty high five and then playfully polished his computer screen. Mr. Jeffers told James that with hard work he could really program a great career for himself. James’s soul laughed with joy. The teacher added, “Be there at four, Jimmy. Mr. Fisch is a very busy businessman. No show, no job.” Mr. Fisch had agreed to train James at his computer software company, and to let him use an office computer 18 hours of any day. Mr. Fisch was also going to pay James. Then James would be able to buy his own computer and software and work his magic at home. His career was made.
James nodded and flicked on his computer, fighting that word that kept sneaking into his mind, “volunteerism.” James forced the word from his mind, which was soon at one with a fighter-plane hero out-maneuvering enemy aircraft, evading missiles, and blowing up enemy tanks. James was playing Hero Zone, a computer game he had created. But it was now as ancient as DOS. Today, James’s mind was like a 10 billion gigabyte mainframe running on plutonium, ready to start work on a new game. Maybe Winner, about a black kid who conquers Wall Street by buying low and selling high. Or, maybe, Mr. President, about the battles and choices a Presidential candidate faces when running for President. Or maybe…. The possibilities were endless. That’s why James loved creating games. The joystick in his hand was really the gear stick for his life. James began working on Mr. President. This was the game he was going to show Mr. Fisch.
James heard the school bell ring. He shivered. Only 7 hours until 4 PM, and the hardest decision he’d ever had to make. James rose, leaving for his first class, hugging his disk bag as if it were his frayed ticket to the world.
James grew more nervous as he entered his civics class. His teacher, Ms. Kace, was pale, had sagging lips, and a perfect New England, prep school accent. She smiled at James as the class began brainstorming about the theme of the month, “volunteerism.” Volunteerism, James had come to learn, was a campaign by President Clinton and Colin Powell, and about everyone else it seemed, to enlist Americans to serve the needy. Ms. Kace was also James’s English teacher and head of the school’s volunteer unit. She had always taken a special interest in James and had once even told him that she loved him.
No one else said that to him.
James listened with a sinking feeling as she looked straight at him and said, “I hope to see you all at 4 PM, sharp, when I will be signing up volunteers. Our project this year is feeding the homeless.”
After class, James tried to tell Ms. Kace about his big plan. She interrupted, “That’s just games for children. This is life. You’re not a selfish person, James.”
James’s eyes strayed to his disk bag. He was feeling guilty and worried. Joining the volunteer program would mean not working for Mr. Fisch. This would kill his big break.
James didn’t like to feel guilty; he had always wanted to do the right thing. But he didn’t know what was the right thing to do.
The feeling reminded him of when he attended church. His mother made him go every Sunday. “It’ll learn ya not to think you’re better than anyone else,” she said. She made him take his own hard-earned savings for the collection plate. In the pew, James’s body sat straight but his soul slumped as he struggled to listen. James dreaded the sermons, especially a particular line that cropped up every Sunday:
“Be not evil, but humble; serve not your self, but your brothers.”
James felt that something was wrong about falling to his knees and serving people, but he didn’t know what, and it seemed that everyone believed it. James tried not to hear the preacher’s words spoken just before the collection was taken up: “selfishness is the curse of this earth.” James struggled with himself, but he dropped none of his money into the collection plate. His career needed that money.
James stumbled through his other classes, eagerly awaiting his art class. He finally rushed into his art room, ignoring the splotches of paint and photo collages of mangled black bodies on the walls. Settling on his stool, James grabbed a pencil and began drawing the President in his story, a man whose strong face looked as if it had been chiseled out of Mount Rushmore. A hand touched James’s. It was the art teacher’s, reminding him that it was that day of the week when he, as the class’s top student, was to help the slow learners draw perfect circles.
James dragged himself from the art room to the last class of the day, English. He hoped it would be a free reading period, so he could finish a book about the rise of Tiger Woods. He worried that the period would be watching It’s a Wonderful Life yet again. He hated seeing George Bailey giving up his dream. He didn’t know exactly why it bothered him and wished someone would tell him.
Ms. Kace met James at the door, with a look of righteous pain that she seemed to enjoy. She ushered him and the last of the stragglers into the darkened classroom. At the front was a TV. Ms. Kace proudly explained that today was a very special day. They were going to watch the funeral of Mother Teresa.
James dropped into his seat. He tried not to stare at Mother Teresa’s open coffin, nor at a clip of her serving others: washing dying lepers.
He saw many mourning dignitaries, including the wife of the President of the United States. He listened to the reverential tones of the commentators: Mother Teresa was the epitome of love and nobility because of her humility in sacrificing her life to the needs of others. Part of James wanted to flee the room. But he sat transfixed, guilt-ridden. James felt he could not argue with the “saint of the gutters,” especially since she had given her life for boys like him.
James froze when one commentator said that Mother Teresa would have laughed at such a lordly funeral for her: She would have felt that she didn’t deserve it, that she was nothing. “I am nothing,” echoed around James’s brain like a deadening death knell. His disk bag was a heavy, dirty weight in his sweating hands.
At the end of class, at five minutes to four, Ms. Kace put her arm around her student’s shoulder. She led him toward the building where the volunteers were meeting. James Long looked up at her. He expected to see a halo above her head; instead he saw a noose. He forced the image from his head. This part of his imagination was wrong, he now knew very well.
The disk bag fell from his hand. He turned to look at it in the gutter. All he saw was a blur. He would never see disks or anything else clearly again. Ms. Kace told him that she loved him.