First published in The Wichita Eagle Friday, November 29, 2002
Immanuel Thompson thought his mother had left him no choice.
"Do the schoolwork," she said. "Or I will keep you out of boxing."
He didn't like schoolwork.
"Do the work," said his boxing coach, Johnny Papin. "School is more important than boxing."
Manny began to work with a math tutor; Mom said he had to.
His teachers at Coleman Middle School watched to see what would happen.
They had seen many students do poorly, but seldom had they seen a mother crack down like Brenda Thompson had.
She pulled him out of boxing for a week, then for two more days when he slacked off again.
The teachers had told Brenda that Manny was doing poorly because he failed to turn in assignments.
"You're not stupid," Brenda told him. "I know you can do it."
Kathy Morley, his social studies teacher, noticed Immanuel asking more questions in class.
"How do I do this?" he'd ask. "Help me."
He began to turn in assignments.
At Hope City Boxing and Awareness Club practices, Johnny kept after him to study.
Justin Blevins, the heavyweight pro, taught him to sharpen his jab and told him to study.
Even Johnny's wife, who seldom stepped into the back yard during practice, came out to tell Manny to study.
He tried. And he began to feel something sneak up on him.
"I started to like some of my classes."
* * *
By October 2001, evenings got dark, cold and rainy. Johnny offered to drive his boxers across town to work out indoors with Mike Magdaleno's Northside Boxing Club. Magdaleno ran a small gym near 21st and Broadway, where he trained mostly Hispanic boys.
Most of Johnny's boxers didn't want to cross the neighborhood lines. They told him they'd come back to his yard in the spring.
But Manny and a few others stuck with Johnny and went to Magdaleno's. Manny also stuck with his schoolwork.
By the time grades came out in December, Manny had brought his language arts grade up from a D to an A, his science grade from C to B, and his geography grade from C to A.
He was still flunking math. For that, his mother chastised him.
But he told her, "I'll try."
Manny took his grade card to boxing practice to show Johnny.
Johnny hugged him.
"Keep it up," Johnny told him. "Don't slack off."
* * *
Johnny trained Manny harder than the other boys, asking him to run farther, do more exercises.
When they sparred, Johnny sometimes smacked him on the side of the headgear with an open glove.
"I TOLD you," he said. "Keep your hands UP."
Immanuel listened, worked hard and won many matches against other teens in Wichita and around the state.
He took his gold medals to school, wearing them around his neck as he sat in class.
His grades backslid a bit.
By the end of seventh grade, he had B's in language arts and geography but D's in science and math.
Brenda was disappointed, but she saw that Manny was trying. She let him stay in the club.
She told him he must do better.
* * *
Over the summer, Manny won more fights, sparred with Johnny and resolved to study harder.
When he started eighth grade, teacher Erica Washington noticed something: "He was asking questions all the time."
Manny and the other boys were also hard at work in Johnny's yard again, and events soon reminded Johnny why he was doing this.
On Sunday, Sept. 22, 2002, two teenagers were shot to death at Fairmount Park, a few blocks northwest of Johnny's house. The argument, police said later, had started at the convenience store at 13th and Oliver.
That Sunday and Monday, police officers drove past Johnny's house. Around the park, they went door to door, asking questions.
Monday night, after practice, Johnny and eight boys held hands in the prayer circle.
He was agitated.
All day, cars had driven by, filled with teenagers staring into back yards. The word was out in the neighborhood, Johnny said, that the shooting victims had been ambushed, that there would be retaliation.
Johnny had two boys lead prayers this night. Both prayed for safety and success in boxing.
Johnny led a prayer himself, something he rarely did.
"Lord, please protect these young men from the dangers of our city," he said. "Help us get through what is to come."
Three days later, detectives arrested two men in connection with the shootings.
* * *
On Sept. 26, the same day as the arrests, Coleman Middle school released progress reports.
Manny's showed that he had B's in three classes - A's in two others.
He walked up to Erica Washington, who taught him language arts and reading.
"I got B's," he said.
"Yes," she said.
She wondered what Manny wanted. B's were good grades for him.
"What do I have to do to get A's?"
* * *
At practice that night, Manny walked up to Johnny, waving the progress report.
"Coach," he said. "Look."
Johnny got his glasses and then took Immanuel's paper.
"Oh, my . . . God," Johnny said.
He did a little dance. Manny watched and smiled, dimples showing in both his cheeks.
"I told you you could do this," Johnny said. "I told you if you tried harder, you'd do all right. Now look at you."
Johnny showed the report to the other boys at practice. "See this? See what our boy did?"
Immanuel began to strap on his headgear. Tonight there would be sparring.
Johnny looked at him, and suddenly his face lit up.
"Hey," Johnny said. "You know what? If you worked at school half as hard as you work at boxing, you'd make honor roll."
Manny pulled on a glove and said nothing.
But at home later that night, he asked his mother a question.
When Brenda heard it, she had to hold back a laugh.
"Mom," he said. "If I make honor roll, can I grow my hair out?"