Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Tale of Two Colors

     The two young men enrolled within days of each other.  The first wore a little blue.  In any other school, that blue might not have been noticed. In mine, it was enough to make him a target.  The second young man wore a profusion of red, far more than the rules permitted, but sufficient to proclaim his status in the local 'hood.

     On the day "First" arrived, a few weeks into the semester, I welcomed him to class as he handed over his program card for signature.  After writing his name into my rollbook, I looked up and my eyes met his.  I had read at least one account of the Holocaust in which the writer described some of the camp inmates as walking dead, men whose souls had died and who were just waiting for their bodies to catch up.  This is what I saw in "First's" eyes.

     Many students in urban, inner-city schools carry an enormous amount of pain from the poverty, drug abuse, violence, and death they have witnessed. You can see it in their eyes.  Not in "First's."  In the few short weeks he attended my school, he came to class most days.  Each day, I made a special effort to speak to him, to transmit a small amount of care and kindness.

     One day, he was gone, and I learned that he had been transferred back to his previous school, where it was safe for him to wear blue.  About two weeks later, riots broke out, and on that first night, as the names of those killed scrolled down the TV screen, one name popped out: "First's."  He had been standing outside, near his house, when a stray bullet killed him.  His body had finally caught up.

     "Second's" eyes were even scarier.  I had read a news article about a teen who killed and then went out for a hamburger.  At his trial he referred to his victim as "the dude who got shot."  That was "Second's" affect.  Every day he came to class, I went out of my way to greet him politely.  If I called on him and he did not wish to answer, I moved on to the next student.

     Finally, the day before my birthday, "Second" stopped coming to class.  I would see him on campus almost every day, and each time would greet him by name, tell him how glad I was to see him, and express the hope that he would come to class later.  He never did, and I did not report him to security, who finally caught him wandering around, up to no good.  He was "transferred."

     I still think about both of them, how they ended up in my class at the same time, or how either would have hurt or killed the other based on the colors they each wore.  It makes no sense to me, but I do not inhabit their universe.  The question for the larger society remains how to pull these alienated young people back into a larger, more coherent community.  

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