Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Devin and the Bullet

A few people in Palestine have asked me why there's so much violence in the US. Not the military kind, or the systematic kind. In the US, why do people go up to you and put a gun in your face?

For one thing, it's easier to buy guns there. For another thing, families here, even if they have ten or twelve children, are so tight, that you don't really see kids being left behind. When I asked a friend about the idea of adopting a Palestinian child, he seemed almost offended at the implication that there were abandoned children here. If there are no parents, there are always grandparents, or aunts and uncles, or siblings that will take care of them.

Last year I worked at a middle school in New Orleans. Every weekend, the principal sends an e-mail to the staff, with highlights, shout-outs and announcements.

A few days ago I was forwarded the weekend e-mail, and it made me cry. I taught some of these students last year and it's overwhelming...the challenges they're facing, the history they're carrying, and the strength they have to show.


Wednesday was an incredible day for me. The combination of an intense, emotional, conversation with our senior class, followed by a fantastic team and family trip with freshmen rolling down a hill over and over again, reminded me of just how extraordinary middle school is.

I’m simply not a strong enough writer to capture the beauty, the anguish, the hilarity, the sadness, the hope, and the doubt of the journey from 10 years old to 14 years old. Some of it was captured on Wednesday though.

Tuesday at lunch the Senior class was asked to confront Devin for bringing a bullet to school, for showing it off, for trying to have it make him cool. They were asked to confront themselves for the fact that at least 10 teammates had seen it and none had challenged him on it. The Tuesday conversation was at times forced. Seniors wrestled with whether or not it was really a big deal or not.

Devin, after having done phenomenal reflections of where he was at in his own life in my office, put up a front for his teammates.

When asked where the bullet even came from, Devin smirked and replied, “My friend’s gun.” We closed the conversation right there. Despite his reflections earlier in the day, when facing his team he still worked to sound as hard as he could. The conversation ended at 1:30pm.

At about 3:00pm Tuesday, on the other side of the city, less than two hours following our conversation, the 17 year-old friend that had given Devin the bullet, was shot 10 times and killed.

Wednesday afternoon the Senior team came back together. This time there was no fronting from Devin, only tears. This time the conversation was not forced. There was not a right answer we needed to get to. There was just honesty, fear, reflection, and strength. Devin asked me to share the reflections he’d done in my office the day before. I read excerpts from the 10 pages he’d written, including his anger at his father for leaving them poor and never coming back, including the voice in his head constantly telling him that he is weak, that he is fake, that no one would ever like the real him.

The seniors began to speak. Every word loaded with the pain and the hope of trying to figure out a world with too many hard moments and not enough proof that it gets better.

* Sasha - “My dad left me, too. I’m just going to make him sorry for it. We don’t need them. We have to find a way without them…”
* Sha’Quan - “Devin, you need to be the man that your dad wasn’t. Getting involved with bullets and guns won’t bring your dad back to you. You need to do right and one day you’ll be the dad you wish you had.”
*Malik – “Mr. M, I don’t think you understand how hard this is. I think if you grew up with what Devin and the rest of us are growing up with, you’d be struggling with is just as much as we are.”
* Cristina, through tears of her own – “Devin, I’m so sorry you lost your friend. This all just hurts and it shouldn’t be this way. It just makes me feel so bad for how much we all go through.”
* Mikelle – “Teachers talk about college and changing the world, but that just seems so make-believe to me. I just can’t see how that could ever be true for me.”
* (Devin’s brother) – “Devin, I miss him, too. We just have to move on. We have to find people that will be there for us and will cheer us on.”
* Mr. K - “I just wonder who that 17 year-old was four years ago. Was he walking through school showing off a bullet he was given at 13? What happens at 13 that makes us who we are at 17?”
* Senior after senior shared the common sentiment, “Devin, none of us ever want to go to your funeral. When I look at you I don’t see what the voice in your head sees. I see a good friend. You are part of this team. We’ll accept you and like you for who you are. We’re here for you.”

The theme quickly became how important it is that we (the seniors) support each other and hold each other up through all the challenges. We are all going through a lot and if we could count on each other to be there, to accept us for we are, we can make it through this together. We really can.

Two hours later I watched as freshmen raced up the hill to lay down and roll down it, giggling with all the joy of a beautiful afternoon in a park with friends. Seniors came up to me declaring cool was totally uncool and dorky-independent thinking was the way to go. I don’t even know what kind of magic was happening in the air, but no doubt an important piece of the journey from 10 to 14. At one point I took a step back and just tried to soak up all the joy and happiness of kids in a park, hot dogs on a grill, never-ending football games, boogie circles, team, family, and laughter.

I wrestled with how to put together the pieces of the day. How do you synthesize Devin’s sobbing, Lyndell’s dancing, Sasha’s empathy, the Cupid Shuffle, life’s pain, and life’s hope?

I came to the conclusion that the love and community in the park is what can carry all of us through the challenges we face. The journey from 10 to 14 in New Orleans for our kids can be so hard. Our kids need so badly a place where they can feel success, where they can dream, where they can laugh, where they can be themselves, where they can lean on each other, where they can ace tests, where they can play, where they can lead, where they can make mistakes and come out of them feeling stronger than ever. Our school needs to be all of that and more.

I left the park as inspired and motivated as I’ve ever been in this mission to give our kids the experiences and love they need to live the lives they deserve. Every moment counts in what we do. Thank you for sharing in the journey and for all you give to support our kids every day.