Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial "outside agitator" idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds....Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
Martin Luther King Jr Letter from a Birmingham Jail
The city of Chester is a community with a lot of struggles. It’s schools consistently rank in the bottom 15% in the state; several years ago it was ranked dead last. Around a third of the population is officially under the poverty level, which means over half of the population is living below subsistence levels. According to one crime static index, Chester is in the top 6% of the most dangerous places to live in this country.
The organization I work for, Unity Center, has being trying to make a difference in the city for the last 25 years. One of our most promising and exciting ventures is an after-school program we are running in partnership with Knowledge Points. Last summer we ran a six week intensive program that saw kids, on average, increase their reading levels by nearly a whole grade. One child's scores jumped nearly six grade levels.
Multiple factors delayed the start of the program for this school year, but several weeks ago we began a ten week session in two elementary schools serving roughly 180 Third-Fifth grade students. Because of the delay, some of the folks that had worked in the program were not available. So for the first few weeks, I have been filling in where needed. I have led multiplication dodge ball (my original invention that I am sure thousands of teachers have thought of before me); music enrichment; and my personal favorite-teaching kids how to make a tornado in a bottle and using that knowledge to understand the Arctic vortex that caused the record breaking cold. (Note: I probably over reached with the Arctic vortex lesson-but the kids thought the tornadoes were cool and I came home covered in glitter. The way I teach it, science is a contact sport).
The program begins by dividing the group in half. While half the students are being tutored by Knowledge Points, Unity does enrichment with the other half. A lot of the success of the tutoring program comes from a teacher to student ration of 3:1. Our enrichment program includes art, dance, music, science and physical training led by qualified instructors who do a great job. After about fifty minutes, we switch the groups so that those who were being tutored come to enrichment and vica versa.
I have been mostly helping out at CUSA (Chester Upland School of the Arts). The first week went well and I was lulled into a false sense of "I still got it" when it comes to working with urban kids. Then came Week II. Our numbers jumped, including a significant number of special needs kids. We survived day 1, but my co-worker Cory, who is a Chester native and great kids guy, looked at me and said we may need to call in the. The highlight of day two for me was while I was dealing with a side disturbance, Cory decided to change multiplication dodge ball-it would be all the kids against Mr. Cory and Mr. Bill. As I returned to the main group I was hit by six balls. Now I am six feet tall; if you calculate the projectile route of a ball thrown from the height of an average nine year old you can predict the general location of impact on my body. Mr Cory and the kids thought it was funny. I suggested that we never play that game again. Week one reminded me of the great joy of working with urban kids; week two reminded me of the great challenges.
I was not supposed to be at CUSA last Thursday, but one of our helpers could not be there, so I volunteered. On Thursdays, kids have a choice between dance or art. My job was crowd control and I was moving back and forth between the classes. In the art room, while the class was working on an MLK project, I saw Deshawn (not his real name) sitting at a desk working on his homework with tears in his eyes. I asked him which class he wanted to go to.
"Neither!" choking back the tears.
When I asked him what was wrong, he told me he had gotten in trouble for taking a swing at an older girl. When I asked him why, he said she had told him he had a big head. I reminded him that just like in sports the one who retaliates is almost always the one who gets caught.
I looked at his work-he was doing some vocabulary exercises
“I need to get a good grade on this spelling test.”
I checked his paper-his work was flawless.
“It’s good you are studying and you do not have a big head," I said.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes Deshawn. I am sure” His mood brightened ever so slightly.
Jokingly I said “Do you think I have a big head?”
“Sort of” he said in a post crying raspy voice
I left Deshawn and moved to another disturbance across the room. Two boys were obviously baiting another smaller boy. Jerome (not his real name) was ready for a fight. The last straw was a comment about the girth of his mother. I caught him just as he was lunging at them. I escorted him to a corner and told him he was in time-out. He protested and said it was not his fault. I told him regardless, fighting is not an option
"I do not like you." He mumbled
"I do not care." I replied
"I am going to tell my dad and he is going to come and beat you up."
"Ok. But you are still in time out." I was really counting on that one being a bluff.
A few minutes later I came back to Jerome. I asked him if wanted to go to art or dance.
"I don't want to do either." There was such a poignant mixture of anger, sadness, and the sense that he had been wronged in his voice.
"I have nothing against you Jerome. I actually was preventing you from starting a fight that would have ended in you getting in more trouble."
"They started it!"
"With words, but you were going to end it with violence. That just can't be an option," I replied.
We sat together in silence. I had to go check on the dance room and invited him to walk with me. When we got to the room, the dance instructor was teaching what she called "old school moves" They were learning Michael Jackson's "Beat It." I suddenly felt old.
"You want to join the dance group Jerome?" I asked.
"No-I want to draw a picture of Martin Luther King, but I want to stay here with you."
It seemed like a fair compromise. So I went to the art room and got a sheet of paper and a few colored pencils. Jerome worked meticulously, while I continued to move back and forth between the rooms. A family member came early for Jerome. I helped him gather his things and he began walking down the hall with them. Suddenly, he stopped, turned around and handed me his picture without a word. I thanked him and I think I saw a faint smile. In an instant all the challenge of week two disappeared in the light of hope. I thought about Deshawn acing tomorrow's spelling test and Jerome's gravitation to Martin Luther King in the midst of his frustration. I said a prayer for DeShawn and Jerome and the children of Chester and for all the children who cling to a "dream" of a better life against overwhelming odds.
I attended a vigil yesterday on the corner of 11th and Central where the first murder of the new year happened in Chester. A twenty year old young man was gunned down and to date the crime has not been solved. The remembrance was sponsored by the Delco chapter of "Heeding God's Call" a courageous grass roots organization that seeks to end the illegal "straw" purchases of fire arms. There were words of comfort and songs of lament. There were Christian, Jewish, and Muslim prayers calling on God to heal the city and for the one God to bring justice and peace. There were the anguished words of a mother and father who had lost their son to gun violence three years ago. It was cold but my bones were chilled by the metaphysical cold created by the wanton power of thanatos.
I went because I strongly support the organization. I went to honor the dream of Martin Luther King Jr. I went feeling helpless to do much to change a culture intoxicated with violence and guns. But deep down inside, I think I went because of Jerome and Deshawn.