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The Front Lines

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The main difference between Robin and the other kids was that he never had the luxury of believing that the monster under the bed was imaginary. But he’d had a good upbringing, an excellent education, and a great foster father. He knew the monsters were out there, but Bernard Crowley kept him safe in Beverly Hills.

It didn’t keep him from being an angry young man. Looking back, he realized that was the most clichéd indulgence of his life. All young men felt angry, regardless of their experience in life. If anything, privilege made the anger stronger. It all seemed ridiculous now, to have wasted all that time and energy on a pipe-dream of retribution.

His early professional life showed him just how unique he wasn’t. He worked at middle and high schools in Compton and East LA, stuffed with dozens of kids that had lost family members to violence, drugs, or the whacked-out American corrections system. Even more than the tenuous memories of his mother—slain by a demon—this experience was his call to arms. It was a war that required cunning, heart, and nerves of steel. It emphatically didn’t require stakes, knives, or explosive devices. The monster wasn’t imaginary, and it could not be killed.

Every day he saw bright young minds all around him, too distracted by hunger and basic concerns about safety to focus on school. Every kid was a battlefield, and the staff and (sometimes) the families fought off the demons of poverty, addiction, bad influences, and bad luck. In his off hours, he still fought the monsters he could defeat, in alleys and sewers. It was cathartic and left him with a clear head for the real fight.

The victories were heady. He felt invincible the day he sent Selena Rodriguez off to UC Berkeley and Serena Jackson off to George Washington University, both with full rides. Their families were grateful and at their back-to-back graduation BBQs he was treated like a sultan, right down to the attentive and attractive older cousins and young aunties. The very next day, Marcel Hakim Ulloa—the kid he’d watched graduate two years earlier, against all odds—was killed in a robbery at the store where he clerked. Robin felt like he’d let his guard down, and this was the result.

After the break, and a swath cut through the vamp dens in El Segundo, he coached the girls’ basketball team after school, and then started offering martial arts classes, disguised as self-defense. When word got out, and the classes got too big, he handed off the coaching duties and focused on the martial arts. He even had two classes for boys, as long as they were able to demonstrate self-control. He didn’t know if he was on the right track, but he felt better about things.

It was still a battle every day. He went from math teacher to assistant principal in a few years. He argued with the food services department downtown about the nutritional value of the free lunches. He wrote grants to get poets-in-residence and saw a couple of kids get signed to recording contracts, though nothing fancy. He put the word out to his buddies that had gone corporate (almost all of them) to collect their hotel toiletries and send them his way. You can’t buy soap with food stamps, and lots of his kids had been doing without.

He tried to get the Mock Trial Team off the ground, but when they lost Charles Gunn, it all fell apart. That kid had the most potential of any he’d seen in all his years on the job. Charles was a natural leader, with charisma and intellectual curiosity that he couldn’t hide no matter how he tried. His little sister, Alonna, had a lay-up that was a thing of beauty. He’d thought she might be able to attract some Pac10 attention, once she moved up from the junior varsity team. Charles could go all the way, maybe even Ivy League, with a whole bunch of luck and some calls to old family friends.

Then they stopped coming to school. Charles’ friend Reg said there’d been some “family stuff”, and that Alonna and Charles were okay, but he didn’t think they’d be back. Robin tried to find them, but the address he had was a crime scene and nobody seemed to know the kids’ whereabouts. It was a real blow, and he considered, again, taking that cushy job in Sunnydale. He’d heard that the monsters there might be something he could fight.

He stayed, though, and told himself that he’d give it two more years here in the trenches. He kept fighting for traction every place he could think of. Sometimes it worked. One kid at a time.

It was the mission that mattered.