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Nordame Williams: ‘I had to be guilty, I guess’

The way Nordame Williams remembers the choice, it was between the jail — the same facility where Jon Berry teaches — and agreeing to do community service and enroll in an alternative learning center. So he signed the paper the woman — a lawyer, a social worker or just who she was he didn’t know — gave him admitting he assaulted the police officer at his high school.

“I had to go to court and all that, and had a little meeting with this lady. She told me what I could do not to have these charges on me and I followed through. I remember what she said. She said, ‘I don’t work with non-guilty people.’ Like for her to work with me, I had to be guilty I guess.”

portrait of Nordame Williams
Photo by Alexia Poppy-Finley
Nordame Williams

So guilty Williams agreed to be, even though he still thinks the cop was primed for trouble and misread the situation. And even if it was the way the officer said it was, he shouldn’t have gotten kicked out of school the first time he got in trouble. They could have talked about it, the way he was taught to handle strong emotions in a group he used to be in.

Williams was big for his size even in elementary school, which should have been an advantage in a culture that prizes swagger. But he was very sensitive and quick to tear up, like his mother. And he had lots of opportunities to get teary in public because he was continually teased for a learning disability that caused him to mispronounce even basic words.

“You would never think of me, a kid this big and be able to get bullied hard, talked upon like that. You wouldn’t see that in me but that happened. Yeah, I broke down all the time like in front of them, like cry.

“I felt like I didn’t fit in. I just felt like I wasn’t equal. I wasn’t smart like them. I didn’t meet their expectations they had. I wasn’t cool enough.”

Williams went to Kenwood Community School in Minneapolis until partway through middle school, when his father, tired of being afraid of the violence and the pull of the streets in North Minneapolis, moved the family to a first-ring suburb.

It was the middle of the year, a terrible time to be the new guy, but Williams quickly joined a support group run by former Minnesota Viking Oscar Reed. It was a refuge, a place where he could be emotional and unsure of himself and still be embraced.

photo of student writing in notebook
Photo by Johnny Crawford
In South High’s black manhood group, a student is resolute: Love is a value he wants to bring to his relationships with teachers.

“First day, wake up for school, wear a new outfit, school bus, got there. We used to drop the high-schoolers off first at the high school. Everybody because of my size, they thought I was in high school. But the first day of junior high, seventh grade, it felt good. I walked in, nice haircut, nice clothes. Everybody seemed cool. Introduced me to the little circles we had and I felt welcome, made a lot of friends. Still know them too. No one ever turned their back on me. Had no argument.

“Boys to Men was a little circle we had. We would pass around a talking piece and, like, we’ll talk about what’s going in my life, what do we want to change, how can we improve ourselves better.

“I never really let nobody in like that. I keep everything to myself. Even now, I barely open up. I try to leave it in the past. Only people that I tell is like people I really trust. Any other time you would never hear this coming out of me because I act like, ‘I got this.’ ”

“I learned when you hear other people’s stories, you think about yours and, like, what you want to do to change it and how you can change it. Because I heard a lot of different stories from a lot different people and, like, what they’ve been through, and how they handled certain situations and like it helped me a lot. That circle Boys to Men, it helped me open up more and realize that life is too short to play around. You got to either get it or don’t get it.”

The police officer who concluded Williams instigated the gang fight that got him kicked out of school was new.

“The officer thought I was trying to influence it and hype it up and really, me having a good heart and not being the right time and the right place to do that, I tried to break it up.

“It made me mad because he was accusing me of being in the fight when I’m really trying to stop the fight. See, the police are made not to believe you at all. They’re made not to trust anything. In my head, he’s thinking, ‘He’s lying, he’s lying, he’s lying.’

“He had a scratch on him, right here. He said you hurt me. I said a scratch. I told my side of the story but what really got me put out of school is the incident with the officer. If I wouldn’t ever did that and went berserk, yelling and stuff and cussing, I probably would have still been there.”

Two other boys were arrested in the fight. Neither ever went back to school, even to an alternative program like the one in which Nordame is now trying to catch up to his classmates.

“One of them, he moved back to Louisiana. The other one, he’s still up here. He’s got a brother up here, so they’re living together. One is 19 and the other is like 21.

“Right now, to be honest with you, I’m currently like on the slow pace. I’m trying to get it in gear so I can graduate. I don’t want to go to summer school but I feel like I might have to take that route. My main goal is to graduate with my class. I want to walk across the stage but I got this terrible feeling that I’m not going to do that.”

Portrait of Sammy White

Next: Michael Walker

After his family moved to Minneapolis from Gary, Indiana, Walker made two deliberate decisions. The first was to volunteer in as many places as possible to stay busy and off the streets. The second was to structure his social life around a core group of friends who shared his goal of going to college.