Since my 30s I have had the unique and eye-opening opportunity of working with and mentoring underserved youth from the most rough and tumble neighborhoods in the country, ranging from the poorest areas of the Appalachians to South Central LA to Detroit. The majority of them are right on the cusp of becoming career criminals or are clinging to the only positive role models they’ve had in their lives who have had the wherewithal and dedication to get them off the streets, giving them a different choice and options.
Many of the youth I have met have made the very tough decision to leave the gangs who had become their surrogate nuclear families, to finish high school, learn a trade, start families of their own, and in turn have mentored those who are exactly where they were.
Most recently I have worked in a juvenile lockup for boys not yet aged-out of the system. They come and go very quickly, some being held overnight until the court decides where they need to be placed, others for a month or two until they are released back to their communities and the temptations of the streets that have become their comfort zone. Just like the women I work with in prison, there is something about the energy of the streets that has gotten into their systems that restores them to who they believe are their true selves. When the boys and the women come back within weeks, or months, I just sigh and ask them, rather rhetorically, what the hell happened.
I lead a weekly group in the boy’s lockup. It’s pretty informal—we sit in comfortable chairs in the common area of the residence and the staff charged with keeping things under control participate too. They are amazing at tough love with these kids and the boys know that they care and want nothing more for them to succeed. Too often though, these kids go in and out constantly, the same ones over and over. It becomes home. A place of safety.
A few weeks ago a boy who had been in my group over the summer was back. A light-skinned Latino with the rather unlikely combination of braces and tattoos, “R” sprawled on a chair all smiles and light. I know the community he comes from, the poorest in the state, and that gang membership and all that comes with it is what has led to a long string of fairly serious charges. I know that he has watched his friends get shot, incarcerated and killed. I know that he is terrified of going back there. He has told staff that he never thought he’d make it to his 18th birthday which is just a few weeks away.
Despite all this, he is extremely proud and loyal to his city. I’ve worked where he lives and know the sense of community that is juxtaposed with urban poverty and crime. Somehow the group of eight boys and 4 staff started talking about what they would want to be remembered for and what they would name their memoirs. When it was “R”s turn, this is what he said:
“I would want to go back to my neighborhood and be proud. I want to bring happiness to the streets. I want to protect my little sister. I’d want to be a superhero. I’d call myself ‘Glory Boy.’”
Some of the guys laughed but I silently marveled at the beauty of “R” and the vision he has created for himself.
He is being released, again, in a few weeks. I want to shadow him and protect him and scoop him up when he’s at that all-too-familiar precipice. I want to take him away and put him in the Witness Protection Program where he can be relocated and be Glory Boy on a tree-lined street with no guns or drugs or none of those who feel that he has betrayed stalking him in parking lots or bodegas. I want him to walk hand-in-hand with his little sister in the morning on the way to school. What I don’t want is to ever see him again, locked up with state-issued flip flops with an ankle bracelet charging during class. Most critically, I don’t want to see him in an open-casket.