I don’t have a good solution. I don’t have a good response. I only know I’m deeply saddened right now because one of my favorites, an 8th grader I have known and cared about for 3 years, through his first girlfriend and the death of his baby sister in a car wreck caused by a drunk adult, has joined up, gone to the dark side, signed on to wearing all blue. As of quite recently, he’s a gang member. I saw him in the hallway today as I was greeting my class of sixth graders and I called to him, “Hey, c’mere, how’s it going?” He came over, as always, because he always has time for a high five for me. The other kid with him hesitated, not wanting to be there, but not wanting to walk away. I know him, too, but this business didn’t include him, so I asked him to give me a minute, it was a private conversation.
I lowered my voice. “Hey, what’s with the all blue? You sign up? Did they get to you?”
He looked up and down the hallway filled with students hurrying to class, and then nodded, and shrugged noncommittally. He looked uncomfortable with the admission, because he knew I wouldn’t like it, and I didn’t.
“Aw, man, dude, you’re better than that, smarter than that. You got a better future than that!” I was pleading with him.
He shook his head, looked me in the eye. “I don’t!” he said, quietly but firmly. He backed away, shaking his head at me.
Here’s the thing: he’s not wrong. As the Latino son of a single mother in an economically desperate small town, he really doesn’t. And what can I, a middle aged white lady math teacher, offer him instead? A future? What future? The one where he goes from job interview to job interview and hears only, “Where did you go to college? What are your qualifications?” He’s not going to college and he knows it. Not he, nor any of the other 13 year old gangbangers in my middle school will have the necessary funds to make it to even a middle-rate state U, and as Latinos, they already know from watching their dads, stepdads, uncles and cousins, how the police feel about them here. Telling him to turn away from gang life is like Nancy Reagan telling teenagers to “Just Say No” to drugs. What is the other option?
Later in the day I got the message that a 6th grader had flashed a gun in the bathroom right before second period. I put two and two together and realized that’s why my little newcomer (a recent arrival from Guerrero, no English yet, sweet smile and very friendly when he feels safe) had been removed from my second period class and had not come back, and why, later, I found an impersonal form letter from administration requesting that I provide classwork for him for the rest of the week. How can I? He doesn’t speak English, I translate everything for him, the book is not available in Spanish. He has been bullied relentlessly since he started, by kids who were born here into Spanish-speaking families. He’s light-skinned, but has no English. His bullies are very dark-skinned, and have been bullied themselves for their color, so they’re passing it down the line. He finally snapped. The cops were called, the translator was called, the parents were called. I had separated him in class, seating him far away from his primary bully, but there aren’t enough eyes to see what’s happening everywhere on the playground. So when he was told, over and over, that he should choose to walk away, that he had other options, he, too, finally responded with, “I don’t!”
So what can we do? In education we speak of the School to Prison Pipeline, and it’s a real thing, populated mainly by students of color and special education students, because we don’t have good ways, or enough money, for addressing the needs of our students, of a youth population that is increasingly cynical and apathetic. But their cynicism and apathy is the product of decisions made by white people, white people looking to monetize the hunger to belong, to look good, to fit in. White people who see no problem in lying to entire populations so they can get richer, more powerful. White people who want what they want, when they want it, and be damned to everybody else. So, my fellow white people, we have ever-increasing numbers of students, statistically more boys than girls, more nonbinary than binary, giving up on a society that tells them they don’t matter, they’re expendable. While we argue about whether or not Joe Biden is too old to be President, my students are realizing that “the future” is not for them, it’s for other people. They already know that they’ll have to work twice as hard to be considered half as good. They already anglicize their names so that their culture won’t show on paper. And now, tonight, I’m crying because my sweet Omar has decided that his best option is the gang. The kid with the big, marshmallow heart, who asks me if I’ve gotten to eat lunch today or was I too busy, the kid who just wanted to help his baby sister grow up, but was robbed of it, robbed of her, because of a drunk man who got into a car with her, THAT kid, and many others like him, living in the small town version of the projects, has decided that gang life is the best way.
I’m a public school teacher. I’ve been one a long time. What I see now saddens me, scares me. And I don’t have a good solution. I don’t have a good response. I just don’t.