A moment of change. For my friend W, it was prompted by a teacher.
W was a straight-A student through early elementary school. That success contrasted sharply with his surroundings. Where he came from included a family home that burned to the ground, destroying everything they weren’t wearing. A move to the projects where crack pipes, broken bottles, and bullet shells decked the ground. A heart and back littered with welts from his father’s near-daily beatings.
My friend believed he still had a chance to escape “the black hole gravity of Poverty” until his class was assigned an essay project. W worked on the writing diligently. The teacher instructed the students to display their work on a tri-fold board. W turned in his writing but told the teacher his family couldn’t afford a display board. His father called, as well. But the teacher said it wouldn’t be fair to the other students to change her grading rubric. She failed him. On his report card, W received his first ever C.
What is fair? My friend felt cheated and hurt and deeply ashamed. That was the moment he realized that hard work didn’t matter. Poverty would win out in the end. That C was his U turn. His dream of being something died.
His teachers had told him to call the police the next time his father beat them. W finally worked up the courage after his father tried to kill him. The police sent him back inside, saying he must have “done something to deserve it.”
W is by his own description “a gentle soul, with soft skin and tender heart” who found himself in a fractured environment determined to toughen him up. But all it did was “break the bones of my integrity, making it hard to stand. For anything.”
In our work we’re surrounded by these stories. A child so poor she eats ketchup on crackers for supper. A child whose parent wakes the siblings in the middle of sleep, insisting they choose which one will receive that night’s beating. A child whose habit of stealing begins with ripe plums from the market because fresh fruit is such an unimaginable treat.
What does fairness even mean for these children?
We just finished our annual overnight camp, “Seeking the Self,” with middle school mentees from Blue Ribbon Mentor-Advocate. Every year I share a few of the campers’ poems.
I come from my family’s black truck, Guatemala,
and my brother’s stinky bed.
I belong to my mother’s cooking tongs, the community park,
and corn tortillas.
I come from my mom’s dark curly hair, a metal spatula,
and “Angel e mi guardia.”
I am soccer, swimming, dancing, “Latinos can’t speak English,”
and my mother’s courage that females can do anything.
I know life is not fair.
And I am a soccer ball, bounding, rolling with life, never stopping.
I come from da beach, Grandma’s white stove,
I belong to my dad’s steel hammer, my home,
and three-layered mac ‘n cheese.
I come from my mom’s green cooking pots, my dad’s spiky beard,
and “What are you doing, Boy?”
I am basketball scoring, swimming, looking under the water,
“All black people drink Kool-Aid,”
and the truth of great African American food.
I know life is hard.
And I am a cheetah – fast, meat eater, predator.
I come from my blue green house in Puerto Rico, my mom’s gray car,
and my dirty socks.
I belong to my godfather’s pen, the field where we play soccer,
and my grandfather’s amazing empanadas.
I come from my godfather’s screwdriver, my mother’s multi-colored hair,
and “Ave Maria, madre de dios, ruega por nuestras pecadores.”
I am sleeping on my soft bed, playing soccer outside,
being already bilingual, “all Hispanics like spicy food”
and my grandma’s constant support.
I know life is hard and tough.
And I am earphones,
the love of beats, always good, never knowing what’s next.
I’m amazed by the vitality in the simple details the children share: spiky beards, a blue-green house, a brother’s stinky bed. I’m also consistently amazed that nearly every camper’s Big Truth is “Life is hard.” “Life is tough.” “Life is not easy.”
Yet these children are rolling with life! Soccer balls, cheetahs, beats. Brimming with promise. So was my friend W, still a young man but now sentenced to spend his life inside prison walls. He may well die there. What a waste.
Ketchup crackers, vicious beatings, a misguided teacher’s idea of fairness, These stories will break your heart, which is a fine place from which to view much of what we tend to keep at arm’s length. But when the stories arrive attached to the gift of a person, it’s a whole new playing field. Such is the leveling power of love.
What is your Big Truth? How about sharing it? Blue Ribbon Mentor-Advocate is always in need of mentors. They have a waiting list of hopeful kids. Every year I’m hopeful this column will provide a moment of change for a reader. Light a fire under someone ready to stand up, pull on their playing shoes, and take to the field.
Consider it. And trust me, the heart you heal may truly be your own.
You can reach Lynden Harris at firstname.lastname@example.org