The Good Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King (Junior) High School, that’s the block letter official name chiseled into the three-foot thick concrete sign that sits in the dying yellow weeds in front of the cluster of buildings that was my school. First, it got called M.L. King or MLK, simple enough. Then there was King Junior to be more precise and that was because he started having a national holiday all to his posthumous self, but the word was never officially added to the title because everyone thought it would lead to confusion and people would think we were a junior high. That didn’t stop us from calling it King Junior anyway. King Joony followed not long before it was mercifully shortened to King Joo. It never was KJ and I don’t know why that is. But I do know that by the time Ridley was running drugs out of the school cafeteria, people in the city just knew us as Kung Fu.
Wasn’t really surprising that Kung Fu High School was a name someone from the outside came up with first. It was supposed to be an insult because there were so many Asian American kids attending but that was a bullshit reason. We didn’t have any more Asians than anywhere else. Us students didn’t care though. We liked it. It was Bruce Lee tough, a gory stamp of approval that featured a clenched fist crushing the blood right out of a still-beating heart. That was how we saw it in our minds. That was what the nickname meant to us, that Kung Fu.
The way most everybody talks about it though, you’d think it was the evilest place on earth. They don’t even talk about us like we’re humans because of what happened. Senseless animals, I’ve heard. Wild beasts, I’ve heard. Monsters? Demons? Heard those too and I’ve heard even worse. There are more rumors and stories about us than could ever be written down. Every single one made up because the brutal truth could never be released to the public. Not like it mattered. Nobody wanted to believe it was real anyway. That a school like ours could actually exist and that it could really go off the way it did. That so many people could be murdered. I guarantee the whole thing was easier for them to deal with if what actually happened stayed in their horror-packed imaginations and didn’t occur in a regular old high school.
It was like this: main building was a four-story building, a giant box with minimal windows, connected to the two-story gym by a cake-wedge corner of bi-level cafeteria built long after the original plans. The central quad was marked out in huge rectangles of flat concrete. In front of the gym, a two-foot high, six-foot wide box, poured of the same concrete so that it looked like it was rising up out of the ground, was spaced between every three rectangles. Those solid things were supposed to be for sitting on, but I never saw anybody do that, not even once. On the east edge of campus was the other main building. Long and only one level, it housed the auto shop, home economics, and what passed for art studios on one end, while the special education center took up the other. Across from the gym was the theater and band building. Built on the original grade of the hill, the tiered theater angled down the small mound and the bottom, where the stage was, bordered the parking lot. It blocked off the quad from streetview. That was all K.F.H.S. was: five faded red brick buildings plus a couple of disused portable classrooms, surrounding a dirty gray quad. Not so scary, not so special, and definitely not the seventh circle of hell. Long before our own personal Armageddon went down though, we had a reputation.
Don’t even go there, they’d say when the talk first went around town. Haven’t you heard that that one guy died there? It’s true too. Robert W. Lewis, nicknamed Robbie, aged 16, did die here, right in front of his locker, #126, but it wasn’t because he was stabbed or shot or kicked in the chest so hard that it turned his ribcage to dust and liquefied all his internal organs so powerfully that he vomited all his innards onto the laminate floor that was missing more than a few grayish-white tiles. That shit isn’t even possible. What actually happened was Robbie had a bad heart and Robbie had a heart attack after Robbie took some cocaine during Robbie’s study hall period then Robbie got dead while reaching for Robbie’s chemistry book. He wasn’t the first person to die here, just the first white one with rich parents to make a fuss.
So that was the story that got the status ball rolling but it was much worse than one white kid odeeing and that incident certainly didn’t stop anything. The circle was in effect Monday through Friday and if you got challenged, you had to fight. No choice. Two hundred people circle you up and sling you into the middle against Bruiser Calderón and you ain’t going anywhere but at his throat or balls. Don’t even waste time with his knees or those tiny eyes hidden under that caveman brow. Keep that chin down and cover those ears. Head butt if you can sneak one but focus on his soft points and don’t get distracted.
For reals though, why the nickname Kung Fu? Personally, I think it was because 99.5% of our student body knew one form or another of martial arts. Serious. If it weren’t for a few people that could hold their own because of how big they were, the number would’ve been 100%. Dojos all over the city were booked out with kids from our high school who wanted to learn self-defence tactics fast. So then Express Dojos sprang up. Like kung fu kapitalism. They specialized in one-week intensive courses in anything you wanted: those popular Japanese forms, Karate, Sumo, Judo, Aikido, Jiu-Jitsu, Ninpo/Ninjitsu, Chinese styles of Kung Fu but specific ones like Hung, Kui, Lee, but never Mo, don’t know why, then there was Wing Chun, all kinds of Korean Legfighting, Hapkido, Tae Kwon Do, Hwa Rang Do, Kuk Sool Won, Hup Kwon Do, the ill kind of Muay Thai where all the kids got yellowed shin bones from kicking stumps until the scar tissue prevented any kind of feeling apart from invincibility, and there was Kuntao, Indonesian Silat, Filipino Escrima, some dance-y Capoeira, front foot Boxing, Vanilla Kickboxing, Krav Maga, even some styles most people thought long dead, I mean Tibetan, Mongol, some Nigerian craziness, all started popping back up too, but various mixtures always reigned.
Usually the big circle winners knew two or three real well and could switch up on you in the time it took to button your collar. Happy hybrids, everything was everything, even the type of shit that people only ever saw in movies was in our big house: animal styles like snake, eagle claw and monkey, fists of the elements, seriously everything. Authentic? Not authentic? It didn’t matter. So long as it worked, we stole it. We stole it all. I mean, that’s the real American Way, right? Gee, Hawaii looks nice, we’re fuckin’ taking it, right? Roll over it, dress it up, or put a flag in it, just claim it as your own. All them fusions got crazy too. But no one ever saw that. It was all just a tall tale unless you experienced it for yourself.
But Robbie dying, that was fact and after that, the other rich kids started getting transfers to other schools, prestigious public or private ones in different districts so they didn’t have to go to show up for classes in the rundown part of the city anymore. The state threatened to pull our funding, which didn’t help because the total population was almost 3,000 mostly bad kids that had nowhere to go but to infect good schools, or so everyone thought. Besides, Ridley would’ve just found another high school to operate out of. Didn’t matter where really.
It was the perfect cover and it was even better when all the rich kids with clean faces took off and the only dirty-faced white kids who were left might as well have been black, brown, red, or yellow too. So that was it. Asian, Latino, European, African, Indian, and every other American thing in between became one big mix. The only dress code in our world was instituted by us and it was just this: make damn sure you looked like everybody else. Giant-sized work coat with no shape to it, block color wool hat keeping you warm over a button-up shirt, khaks or jeans, and a pair of boots. Any and all logos got taped over or torn out. Used to be a time when everyone wore ’em, no longer. Those kinds of identifiers could bring trouble down on you. The hard truth was, we were all targets. We were all the color of poor and just trying to survive the same sinking ship. For real. Can’t say that the Kung Fu rep isn’t deserved though.
If it was your first week at Kung Fu, I pitied you. On my first Friday, my brother pulled me aside before the Welcome Assembly and we watched from the brick pillars in front of the gym as all the freshmen got surrounded. Didn’t matter if you were a guy or a girl. You got kicked in. You learned the hard way who ruled the school. By the time your next year rolled around, you couldn’t wait for some ignorant freshmen to walk through the courtyard with color-coded binders clutched to their chest and fear in their eyes.
And you kicked them in the chin too. When they were prone on the ground, you lifted their arms up out of that crybaby fetal position and unloaded on the armpit lymph node because you weren’t really kicking them so much as the kids that kicked you the year before. You broke bones, aimed for joints. You spit on split faces. You took tufts of hair as partial scalps and pressed them in the clear plastic folders meant for science reports and then hung them up inside your locker so no one would fuck with you. It was the only way not to be next.
Ryan Gattis is the author of Kung Fu High School, All Involved, and Safe. He lives in Los Angeles. Find him at www.ryangattis.com