Fourteen Years Earlier
rashing to the asphalt, nine-year-old Sylvio attempted to break his fall, but it ended up costing him as he scraped his hands and arms. A hard shove to his back had sent him sprawling, and before he could turn to face the perpetrator, he’d already heard the cruel laughter behind him.
Brandon Mills, a burly fifth grader, stood over Sylvio, laughing. “Aw, is Sylvia ‘bout to cry?” he asked sarcastically, as his friends Kerrell Davis and Robert Johnson laughed alongside him.
Slowly, Sylvio rose up from the ground but not without silently blaming himself for not taking the back route to school.
The sun’s early rays shone from behind the trees as kids made their way over to Public School 55. It was only the third week of school, and Sylvio already knew it was going to be one nightmare of a year. Brandon had tormented him for the past two years, and as much as Sylvio hoped that he would eventually get tired of teasing him and jumping out from behind walls or trees to push him, it seemed the more Sylvio ran, the more eager Brandon was to torment him.
When he was in the third grade, Sylvio had managed to avoid Brandon on more than one occasion by entering the school
through the back doors. Brandon never caught him during the school day because he was in a grade higher, so he was always on the next floor level with the other kids in his grade. Yet, that didn’t stop Brandon from occasionally catching Sylvio before or after school.
God forbid if Sylvio ever had money on the days that Brandon picked on him because Brandon was especially keen at detecting money, whether it was dollar bills or loose change. Rumors swirled about Brandon robbing another kid for his high-tops. He shook the poor boy to the point where his parents immediately snatched him from the school. Thus, Brandon earned the reputation of being able to literally chase kids out of P.S. 55. There were days when Brandon even bragged about it, and that’s what raised his profile.
It wasn’t too soon after the sneaker-less kid transferred out that Brandon turned his attention towards Sylvio and focused on making his time at school miserable. But unlike Brandon’s previous target, Sylvio didn’t have the option of transfering to another school, partly because it was a decision that both his parents would need to agree on. His parents couldn’t even agree to stay married.
Sylvio’s mother, Anne Dominique, left him with his father when Sylvio was only four years old, taking his baby sister, Rebecca, with her. His father told him that she moved out of New York and decided to live in Philadephia, where she remarried. So telling his mother about the abuse he faced from Brandon wasn’t an option for Sylvio.
And Sylvio’s father, who grew up in Gonaives, Haiti, would give the same advice he always gave Sylvio whenever Brandon messed with him: “You have to stand up for yourself. Nobody’s gonna fight for you. Ou we’ ki jan mama’ou kite ou?” That was his way of saying, “Did you see the way your mama left you?”
It was another way of Jacques Dominique verbally hammering home a point to his son: even family won’t save him all the time, and he had to fend for himself sooner or later. This lesson was already painfully administered by Brandon every week until Sylvio finally found a shortcut to avoid his enemy altogether.
Unfortunately, this time Sylvio had become distracted as a few girls with African braids gracefully tied in their heads pranced by, almost hypnotizing him. He decided to gather the courage to introduce himself, but upon following them, he forgot to take the alternative route he normally took to avoid his bully.
Spotting him from just a few feet away, Brandon ran behind Sylvio and shoved him hard as he could. If Sylvio’s reflexes had not been as swift as they were, he might have shattered his face and teeth on the ground.
“C’mon, Brandon, what I do this time?” Sylvio attempted to use a deep voice, but a low whine was all that came out.
“You got in my way, son,” Brandon said, smiling devilishly.
Sylvio got up to check his hands. They were scraped and bloody, but nothing too serious.
Maybe if I turn my back and walk fast towards the school, a teacher might come out and stop him before he has too much fun. It was only wishful thinking. As soon as Sylvio turned to walk away, Kerrell and Robert grabbed him by his arms and held him in front of Brandon, whose smile was instantly replaced with malice.
“I ain’t done wit’ you yet, punk.” Brandon snarled as he approached Sylvio.
“C’mon, Brandon, I gotta go. I’m gonna be late for school,” he whined.
“C’mon, Brandon. I gotta go. I’m gonna be late for school,” Brandon mocked in a high- pitched voice as his friends laughed.
Deep within the recess of his heart, a wave of anger swept through Sylvio, but he was trapped and unable to move, despite struggling to escape.
“How much money you got? I left my cash at da’ crib, so you gonna be my new bank today,” Brandon said, menacingly.
“I ain’t got no money.” Sylvio knew that wasn’t true. The night before, he had asked his dad for a dollar to buy snacks at the corner store after school. When Sylvio felt Kerrell and Robert loosen their grip, he hoped Brandon had bought his lie, but Brandon didn’t give up easily.
Lunging forward, Brandon plunged his hands into Sylvio’s pockets, snatching out the lint and small pieces of paper. Finally, he found the dollar that was crumpled in Sylvio’s pocket. “Look at this, ya’ll. He must think I’m stupid.” After Brandon pocketed the stolen dollar, his cronies loosened their grip.
Sylvio began to breathe a sigh of relief until, without warning, he felt a sharp blow to his gut that sent him doubling over in pain as he held his breath.
“Next time, you betta have more, and you betta run me my shit, or else they gonna need a body bag for you when I’m through,” Brandon threatened as he and his boys walked away.
Waiting for the pain to subside, Sylvio slowly began to make his way toward the school doors. As he entered, he happened to look in the direction of the school fence. And there stood a man, staring at him intently.
How long had he been there? Sylvio hoped the man hadn’t witnessed the beating he had just taken. He half-expected the man to suddenly break down laughing. But instead, the gentleman just nodded his head, almost encouragingly, as if he sympathized with what Sylvio had gone through. Sylvio just shook his head and turned his attention to the door. As much as he knew, no one was going to feel sorry for him, not even a stranger.
As soon as the final bell rang, signaling the end of the day, Sylvio made a dash for the back doors so he could cut through the thin walkway that led to his street. It was the best path for him to walk through because he knew Brandon and his friends would leave through the front doors with all the other students. Although he had just spent seven hours at school, Sylvio could still feel the pain from Brandon’s blow to his stomach. Figuring that he needed to sleep it off, Sylvio ran across the street to the OneStop store.
Luckily, Sylvio had managed to scrounge up quarters, dimes, and nickels from his school desk that added up to be about eighty-five cents, just enough to buy a juice box and a small bag of Wise potato chips. After easily locating his chips, Sylvio searched through the beverage section to find the juice grenade as he heard the bell chirping when another customer entered the store. Sylvio paid the customer no mind at first, but as soon as the man made his way over to the section where he stood, Sylvio realized it was the same man he’d seen outside the fence after he was accosted by Brandon.
The man appeared to be in his late thirties to early forties. When Sylvio walked up to the line to pay for his items, the man, with a couple of cigar stogies and a newspaper tucked under his right arm, got in line behind him.
Sylvio paid for his items and left the store, at first unbeknownst to him that the man followed. Maybe he lives close by. It would be kinda creepy if he was following me for no reason.
But it wouldn’t be too long before the man caught up to Sylvio. “Yo, kid.” To his surprise, the young boy continued walking.
Maybe if I ignore him, he’ll go away.
But he was persistent. “C’mon, young man, I know you heard me.”
Finally, Sylvio turned around. He might be skinny and short, but he knew Richmond Hill was no place to talk friendly to strangers. “You talkin’ to me?”
“Course, I’m talkin’ to you, brotha. What’s up?”
“What’s up?” Sylvio replied before deciding to walk away, even quickening his pace to distance himself from the stranger.
But the man was not to be deterred. “Is that how fast you plannin’ to run away from big boy tomorrow?”
At once, Sylvio knew that he was referring to Brandon. “What you mean?” Sylvio slowed down to look at his follower.
“I ain’t stupid, son. I saw what went down this mornin’ before school. It’s messed up how they did you.”
Sylvio carefully eyed the man, wondering if he was just playing around with him or if he was serious. For the moment, he seemed to have genuine concern.
“It’s just Brandon being stupid. You know, kid stuff. He was just messin’ around, no biggie.”
“That don’t look like he playin’ around, son. Trust me, I know. I’ve been there. I’ve been pushed around by every big kid on da block, and believe me, nobody knows more about these shortcuts and alleys than I do.”
Sylvio hung his head, a little embarrassed that the man saw him avoiding Brandon. “I just don’t want any trouble. Brandon is gonna be Brandon, and I just gotta find a way to stay away from him.”
“But for how long, brotha? How long can you keep duckin’ and dodgin’ him? If you keep givin’ power to him, he’s gonna keep fuckin’ wit’ you till the day you die.”
“Did you see his posse? You know how many dudes he got wit’ him? I don’t stand a chance with all three of ‘em.”
“All a mind game, son. He know dem boys scared of him too, so they gon’ do what he says, so they don’t end up in yo place. All he doin’ is protectin’ his rep.”
Sylvio started backing away, fearing the stranger had devious intentions. “Look, I know what I’m doing, sir. I don’t need your help.”
“I’m sho’ you do. But I can help you defend yourself,” the man said, pulling out a small business card and handing it to Sylvio. “Name’s Jim Shaw. I work at the Steel Glove Gym down on Liberty Ave.”
Upon looking at the card, Sylvio saw that Jim was a boxing instructor and trainer. “Thanks, but I don’t know. I mean I got school and everything, and my parents don’t really have the money for boxing lessons. Besides, I’m too skinny for that.”
“So? That ain’t neva stopped nobody, son. With hard work, training, and certain habits, you’ll be a natural. If you train yourself not to take nobody’s crap, I guarantee you you’ll earn all the respect at school. And trust me when I say this: Brandon won’t be a problem anymore.”
“Thanks anyway, sir, but I’m no boxer. I don’t think it’s gon’ work,” Sylvio started walking to his apartment building.
Jim remained persistent. “You know what’s funny? I said the exact same thing when I was about yo age, give or take a few years,” Jim said, chuckling. “I thought I wasn’t cut out for boxing. But the sweet science of boxing is incomparable. I learned how to slip punches, how to block punches, how to duck, how to move, how to adjust my footwork. I parlayed all that into a Golden Gloves championship and twenty-six amateur bouts, winning twenty-four of them.”
“Really?” Sylvio was suddenly more interested in the career that Jim once had.
“Yeah, man. I was just like you at yo age. Getting’ jacked fo’ my money and hiding behind bushes and corners until danger passed. After all, it was all about survival back in them days. But I see potential in you. You might be skinny, but we can work on your speed and strength. It ain’t gonna be easy. You gon’ have to dig deep and work if you want respect out hea. As a matter of fact, I got so much confidence in you, I’m willing to train you—free of charge—and I don’t normally do that for just anybody.”
Sylvio’s eyes lit up. “For free? You’ll really do that?”
“No doubt, young brotha. Okay, let’s do this. After school tomorrow, I’ll take you to my gym, where we have over eighty members. We can do some basic drills. Then we’ll learn the fundamentals of boxing. Just give me a few weeks, and I can transform you into a machine.”
Sylvio thought about it. He wanted Brandon to stop tormenting him, and he didn’t want to tell the teachers or his father because it would paint him as a coward. This was a problem that he was going to figure out on his own. “Let me think about it, and I’ll get back to you tomorrow.”
“Aight, son, think it ova. But remember, how long are you gonna be able to hide and stay away from him? There’s only so many places to hide. You can find every shortcut and alley in the borough, but don’t be surprised if he finds out you’re hiding from him in those alleys. Running away never guarantees safety. But defending yourself and earning respect out here is the best thing you could do,” Jim said, before turning around to walk in the opposite direction as Sylvio made his way home.
fter spending the whole night wide awake, Sylvio finally decided to check out Jim’s boxing gym, so before he left for school the next morning, he packed his deodorant and P.E. shorts. He didn’t have any other shorts or a lot of clothes to choose from, so he took what he had. He brushed his teeth and hair and then made his way over to the kitchen where his father, Jacques, already sat, eating his usual: a toasted bagel with whipped butter spread and a banana on the side. And it was never complete without his cup of decaf.
Jacques stood about five foot nine with short black hair receding at his hairline. He was already dressed for work, donning a MTA uniform. Jacques worked at the ticket booth in one of the subway stations on Farmers Boulevard, and he often worked such long hours that there were days when Sylvio didn’t see his father at all. Yet, Jacques did his best to provide for his son, cooking small meals like soup or making batches of rice and frying plantain, which was an island delicacy. He and Sylvio never prepared large meals. Unfortunately, that was the talent Sylvio’s mother possessed before abruptly moving out with Rebecca.
Jacques was not home when Sylvio returned from school the day before, so Sylvio never told him about Jim or his offer. And it wasn’t by accident that Sylvio decided to keep the meeting a secret. He knew his father was strict and traditional and didn’t allow him to participate in any extracurricular activities if there was no educational merit behind them. Going to a boxing gym wasn’t Jacques’s idea of a beneficial activity.
More often than not, Jacques demanded that Sylvio keep his head in the books and not focus on sports, entertainment, or any other activities that normal nine-year-old boys enjoyed. Many other boys had parents that brought them video games, new shoes, new clothes, and new jackets, but to Sylvio, those items came at a luxury, and his father made but so much money to pay for necessities. Anything outside of Jacques’s budget was considered unimportant until Sylvio worked for himself.
As he approached the table, Sylvio realized he had to find a way to talk his father into letting him go to the gym after school. “Good morning, Pop.” Sylvio casually opened the fridge to grab a pack of waffles, which were also considered a premium in his father’s budget.
“Good morning, Sylvio,” Jacques replied in his strong Creole accent. “How was school yesterday?”
“School was okay,” Sylvio replied, placing two blueberry waffles in the toaster.
“Did you finish all your homework?”
“Yeah, I finished it.” Then after a moment, Sylvio decided to take his shot. “Hey, Pop, after school, there’s an afterschool program, where the teachers are gonna take some of us to the library to study. They’ll also take us to gym right after. Is it okay if I go?” Sylvio hated lying to his father, but he didn’t see it as lying. He saw it as skating around the truth.
Jacques raised his eyebrows suspiciously. “Where is this program gonna be? Ki le’ wap fini?” He also wondered it was going to end.
“It’s gonna finish at five o’clock. I’ll come right back home. I promise,” Sylvio’s mind was racing wildly. Who am I kidding? I don’t know when I’m gonna come back. Hopefully, I make it back.
Jacques normally worked at the booth until six or seven o’clock, so if Jim didn’t finish teaching him all the tricks of boxing by five o’clock, Sylvio still had a couple of hours to beat his father home—even rush to a quick shower—so Jacques wouldn’t expect anything.
Squinting his eyes as if he was trying to study his son in case he was trying to pull one over on him, Jacques thought about it.
Sylvio started to drop his head in disappointment. It ain’t lookin’ too good. He’s gonna say "no."
But what Jacques said next surprised Sylvio. “Okay, you can go. But make sure you’re back by 5:30 sharp. Or else, w’ap gen pwoblem ave’m,” Jacques warned his son about the consequence of not returning on time.
“Yes, Dad. Thanks,” Sylvio said as nonchalantly as possible, although internally, he was rejoicing. It may not be much to celebrate for others, but Sylvio knew, as all kids of Haitian descent knew, how victorious it was when a child was able to persuade his or her parents to participate in activities that did not include the three L’s as they call it: “L’ekol,” “L’egliz,” and “L’akay,” for school, church, and home.
After finishing his waffles, Sylvio grabbed his bookbag and headed out the door. Checking his stopwatch, he managed to make it to school about twenty minutes before the doors opened.