At the Corner of 3rd and Douglas
I live in the Edgewood neighborhood of Washington, D.C. across the street from a school. When my wife and I bought our house, it was a public school serving a low to moderate-income population that was 95 percent African American, reflecting the neighborhood demographics.
Each morning when I headed to work I’d find a trail of discarded Little Hug juice bottles, honey bun wrappers and empty potato chip bags leading to the school. Weeds sprouted through the cracks in the asphalt on the school grounds and the play structure was tattered and rusty. The schoolyard looked more like a laboratory for tetanus rather than a playground for children. Inside, portable walls, not classrooms, separated the kids who were group two grades at a time (1st & 2nd, 3rd & 4th). When I visited the school to inquire about volunteering one morning, I heard several teachers instructing their students at the same time, and a disruption in one classroom affected the others.
The school closed a few years after we moved in and briefly became a hangout for older teens and young adults who smoked weed, drank and played dice.
Eventually, gentrification took over, the school was reopened as a charter school and the building was overhauled. The playground was upgraded. Sunflowers and a community garden replaced the weeds. Woodchips covered the fissured asphalt. A section of the sidewalk was replaced and white children soon made up about 40 percent of the new student body—although the neighborhood demographics barely changed. Former First Lady and President Obama even came to christen the new facility. Even the litter got an upgrade, with Honest Juice boxes and string-cheese wrappers in the gutter instead of the cheap, corner-store junk-food trash.
Parking is a little harder to find, hey, that’s life in the big city.
By all measures the new school has improved our community. The playground is a magnet for families with children during the warmer months, although, some of the older teens and young adults congregate at night to smoke weed (recreational marijuana has been decriminalized in the District of Columbia, so the pungent aroma of the herb is constant). Thankfully, these guys usually perch elsewhere when families are present. (Side Note: During my mom’s most recent visit from Melbourne, Australia she naively asked, “why do I keep smelling skunk in the middle of the city?” I replied, that ain’t skunk mom, it’s skunky weed.”)
Recently, however, I’ve noticed a group of young boys—by the looks of them, between 8 and 12 years-old—hanging out around the school in the afternoon and well into the evening. I’m certain they don’t attend the school because they never interact with any of the other kids who do. When the students are present, these boys ride their bikes in the streets, darting around traffic. Like most kids, they’re loud and boisterous; unlike most kids, extremely coarse and vulgar in their language with each other.
I was so disturbed by what I heard one Sunday morning, I decided to walk over an offer them some gentle guidance and counseling. Before I could, a car sped up, screeched to a halt, and a woman started yelling out the car window. It was one boy’s mother. She then unleashed a profanity-filled tirade, berating him for not following her instructions — including calling the kid a “dumb Motherf*cker,” in public, on Sunday morning.
I turned right back around.
Hmmm…How do I talk to kids about their use of inappropriate language and reckless behavior when they hear their parents use it –and when addressing their own children, no less? How do I even have a conversation with the parent about their kids when they talk to their kids like this?
Against my better instincts, for the past few month I’ve passively watched an increasingly distressing and potentially dangerous situation unfold. It has become increasingly common for these boys to be on the playground or riding their bikes in the streets without helmet or reflective clothing at 9:30 and 10 o’clock at night.
I want to do what I’ve done before—talk to the kids and their parent or guardian—but I don’t know how.
I’m reminded of the time I was driving downtown and stopped at a red light on Rhode Island Ave at 7th Street NW. It was about 4 or 5 pm on a weekday. There was a large group of kids gathered in front of a library. In the middle of the crowd about five or six boys were closing in on two others.
Having been a junior high kid who got jumped more than once, I knew what was about to go down.
I quickly pulled over, jumped out the car and grabbed the kids about to get beat down, threw them in the back seat and drove off. I told them I’d take them home, but they asked me to take them to school. I didn’t leave until after ensuring a responsible school official was with them. I also left my name and number just in case.
I wish someone had done that for me when I was getting my ass kicked in junior high. Most of my beatings happened at a bus stop or somewhere else in public, but no stranger ever pulled me to safety. I eventually, learned how to deal with these situations: I got stronger and learned how to wrestle. If I was outnumbered, I decided to focus on just one aggressor and inflict as much damage as I could, so others might not want to mess with me in the future. The physical bullying stopped, even if the threats and verbal abuse didn’t.
Extracurricular activities helped too. I got involved with drama, student government and founded my junior high school’s newspaper. Sure, these were all things that interested me – the last two became the foundations of my career — but they also helped me avoid going outside at lunchtime, and I could stay late at school, which kept me from waiting with the other kids at the bus stop. When there was nothing to do after school, I walked home instead of taking the bus with my tormentors.
I’m fortunate that my mom and my community raised me to be an independent and resilient kid. I never told my mom or any of the adults in my life what was happening. I’m not sure why. I knew what was happening to me was wrong and I had people I could talk to, responsible adults who could help. But I didn’t. Hell, I knew some of my aunts would have been waiting outside the schoolhouse when the final bell rang with baseball bats ready to wreck shop. Maybe I didn’t know how to express in words what I was experiencing and feeling, or too scared to do so. Fortunately, I made it, and can reflect on the experiences, using them to be the best father I can for my two sons.
I see the way those boys in the neighborhood look at me when I take my oldest son wearing his Cub Scout uniform to his Pack meeting, or when my family and I return home from church on Sundays. I see in them a yearning for the comfort and security of a relationship with a caring and nurturing adult. It bothers me that they aren’t getting what every little kid needs—attention and affection.
Yes, I believe in raising children in a way that encourages them to grow to become independent and responsible adults. I know that acquiring those skills begins early in life with proper instruction and intentional guidance. For every kid that will flourish with light supervision like a sports car hugging a curve without a guardrail, far too many will go astray like a hoopty with bald tires flying off a cliff. As I can personally attest, too much can go wrong when there are no responsible adults or the wrong adults around.
I don’t want to call the police on the kids riding bikes in my neighborhood, for fear officers may interpret the kids to be the danger instead of recognizing the danger the kids may be in. I don’t want to see young black boys criminalized because of a lack of supervision, nor do I want to criminalize their foul-mouthed parents, either. It pains me to think these children are outside on a chilly autumn night, while my boys are in their warm beds.
I’ve written before about how “we live in communities with norms that we collectively set, accept, tolerate or ignore.” I don’t want to live in a community where I see what’s happening outside my front door.
I just don’t know what to do.
J. Jioni Palmer is the Founder & Publisher of Thinking Good. He is currently writing his debut novel tentatively titled “The Story of Us.” Check back periodically for excerpts of the manuscript.
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