Book excerpt: Black boys, Ritalin, and testing

Today I’m posting an excerpt from my novel, Chain Gang Elementary, that deals with issues of race and testing.

Chain Gang Elementary storyline: After a murder at Bonaire Elementary, Richard and Anna Lee Gray seek a good school for their son Nick in a safe neighborhood. Their search leads them to Malliford, a “school of excellence.” When redistricting sends scores of minority students to Malliford, iron-willed Principal Estelle Rutherford declares war on kids to raise test scores and save her reputation. Dissident parents revolt, electing Richard to head the Parent-Teacher Organization, and tensions explode.

From Chapters Thirteen and Fourteen:

Two days before the holiday break, just when PTO President Richard Gray thought he was going to have some peace, parent gadfly Stan McCallister chased him down in Malliford Elementary School’s front hall. Looking like a scruffy, crazed Hobbit, Stan breathlessly informed him of the latest outrage. “You hear about the ethnic cleansing?”

“Beg pardon?”

“It’s called ‘psychopharmacological therapy.’”

“Easy for you to say.”

“Two parents complained to Sasha Bramblett (one of the four black PTO board members Richard had recruited) and said the school counselor and psychologist threatened them. If they don’t put their boys on Ritalin, they’ll stick them in Special Ed, or ship them off to Wildwood, where the kids with behavior problems go.”

Richard tried to absorb this. He had wondered what counselor Cassandra Hardwick and psychologist Donzella James were up to lately, since were both clueless and hyperactive, an exceptionally dangerous combination in government employees. Had the pep talk by Miz Rutherford, the school’s principal, involved pep pills?

“Donzella James reported a mother to Family Services for neglect because she took her son off Ritalin,” Stan said. “Two of the boys are in Ms. Vandenburg’s class. The other is in Radcliffe’s. Somehow they let a black kid slip in,” Stan said sarcastically. “Obviously, they’re tracking—”

“Are all the kids you’re talking about black?”

“Yup. Since our counselor and psychologist are African-American, I guess they think that makes it all right. It doesn’t. People think Ritalin is a miracle drug, but it’s speed, and speed kills. This school is coercing parents to drug their children. It’s evil.” His eyes smoldered.

“I’ll look into it.” Richard felt a sickening weight settle in his belly. Yet another call to battle, and he didn’t know how to proceed. After all, such matters were confidential. He couldn’t just confront two staff members over something he’d heard third-hand. Or was it fourth?

“Happy holidays,” said Stan, backing away. “I hope Santa is good to you.”

“There is no Santa,” Richard said. “I saw him die.”

“Shush, Mr. Gray,” hissed Mrs. Leland as she walked by. “You are so bad.”


The Ritalin policy was a nasty piece of business, a significant evil. The overriding issue was control, and the matter was not open for discussion. Mrs. Baines, the school’s vice principal, had suggested in her semi-diplomatic way that Richard mind his own business when he asked about it on the first day of winter term.

“Aren’t there better things for the PTO to do than investigate the school it serves?” she asked.

Richard smiled thinly. “We serve the children, not the school.”

“A distinction without a difference, Mr. Gray.”

She had no idea how obvious the difference was to Richard, or how deeply he meant what he’d said, but he saw no point in arguing.

Her attempt to stiff-arm him did nothing to quell his curiosity, however. He spoke to his son’s teacher, Avon Little, that afternoon, saying, “I heard some disturbing news.”

“Always some of that floating around. Go on.”

“The school is making parents medicate their children.”

“Hmm … Mr. Gray, they got some big idea about raisin’ test scores. We went ‘round on that. I wish I could paddle some of these boys sometimes, but pumpin’ ’em full of drugs is wrong. There’s folks tryin’ to turn this school into that Cuckoo’s Nest you talk about. And I know some parents don’t want their kids takin’ drugs. That’s their right. Miz Hardwick and James don’t think so, and they got the backing of you-know-who. I been fightin’ ’em on it. I got three reprimands already this year. This keeps up, they won’t let me in the building. I’ll be teachin’ on those benches you built.”

Richard chuckled drily. “What about the test scores?”

“There’s a meetin’ in the cafeteria tomorrow at one. Just sayin’.”

Richard left wondering how he could attend the mysterious meeting.

The answer came in the form of a demand the next day. Polly, the school secretary, called Richard at 7:30 a.m. to say teachers were out of coffee and Cindi Lou was out of town: “They need caffeine. Can you get it here this morning?”

He’d always cursed the teachers’ dependence on the PTO for coffee, which cost $700 a year. Now he saw an opportunity. “I’m working right now,” he said. “I can bring it by after lunch.”

“Is that the best you can do?”

Richard was certain she was conferring with the principal because he could hear scuba breathing in the background. “Yes.”

“All right. Have a nice day,” she grumbled.

When he showed up at 1:00 p.m., Polly gave him a scathing look.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “You don’t have to get up. I’ll take it to the cafeteria myself.”

“I wasn’t worrying and I wasn’t getting up. What brand?”

“Chock full o’Nuts.”

“Ha! Figures. Can’t resist an editorial comment, can you?”

He carried the plastic sack containing six bags of coffee to the cafetorium. Both sets of doors were closed. He peered through a small glass pane and saw a meeting in progress. Mrs. Baines, Miz Rutherford, and the school counselor sat on chairs in front of the stage. Psychologist Donzella James stood. He opened the door and tiptoed in. Fifty dark-hued boys sat at tables near the stage. Nearly half Mrs. Little’s class was there, including all those he tutored.

“Why don’t you just let us take the tests like everybody else?” one kid demanded.

“Ain’t no big deal. Not like it’s a grade,” interjected an older boy.

“We already got a ton of homework every night,” said a third. “I ain’t even gettin’ it done. They won’t let us take PE. And they make us sit at the convict table.”

Richard figured the boy was talking about what Nick called “working lunches.” The kids sentenced to them got only a peanut butter sandwich and an apple—without regard to allergies or braces.

Miz Rutherford stood up and shouted, “Young man, DO NOT call it that!”

Right then, Richard could imagine her wearing mirrored shades, holding a bullwhip as shackled students did homework at the big table. What we have heah is a failure to educate.

“Not as bad as last year, when they put me on the chain gang,” grumbled a sixth-grader.

“There was no such thing!” the principal fumed. “That was a lie perpetrated by the media!”

She was losing control—and certainly wasn’t intimidating them. Fascinating.

“How come we got to score seventy on the practice tests or we won’t get PE? I like PE!”

As more voices rose in protest, Donzella James looked up and spotted the interloper. From forty feet away, Richard saw the flaring whites of her eyes. She looked like she’d grabbed a bare electric wire.

“Shush!” said Miz Rutherford, who then noticed the psychologist’s discomfiture and followed her gaze. Her eyes grew wide, too. She instinctively straightened her dress, as if she’d been caught in a compromising act—like trying to screw fifty black and Hispanic boys.

“May I help you?” barked Donzella.

Richard walked toward the coffee urn, which sat on a metal table next to the wall outside the kitchen. “Don’t mind me. Just delivering the teachers’ coffee. I heard they were passing out this morning.” The boys broke out in riotous laughter. “Now that you mention it, I’d like to find out more about the chain gang.”

Miz Rutherford and Mrs. Baines looked like they’d eaten nails.

“Leave,” the principal said.

Richard set the coffee by the urn. “I wonder if their parents know what’s going on.”

“This doesn’t concern you.”

“I get that a lot. But I represent parents, and there have been complaints, mind you.”

He pivoted on his heel and walked out.

Five minutes after he returned home, the phone rang.

“Mr. Gray, I just wanted to clear up any misunderstanding about our Achievement Rally today,” said Mrs. Baines. “I’m afraid you have allowed yourself to get some misconceptions about what we’re doing.”

He knew Miz Rutherford was standing beside the vice principal. Even over the phone line, he could feel a disturbance in the Force. “Ain’t no misconceptions. Y’all putting black kids back on the chain gang,” he drawled. “What’s to misconceive ‘bout that?”

“That’s the kind of talk that concerns us. We’re simply pumping them up for tests next month.”

“The Standard Hightower Intellachievement Tests?”


“Do all kids have to take a—”

“Yes!” she interjected. “And please don’t use the acronym.”

“Pretty accurate description, doncha think? What were they thinking when they called—”

“I really don’t know, Mr. Gray.”

“Kids have fun with it. Spell it out, you know. S-H-”

“We don’t allow it to be shortened. There’s a memo from central office on that.”

“That, I’d like to see. How to take a—”

“Mr. Gray. Please.”

“So what’s this about missing PE and getting seventies?”

“We’re just encouraging them to be all that they can be.”

“You want them to join the Army?”

“No! We’re trying to … upgrade test scores. You know we face challenges this year. With coaching and preparation and a winning attitude, we can turn this thing around.”

“Why doesn’t everyone get the pep talk?”

“We’re trying to focus our efforts on at-risk students.”

“Forgive me for my bluntness, but I saw the crowd you were pumping up. I think you’ve got some racial motivations here. You shouldn’t have singled out black kids. Everyone—”

“It was the counselor’s and psychologist’s idea. They’re—”

“They’re what?”

“They are what they are, Mr. Gray.”

“And because they’re black, that makes everything OK?”

“You said it, I didn’t.”

“I didn’t say it, I asked it, and it doesn’t make it all right.”

It was just as Stan suspected. Richard could see Miz Rutherford, still in the mirrored shades, calling her two minions into the office and telling them, “You all have simply got to improve your people’s test scores,” as she chewed on a piece of straw.

“It’s demeaning,” he said. “It should stop.”

“Perhaps you should realize it isn’t your concern.”

“Your call implies it is. Otherwise, you’d just ignore me.”

“We just know you have a habit of causing trouble—”

“’Scuse me? Would you like to try saying that again?”

“We know you have contacts in the media, and we … we need you to understand it’s a positive thing.”

“I understand you think it’s a positive thing.”

“You can be so difficult, Mr. Gray.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Baines.”

* * *

To read more about the infamous Standard Hightower Achievement Test, click here.
To learn more about the Chain Gang Elementary and the reviews it’s been receiving, click here.
To see the Chain Gang blog, click here.

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