Stepping from behind heavy auditorium curtains on the high school stage, Randall Lark moved from the shadows as alert as the special operations soldier he once was. Nobody saw his raw nerves, felt his mounting anxiety or heard his heart pounding in his chest.
On the other side of the stage Marty Durkin stepped at the same time from behind crimson curtains. He, too, strode with heightened awareness across chipped varnished floorboards where bored teachers usually produced teenage talent shows or anti-drug assemblies.
One Black, one white, the men met in the middle beneath a blue spotlight. Staring into each other’s eyes for an uncomfortable 30 seconds, they turned to face the audience packed with a fairly even balance of Black, white, Asian, Latino and mixed race students.
Durkin spoke first.
“When I worked as a police officer in New Jersey I shot and killed an unarmed 15-year-old Black child,” he said.
Now Randall spoke.
“That dead child was my baby brother, Tyrone,” he said.
“I’m a white man,” Durkin said.
“I’m a Black man,” Randall said.
“We’re friends,” they said together.
Again the men stared at each other. At first the students sat in silence. Rustling movement and nervous laughter created an audible buzz that grew and swept the hall like an angry swarm of hornets.
“Black lives matter,” shouted a white girl in the front row.
Cheers erupted mostly among the Black students.
Jumping from a front row seat the white male student council president shouted, “Back the blue.”
More cheers flared mostly from white boys. Randall waited for silence while almost everyone quieted down. Five or six Black girls suddenly stood, lifted their arms into the air and began to chant.
“Hands up! Don’t shoot! Hands up! Don’t shoot!”
Again Randall and Durkin waited for quiet.
Each tense second ticked in Randall’s head, pumping adrenaline-fueled apprehension into his brain, provoking mini-flashbacks of terrified villagers in Afghanistan standing panic-stricken in bloodstained snow with their hands in the air.
When the girls went silent Randall pointed at Durkin and spoke.
“I forgive him,” he said.
Durkin looked like he might faint. The room exploded in a mixed cacophony of 12-letter profanity, other insults and some weak applause. Teachers looked at each other worried that a riot might break out. Marty Durkin gathered all the courage he could and prepared to atone.
“I’m sorry,” he said in a steady voice. “I am so very sorry I shot and killed Tyrone Lark.”
A few tears greeted his remorse.
Randall stepped to the lip of the stage.
“Now what?” he asked. “Where do we go from here?”
For whatever the reason, luck included, most of the students seemed intrigued, drawn by the surprising and stark revelations between two adult men born into an American Way that nurtures, supports and furthers racism. Randall saw the opening and took it. He told the students about his war in Afghanistan and at home. He talked about hating Durkin, admitting he thought about killing him the same way he once killed Taliban fighters and others in Kandahar province – pulling the trigger without any tugs of conscience.
When he finished speaking, Durkin stepped forward. But as he started telling the student body how he dreamed of becoming a police officer from the time he was a child, again damning curses erupted. Enraged, a Black senior boy with a full Afro and yardstick wide shoulders rushed the stage. A white football coach bodily stopped his charge. A full water bottle bounced off the podium and rolled across the stage.
“Lock him up,” screamed a Black girl with tears streaming down her cheeks. “Lock him up.”
Worried they were losing control, Randall sounded desperate.
“If I can forgive him so can you,” he said.
At the back of the room the principal stood wondering what he was thinking when he agreed to the assembly after talking to the two men who just walked into his office off the street offering to share their stories as a hopefully valuable lesson for the future. No way was he climbing the stairs and calling for order, the principal thought. No way.
With both hands at his side, Randall stood his ground. Durkin trembled. A 17-year-old undocumented Mexican boy and honor student raised his hand. When Randall pointed at him he looked directly at the tall Black combat veteran.
“Why didn’t you shoot him?” the boy asked.
“I was tired of killing,” Randall said. “I was tired of hating.”
Durkin’s eyes welled up.
So did Randall’s.
More questions followed. Tension slowly lifted. The scene got better instead of worse. After an hour the men stopped sweating, thanked the students for listening and left without attending the coffee and cake reception scheduled for the faculty lounge.
Outside Durkin leaned hard against the black 1965 Mustang fastback he bought when he was still a cop and drove straight through all the way to Florida.
“You want to do that again?” he asked.
“Yeah, sure,” Randall said. “But first I need to catch my breath.”
Durkin reached out and the men shook hands.
“I can dig that,” Durkin said.
Randall Lark rolled his eyes.
“Whose idea was this anyway?” he asked.
“Ruby’s, if I remember correctly,” Durkin said.
“If I didn’t know better I’d swear she put a spell on us to get us to do what we just did,” Randall said.
“Ruby is something else, all right,” Durkin said.
“And then some,” said Randall.
Out of nowhere a gust of wind caught the American flag flying from the flag pole in the parking lot, popping the red, white and blue fabric so loudly the noise sounded like a gunshot. Both men flinched and looked up. Neither spoke as they stood beneath a faded Old Glory feeling sweat again begin to build in the hot and humid Florida afternoon, yet feeling good that they tried and would keep on trying to keep the peace.