Will You Watch Me Die?
by Shandra Love
“What kind of sick joke is this?” I scream into the phone after hearing those words spoken to me. I sit down on the sofa and wait for a response, even though I knew I should have hung up. “Miss? Is this Miss Crenshaw? Who used to work at Colonial High School?”
I sit up at attention this time and my heart skips a beat. Who is this who has called me after so many years of being gone from that place? Being a teacher at Colonial High School had been one of my less than happy endeavors.
The principal was a megalomaniac with no sense of time, place, nor being and I wanted to continue to keep it in the past, but who was this coming back to haunt me after all of this time?
“Who might you be and why do you ask?” The voice on the other end chuckled and said, “ I see you still have that snappy mouth and can still handle your own. That’s what I always liked about you.” I did get a sense of familiarity when he said this, but I still wasn’t quite sure that I knew who he was.
“We aren’t getting anywhere with the verbal gymnastics. Can you please tell me who you are and why you’ve called?” There was a long pause and then he spoke again, “ Miss...This is Renaldo, I was in a few of your classes about ten years ago at Colonial, and I wanted to call to...”
At hearing him say his name my heart sprang into its inquisitive mode and I burst out immediately, “Naldo! How have you been? It’s been a while. What are you doing for yourself these days?” He cleared his throat, “Miss, didn’t you hear what I asked you when I called?”
I went back to the beginning of the phone call, to retrieve any statements he might’ve made, and when I realized how the conversation began I was suddenly confused and a feeling of dread enveloped me.
“Yes, you asked me if I would watch you die. What does that mean? Why would you ask me something like that? I was always on to you about your sick sense of humor” I tried a nervous little laughter to ease the tension, but in the pit of my stomach, I knew what Naldo was going to share with me would have me doing anything but laughing.
“Miss, I got into a little trouble a few years ago and my time has come...I need you to watch me die.” “Naldo! Stop this now! What are you talking about? I’m going to hang up now because I will not do this with you!” I slammed the phone down and tried to stop the swirling sensation that had taken my head hostage and tossed it about like volleyball.
I got up and paced the floor as I recalled the memories of this tall, skinny, and mouthy kid who gave me much grief that year at Colonial. Renaldo Barnes, a young man from a broken home who had to fend for himself and his little brother and sister, while his mom led a lifestyle that defied the laws of common decency and motherhood.
How could he be calling me now with something like this? What was he thinking?
“Renaldo Barnes?” I sat at my desk waiting for his response before I marked him absent. I looked around the room and saw that no one was going to answer. As I went to mark him absent, he slid through the door of the classroom.
“Have you called me yet Miss, I’m Naldo Barnes?” “As a matter of fact I just did and you’re tardy. “ He stirred a little. “Do you have a pink slip?” “Awww, man! Come on now, if you just called me and you didn’t have the chance to mark it yet why can’t you say that I’m here? One more tardy and I have to do after school detention and I will lose my job.”
I had made it up in my mind to make an example of him so that the kids wouldn’t think that I was a pushover, but something about his plea was genuine.
I made an example out of him, but with the benefit of the doubt resting in his favor.
“Look, it’s your job to do what you have to do to get here on time and to also deal with the consequences if you’re not. I’ll give you another chance, but after that...you’re on your own. Take your seat please.”
He winked at me in a way that let me know that he knew I was bluffing and as the school year went on I’d see how determined he was to challenge me accordingly.
I smiled as I remembered all of the fights I had broken up and the times I had jacked him up in the hallways for misbehaving. My heart didn’t want me to believe that this kid who was now calling me to ask me to watch him die, was the same young man, not MY Naldo.
Naldo was a three-time loser. He was the oldest of three children by three different fathers. His mother was a drug addicted prostitute who beat them unmercifully and would leave for days at a time without them knowing where she was. He was also a poor Black youth born in one of the roughest of neighborhoods in Oklahoma City. His only inspiration had come from watching war movies and wanting to be a fighter pilot.
At first glance one might be led to believe that he wasn’t that type of material, however, I would come to unlock the mind of a genius. Naldo was a walking encyclopedia. He could blurt out statistics and statements that kept me up well into the night, in an attempt to dispute them.
He also had a violent streak that could easily be defused if one took the initiative to understand his reason for it. He had a smile that lit up the room and a heart of gold. His younger sister and brother were his pride and joy and he took care of them better than some adults could.
He kept them neat and clean and looking from the outside you couldn’t tell that he wasn’t from a decent family or without a promising role model at home.
His little sister Kaneisha was always neatly ruffled up and his female friends from class kept her hairdo rocking. She’d have her braids, ponytails, and waves on point and everyone who knew of their personal agony kept it to themselves.
Naldo’s mother was an only child and had broken her ties with her parents after they didn’t approve of her relationship with his father. After becoming pregnant with Naldo, she left home and attempted no contact with them after that. Needless to say, his father split before he was born and left her to fend for herself in an already messed up world.
She got used to entertaining older men and whatever she thought she could do to keep Naldo in diapers and shelter. Her mind was one of promise and greatness as well, so there’s no wonder that he got it from her. She was in her junior year at Fountainview College, in upstate New York. Then she met Richard and fell head over heels in love with him. She was on the honor roll and could've had a life of easy times ahead of her.
He got her strung out on dope and abused her nonstop. Her academics and everything spiraled downward after that. She cared about nothing or no one. She stopped attending class and was removed forcefully from the grounds of the college. It was months before her parents would see her and know the real story of what happened.
They’d denounce Richard and see her for the last time, as well as never know the gender of the grandchild she was carrying.
Oh why did I hang up on him? What if he was serious? How did he get my number? I haven’t ever been listed in the phone book and for heaven’s sake, it was ten years ago that I last had him in class. Where had he been? What had he been doing?
I rushed into my room and started frantically going through the papers in one of my drawers, something came to mind and I thought that it might explain it and make it clearer to me. Where was it? Why couldn’t I remember where I had put it?
I ran across credit card bills, utility bills, and all other things why couldn’t I find it! There it was, tucked neatly away in the left corner with papers I had so meticulously stacked, a letter from one J. H. Bell, Attorney at Law. I opened it and began to read it:
I’m acting on behalf of my client Renaldo J. Barnes. I represented him in a murder case eight years ago and he has lost an appeal to have a new trial. His death sentence will stand and he is scheduled for execution on October 17th of this year.
He is able to have witnesses present and has asked that I find you in an attempt to see if you would be there for him one last time. I know this may be as a shock to you and I’m sorry for bringing this to you in such an informal manner but he has spoken very highly of you and wanted you to know that you made the difference for him when he was in school.
If you’d be so kind as to notify me of your decision I can start working out all of the details to assure him that his last wishes will be carried out. Feel free to call me at the numbers listed or you can respond to the address provided. I would like to answer any questions or concerns that you might have.
J. H. Bell
“Noooooo!”, I screamed out loud in the empty room. This couldn’t be happening. Not MY Naldo. It wasn’t right, it wasn’t fair. Surely God didn’t let him make that complete change to die a statistic in the penal system.
I walked back and forth and tried to shake the thoughts of his upbringing from my mind. I sat on the bed and laughed uncontrollably when I remembered how he had convinced the class that I had quit. I saw the surprised looks on their faces when I walked into the room the next morning, but was running a little late, which made it seem real I‘m sure.
My laughter soon turned to coughing and heaving, which made me strike out to the restroom. I collapsed over the sink and threw up for about ten minutes it seemed. I wanted to wake up. I wanted this nightmare to be over. I wanted Naldo to be back in my classroom again. I washed my face and went back into the bedroom to lie down. The phone rang and I grabbed it before it could ring again.
“Hello?” It was Naldo again. “Miss, I’m sorry that you thought I was playing with you. I really am going to die and I wanted you to be able to see me one more time. I thought my lawyer sent you this information but I guess he hasn’t done it yet.”
I clear my throat of any sadness and try to sound optimistic for him, “Yes, Naldo, he did get that to me quite a while back, but I hadn’t found the time to respond yet. Please understand that I wouldn’t be able to do that though. I can’t be a witness for you. I wouldn’t be able to..to...”
“Go ahead, say it Miss, I’m OK with it. I know that I’m going to die. I know a lot of things because you took the time to show me and that’s why I can live with what I’ve done and the price I have to pay now.” “Naldo please, I’m so glad that I could be there for you but I don’t think I could do that, please don’t ask me to do that.”
There was a long moment of silence and then he spoke, “I understand Miss. I was just asking since they can’t find my moms. I can’t ask my sister and brother to see me like that, but I knew that if I could find you, I might have a prayer. Thank you for not hanging up on me this time. I won’t call you again. I appreciate all that you were to me and how you got me started on the right path. Please don’t be disappointed because I strayed and ended up where they said I would anyway.”
I bit my lip and touched my chest to make sure that my heart would stay there. The tears welled in my eyes and I stifled the sobs that were rising in me, “Naldo, I could never be disappointed with you. You’re a remarkable young man and I’ve always admired the way that you stepped up to the plate to be the father figure that your younger brother and sister needed. Having you in class made me a better person too. It helped me to be more patient, trusting, and willing to step outside of my world to see what it might be like in someone else’s and I want to thank you for that.”
He laughed lightly, “I know I was bad. You don’t have to try and say something nice because I’m dying. I’m ready to pay for what I did. God has put some very sincere brothers in my life and I’m ready.”
I covered the phone with my hand and cried silently for a few minutes, “I’m sorry about that, I thought there might be someone at the door,” “No you didn’t Miss, you were crying. Don’t feel sorry for me, I really am fine and I want you to be OK.”
I was angry with him now. He always knew me so well and knew how to play me.
“Yes Naldo, I was crying. I don’t know what to say or what to think. When they transferred you to the new school I thought you might be OK and would be able to thrive since you’d be away from some of the kids who I thought weren’t so good for you to hang around. What happened? Are you able to tell me? Have you exhausted all of your appeals?”
“Yes, there are no more appeals available to me and I did do it Miss, that’s all that counts now.” “What did you do? I mean how could it have come to this?” He sighed and I followed along as he began to speak.
“My little sister started dating this guy who I thought was pretty cool at first. When she started coming home with black eyes and swollen lips that changed. Miss, my moms got beat by men, she beat us in return. I wasn’t going to let my baby girl go through it too...I couldn’t”
“Naldo was he the person you killed?” “Yes, he beat her so bad one night that he put her in the hospital. The police didn’t care and didn’t do anything so I had to make him pay for all the hurt and pain he caused my sister. Miss you know Kaneisha was sweet and didn’t deserve that.”
I smiled as I saw her bangs flowing in the wind, as she’d run to him after school. “She was and how are she and Darrell doing?“
“Darrell is in the service. He likes it and wants to make a career out of it. Neisha is a nurse and lives in St. Louis with a friend of hers that she met in nursing school. Now you see why I can’t ask them to see me like this?” I understood and could feel his pride for them.
“They have gone on to be something real good and positive. They don’t need this. I talk to them all the time and they know that I’m going to die, but I didn’t want them to actually see it. “ I agreed.
Although my heart was now shattered, I managed a smile as I thought about how well things had turned out for them. I was so relieved that they hadn’t returned to that cycle of abuse that was so prevalent in their lives.
Darrell wasn’t a streetwise thug who had no hope or aspirations. Neisha wasn’t promiscuous and bed hopping in an effort to “find” love. “Miss? Is your ‘no’ a strong ‘no’ or will you think about it?”
After hearing this I put my fear aside and agreed that I would find the strength to come watch him die. I asked him to pass my phone number along to his sister and brother so that I could have contact with them if the need should arise.
When I got off of the phone with him this time my heart wasn’t as heavy because he was quite mature and the peace within him had shone through. I called his attorney and told him to do whatever was necessary for me to see Naldo off.
October 17th rolled around faster than I wanted it to. It was two months ago that he and I had talked and it just didn’t seem possible that I was sitting here at the prison gates waiting to be let in to watch him die. I wore a beige dress with a ruffled bottom. I pulled my hair up into a tight bun and let a few strands fall to the side and back.
It was strange because I didn’t know what would be appropriate or how I should dress, but I did know that I wasn’t going to be in a depressing black or blue ensemble. I wanted something a little warmer and comforting.
After being searched, fondled, and instructed out the nose, I was led into a small dark room where reporters, officials, and members of the victim’s family were seated. A big window with the curtain drawn was in front of us.
I hesitated about where to sit because I didn’t know what to expect. I looked around and saw a few people consoling one another. Reporters were taking notes and glancing at their watches. Ready to file their stories no doubt.
Finally, the curtains were opened and guards were leading him in. He was shackled at his hands and feet, which caused him to do a penguin, like shuffle as he walked. It reminded me of the time he was trying to teach me one of his crazy dances. He looked out into the room and when his eyes met mine he let out that smile that had been such a constant in my room that year.
I smiled back at him. He raised his hand and waved. I was a little shocked at this display by him, but after realizing that he had made peace with himself, I was no longer troubled by it.
I looked him over and smiled. His young handsome face looked the same. His body was more defined and it was obvious that weightlifting had done him a world of good. His facial hair was very neatly trimmed and complimented the deeply chiseled eyes that were always taking in all of his surroundings and allowing none of him to escape, unless he wanted it to.
They lay him on a gurney that had straps to hold him secure at the waist, legs, chest, and wrists. The whole while they worked on him, he looked out at me. I smiled and hoped that this would be quick and painless for both of us. Mainly him.
After strapping him in a man who looked to be a doctor walked over and started an IV in his hand. I turned my head when I saw the blood run down his hand from the puncture.
When I looked back he winked and smiled again. A different man came over and shot something in the bag, which held the fluid that would seep into his veins.
I saw the prison warden motion to a guard who hit a switch and he began to speak, “Ladies and gentlemen in the witness room, Mr. Renaldo Barnes will be addressing you at this time, he’ll speak and then we’ll carry out his sentence of death by lethal injection. We ask that you remain seated until a time of death has been noted. We thank you for your cooperation ”
My right leg began to tremble slightly, the sign that is so evident when I’m troubled. I was glad that it wasn’t noticeable to anyone else. Naldo cleared his throat and looked towards the family of the young man who he killed. “I’d like to ask you all to forgive me for taking something so precious away from you. I know that you might not be able to find it in your hearts right now, but I hope that before it’s your time to leave this place....you will.” They sat emotionless, without blinking an eye.
He looked at an older man who was directly in front of him in the witness room, “Marvin, thank you for all that you did, the strength you helped me find, and the love you showed me in the form of the father I never knew, know that all that you shared with me wasn’t in vain.”
The man smiled as tears streamed down his face. I bit my lip when he turned towards me. I already knew that I wouldn’t make it through this. “Miss Crenshaw, you caught me at a time when I was falling and you made me do better. You never judged me and found good in me no matter what. I carried that with me everywhere that I went but when I could have used it most...” his voice trailed off and I crossed my arms in front of my stomach to muffle the sounds that were coming from it.
“Thank you for your love and support. Please keep in touch with my little brother and sister. May God bless and keep you all.” He looked at the warden and said, “I’m ready.” The warden looked at the doctor who started the IV. He got a syringe that was lying on the table and shot its content into the tube at the wrist of Naldo.
I felt myself rocking back and forth at this point and I no longer cared that there were others in the room with me. Naldo coughed a little and looked out at me again. He managed a very weak smile and raised his other hand in a farewell gesture. He took a deep breath and there were no more.
The warden stepped forward, had the doctor confirm his time of death, repeated it to the witnesses and dismissed us just like that.
I really don’t know how I made it home, as I can’t even remember starting the car. I went in slumped on the bed and cried for what seemed like hours. After pulling myself together I went in and ran some bath water. I noticed the message light blinking on the answering machine when I came out and suddenly remembered that I hadn’t checked the mail or anything else since making it home.
I sat on the edge of the bed and played the message, “Miss, I want to thank you for seeing me off today. You gave me hope in high school and you’ve given me hope now. I know that I was stubborn and rowdy in school, but I want you to know that I knew that you had my best interest at heart. You were what I wished my mom could have been. Thank you and I hope to see you again. I love you.”
I rewound the message and played it again, and again, and again. How dare he insist on having the last word with me AGAIN, by leaving this message on the machine while I was in route to witness his execution. I found myself smiling again, as it was evident that he had made that connection with me and did know what I held in my heart and mind.
I never looked at life the same after that either. I lived every moment to the fullest and tried to let each and every one of my students know that they had a special place in life, society, and the great hereafter.
I still play Naldo’s last message to me. When I listen to it now, I don’t cry, I smile and thank him for strengthening me.
It’s funny how as teachers we believe that we hold all of the answers in our minds. Little do we know that some have escaped us and we in turn can become the students.