The Treatment of Injuries

by Simon A. Smith

Content Warning for Descriptions of Violence

The first eight months of 2019 brought Chicagoans a minor celebrity claiming that he was the victim of a racist hate crime, a five-foot alligator nicknamed Chance the Snapper marooned in the Humboldt Park lagoon, and a summer marred by over 1,500 shootings. It’s hard to say which one got the most publicity. In any case, it is with this treacherous knowledge that I head back to work in the fall. September signals my nineteenth year of teaching at a westside high school, wedged firmly inside a gangland border responsible for half of those dreadful gun blasts.

Some of the scars the students present are physical. Danny Weathers has a huge purple welt on the back of his calf from where a bullet came and went but not before leaving behind a warning that will never stop reminding. Others have mental wounds they drag around like lead balls of the mind. Roshonda Givins, a former class president, now shuffles down halls the way a sleepwalker shambles through a house with nobody home to notice.

In the midst of these calamities, Principal Banks turns to the healing energy of music. She has heard about other schools in cities like Baltimore and Trenton, New Jersey, she says, places where the same strategy achieved some degree of success. She tells us about a band director in St. Louis, Tobias “Something,” who gives glowing reviews, and the whole staff goes along with the plan, skepticism be damned, because we don’t have the steam or stamina left to think up any brilliant alternatives of our own. The idea is to pump soft, soothing melodies into the hallways through the PA system. Songs by artists like Gladys Knight and Bruno Mars are meant to sweep the students up in their calming embrace and carry them off to a more tranquil time and place.

For a couple days, the measure appears to be working. By the middle of the week, some students are nodding along to songs like “Focus” by H.E.R. and mouthing the words to Solange’s “Cranes in the Sky.” A few students even join arms and dance from room to room. Standing in the doorway to my classroom, I have to smile as two girls come giggling and twirling through the entrance. Yes, there are other students who prove impervious to the method. A mass of boys still huddles by their lockers each morning looking agitated, as though the gimmick has caused a reverse effect, further inflaming their swollen anger. The music, they seem to be saying, is like an older sibling responding to their temper with a simpering, “Aw, poor baby.” Still, I think, name a single remedy that has ever appealed to every teenager in the world.

On Friday, as I wait by my door for fourth period to begin, a boy drops his books with a bang and squares for a fight. He puts both fists up in front of his face and slithers forward, leading elbows and knees-first. The scowl on his face is business-like and fearsome. His demeanor is so arresting that it takes me a few seconds before I even notice the object of his fury.

His opponent flashes into sight, a skinny boy with a crooked flat-top, only to be mowed down immediately with a crashing right hook to the jaw.

“Hey!” I shout. “Hey!” My pleas, feeble as they are, only serve as one more stick of kindling on the fire. “Security!” I yell. “Help! Help!” Each frightened cry sounds weaker than the next.

The security crew can find no port of entry. A wall of students on either side of the melee has already formed, a premeditated arrangement cooked up by children overdosed on adrenaline and sapped of sympathy. Overhead, the rumble is scored by another song seeping from the speakers. The soulful Marvin Gaye croons:

Listen, baby. Ain’t no mountain high. Ain’t no valley low. Ain’t no river wide enough, baby. If you need me, call me, no matter where you are…

The juxtaposition of stirring vocals with clashing bodies is jarring in a way that sucks the breath out of me. As more and more kids pile into the brawl, I can’t bear to look. I watch only out of some mechanical duty I’ve been commanded to fill. I do not dare enter the fray myself. I have my own life to consider, a wife, a child, a list of frailties, medications delicately prescribed by my Forest Glen doctor for my own battered heart. The sight of bodies smashing into lockers and slamming to the ground is horrendous. One boy’s head, velvet do-rag and all, goes bouncing off a concrete wall. And yet the song plays on. This time Tammi Terrell’s vocals join the duet:

‘Cause baby, there ain’t no mountain high enough. Ain’t no valley low enough. Ain’t no river wide enough, to keep me from getting to you, baby.

Rows of students hold their phones aloft, capturing the blows to later share and diagram with eager friends. Their camera lights, designed to illuminate the tussle, instead brighten their own giddy faces. A girl in a ripped T-shirt brings her adversary closer in front of a phone, tilting her chin upward toward the screen for the perfect angle before head-butting her in the nose. My stomach flops. I am sickened by their looks of delight as classmates crumble to the floor, some bloody or unconscious. Even as a child, violence always made me nauseous. It’s an irritant I’ve had the luxury to avoid most of my adult life. These students, though… Their thrills, I know, are borne from a desire to glimpse and harness power, to feel they can control or dominate each other, even if they can subdue nobody or nothing else in this brutal world. This is a different kind of dance, their actions tell us, one of friction, half against destiny and half bending toward it. If one didn’t know better, they might think it was choreographed. Here, a tug-of-war for someone’s backpack blurs into a waltz, there a ducked punch becomes a rhythmic bop nobody would ever orchestrate. But this ballet is not created for your standard theater crowd down on Randolph Street. This is a westside production, a warped sideshow meant to accompany the end of the World.

Oh no darling, no wind, no rain, or winter’s cold can stop me, baby. No, no baby, ’cause you are my love.

I can see the nurse, Ms. Hanley, trying to ram through the wall of castled bodies. She is attempting to reach a young man with an ugly gash above his left eye. I watch her try a mole technique, coiling herself into a ball as she burrows low through a gate of thighs. As she gets closer, a group of kids surround the wounded boy, herding him into a corner where a young lady has her own idea. She has removed a lace from her boot and is tying it around the boy’s brow.

Another friend takes a piece of bubble gum and mashes the tie into place. I’m helping Ms. Hanley gain traction, trying to yank her through the knotted limbs of teenagers. When the kids see our coordinated efforts, they double down, pivoting and retreating as fast as they can. 

“Trust none!” I hear one of them holler. A resounding Hell yeah! echoes back in response. 

“No snitchin’!” somebody else yells, and a cheer erupts. The refrain repeats and overlaps. 

Trust none, hell yeah, no snitchin’! over and over, layering in harmony and cadence like the beating of a drum.

My love is alive, way down in my heart. Although we are miles apart. If you ever need a helping hand…

The ballad fits perfectly with Chicago’s appetite for illusion. It is a façade, just like our stable of liberal mayors we trot out every four years, or the eternal promise of “next year” on the lips of every diehard Cubs fan. But this is much more serious. We, the entirety of America, have never been properly trained for this anguish…this mayhem. But why should that matter? Why get tripped up by the details? We won’t. As usual, Chicago’s shoulders will bear the brunt. Our backs will strain under the weight of history’s heaviest corruptions as the rest of the world watches our frailties unfold on the six o’clock news. We listen to pundits and peons shout opinions from the sand as an extraordinary seiche pummels ancient, unmanned boats a dozen miles offshore. What understanding could ever be reached without a full immersion program, without a sailing school for already sunken vessels?

I’ll be there on the double just as fast as I can

One of the freshmen, no older than fifteen, has broken his arm. He ignores it—not out of toughness, but out of shock. It dangles at his side like a snapped tree branch. Still, he staggers forward, thirsty for more abuse. Loose coins skitter and slip underfoot as he struggles for balance. Soon he will go down, thrashing and begging for revenge, oblivious to the cause.

Don’t you know that there ain’t no mountain high enough

A new cluster of kids appears in the center of the ring. They have come to show off the different contortions their fingers are capable of performing. Three of them raise their arms in unison, each bending the fingers on both hands into what look like disfigured crabs. They wave them side to side in front of their faces. A look goes along with the gesture, a menacing mixture of frown and grimace. They suck their teeth inside their lips. Never let them see your teeth.

Smiles have teeth. Never. What comes next is a second crew of hand flappers. A different clique of hard-nosed boys with covered teeth and curled fingers. These guys have something original of their own that they can’t wait to flaunt. They make a sideways three with their thumbs, pinkies, and pointer fingers, kind of like turning a pair of horns into a pitch fork. They brandish them at the first group, and then they joust. They lock fingers and gyrate around in circles, each one more determined than the next to retain the precise contours of their symbols. The first one to drop the signs and engage in actual fisticuffs or compromises loses. They slap and stab their fingers at one another like blunt scissors, grinding nails to flesh and knuckles to muscle. A few of them seem to forget how their claws were originally formed so that a couple of times they accidentally reverse the finger positions and end up on opposite teams momentarily.

Ain’t no valley low enough, ain’t no river wide enough. To keep me from getting to you, baby.

The music, like the other palliatives found in our country’s distorted past, is a lie we tell ourselves. We all, in our own maniacal ways, convince ourselves that cosmetic fixes are marrow deep and biochemical – the fresh trees planted along Michigan Avenue look pretty in spring but do nothing for our twisted, tainted roots. The kids, pushing and pulling at the same time against their rotten fates, are confused about the birthplace of their emotions.

Don’t you know that there ain’t no mountain high enough

Someone has ripped a shoe free from a mangled foot. I watch as a shiny white Nike goes soaring across the hall. Some students laugh and raise their phones higher, careful to catch the shoe at its crowning point of flight. They ooh and ahh. What a show! I think about how the trajectory would make a perfect snapshot. What are those short videos called that all the students keep making? Vines? Reels? Snaps? The clips that keep replaying over and over again, back and forth, back and forth…

Ain’t no valley low enough, ain’t no river wide enough. Ain’t no mountain high enough, ain’t no valley low enough

Imagine, I think, if they made an app that could keep going back, rewind hundreds of years of history, a single shoe hurtling back through time and space, back to the docks of Providence and Newport, Rhode Island. Further still, all the way back to the golden isles, the Windward Coast and the Guelowar dynasties of Senegambia. What if we could all look upon one gigantic panorama of our nation’s sins, every last one of us together, at the same time, and never look away, never be allowed to stop looking, until we could prove, each of us, old and young alike, that we saw precisely what we had done, that we stretched our stubbornness and our spans of attention beyond their snapping points, and that we acknowledged the grueling but necessary work ahead. Then, what song would we sing?

An illustration of a monochromatic blue woman in thick line art. "Being your friend" is illustrated at the bottom of the page, with "end" bolded.


by Shelbey Leco

Simon A. Smith teaches English and debate to high school students. He holds a BA in creative writing and an MAT in secondary education. His stories have appeared in many journals and media outlets, including Hobart, PANK, Whiskey Island, and Chicago Public Radio. He is the author of two novels, Son of Soothsayer (New Meridian Arts) and Wellton County Hunters (Adelaide Books). He lives in Chicago with his wife and son.

Growing up in Southeast Louisiana, outside of New Orleans, Shelbey Leco was always inspired by nature. As a young adult, she studied at the University of New Orleans where she obtained her bachelor’s degree in Interdisciplinary Studies in Urban Society with disciplines: education, english, and anthropology. She enjoys traveling, art, and exploring new places.

IG @Rainbowswampraven

Etsy: ShelbeyShells

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