LaJoe has known her best and only friend, Rochelle, since they were children. Before they were even born, their mothers were already best friends, and now, Rochelle is like a second mother to LaJoe’s children. While she does not have a job—instead organizing a monthly card game that gives her enough money to live—she often brings the family clothes or toys.
Because of her closeness to LaJoe, Rochelle is like a family member to the children. Her willingness to sacrifice herself for LaJoe’s family shows that, even in gang-controlled areas, people still feel the need to give and receive emotional support, and that friendships can thrive even in the most hostile environments.
When gangs enter in what they call “peace treaties,” adults and their children can finally gather outside to meet and play in the narrow parking lot by the Riverses’ building. One such day, when LaJoe and Rochelle are watching the children play around, LaJoe worriedly notes that Pharoah has recently been daydreaming a lot and forgetting things, as though he is living in a different world than everyone else. The city’s teachers have been on strike for a couple of weeks, fighting to obtain a pay raise, and Pharoah desperately wants to go back to school. He asks his mother when the strike will end, but his stutter keeps him from finishing his question. Knowing what he is trying to say, LaJoe still answers him, telling him that he will soon be back at school.
The irony of the word “peace treaties” to refer to a truce in gang violence suggests that the gangs’ actions can actually be compared to a war, given the scope of the damage they inflict. Pharoah’s desperation to go to school is similar to his desire to return to the train tracks. In the same way that his daydreaming reveals his preference for imagination over reality, both the train tracks and the school allow him to escape the neighborhood for a few hours and find temporary peace.
Pharoah loves school. Despite his stammer and being two months below what is considered a standard level at his age, he is one of the best students in fourth grade at his school, because so many of the other students’ grades are lower than his. He usually rushes to school as fast as he can in the morning and often reads at night until his eyes hurt. In his spare time, he practices his handwriting so much that his teachers are impressed by how neat it looks.
Pharoah’s academic motivation clearly sets him apart from most of the other students. Even though the school experiences serious difficulties—which paradoxically allows a student who is behind a nationwide, standard level to be considered one of the best in his class—Pharoah is eager to improve, using his free time as an opportunity to keep learning.
In the meantime, during the strike-extended summer, the neighborhood remains violent. When a family friend is killed, both Lafeyette and Pharoah refuse to attend the funeral, because they still have not gotten over Bird Leg’s death. The strike finally ends in early October, and Pharoah is excited to start a new, important school year.
Even though Horner residents are somewhat accustomed to the violence that plagues their neighborhood, they are not numb to it—every death is a huge emotional blow. Lafeyette and Pharoah’s refusal to attend the funeral shows that they can’t emotionally keep up with the pace of street killings.
The Henry Suder Elementary School, which both Lafeyette and Pharoah attend, was once a symbol of controversy and racial inequality, due to the school board president’s discriminatory policies. Despite the school’s historically high drop-out rate, Suder is special in comparison with other inner-city schools because of its relatively good discipline which the school’s principal, Brenda Daigre, has played an important role in maintaining. Ms. Daigre also launched “Project Africa,” which raises money to send a dozen students to Africa during the summer, and the project has received national attention and praise. At the same time, Ms. Daigre’s authoritative attitude can also turn into overly harsh judgment, as she’s quick to label students as “bad” and administer punishment that is too severe.
Even though Suder Elementary is Pharoah’s safe haven, it is still affected by the same discrimination and potential violence that exist in the neighborhood. Students who live in neighborhoods such as Horner, then, are doubly disadvantaged in comparison to other students across the country: first, because of the dangers of their neighborhood, and secondly because of the way their neighborhood negatively affects the quality of their school. At the same time, some programs, such as Project Africa, also bring hope and show some individuals’ will to allow their students to grow and learn in innovative ways.
The school also suffers from increasingly limited funds, which has forced it to cut art and music classes, have only one counselor for seven hundred students, and share a nurse and psychologist with three other schools. In addition, Suder suffers from a severe lack of male teachers, who could serve as positive role models for children and show them that employed men do not only work as policemen.
The striking inadequacy of Suder Elementary’s services suggests that students will probably never receive the psychological or social help they might need, even though so many of them deal with problems at home or in the neighborhood that make them particularly vulnerable. The lack of male role models implies that male students’ awareness of life opportunities remains extremely limited, which is bound to impact their own aspirations.
Pharoah’s fourth-grade class is led by Ms. Barone, an enthusiastic, experienced teacher. While Ms. Barone devotes extraordinary energy to her class, she has also suffered from fatigue over the years, and she is tired of large class sizes and lack of funds. Due to her emotional involvement with her students, who often face violence and trauma outside of school, Ms. Barone suffers from excessive stress, which has led her to develop a ulcerated colon.
Ms. Barone’s vulnerability to stress mirror LaJoe and Lafeyette’s own reactions to violence. These examples suggest that the problems facing the school or the neighborhood cannot be handled by single individuals, but require large-scale institutional support—which is sorely lacking.
Ms. Barone insists on maintaining strict order in the classroom because she argues that her students, who experience chaos in so many other aspects of their life, need it desperately to grow and feel safe. When she noticed Pharoah’s stutter on the first day of school, she was mostly impressed by the young boy’s determination to get the words out, and she has since felt a “soft spot” for him.
Ms. Barone’s insistence on order might seem inappropriate or too authoritarian in another setting, but makes perfect sense in such a chaotic, violent neighborhood. Ms. Barone’s well-ordered teaching style makes the students feel secure, knowing that a trusted adult is in control, and gives them an important glimpse of stability.
Unlike in the rest of the neighborhood, Pharoah feels so comfortable and free at school that he spends his time talking in class, and Ms. Barone has had to place him in the front row to keep an eye on him. At the same time, Pharoah constantly asks to be given responsibilities and tasks to perform, and he has also impressed his teachers and peers alike with his writing and spelling, composing essays that convey his imaginative powers. He felt proud once when the entire class laughed at one of his humorous essays, instead of teasing him, as his schoolmates sometimes do when they make fun of his studiousness or his buck teeth.
Pharoah’s talkative, ebullient behavior at school contrasts sharply with his stutter and his more reserved attitude in the neighborhood. The striking difference in his personality at school and at home suggests that people’s behavior is largely determined by their environment. At the same time, it also shows that Pharoah is intrinsically motivated to work hard, and that his creativity and talent distinguish him from other students. Unlike at home, where he feels passive and vulnerable, at school, Pharoah actively takes control over his life.