Sunday, November 3, 2013

Number 1 and Number 2

This is about the students at Anacostia High School with the top two GPA’s, whom I’ll call “Number 1” and “Number 2.”  Number 1 came to Anacostia from another school in town and immediately stood out for her inquisitiveness and hard work.  It is a cliché to say the first few words that come to mind when describing her, but those words are “relentless,” “fearless,” and “curious.”  She plays volleyball and runs cross-country during the same seasons.  Her teachers and coaches love her, and if she does not get a POSSE scholarship, www.possefoundation.org, she will almost assuredly get another scholarship somewhere.  POSSE scholars in the Washington, D.C. area attend one of six colleges:  University of Rochester, University of the South at Sewanee, Bucknell University, Grinnell College, Lafayette College, and Wisconsin-Madison.  She had virtually the highest SAT scores in her class (along with Travis, whom you might remember from earlier in the fall), but she decided to take our organization’s SAT class this fall and take the test two more times.

Number 2 is equally dogged, but perhaps less disciplined, than Number 1.  She takes hard courses every year.  In the tenth grade she was one of two students to get as high as a ‘2’ on the World History Advanced Placement Exam.  (Travis was the other.)  She is taking Advanced Placement English Language now and Advanced Placement U.S. Government.  If calculus or physics were offered at the school, Number 2 would be there.  She has always aspired to Spelman College, and she will be applying to a few other selective colleges as well.  The school does not have a strong record of students’ gaining admission to selective colleges and universities—only one student in the last three years has gone off to a college that admits fewer than half of its applicants--but it is a real possibility for both Number 1 and Number 2.
A few weeks ago, Number 1, Number 2, and about eight other kids all got together with their college mentors at the local St. Philip’s Church here in Anacostia.  The kids all looked at their latest transcripts and resumed work they had begun on their college lists and college essays.  Number 1 and Number 2 got into a shouting match over who was going to end up Number 1 or Number 2.  The yelling got vicious and personal, and eventually I had to send Number 2 home.  They apologized to each other a couple of days later.  Their assistant principal and I agreed it was a good thing they weren’t fighting over a boy.

I thought that week as I do now:  If only Number 1 and Number 2 knew how much they had in common.  Out of the top 10 students in the class, four were forced to move in the past year against their will, either because of an unethical landlord or because the parents could no longer pay the rent.  Number 1 now lives, with her brother and mother, in a shelter that used to be D.C. General Hospital.  When I dropped her off a couple of weeks ago, a group of sad faces welcomed her home—not because of who Number 1 is, but because the faces are sad all the time.  There is no refrigeration at the shelter, so Number 1 will often ask me for healthy, not perishable snacks so she can get through the evening and morning without getting too hungry.
Both girls had to move last spring.  All Number 2 initially knew of her address was New York Avenue, NE.  It wasn’t an address she wanted to necessarily remember.  But there she lives, at the Days Inn near Bladensburg Rd, NE, in slightly better digs than Number 1, with her sister and mother, and a long bus ride from Anacostia.  She does all her shopping at the Dunkin Donuts, which doubles as the gas station’s convenience store.  She finally let me see where she lives earlier this month, but she has yet to tell her boyfriend her circumstances. 

Thanks to their support systems, we don’t have to worry too much about Numbers 1 and 2.  Clearly they will have some issues of conflict as they develop independence from their families but still long to belong to their families.  But that is a little way off.  I just can’t wait to see which colleges are lucky enough to get them next fall.


"The History of Me"

One of the kids we are most proud of is Travis, one of our original MATHletes back in the summer of 2011.  Travis wrote a touching memoir last spring that I am reproducing here. 

Travis is in the top 10% at Anacostia High School and has the most intellectual curiosity of anyone I know in his class.  He is a captain of the football team and leader in the Robotics and It's Academic Teams.  His memoir spans through middle school.  fortunately for all of us, things have been much less eventful for Travis in high school, other than he has won more and more admirers from his classmates and teachers:

It all started November 20, 1995. The son of a drug dealer and a high school dropout was brought into the world, but for a black kid in the hood that is nothing out of the ordinary.
My mom dropped out of school after having my older brother, then three years later I came along. By the time I was born my mom gave my brother away to his grandmother, so it was just me and my mom for a while.
My father was not around for long, but it wasn’t his fault; it’s not like he wanted to get murdered and left in a dumpster. Although he was only in my life for a short period of time, I still have a faint memory of what he looks like, but that memory of him is slowly fading away.
When my father died I was about six years old, and I didn’t even know about it until a year later. Even after my father died I wondered why I didn’t see the other side of my family; I had brothers, sisters, and grandparents that I knew for a fact were there and lived with him. I felt rejected from a whole family. A grandparent is supposed to look out for their grandchildren regardless of what happens, but I guess I just wasn’t important enough to them. Sometimes I wonder if they even think about me, or do I even cross their mind just a little bit.
Over time I grew to hate them for rejecting me, I even blamed my mother for not doing a better job to keep me in touch with my other family. There was an intense empty feeling inside of me, and I didn’t know how to fill it. How difficult could life be for a six year old kid? It could be pretty damn awful if he hates his mom, hates the world, has no friends, and on top of that he was molested. I not saying I had the worst life, but it’s impossible for me to look back to that time period and see myself happy.
It would be harsh for me to say that I hated my mom, and after all she did try her best to be a great mom to me and attempted to make me a happy person. She put me on the football team and other after school programs just to get me out the house and be less antisocial. My mom broke her back trying to give me the best possible life that she could conger up for me, but I still felt resentment towards her for giving my brother away, and not keeping me and my father’s side of the family together. It might not have been her fault for any of that, but for some reason I can’t forgive her for that no matter what she does for me. Resenting my mother caused me to hate myself. The most important person in my life, and the person who loves me more than anyone in this world is willing to go all out just to make an ungrateful son a little happy, and he can’t come to forgive his mom for something that she probably had no power over.
All my life I felt like a pariah, and there was only one thing I could do about it and that was to make friends. There was one problem with that; I didn’t know how to make friends, so most of the time I spent a school was kind of boring. I was the kid that just sat in the back of the class and never said a word unless I was spoken to first; matter of fact I don’t even think my first grade teacher knew my name until the second month of school. There was a time when I was in first grade when I walked in the class and she told me “Get the hell out right now”. I was afraid to open my mouth, so I just quietly wondered the hallways for about an hour until I was caught by a teacher and sent to the principal’s office, and then I told him whose class I was in. I was sent to the same teacher that put me out of class, because she thought I wasn’t in class in the first place.
Throughout that whole year I still didn’t have any friends or anyone to talk to, but I had football and I thought that would be a good way to find friends. I loved football so much that I could care less about making friends; I just wanted to be out in the field playing. Football was the only thing that me from wasting away in my room, and damn near dying of boredom, but I also help me keep my mind off of the rest of the bullshit in my life. The only down side to football is that it ends, and when it did I was right back at square one: lonely, bored, and an intense hatred for everything around me.
My mom saw that I was a bit pessimistic about life, so to keep me from becoming a suicidal psychopath, she got me a cat. Although I didn’t show it, that cat was my most precious possession in life. I would occasionally force it to have a foot race with me, or tape its feet and laugh when I saw attempt to walk around; it was like watching your drunk uncle trying to navigate himself to the bathroom while wearing socks on a slippery floor. That cat brought me a little bit of joy throughout the day, but that was also short lived when it got out the house and was hit by a car. So once again I was back at square one.
That same year my grandma moved in with us, and she was the very first adult that I spoke to about anything. My grandma was the first friend I had, and didn’t mind keeping me company. She hated it when people complained; she would always tell me “there’s always someone out there with a worse life than you” and “shut the fuck up, I ain’t got no time to listen to yo ass cry”. Regardless of the verbal abuse I still loved her no matter what; literally, she could have shot me with a bee hive cannon and I would still come back to her. Whenever I spoke to my grandmother about not having friends she would tell me “why do you want to be friends with these nothing ass niggas anyway”. One day she said something that stuck with me; “if you want people to be friends with you, you got to give them a reason to be friends with you”. She moved out and I was devastated; I didn’t see her as much, and old people act like they don’t know how to use phones so we didn’t even talk much. Just when I thought things couldn’t get worse; she died. The only friend in my life has died; once more I am back to square one.
After my grandmother died I was torn apart; my mom was so convinced that I would turn out to be fucked up in the head, that she forced me to see a psychologist–or maybe he was a therapist. I had to see that guy for a whole year, and I hated it so damn much. The guy looked like he could be Steve Urkel’s grandfather; his glasses looked like he stole them off a telescope and his eyes were super magnified. All he wanted to do was talk about was talk about my shitty life, and even at the age of eight I hated talking about my past. I knew that the only way I could get out of seeing him was to open up to him and answer his questions. Although he looked like a Steve Urkel reject, he was great at what he did. He helped me to get over the death of my grandma, and more importantly, he made me stop feeling sorry for myself. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t get me to talk about the time I was molested at six years old. I could tell that he generally cared, but it was something that I absolutely couldn’t speak about. Don’t get me wrong, I tried to talk about it, but the memory of it was too painful; every time I attempted to talk about it to him I would just burst out in tears, and even to the day it’s a tough memory for me to look back on. But I am still grateful for what he did for me, and I just want to say thank you to him.
I left therapy as a reinvented person. I kept my grandmother’s words of wisdom, people and I gave people a reason to want to be around me. I became a bit more out spoken and I tried to make people laugh no matter what. I even started to get into fights just to impress the kids around the neighborhood. By the time I was in third grade I was an off the wall loose cannon. My grades had become incredibly bad, but thank god for George Bush’s no child left behind bill or I would have been held back in the third grade.
By the time I was ten years old I was pretty well know in school and around the neighborhood. I had finally got what I was craving since I was six years old, and that was friends, but a down side to this was that I had horrible grades, and I was being made fun of for it. Almost everyone called me a “dumbass nigga”, “stupid motherfucker”, and I remember a kid saying that I didn’t even have a brain. That surely didn’t help with the fighting I was getting into; I remember that I use to get in a fight almost every week because I was called stupid.
I got fed up with all the name calling and verbal abuse I took from corny children. To stop people from calling me stupid and to put an end to the dumbass nicknames, I started watching boring educational crap until I loved watching it and I even read informational books about the solar system, biology, and any other random topics I could get my hands on. I went out my way to prove to them that I was smart. Eventually everyone knew me as the smart kid on the block, but I didn’t want to stop learning, I got to the point where I wanted to know everything about everything. Every time my teacher got into a new subject I would ask a thousand questions about it, and I’m pretty sure I drove my elementary teachers crazy with all the questions, and my classmates hated me too.
In my preteen years I was a horrible human being. My idea of fun during that time was finding a random person with my friends and beating them halfway to death. We didn’t even care about who we beat, or who they were with; they could have been walking their grandparents around, or with their little siblings. One time and three of my friends and I saw a kid walking with his little brother and we followed him until he realized that we were after him. He couldn’t run because he had is brother with him, so he had no choice but to fight us. I had second thoughts about fighting him; I didn’t want a little boy to watch his brother get the hell beat out of him, but I went through with it anyway. We all surrounded him, but before every black person fight we have to finish our trash talk first. After five minutes of useless trash talk we started to beat the life out of him, but that wasn’t the worst part; the kid’s little brother tried to jump into the fight and he was kicked straight in the face. The kid went down crying and his older brother crawled up into a ball while my friend kicked his body into the cement. That was the first time I’ve ever felt sympathy for some that we beat up, and after that day I never assisted in beating someone up ever again.
Although I didn’t participate in assaulting random people anymore I was still a delinquent, I stole, vandalized other people’s property, and continued to get in fights without the help of others. Sometimes I would slash car tires, throw rocks at windows, curse out adults, and anything else that would come to my mind. I never felt bad for what I did because everyone else was doing it, so it didn’t feel wrong. But one day karma came around and bit me in the ass. I went to a middle school where I knew no one, and I got into a fight with the wrong person. He and his friends caught me walking home after school; I thought I was the toughest kid in the world… until that day. It was only three people so I wasn’t scared, but I never had to handle more than one person on my own before, so I didn’t know how to approach the situation. I didn’t want to run because I didn’t want them to think I was afraid of them. I walked right up to one of the guys and started to trash talk, but before I was able to say a word the guy punched me in my gigantic nose. After that the rest of them relentlessly attacked me until I was latterly begging them to stop. I never started a fight with anyone in that school after that.
My bad luck wasn’t over yet. On a chilly night my cousin and I were going to go to a party, but the three guys that we were with needed a ride. One of the assholes came up with a brilliant plan to rob a pizza man and take his car. My cousin and I walked to the gas station, but we didn’t get very far, because the pizza man got to the house before we made it to the gas station. I heard screaming, and I immediately knew what was going on. They pulled up to us in the stolen car and told us to get in, I knew it was a horrible idea and everything in my heart was telling me not to get in. I remembered earlier that night my aunt told me “don’t go on and get in any trouble ya hear me” and I was thinking that I wouldn’t want to let my aunt down and do something that could potently get me put in jail, so at that moment I decided that I was going to get in that car.
There I was sitting in the car that was stolen from the pizza man. I was trying to put on a cool face, but inside I was freaking out and barley keeping it together. The guys kept reassuring me that they knew what they were doing, and we wasn’t going to get caught, but these guys were idiots and I didn’t believe they could get away with stealing a pack of skittles, but I was the biggest idiot for getting in that damn car with them. To make things worse, they stopped at a house that was only a block away from where they stole the car from, just to use the bathroom. That was my chance to get out the car and go back home, but I didn’t move I waited for about ten minutes in the car, I was just telling myself “get out of this god damn car and go the hell home”, but I didn’t move a mussel. After what felt like an hour of waiting; they finally got back to the car. They were so calm, and acting like they did not just commit a felony, so I thought everything was going to be all right. We got back to driving and within ten minutes there was a cop car behind us, and at that moment I thought that I was going to die in a violent car crash. Before I knew everybody jumped out of the car while it was still moving; I jumped out too but I fell down and tried to get back up as fast as I could, but as soon as I got up the police car hit me and I fell right back down. The 6’4 250 pound cop picked me up and threw me against the hood of his car, I tried to resist a little bit but that just caused more trouble, he punched me in the ribs repeatedly and put the cuffs on my risk so tight that the bones on my risk scraped against the cuffs and bruised my skin.
I sat in the police car for almost an hour before he took me off to the police station. He treated me like a little kid and not as if I was an accomplice to a felony, he even sat me in the front seat. He gave me a long speech about how his mom was an immigrant and how tough it was for him living in poverty, I didn’t want to listen to a damn thing that was coming out of his mouth especially since he was the one the beat the shit out of me and still had the metal pythons on my risk. Then he started to tell my how stupid I was for being with them as if I was going to hear that from the rest of my family anyway. He was just going on and on, and I was just asking myself how come he had to be on duty that night, he was talking nonstop the whole time, so I drowned out most of what he was saying. I remember one thing he said to me and that was “are you going to be stupid your whole life” I didn’t know it was a rhetorical question so I answered “nah” then he said “shout up, do you know what a rhetorical question is” and before I got to answer he said “nope, because you stupid”. Then he asked me “are you going to college” I said “yeah” then he replied “no you not because you going to be stupid all your life”. At that point I was begging him to take me to jail just so I didn’t have to hear his voice anymore.
We finally got to the police station and they took me to a cramped holding cell with a table and a chair with hand cuffs attached to it. So I sat hand cuffed to a chair; it was the most uncomfortable chair I have ever sat in. The room felt like it was cold enough to freeze water in mid air, and on top of that there was a strange odor that made my nose hurt. It’s like they made the room like that to punish the criminals; after spending five minutes in there I was wishing that I was back in the police car with the want to be talk show host.
I sat in the ninth circle of hell for an hour until a detective came to talk to me. She asked me a bunch of pointless questions before she actually got to asking me about what happened that night. She asked me who I was with, but I was reluctant to answer because I wanted to obey the no snitching rule. She knew that I wasn’t a part of the robbery because the pizza man told the police that three people robbed and there were five of us that got out the car. So I told the detective that they picked up my cousin and me up from the gas station, which was mostly true, then I told her that I don’t know any of their real names, which was a complete lie. I also told her fake nicknames of the people we were with. She left out the room and I regretted what I did. I was just thinking what would happen if she found out that I lied; I thought that I was going to jail for protecting some idiots that probably wouldn’t do the same for me.
Sitting in that room for hours gave me time to think; what will happen to me after this? What will my family think? Will this ruin my life? But after all the thinking I decided that I will never indulge in any illegal activity ever again if I could get out of this. It was hours until I was let out of the room to go home. I saw my cousin, and it turns out that the caught everyone around the same time. One of the guys snitched and they found out that we were not a part of the robbery, and me and my cousin was let off clean. But when I got home I didn’t go to sleep for the rest of the night, and I just sat in my room and just silently thought out my whole life, but my cousin didn’t have the same curiosity. My cousin spent the whole night having his ear chewed off by my uncle and I just felt sorry for him because it wasn’t his fault that I got in that car. Although he was a few years older than me I felt like I had equal responsibility in what happened and he shouldn’t be the only taking the blame for what happened, but I didn’t want to intervene because I already had more than enough lectures that night.

I went back to school partly changed, I didn’t get into anymore fights; I went to football practice every day, and I kept my promise to myself to not do anything illegal. But some things didn’t change; I still used excessive profanity, I offended people very often, I made teachers uncomfortable, and overall I was a jerk. My grades were awful, but I didn’t care because by the time report cards came out football season was already over, so I went through my last year of middle school caring more about making people laugh than getting my grades, but it all caught up to me by the end of the year when all my friends graduated and I was left looking stupid in summer school.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Day After My Car Was Shot

Twenty-four hours later, it is the reactions and post-mortem that stand out in my mind.  It's not so much that, just after sunset last night on busy Stanton Rd. on the way back from the Giant that my car, at about 20 mph, ended up in the midst of some fore-to-aft crossfire between some teenagers who can't shoot straight.  Two bullet holes decorated my rear windshield, which did a good job of absorbing a lot of the energy, shattered like Bonomo Turkish Taffy.

My reaction was shock at first, then appreciation for the windshield's dampening the bullets.  The police assigned to examine for evidence had a callous attitude.  When they arrived at 1 am and started examining the contents of my car without telling me, I came out and chatted with them about the news that four people had been injured in the shootings.  I expressed the hope that none of the injuries were serious.  One of the officers said, "Serious to them, but not to me."  Another officer tried to incorrectly explain to me that a bullet shot from a distance would have far less momentum and not be as likely to travel far after penetrating a window.  I started to explain that traveling through the air doesn't significantly retard a bullet's velocity, but I thought better of it.  As it turned out, the heater-lined rear windshield rendered each bullet as fragments, and I wasn't in as much danger as I could have been in front of a plain glass windshield.

After thinking about my situation, I thought the Washington Post might be interested that my car was shot twice.  I left my phone number with a reporter, but no one has called back.  I have previously documented that the local news media have little interest in the travails of folks who live in Word 8.  I suppose I shouldn't regret the lack of special attention because I am white.  I live in Ward 8, so I don't count for as much as someone in Ward 3, where I used to live.

My students at RICH took my brush with violence in stride.  Students I spoke to in three different neighborhoods all heard shooting last night; the difference was no one apparently was hit, or at least no one called the police.  They all know family members or friends who have been shot; it is part of life in Ward 8.  One of my students owns a gun; he assured me he only uses it for special occasions.  I told him he is much more likely to die because e owns that gun than otherwise.  I have been told by more than one student that I need to get a gun.

The Seventh Police District overlaps much of Ward 8.  However, the piece of land that covers Anacostia High School is part of the Sixth Police District.  There is virtually no way for the police to get to know the young people in the community.  They, and the community at large, write off the teenage Jesse Jameses as punks not worth our time or energy.  There is no effort to steer middle school kids to make right decisions.  During the winter, Metro was just about to reroute a key commuter bus away from Wellington Park because of the violence there when the police finally admitted that they might be able to help the Metrobuses navigate the route safely.  Middle school kids were throwing rocks at the buses, and no one in the community was stopping it.

In the 60's and 70's, the catch phrase was, "Give a Damn."  Can we, please?  Can we write about what we see and hear, even if it might not sell papers or attract viewers?  Can we stand up to the callousness of government institutions like the police?  Can we band together as neighbors and try to talk to our youth instead of letting them go every weekend to do what they want?