“We are going into the 9th Ward, Beth,” I was told two weeks ago while planning our first inner city school school visit to meet the students of some of our nations’ toughest schools in order to begin building relationships there. New Orleans was the destination and John H. Martyn Alternative School and John McDonogh #35 were our two schools. Yikes.
John H. Martyn Alternative School
I did not know what I did not know. I did not know that these kids have been moved to the John H. Martyn Alternative School as a last resort.
I did not know their next stop is either juvenile hall or jail if they don’t get themselves turned around and pointed in a more positive direction. They are here because of serious criminal activity. And they don’t want to be here at all. They each have a probation officer who makes sure they get to this school site each day. If they don’t show up, their parents are cited and could also go to jail. It’s serious business.
We drove up to the school, which was surrounded, as our schools in California are, by chain linked fences and signs warning students and adults to not bring any weapons or drugs onto the school campus. So far, so good.
We were greeted by the nicest guy, a Mr. Damon Smothers, who was the school psychologist here last year. He reaches out to each of us, shaking hands and greeting us warmly. We feel accepted and welcomed. I begin to breathe a little more deeply.
Then we made our way into the cafeteria where the worst of the worst, reprobate students are waiting for us – elementary and high school students.
What gets an elementary student moved here? I could not even imagine as I saw the young kids in the cafeteria just before they were dismissed to go back to their classrooms with their teachers. They looked so much like the innocent young boys and girls my kids went to school with back in California. But I knew they are not.
And yet from my uninformed perspective, they seemed to be no different. They slouched in their seats, jostled each other, bored with being there, wished they were somewhere else. Sound familiar, doesn’t it? The elementary students were dismissed and the high school students warily looked us over – three white business folks in bright, fluorescent green tee shirts, a HUGE black man who obviously was a football player in his earlier life and a fit black athlete in a motorized wheel chair. It was obvious that they were curious about us, just as we were curious about them.
As Damon Smothers began addressing the high schools students, he made it clear that he had some serious expectations of their ability to pay attention and give us respect just for showing up. AND he made it clear that he cared very much about each and every one of them.
He introduced the first speaker, the 6’5″, “gentle giant” who came forward and began to speak to the students with charisma and authority. “Eye contact is important to me,” he told them. “I expect you to keep your heads up and look up as I speak to you.” We would hear that from both him and Antonio as they took turns talking with the students. “Eyes up, show your chest,” they would say when some of the students looked like they were shutting down.
Their stories were riveting – about being a young, black man in the ‘hood of Detroit, being told he would end up one of two ways, either dead or in jail. Those were his only prospects. Antonio’s about the nearly constant violence, which led to the shooting incident in which he lost his brother to a game of Russian roulette, followed by the car crash in which he lost the use of his legs. He sped up and down the room, maneuvering his motorized wheelchair like the athlete he is and rapping out poem he wrote about his experiences.
Ivan and I watched the students warm to these two men, who told the students over and over, “I love you. I don’t have to know you personally to know I love you. I see me sitting where you are – I know you, and I love you.”
I started to pay more attention to the kids sitting around me. Ivan and I had asked three young men if we could join them at their table. I’m sure they were shocked to have been asked, rather than told, that we were planning to sit down. At the table next to me were several other students. Of particular interest to me was a young lady, about 14, who had her head down on the table when the assembly first started.
As the presentations went on, she began to sit up and kept her eyes on both the presenters. I could tell that they were connecting with her on some level.
Although the two men’s stories and their encouragement to the students was amazing, I think what was the most riveting was the interaction between them after the formal presentation concluded. They went among the tables shaking hands, talking about sports and the aspirations of the students, deepening the connections they had been feeling from the front of the room as heads had been lifted and eye gaze followed them as they moved from one part of the room to the other.
I began to shake hands with the kids around me, asking their names, thanking them for letting us be with them. Some were hesitant to meet my eyes, and most of them were friendly and open, engaged in the conversations around them. A few students stayed sullen and withdrawn; however, most were open and acted interested.
While the adults bantered with them, the young lady who had sat near me began to get sassy, bossing the other guys at her table, telling them to get in line and stop fooling around. “You’re a leader, aren’t you?” she was called her out. “Yeah, I guess I am,” she responded.
Then she said, with a sly grin, “Someday I am going to start a corporation and hire all of y’all – y’all will all work for me!” She gestured to include our whole group. I grinned back at her.
Next stop: The Roneagles. (To be continued)
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