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The Joys of Gang Membership
A Teacher’s Effort to Help a Young Student Find Direction
“Did I do something bad today, Ms. Fern?”
Karen Fern looked at the boy within the doorway. Conscious of needing to select each word with care, she said, “No, Sean, you did not do anything the least bit wrong. In fact, I quite enjoyed your comment on how fun you thought it might be to swing from the branch of a birch tree, like Robert Frost described in his poem "Birches".
“Great, thanks,” Sean said, one foot beyond the door frame. Karen felt she could sense his thoughts: If I did nothing bad, why am I here? Why can’t I leave and live my real life, instead of being stuck inside this classroom? The school day’s over. And so it was, she knew whatever authority she held as teacher ceased with that bell which gave freedom from rules enforced by school, but not beyond. Yet, looking at this boy, she knew she must offer him her utmost effort.
Implanting Ideas Without Seeming Confrontational
Hence, Karen asked, “Sean, will you please step in and sit down? I would just like to talk with you for a bit; it won’t take long, I promise.” Sauntering into her classroom, he sat on the edge of a student chair, then began tapping his feet in annoyance. Aware of the need to be quick and direct, she said, “Sean, I have noticed members of a group of older boys talking a lot with you, and inviting you to have lunch at the table they seemed to have claimed as their own.”
”Do you mean the Bronze Boys?” he asked, his interest evoked, at last, by her question.
”That’s what they call themselves, I suppose.”
“That’s who they are, Ms. Fern,” Sean replied.
Then, during the brief pause which followed, he picked up a ruler and measured the edge of the desk. While pretending not to notice, she thought, please, Sean, keep on measuring, thinking. That is the reason I've asked you to be here; I cannot bear to watch gang status engulf your mind and swallow your soul, when I can see so many insights within you.
Her musings ended when she heard Sean say, “The Bronze boys have been trying to recruit me.” His tone, exuding triumph and pride, held an atom of fear as well.
Karen asked, “What do you think of the Bronze boys?”
”Dunno” he said.
It was a word she had heard so often from students she had soon come to despise its verbal shrug, refusing to examine or explore the slightest avenue beyond convenience. Then he added, “They must be pretty cool; most of the girls think they’re awesome.“
“But what do you think, Sean?” Karen asked.
Sitting still, he stayed mute, his eyes bewildered. She must not press him too hard, Karen knew, hoping the silence which she let continue, might be a soil in which her question could become a spore of doubt in the quicksand of his nearly made decision to join those Bronze Boys.
Sean’s face, now plagued by what she hoped was indecision, looked even younger than he was. The skin on his twelve-year-old cheeks looked as soft and smooth as did her own at age twenty-seven. Then, she recalled those tattoos, scars, noses or cheekbones smashed or shattered, sported as signs of prowess by gang members. She felt her hand reach out to touch Sean’s cheek, but then, fearing her gesture might be misconstrued, smoothed her own hair instead.
Disturbing Truths From a Student
“So, do you want to join the Bronze boys?” Karen asked
Karen tried to conceal her relief. If she had found a trail into his mind, she must not seem too eager. Hence, striving to keep her tone neutral, she said, “What do you think your life will be like if you join them?”
Sean said, “I'd be included in lots of cool stuff, get invited to their craziest parties, and then, once I'm a full-fledged member, lots of the hottest babes everywhere will be just about pleading with me to be with them.”
“I can see how that could be nice,” Karen said, “but what will the leaders ask you to do as their price for including you?”
Sean flushed a little before replying, “For the first year, I’d do deliveries for them.”
“And what would you be delivering, Sean?”
“Recruits aren't allowed to ask questions, Ms. Fern. Anyway, once I'm done with that part, if I haven't mucked things up or not too bad anyway, I can be an official Bronze Boy. Then, when I turn sixteen, if I keep to the rules and act on their motto, I'll become a Bronze man.”
“What is that motto?”
“Wow, it’s the best: “Bronze Boys don’t wait, we win.”
“And do you think, Sean, those opportunities will make you happy?”
“Happy?” He said, as if the word was one he had never considered, at least in terms of himself. “Happy?” He repeated. Then, leaning slightly forward and towards her, as if explaining to someone from a faraway place, “You see, Ms. Fern, kids like me who grow up mostly on the streets know we will not live all that long. Before we get to twenty, we are bound to wind up killed in a gang fight, or else get knifed or gunned down by some other guy from another gang, looking for a few points, or maybe promotion. So the way we figure it, we might as well find a few good dudes to hang with, and enjoy some big-time nights with those babes, before we get wiped out and finished.”
A Luminous Future or Absolute Failure
This was her pivotal moment, she knew. She had only a few minutes to win Sean towards an infinite future, or watch him deteriorate into the flotsam of life’s detritus. “Sean,” she said, “you seem to be saying there is only one road you can possibly take.”
“That’s the way it is,” he said, his feet, briefly stilled, beginning to tap on the hardwood floor once again, this time half a decibel louder.
Karen said, “You seemed to like Robert Frost’s poem about birch trees. Robert Frost wrote another poem saying whatever we choose in our lives, we can never stop wondering, to some degree, and how our lives might have changed if, when we had the chance, we had made different choices.” At that, Sean yawned, and glanced towards the clock.
“They've given me a deadline,” he said. Now It’s late Friday afternoon, and if I don’t give a definite yes by 8 A.M. Monday morning, I'll be out, as in outcast. Like I said, they don’t wait.”
And they always win, Karen thought, only, please, not this time. “Sean,” she said, her voice urgent now. “What if during next week I could drive you to universities where you could talk to boys who went to schools like yours, but made themselves think about grades and not gangs. They could tell you the way they feel about having reached that decision.”
“You would do that for me, Ms. Fern?” he asked, his eyes widening. For a moment, he seemed to allow himself to envisage talking with boys wholly different from those he knew. Then, with half a shrug, he got to his feet and said, “I’m sorry, Ms. Fern, but I do need to go. The Bronze Boys are having a recruiting meeting, and I can’t risk being late.”
For a moment, she grasped his wrist, then released it. “Still, she said, “can you promise to think of what we have talked about, and those chances you could so easily have?”
“Honest, I will, Ms. Fern, and I hope you understand I feel awful grateful.”
Seeing him turn his back, she glanced down; it would have hurt her too much to watch him walk off into the distance. Yet, she could not help hearing his footsteps as he began to race down the corridor.
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© 2015 Colleen Swan