Rarely does Tiffany, who's 13 years old, see anything that truly excites her anymore on H Street. But it happens every now and again. Like the day she saw the gun.
On May 23, in the languid hours after school, she walked across the street to say hi to a couple of neighborhood boys, Kervin Dieujuste and Nathaniel Brazill. Bookish and articulate, both seemed to inhabit H Street in body only; their minds were always somewhere else: in music, in movies, in video games, in cyberspace. But they were nice enough, and Tiffany liked them. Nate, a 13-year-old seventh grader, was especially hilarious. He was always smiling and pranking, sometimes to the point of exasperation. Nate was a trip.
"What y'all doing?" she asked them.
Kervin, also a seventh grader, blurted, "Nate has a gun," and, as if on cue, Nate started for his pants pocket.
"I don't want to see it," Tiffany said, clenching her eyes shut.
But then she peeked and saw the handle of a .25-caliber Raven pistol jutting from Nate's pocket. The gun, which was real and quite deadly, looked small enough to come out of a McDonald's Happy Meal. The sight of it filled her with excitement and dread. "Oooooh, Nate," she said, as he stuffed the gun back in his pocket. Then she asked where he got it.
"My granddad," he answered calmly.
"Does your mom know you got it?"
"Where do you keep it?"
"In my bedroom."
Then she asked the big question.
"Would you kill somebody, Nate?"
"Not unless I had to."
Tiffany says she didn't utter a word about Nate's gun after that, not even to her mother. Especially not to her mother. "I didn't want her to get all upset," she explains.
Kervin, who counted Nate as one of his best friends and played the tuba alongside him in the school band, didn't speak up about the gun either, though he swears he intended to. The son of Haitian immigrants, Kervin says he decided to tell a teacher about the gun, possibly his English teacher, Barry Grunow. Mr. Grunow was his favorite teacher, a guy who always seemed to find a way to make reading fun.
But then a strange thing happened to thwart his plan: Kervin says he forgot all about the gun that night while he was sleeping.
"Really, I would've told somebody," he says, standing in the doorway of his family's tiny H Street apartment, the thick smell of grease from his mother's cooking wafting out from behind him. "But I forgot. That's how I am. Every time I have a dream, I forget the things that are really, really important."
He had no idea how important it was until three days later, just before the final bell sounded on the last day at Lake Worth Community Middle School. Kervin was sitting in his geography class when he heard a popping sound, which brought to mind a balloon being pricked. Then Kervin heard a gut-wrenching scream followed by more screams. Soon kids around him were crying, and they told him something so outrageous he couldn't fathom it: Nate had just shot and killed Mr. Grunow.
Kervin didn't know what to think or feel. He was stunned. His favorite teacher was dead, and his friend was soon to be televised nationwide -- the latest young monster in the ongoing series of school shooters. To make matters worse, Kervin never could seem to get the emotional release that seemed to come so easy to other students. "Man, I wish I could have, but I couldn't cry," he says.
Kervin may not be sure of his own emotions, but he does think he knows why Nate, an undeniably bright boy who'd never been in any serious trouble before, killed. "I think he just got really, really mad," Kervin surmises. "I think it just went off in his mind."
Nate was furious on the day of the shooting, the last day of school. He'd been suspended for throwing a water balloon and was also still stinging from the rejection of a schoolyard crush. In the aftermath of the shooting, most news reports portrayed Nate as simply another troubled teen looking for revenge on the world he felt had wronged him, à la Columbine.