New Orleans — Harold Clay sat on the cafeteria floor, fighting tears. A classmate had stolen the ice cream off his red lunch tray and then pushed him down when he tried to get it back. But, as his uncles and older cousins had taught him, boys don’t cry. So instead, “I start taking the food off the tray, took the tray in my right hand, walked over, tapped him on the shoulder, and cracked him on the head with that tray,” Clay says. “I was one of those bad kids. ‘Put him out, put him out’ — that was the answer.”
Clay was kicked out of school — not the first time he’d been sent home for bad behavior — for this fight. Nobody took the time to understand why he had reacted so forcefully. Though his family received food stamps and aid through the Women, Infants, and Children supplemental-nutrition program, he still didn’t eat some nights, so that ice cream his classmate had swiped had real value. He lived on Dubreuil, the run-down street on the outermost edge of New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward, and “across from me wasn’t flowers,” he says. “It was burnt-up cars, trash, and rats the size of cats.” He attended bad schools with leaky tin roofs and no heat in the winter. He had an absent father. He was sometimes hungry, he was mad, and he lashed out.