Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

A Most Beautiful Thing

The True Story of America's First All-Black High School Rowing Team

Arshay Cooper

Flatiron Books



Holy City

Growing up, we had a fan in our apartment that made a loud clicking noise. We couldn’t afford a new one so we kept it. After a while, the clicking noise didn’t bother us, almost like it wasn’t there. We only remembered when new people visited and reminded us of the noise. That’s how the violence in our city was during the summer.

I came from the West Side. At fourteen years old in my neighborhood, kids had experienced what most soldiers witnessed in war. At fifteen, I had already run for my life, had bullets fly straight past my head, skipped over pools of blood, and witnessed dead bodies on the street. On my block, there were eleven raggedy-ass buildings, five vacant lots filled with empty forty-ounce beer bottles, and four liquor stores that lock down each corner. It’s hard to believe in the American Dream when you walk home through streets of abandoned buildings scattered with baggies of drugs. It was like God existed everywhere but here.

The rules of each street were set by different gangs. If I wore certain colors in the wrong neighborhood, I could get shot. If I wore my baseball cap slightly to the left or to the right in the wrong neighborhood, I could get shot. If I scratched my head and it looked like my fingers were making a certain gesture in the wrong neighborhood, I could get shot. I couldn’t even wear Converse shoes in some neighborhoods because the star symbol is a five-point star, and the five-point star represented the Almighty Vice Lord Nation.

My neighborhood was called “Holy City” because every gang in it ends with the word Lord. There were Conservative Vice Lords, Traveling Vice Lords, Insane Vice Lords, Renegade Vice Lords, and Unknown Vice Lords. When the guys saw one another they said, “What up, Lord?” In Holy City, there were also zombies in every direction. That’s what I called the drug addicts. My mother used to be one of them. My aunts and uncles were, too. Their arms were the first thing I’d notice, always clawing for something. Their eyes had no soul, like the life had been sucked out of them. They were as thin as drinking straws and spoke no words, only noises. They were in the hallways of my building, and I was petrified every time I tiptoed past them through the cloud of rock cocaine.

There were no pictures of me from before the age of thirteen; drugs took them. There were no memories of kisses good night or the smell of breakfast in the morning; rock cocaine’s to blame. There were no good grades, no junior high sweethearts, no ability to be popular at school, and no sense of belonging, thanks to alcohol abuse. These were not my addictions, but my mother’s, and bitterness was stamped on the tablet of my heart.

Back when I was thirteen, I did something I regret. I chose to believe my mom was dead. I had a funeral in my heart. I knew she was going to die in the streets. She was losing so much weight, she stole our Christmas gifts, and she would only come home two or three days a week. When she came home, she would cry aloud in the middle of the night and scream for her fix. I didn’t know who she was anymore. She would dress herself in so many layers, one on top of the other, and when I saw her in the streets she was always with a different guy.

I counted her out. I didn’t respect her and treated her like a dead woman roaming the streets. I didn’t really know my biological father and figured he left my mom for the same reason I wanted to leave, so I was bitter and blamed her. I have heard of other parents in our neighborhood dying from overdoses and my mom seemed far worse than they’d been. I wanted to prepare myself mentally and emotionally for when my mother left us because of drugs, so I could be strong for my brothers and sister. I reached inside and decided she was already gone. It was the same feeling you get when the police or state troopers are behind you and it’s only a matter of time before they stop you. I stopped thinking about her, I stopped worrying about her, but I still cried because I loved her too much and knew she couldn’t stop. She had four kids she loved, so she would stop if she could, right? She was all I ever wanted and needed, but I felt like I had to be strong at thirteen. I would stay up at night waiting for her to come home with her usual hysterics, just so I could fall asleep afterward.

A week passed with no sign of her. Two weeks, no mom. I was annoyed because she had gotten a check and was supposed to buy us clothes. Three weeks, no sign, and I thought to myself that maybe she was gone. I was worried, but not upset. It was as though my heart went cold. We were all living with my grandmother at the time, and after a month passed, there was finally a call. My grandmother said that my mother had checked into a rehab home called Victory Outreach Christian Recovery Homes and wanted us to visit. I figured it wouldn’t last. Six months passed. My brothers and sister would visit, but I never did; I didn’t want to see her. She was dead to me.

A month later, my grandmother forced me to go to a Victory Outreach service to visit my mom. My mother was sweating her to make sure I came. The church was on the corner of Twenty-sixth Street and South Karlov Avenue, a tumultuous Mexican neighborhood. The Two-Six gang was hanging on the corner and I thought to myself, “Will I survive this night?” If you are black and live on the West Side of Chicago you know you do not cross the viaduct into the Mexican neighborhood. This is where the police drop you off when you mouth off to them and try to be a tough guy; it’s like being dropped in the middle of the ocean.

Copyright © 2015, 2020 by Arshay Cooper