The high school I went to is Skyline High School. The school name is derived from the street it’s on, Skyline Blvd, and the street name is derived from the fact that when you look between the houses and trees on this 3 mile stretch of road you literally feel eye to eye with the skyline. Way up on top of the hill a neighborhood filled with million dollar homes, beautiful regional parks, and even horse ranches is interrupted by the home of the Titans- Skyline High School. It’s the high school Tom Hanks went to and a number of other legends from my hometown of Oakland, CA.
Over the years White flight, new district mandates, and changes to the city zoning laws opened the opportunity to enroll at Skyline to kids from all over the city. Parents like my mom and hundreds of others sought to enroll there kids at Skyline because its location and reputation implied that it was the best educational environment in all of Oakland public schools. So kids from all over the city took the long hour plus bus ride to attend.
Skyline isn’t a private or prep school- but it was always perceived that way, especially by folks in the hood. Rumors and stereotypes associated with Skyline and the students who went there were in alignment with the labels put on snobby prep schools. “Skyline people thing they’re all that”, “Skyline is a fashion show”, “the girls at Skyline are stuck up”, and “that’s the rich kid school” were all sentiments about my school. But I was a Titan. I went to Skyline, and the quad at the school took on a much different shade and dynamic than when Tom Hanks was walking the yard. I went to school mostly with the children of hustlers and working class people. Damn near every kid there came from a family that survived a war in Asia, Mexico, Central/South America, or the war of the crack epidemic in America.
The office was always filled with Black boys who had been kicked out of class or suspended. There was a general lack of order and the potential for chaos was always looming around. Skyline was not a school away from the hood anymore. No, the hood had been just imported there! Some of us were scholars, some of us were delinquents- but for the most part we all came from that common experience of hood life in Oakland.
We were dealing with that urban American duality:
On one hand we were dealing with that human teenage experience thing. But we were also dealing with that targeted, marginalized, oppressed, Black, Brown, poor, trying to get by and be fly thing, as well.
My sophomore or junior year this new kid starts going to our school. He was tall but not the athlete type, Black but had a different vibe from the rest of us. We all new who he was, but he existed on the perimeter of the “in” crowd.
One day I was taking a weed break (aka cutting 3rd period English) on the hood of my car with my homie Billy. He looked up at Charles walking pass and said, “There goes Germany…”. I blew the smoke out my nose and said, “Damn, what Black person named they kid Germany?”
Billy: “Nah blooooood, that nigga from Germany”
I figured Billy was tripping or just wrong because I hadn’t ever heard of no Black people being in Germany… But I wasn’t about to let Billy blow my high with one of these debates he loved to get into. Billy Carmichael looked just like Snoop Doggy Dog and was a philosopher for real!
Turns out Billy was right, sort of. Charles (Germany) was born in Oakland but because his father was in the military they moved to Germany when he was real young so he spent most of his years there. Then, as a teenager, he moved back to Oakland. Poor kid. He went from Germany to che culture shock of being dropped in with us snotty nosed wolves.
Charles was a cool dude though, always polite and pretty quiet. He was always clearly trying to look cool fashion wise. He tried, I’m saying! Most kids pretty much just accepted that you were either the Nautica jacket/Jordan type of kid, or you weren’t. But Charles always tried but it never really came together, you know? :)
My car was in the shop for about a week and I was catching the bus after school- which was always fun. We piled onto the bus and the cool kids sat in the back and made our transactions and talked shit the whole way down the hill. Kids would pull down the emergency handle on the bus windows and flap them open as we cursed and yelled our way home. Every day it was absolutely unruly.
One day I look up and see Charles holding onto the rail by the back door of the bus- which was the border line that separated us back of the bus kids and all our bullshit from the rest of the bus. I felt for him before he even realized the trouble he was in. He was like a lamb standing on the edge of wolf’s den without knowing. I mean, “what is this dude thinking?!”, I thought. Charles had on a Christmas tree green velour matching sweat suit! Remember, he was tall… Then at the end of his lanky-ness was some busted basketball shoes.
As soon as I heard “Look at THIS nigga!”, from one of the kids behind me I knew Germany was about to get bombed on harder than the last air strike of WWII. He was in for the heckling of his life, and these dudes were some real assholes. They talked about his fit, his shoes, his hair- shit they probably talked about his dog…
He just stood there, awkwardly smiling and pretending to be in on and enjoying the joke. Then he said something back in response. I don’t even remember what it was. Something not that funny though- like a weak comeback. Everybody fell out laughing, not at what he said but just that he said anything. It was cruel juvenile bullshit. A bunch of kids who were really mad about other shit like negligent fathers, unsafe neighborhoods, and failing in school- treating this good kid like crap.
Anyway, everyone is laughing and then one of the boys emerges from all the laughing with, “Wait nigga, what you say…?” The whole bus fell silent. He got up and started moving towards Charles. I put my arm out, “Cmon blood- leave him alone”, “Nah Ise fuck that…” I shamefully just sat back down. Two more dudes got up and started moving towards Charles. The bus driver yelled out some pointless warning but it was too late. The targeted, marginalized, oppressed, Black, Brown, poor, trying to get by and be fly thing train had already left the station. Boom. They jumped Charles.
I thought it was fucked up but in my young mind I didn’t think there was anything I could do or say to change it.
When I saw Charles back at school I was embarrassed for him and maybe even myself too. He was clearly embarrassed and troubled by it all and I can’t imagine what it was like for him and his family.
Fast forward 10 years and I’m whatever this thing is I am now. :)
I feel so lucky and blessed every day because the sad sad sad reality is most of the cool kids in high school peeked at the 12th grade. The majority of us graduate (if we’re lucky) from the cool clothes obsessed, violent, negative, overly sexualized, dumb ass high schools we go to and then just flop. Or go to jail, or die, or die alive. When I visit high schools now and I see these recycled packs of Black youth thinking their the shit based on bullshit factors, not knowing the dry path they’re headed down I hurt for them.
A few months back I’m leaving a premier in Hollywood and a colleague of mind asks me to walk up with him to Revolt TV’s headquarters. Revolt is the new network Sean “P Diddy” Combs launched recently. As soon as we walk in who do I see? Charles! We both laughed real big and gave each other a big hug. Charles was fresh to def! Cool haircut, fresh grown man fit, and just all around healthy and vibrant! He’s an editor at this great new network in Hollywood. Not only that, for years he’s been editing for top quality outlets and building a great career for himself. We exchanged info and as he was putting my number in his phone I remembered the bus.
I wondered if he did.
I shook it off and we clapped hands and hugged one last time. It was super dope to see him and I was proud of him!
My play was running in LA for a 12 week run and one night I look up from the stage and Charles is in the front row. Also, his beautiful wife was right next to him and she was holding their first son. Charles is the shit! He always was. Him and his wife are homeowners and are raising a beautiful boy.
After the show I came out to the lobby and Charles was there. He was talking a mile a minute about the show and what he thought and he seemed excited for me like I was for him when I saw him at the studio. We said peace and that was that. But Charles walked his wife back to the car and then came back to the theater. Instantly our conversation went to the bus that day. He talked about how it hurt him and what it taught him. He stood there right in front of the theater and put his whole life in perspective. We both talked about how many of the cats back home get caught up in the cycle and never get to reach they’re potential.
Neither Charles or me are better than anyone else. There’s a million boys and girls across this country caught up in a 4 year moment of high school and fake nothingness that results in a painful and or unfulfilling adulthood. I hope that teachers, families, and some bold young people can continue to push the envelope and create safe spaces and build meaningful character in our young people that surpasses the typical bs. Our youth have to know that if they embrace their uniqueness and allow others to do the same they can totally change the direction and depth of their life experience.
Charles, the bigtime up and coming Hollywood editor and family man, and I took this photo in front of the theater that night.
Ise Lyfe is a Spoken Word Hip-Hop Theater Artist, author and educator. As a nationally renowned artist, justice advocate, businessman, and social architect from Oakland, CA- this young man has a decade of experience in performance and education that includes HBO Def Poetry Jam and residencies and lectures at over 300 universities including Yale and Princeton. Ise Lyfe is simply a unique and powerful asset to the artistic and human rights world.*In 2012, Ise Lyfe’s hometown of Oakland, CA awarded him with one of it’s highest honors by dedicating his birthday, December 28th, as ’Ise Lyfe Day’ in the City of Oakland.