"Fuck the North Side!" 16-year-old Jesse Jackson Academy student Anthony Bailey yelled from a back window of a parked school bus while flashing cryptic-looking gang signs with his hands.
Bailey's teammates were filing out of Smiley High School and piling into the bus for the 30-minute ride back to their home school on Houston's gritty Southeast Side.
Jesse Jackson Academy's varsity and junior varsity basketball teams just got their butts handed to them by Smiley High. Players on both teams shoved, name-called and trash-talked. It's a rivalry rooted in geography.
School bus shooting
"They North Side, we South Side," Bailey explains, popping a cherry sucker from his mouth. "It's a 'hood thang."
Assistant principal Gregory Grant squeezed his 245-pound frame down the narrow aisle of the bus. Grant is also the school's math teacher and junior varsity basketball coach and boasts a 15-year background as a Harris County probation officer. Bailey and his friends immediately shut up and rested their hands in their laps.
Grant hung out for a while in the back and ribbed the guys about their six-game winning streak coming to an end. Grant, who is 45, has an easy rapport with his students and players. Some who don't have fathers have taken to calling him Daddy.
The bus was crammed with about 30 teenagers, coaches, parents and equipment. Chatter died down as kids lulled to the music on their headphones or slouched into their seats and rapped about the game.
Grant returned to his usual spot on the bus: first seat, passenger side. Less than ten minutes into the ride, coasting along a dark stretch of Mason Road, the bus slowed to a traffic light when a student shouted: "Everybody duck!"
Four gunshots blasted. Glass shattered. Kids instinctively folded their bodies and fell forward to the floor.
"It had to be a .380," asserts senior Kenneth Edwards, as if growing up in the high-crime South Park neighborhood qualifies him as some sort of expert. At first, Edwards figured no one was hurt. Then he noticed blood on a window.
Brittany Bullock, a 16-year-old cheerleader, saw a pair of bullet holes carved into her window. She unleashed a series of long, piercing screams. Others joined in.
Evan Graham, the boys' varsity basketball coach and a first-year teacher at the school, was seated across from Grant directly behind the driver. As if in slow motion, Graham rotated his head to the right and observed a geyser of blood shoot from the top of Grant's head and stream into his eyes and down his face.
"Parts of his head were flaked onto his jacket," Graham says, shuddering at the memory.
Graham yanked off his tie and wrapped it around Grant's head in an attempt to stanch the bleeding. Bullock volunteered her green suit jacket to sop up the blood. Edwards grabbed his teacher by the shoulders and shook him. "Mr. Grant," he said, pleading. "Please don't fall asleep, Mr. Grant."
Grant complained of being tired. He felt suspended in mid-air. "I love my daughter, I love my daughter, I love my daughter " he whispered in an endless loop, invoking his four-year-old, Jade, then blacked out.
The yellow bus tore through the streets, blowing red lights, and screeched to a halt at LBJ General Hospital.
Kids leapt from the front and back of the bus and scrambled in all directions. Some banged on the hospital windows. Others pried a stretcher from the hands of a hospital employee. "We need help! We need help!" Bailey yelled, racing into the lobby.
Graham tried to lift Grant off the bus. A couple days later he realized that his efforts resulted in a hernia.
Three students each grabbed a limb and helped carry their bleeding mentor into the emergency room.
The bullet that pierced a cheerleader's window did not enter the assistant principal's brain. The bullet ricocheted off Grant's head, fracturing his skull and leaving a blood clot on the right side of his brain. He would pull through.
The kids rushed Grant to the LBJ emergency room on December 9, a Friday night, then an ambulance transported him to Ben Taub General Hospital for brain surgery early Saturday morning. Doctors sent him home on Monday evening, just three days after the incident. One month later, on January 17, he was back in school working part-time.
"It was very emotional," Grant says. "When word spread that I was back, kids started walking out of their classes. They were clapping, lining up to hug me." Many stood in the hall chanting his new nickname: Superman Grant.
Later that week, more than 300 students gathered in the cafeteria to formally welcome him back. They presented him with a pair of neon-green poster boards covered in signatures and well-wishes that showed relief ("Thank God you're still alive"), gratitude ("You are what holds this school together") and intimacy ("Love ya 4-life my nigga").
The kids were invited to ask questions.
What does it feel like to get shot? one student asked.
Grant said he felt no pain. Like a cartoon character, red and white stars circled his head.
But the question gave him some pause. "It happens a lot in their neighborhood," he says. "They hear about it all the time. They glorify it."
Do you blame the kids on the bus for what happened? another student asked.
Grant assured the students that he doesn't blame anyone except the shooter. He doesn't believe the shooting was retaliation for the kids who flashed gang signs and shouted provocations.
Doctors warned that Grant may never be able to use the left side of his body. But he's already defied such predictions. Still, his neck and shoulders are constantly sore. He's not permitted to drive. He tires easily. He'll likely suffer intense headaches and short-term memory loss for the rest of his life.
Grant no longer teaches or disciplines or coaches. After the shooting, the school disbanded its basketball programs for the rest of the year. Grant's workload is strictly administrative, keeping track of attendance and enrollment. His wife, Sheila, who works for the City of Houston as a site manager for the WIC program, drives him to work and picks him up each day.
A police investigation into the shooting remains open, though no leads or motives have been identified. "It had nothing to do with the basketball game whatsoever," asserts Alvin Wright, a Houston Police Department spokesman.
This counters the beliefs of many students who were on the bus. Grant, a religious man, is unconcerned about retribution. "Biblically, it's not important," he says.
It's hard to know what, if anything, the students will take away from the incident. Their routines have mostly returned to normal and the school remains, as one teacher called it, "a madhouse."
"Kids need to be more cautious and just chill when they're off-campus," advises Bullock, the cheerleader, who declined counseling from the school though she still suffers from nightmares.
Grant tells a story that brightens Bullock's face. Recovering from surgery, he learned about how the students rushed to his aid while on the bus. He sat slackjawed as the narrative unfolded to him for the first time. But the part that made him cry is when Bullock sacrificed her jacket to wrap his head.
"He knows how much I love my clothes," she says. "It was a cute jacket, too. I had pants to go with it."
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