Feb 9, 2014

Fighting Extinction

Capitalist society, systemic racism, cycle of poverty. These are the enemy

The other kids tell me that his house is disgusting. Cockroaches are co-inhabitants, with the same rights as family members. One girl said, "I went through the front door and no one even bothered to try to kill the big roach that was crawling there, right on the floor! It was nasty!"  Yet, she was still there. It is one of those houses, where anything can be gotten for a price.  She's not the only one who goes there-- teenagers and adults alike go there to get what can be gotten. Maybe it's a hit of something, maybe it's a wager on a fight, maybe it's an escape from their own roach-infested place of residence. There are always a lot of people there. Looks like a constant party.

I gave a student a ride home the other day and he pointed the house out to me: "That's the pot house."

Yeah, I know. I know the kid who lives there; he's in my class.  He dresses in designer clothes, even though no one in his house has a legit job. He's got a new phone that always has minutes, and says that there's also a new laptop at home.  The only two meals a day he eats are at school, but somehow he always has all this...stuff. I'm supposed to teach him how to get a job. How?  He doesn't think he needs a job. He has nice clothes, a nice phone. What more does he need? He is only lacking when it comes to finding food, and he figures that when he gets older he'll be able to collect food stamps just like his mom does. If that's not enough, he'll have some kids and make sure they don't get too smart. That way they can be labeled as having learning disabilities and he can collect more money. After all, that's exactly how his family has survived. It's a system that works. Instant gratification (as long as there's no security guard around) and government assistance. How can a 40-hour a week job compete with that? 

It can't.

So I try to appeal to something else. Some other part of him that is hidden deep down inside. I've seen it over the past year and a half. It's in him, buried like an ancient treasure behind a maze of mines and booby traps that snarl or snap when anyone gets too close. It's the part of him that still believes that something can be different. Sometimes that part comes out ready to fight (like when somebody lifts something that belongs to him, even if it is ill-gotten gain.) Sometimes it comes out scared and alone (like when he "hypothetically" asked what I would do if my mama prostituted herself for drug money.) Sometimes it comes out when he asks for help with an Algebra problem, or works at understanding a chapter on genetic mutations. When I see that part of him rise to the surface, I believe in there is something special in him.  I believe he can break the cycle. But I don't know how to make him believe in himself.

We start this year talking about the crisis. I tell the young men in my class, "Pretty soon, you will be extinct unless something changes." We read, "The Fight for Black Men," and discuss the alarming statistic from Michelle Alexander's book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness: more black men are incarcerated, on probation, or on parole today than there were enslaved in 1850. We brainstorm ideas about how they--young men who represent the very subject of these articles--could change the world.  

It hits home. All of it. Reading about the cycle of poverty, the learned helplessness, the way society has made it so easy to brush aside people of color, the way we funnel young boys through the school-to-prison pipeline---the reading profoundly affects him. At first it makes him angry. He doesn't want to participate in class and is stoically silent. Then he wants to argue and argue and argue that there is nothing wrong with the status quo. He isn't responsible for anything and doesn't need to change anything! He can be quite happy living off the government and taking whatever he needs! "I'll just hustle. I'll be a big-time hustler." But then he slowly starts to change his thinking. The anger fades and is replaced by fear.  "I want to try, but what if ...? I tried to get a job once, but they wouldn't hire me. Said they saw my name online. I tried to jump into a gang in junior high--wasn't even no real gang, but everybody knew. No one will hire me now." So we talk about how to network, and I ask friends to take a risk by hiring him. I petition the blogs with the crime reports, asking them to take the kid's name down and give him a chance.  He starts to think about things differently.

And then he is bombarded with advertising for Black Friday sales. Everyone around him is talking about shopping, deals, huge family meals. They're all getting stuff. Stuff that he wants (don't we all?) The lure of it all is overwhelming. He wants. He wants to fit in, wants to feel like other kids in school, wants to look and act like his peers--who aren't lacking for anything. And in one quick moment, he doesn't think at all. He acts. Instant gratification. Want becomes need. Gotta have it. Now.

This time there are eyes watching as he tries to take, and they call the police. He is taken away.  He is a juvenile, but they talk about charging him as an adult, giving him a hefty fine, and locking him up for 3 years.  He is scared. Within days he writes me a letter begging for help. I write him back, but I feel helpless. 

How can I compete? Capitalist society, systemic racism, cycle of poverty. Some of us fight the battles every day, but it doesn't feel like we're winning the war. 

It is now months later. He has been released and awaits trial. The first few days back in school he said he was changing his ways. New friends, new way of thinking. But the same people are still around with their designer clothes, their new phones.  He doesn't have that stuff anymore. In fact, he doesn't even have the roach-infested house anymore. His crimes cost his family their housing voucher for that home, and they had to move.  Going home means feeling guilt and anger about what has been taken away from his family, so he stays away. He hangs out with friends doing I don't know what. But whatever it is, I have to figure out a way to convince him that finishing school and getting a job are more fun. How on earth can I do that? That is not a hypothetical question. I need help. What would you do to help?


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