We must be our brothers' and sisters' keepers
“Soon the child’s clear eye is clouded over by ideas and opinions, preconceptions and abstractions. Simple free being becomes encrusted with the burdensome armor of the ego. Not until years later does an instinct come that a vital sense of mystery has been withdrawn. The sun glints through the pines, and the heart is pierced in a moment of beauty, and strange pain, like a memory of paradise. After that day… we become seekers.”
-- Peter Matthissen
How soon do street children’s eyes get clouded, and clouded by the things that some people never see in a lifetime?
Last night, Ty, who is 12, came to us to say, “There’s a guy beating up a woman in the street outside.” And we go outside and sure enough under the street lights on State Street there is a guy kicking and punching what looks to be a young girl. And this is one of the few times police come and come quickly at that. By the time they arrive the fight has moved down to the Bethesda House and the parking lot is full of silent Hispanic men. The family no doubt of the male puncher.
Two squad cars, parked with sirens on full blast and lights revolving like a carnival ride. We drive by on our way to somewhere else, and I actually feel sorry for the brawny two officers getting out of their cars and moving forward, weapons in hand. Not wanting to be gawkers, we go on but not before Ty spots the girl -- and the girl she is -- one of ours. A 14-year-old, who is stunningly beautiful and whose mind is already clouded over by the word of the street. Street talk being a language strangely unique. She is crying and talking on a cell phone as we drive away. Do you think a 12-year-old boy needs to see that at 6:30 on a January evening? But all in all he was more responsible than the other peripheral people. No one came out of Bethesda House to help. Indeed it was like watching a silent movie, the stillness was so complete.
When do we learn that we are our brothers and sisters keepers? Are we all so burdened with indifference? Do we tell ourselves to mind our own business? This makes me think of the fatal stabbing in front of the Salvation Army last week. Where the staff all said, “Whenever there is any trouble, take it outside. “When did we become some removed from humanity? According to the Army folks there is a lot of fighting going on in their dining area and, “We just tell them to take it outside” is the common and everyday response.
We must be the dumbest folk on the block at QUEST, because we step out and step in. We mediate, we talk, we listen to everybody scream and then we calm them down. Everything ends with handshakes. Because, one thing that we have learned at this, at the end of the day most of those people are friends again. These are reasonable folk that, quick to heated anger and stupid gestures and quick to forgive and move on -- until the next time. The smallest gesture can set them off, and then everything escalates and a tragedy ensues. If you got them past their own egos and over that hump of mindless fury they become rational again. That’s where the term “crime of passion” came from. I can see this coming up in the eyes of my children. If I can teach them one thing, that’s its harder to walk away from anger than indulge it, I will leave this place feeling like I have accomplished something of value.
People need food, shelter and a safe place to sleep, but more than this they need to see value in life, be it animal or human. They need to stay their hand and keep their vengeance and thwarted wishes under control. And growing up in a rocky hard place makes it difficult.
Families gather round and make their children fight. Mothers will climb right into the fray and fight alongside their daughters. Fathers and big brothers will throw young ones back into the fight if they try to withdraw. “Be a man” will echo on the pavement. “Fight, fight” will ring through the night and people not to stop but to watch the action. There’s a scent of addiction in the air. “Addicted to drama” is a street phrase. Girls tell me they find college boys boring. They like the danger of drugs and partying, street warfare and hanging out with the baddest boy they can find. And the girls will fight over this boy-man, who will fill with pride and strut around seeing these two girl-women fight it out over him. What an ego trip it is.
One of my first weeks at QUEST, I saw two 15-year-old girls fight over a 15 year old boy –- until one of them picked up a lead pipe and bonked the other over the head and we had to call an ambulance. And the odd thing is now none of these three, 10 years later, are aware of the other's existence. That desperate evening which could have ended so badly is over and buried under a lot of old memories. And that’s what would have happened at the Salvation Army if anyone cared. This was about two women and one man, that old, oh so very old, triangle. Amen.
A teacher's influence
A recent study showed how a great elementary school teacher can raise a lifetime earnings of a single class by $8,700,000!
Olly Neal was a poor black kid who the education system had given up on. Mildred Grady was an elementary teacher who had been reduced to tears by Olly. But she never gave up on him. To deal with seriously at-risk kids, Ms. Blakely would go home and look in the mirror and practice her mean face.
Four times she caught him stealing books from the school library. Instead of confronting him she went shopping and every single week she would bring back a single book close to the type Olly was reading. And that was the beginning, Olly caught the book bug. “Reading got be a thing I liked,” he says. His trajectory changed and he graduated to more complex novels including those by Camus. He went on to college and later to law school.
In 1991 Neal was appointed the first black district prosecuting attorney in Arkansas. A few years later he became a judge and then appellate court judge.
But there’s more. At a high school reunion Grady stunned Neal by confiding she had seen him stealing that first book. She realized he was ashamed to be seen checking out a book. She paid for all those books that tempted him so out of her pocket.
How can you measure Grady’s impact? Not only on Neal but also on the lives of those around him. His daughter Karma earned a doctorate in genetics, taught bioethics at Emory University and now runs a development program in Arkansas.
Improving the ranks of teachers is part of the answer of chipping away at poverty. This is especially true for needy kids, who often get the weakest teachers. That should be the civil right scandal of our time.
“There are children playing in the street who could solve many of my top problems in physics, because they have modes of sensory perception that I have lost long ago.”
-- J. Robert Oppenheimer
New family member
My new dog arrived last Friday, coming from a kill shelter in Tennessee. And what a 60-pound bundle of energy he is. All legs and fur and brown facial hair that make him look like Lon Chaney playing at being a werewolf. Not a mean bone in his heart and body. He does obviously chase squirrels off our back deck. And like Ernie (our cat) steals any food he can find. His tongue is always fastened securely to the floor as he vacuums up food like forage. He is constantly sprawling on his back begging for a belly rub, and he is totally surprised by his never ending good fortune of being adopted.
We are still doing cat and dog training. But little 10-pound Ernie is teaching Wilber that the cat is boss, and that Ernie rules. I guess this is going to take a while. And the closing of one door before opening another is a little nerve wracking. I cannot imagine the loss of that goofy face in my daily life. And when he slipped out of my car into Denny’s parking lot on Monday I was quite simply distraught. Two older women helped me catch him and re-deposit him in my van. This mutt is so full of verve and élan, he is like a caricature of himself. Loving the world, all he expects is that the world will love him in return.
Update on my ticket of a few weeks ago -- the one where I was stopped 12 blocks from QUEST for not having my headlights on.
Well, I was written up for a $180 fine and two points on my license so I decided to go to traffic court. I was there for 2 hours and then some, but in the end it was worth it. I had to say I was guilty my lights were off but it was not in malicious intent. And the judge said ticket dismissed. “It should have never been issued,” he said. And I left court a believer in the justice system and many friends richer, especially the women who worked at Burger King, “You are a shining star lady. Thank you. Thank you. You make the world a richer and better place. Thank you.”