Ryan Gattis Excerpt: Kung Fu High School

Kung Fu High School by Ryan Gattis is an ultraviolent dystopian satire―a darkly comic, gleefully graphic, barbaric opera about loyalty, survival, and the horrors of high school (available September 19, 2017).

High school is brutal, but Jen B. has learned to pick her battles. Except the first one―that one is mandatory. At the Good Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King High School, aka “Kung Fu,” everyone gets beaten to a pulp in their first week. Getting “kicked in” helps Ridley, the drug kingpin who runs the school and everyone in it, maintain order. He's the reason that 99.5 percent of the students know some form of martial art, and why they suit up in body armor and blades before class.

Jen’s life is savage but simple until the day her cousin Jimmy, a world-famous kung fu champion, shows up. Everyone at Kung Fu wants a piece of him, especially Ridley, but Jimmy’s made a promise never to fight again―a promise that sends the whole school hurtling toward a colossal clash, ending in an epic bloody showdown.


The Good Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King High School, that’s the block-letter official name chiseled into the three-foot-thick concrete sign that sits in the dying yellow weeds in front of the cluster of buildings that was my school. First, it got called M.L. King or MLK, simple enough. Then there was King Junior to be more precise and that was because he started having a national holiday all to his posthumous self, but the word was never officially added to the title because everyone thought it would lead to confusion and people would think we were a junior high. That didn’t stop us from calling it King Junior anyway. King Joony followed not long before it was mercifully shortened to King Joo. It never was KJ and I don’t know why that is. But I do know that by the time Ridley was running drugs out of the school cafeteria, people in the city just knew us as Kung Fu.

Wasn’t really surprising that Kung Fu High School was a name someone from the outside came up with first. It was supposed to be an insult because there were so many Asian American kids attending but that was a bullshit reason. We didn’t have any more Asians than anywhere else. Us students didn’t care though. We liked it. It was Bruce Lee tough, a gory stamp of approval that featured a clenched fist crushing the blood right out of a still-beating heart. That was how we saw it in our minds. That was what the nickname meant to us, that Kung Fu.

The way most everybody talks about it though, you’d think it was the evilest place on earth. They don’t even talk about us like we’re humans because of what happened. Senseless animals, I’ve heard. Wild beasts, I’ve heard. Monsters? Demons? Heard those too and I’ve heard even worse. There are more rumors and stories about us than could ever be written down. Every single one made up because the brutal truth could never be released to the public. Not like it mattered. Nobody wanted to believe it was real anyway. That a school like ours could actually exist and that it could really go off the way it did. That so many people could be murdered. I guarantee the whole thing was easier for them to deal with if what actually happened stayed in their horror-packed imaginations and didn’t occur in a regular old high school.

It was like this: main building was a four-story building, a giant box with minimal windows, connected to the two-story gym by a cake-wedge corner of bi-level cafeteria built long after the original plans. The central quad was marked out in huge rectangles of flat concrete. In front of the gym, a two-foot-high, six-foot-wide box, poured of the same concrete so that it looked like it was rising up out of the ground, was spaced between every three rectangles. Those solid things were supposed to be for sitting on, but that was a damn rare occurrence. On the east edge of campus was the other main building. Long and only one level, it housed the auto shop, home economics, and what passed for art studios on one end, while the special education center took up the other. Across from the gym was the theater and band building. Built on the original grade of the hill, the tiered theater angled down the small mound and the bottom, where the stage was, bordered the parking lot. It blocked off the quad from streetview. That was all KFHS was: five faded redbrick buildings plus a couple of disused portable classrooms, surrounding a dirty gray quad. Not so scary, not so special, and definitely not the seventh circle of hell. Long before our “gangbanger” Armageddon went down though, we had a reputation.

Don’t even go there, they’d say when the talk first went around town. Haven’t you heard that that one guy died there? It’s true too. Robert W. Lewis, nicknamed Robbie, aged sixteen, did die here, right in front of his locker, #126, but it wasn’t because he was stabbed or shot or kicked in the chest so hard that it turned his rib cage to dust and liquefied all his internal organs so powerfully that he vomited all his innards onto the laminate floor that was missing more than a few grayish white tiles. That shit isn’t even possible. What actually happened was Robbie had a bad heart and Robbie had a heart attack after Robbie took some cocaine during Robbie’s study hall period then Robbie got dead while reaching for Robbie’s chemistry book. He wasn’t the first person to die here, just the first white one with rich parents to make a fuss. So that was the story that got the status ball rolling but it was much worse than one white kid OD’ing and that incident certainly didn’t stop anything.

The circle was in effect Monday through Friday and if you got challenged, you had to fight. No choice. Two hundred people circle you up and sling you into the middle against Bruiser Calderón and you ain’t going anywhere but at his throat or balls. Don’t even waste time with his knees or those tiny eyes hidden under that caveman brow. Keep that chin down and cover those ears. Head butt if you can sneak one but focus on his soft points and don’t get distracted.

For reals though, why the nickname Kung Fu? Personally, I think it was because 99.5 percent of our student body knew one form or another of martial arts. Serious. If it weren’t for a few people that could only hold their own because of how big they were, the number would’ve been 100 percent. Dojos all over the city were booked out with kids from our high school who wanted to learn self-defense tactics fast. So then Express Dojos sprang up. Like kung fu kapitalism. They specialized in one-week intensive courses in anything you wanted: those popular Japanese forms, Karate, Sumo, Judo, Aikido, Jujitsu, Ninpo/Ninjitsu, Chinese styles of kung fu but specific ones like Hung, Kui, Lee, but never Mo, don’t know why, then there was Wing Chun, all kinds of Korean Leg Fighting, Hapkido, Tae Kwon Do, Hwa Rang Do, Kuk Sool Won, Hup Kwon Do, the ill kind of Muay Thai where all the kids got yellowed shinbones from kicking stumps until the scar tissue prevented any kind of feeling apart from invincibility, and there was Kuntao, Indonesian Silat, Filipino Escrima, some dance-y Capoeira, Front-Foot Boxing, Vanilla Kickboxing, Krav Maga, even some styles most people thought long dead, I mean Tibetan, Mongol, some Nigerian craziness, all started popping back up too, but various mixtures always reigned.

Usually the big circle winners knew two or three real well and could switch up on you in the time it took to button your collar. Happy hybrids, everything was everything, even the type of shit that people only ever saw in movies was in our big house: animal styles like snake, eagle claw, and monkey, fists of the elements, seriously everything. Authentic? Not authentic? It didn’t matter. So long as it worked, we stole it. We stole it all. I mean, that’s the real American Way, right? Gee, Hawaii looks nice, we’re fuckin’ taking it, right? Roll over it, dress it up, or put a flag in it, just claim it as your own. All them fusions got crazy too. But no one ever saw that. It was all just a tall tale unless you experienced it for yourself.

But Robbie dying, that was fact and after that the other rich kids started getting transfers to other schools, prestigious public or private ones in different districts so they didn’t have to show up for classes in the rundown part of the city anymore. The state threatened to pull our funding, which didn’t help because the total population was almost three thousand mostly bad kids that had nowhere to go but to infect good schools, or so everyone thought. Besides, Ridley would’ve just found another high school to operate out of. Didn’t matter where really.

It was the perfect cover and it was even better when all the rich kids with clean faces took off and the only dirty-faced white kids who were left might as well have been black, brown, red, or yellow too. So that was it. Asian, Latino, European, African, Indian, and every other American thing in between became one big mix. The only dress code in our world was instituted by us and it was just this: make damn sure you looked like everybody else. Giant-sized work coat with no shape to it, block-color wool hat keeping you warm over a button-up shirt, khaks or jeans, and a pair of boots. Any and all logos got taped over or torn out. Used to be a time when everyone wore ’em, no longer. Those kinds of identifiers could bring trouble down on you. The hard truth was, we were all targets. We were all the color of poor and just trying to survive the same sinking ship. For real. Can’t say that the Kung Fu rep isn’t deserved though.

If it was your first week at KFHS, I pitied you. On my first Friday, my brother pulled me aside before the welcome assembly and we watched from the brick pillars in front of the gym as all the freshmen got surrounded. Didn’t matter if you were a guy or a girl. You got kicked in. You learned the hard way who ruled the school. By the time your next year rolled around, you couldn’t wait for some ignorant freshmen to walk through the courtyard with color-coded binders clutched to their chests and fear in their eyes.

And you kicked them in the chin too. When they were prone on the ground, you lifted their arms up out of that crybaby fetal position and unloaded on the armpit lymph node because you weren’t really kicking them so much as the kids that kicked you the year before. You broke bones, aimed for joints. You spat on split faces. You took tufts of hair as partial scalps and pressed them in the clear plastic folders meant for science reports and then hung them up inside your locker so no one would fuck with you. It was the only way not to be next.

Violence wasn’t just for us though. It was for everyone who ever came near. Other high schools would send their sports teams but no fans when it came time to play us on the athletic schedule. North High School had a hired security team on hand the day they beat us by twelve points on our court but it didn’t matter. In a rare showing of school spirit, every player on their basketball team, the security guys with their sheathed clubs, and the coaches with their clipboards, all got various vertebrae kicked in by our “fans,” who were really just there to roll and not for any other reason. We were suspended from all athletic competitions for a year after that and were only let back in after Principal Dermoody agreed to hold games without any fans at all, just to keep up pretenses. Then floodlight-equipped helicopters had the habit of flying overhead on game days, lighting up the quad, and the kids that sat in ambush and hid in the trees with their belts wrapped around their knuckles had to duck low into the branches and make like bird nests to avoid getting spotted.

So why didn’t anything get solved by the powers that be? Why weren’t the bad guys caught, tried, and sent to jail? Truth, justice, and more of that awesome American Way, where was all that shit? Situated squarely behind greed, I guess. Let’s start with the food chain:

algae/students → protists/teachers → squid/administration → seals/cops → walruses/lawyers & judges & media → killer whale/Ridley

Students didn’t matter, next to worthless. You were in or you were out. If you were in, expect some early morning dope runs before hockey practice. If you were out, you were fair game at all times. If you didn’t know how to defend yourself, either leave or find someone who could watch your back 24–7. Impossible, right? Those were just a few unwritten regulations.

Teachers there to protect you? Yeah, right. Nobody cared about the teachers. Either they were passionate believers in the power of teaching to change the disenchanted youth, who got in nice cars at the end of the day and went back to cookie-cutter houses in the suburbs, or they were deadbeats, ex-cons who slipped through the cracks without a background check. And all of ’em were on Ridley’s payroll. Except for Mr. Wilkes, the chemistry teacher. He’d been there longer than anyone’s oldest brothers and sisters can even remember.

The Administration? That’s a joke too. From what I hear, Principal Dermoody was the one who masterminded the restructured school lunch program so that Ridley could run his drugs out of the shipping trucks. In: frozen pizza, freeze-dried potatoes, and horseburger. Out: Champa, Spillback, Razorhead, Warped, Mixit, Agrenophene, Smoke, EX-O, Tapwap, and Giggledust.

The cops didn’t count either. Well, they counted, but different than you think. They caught a thick kickback on every shipment that went by the precincts. I’m talking percentages here. Probably in the realm of 12 percent and trust me when I say that they knew about every single shipment and how much it carried; they made sure to get their 12 percent on every ounce.

Lawyers, judges, media? You aren’t getting it yet, are you? Everyone was in on it. Everyone. It’s no coincidence that old white dudes that used to be driving Cadillacs and Mercurys started driving Benzes and Beemers, and the rich fools that were driving Benzes and Beemers upgraded to Porsches and whatever else the next level was. If none of that connects the dots for you, believe this: Ridley even had regular dinners at the mayor’s house as a welcome and invited guest. The poached salmon with garlic and herb sauce, that was his most favorite meal there.

So, how could something so rock solid, so positively fuckin’ entrenched go wrong? A complex, well-supported system like that couldn’t possibly be wiped out in one day, could it? In a word, yes. But really, I can sum it up in two: Jimmy Chang. He was the rebel (if refusing to fight in a cauldron of fighters can be called that) when he came to Kung Fu HS halfway through my sophomore year and he wasn’t any hero then. He was just my cousin.


Copyright © 2017 Ryan Gattis.

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Ryan Gattis is a writer & educator. His most recent novel, Safe, is a heist thriller about a DEA safecracker gone rogue, ripping off gang-owned drug safes in order to help citizens hurt during the market crash of 2008. It’s essentially Robin Hood Noir. The book is set in the same world of South Central L.A. as his previous novel, All Involved: A Novel of the 1992 L.A. Riots, which was grounded in 2.5 years of research & background spent with former Latino gang members, firefighters, nurses, & other L.A. citizens who lived through it.


  1. Lilly

    Kung Fu is a great form of martial art. If you want to become a master of this fight, you need to train a lot. You will not have time to perform less important work. For example, in order to save time you can look at examples of an essay, and then write your own. You can check it out here. I wish you good luck in your endeavors! You will definitely get a black belt!

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