Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Schooled in the 'Hood

This was written several years ago for a short story contest, and nothing came of it. This week I was cleaning out some old files on my computer and stumbled upon it. Names have been changed to protect the people involved. I've never seen or heard from any of them since that summer.

“Kujo, buddy,” I asked, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” Outside the aging inner-city church where I’d spent ten stifling summer weeks, I sat on the handrail of a handicap ramp. It was past eleven o’clock on my last night in Philadelphia. Eleven-year-old Kujo stood straddling a rusty blue bike, clutching the grimy handlebar grips, and jabbing at the pedals with his toes.

“I wanna be a cop, man,” he declared in his trademark white-thugspeak. A cop.

* * *

I did not seek out this job. Two weeks before my college graduation, a friend told me about a non-profit organization that sends church youth groups on weeklong mission trips all over the country. With no remaining leads for employment, I signed on as a site director and stated my preference to work in a city. They sent me to a low-income, Irish-American pocket of North Philly, near the famed stomping grounds of Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa. A nineteenth-century church opened its doors to our program. Using the cavernous building as our home base, three staff and I coordinated and hosted hundreds of volunteers that summer.

“Urban ministry, volunteer work in the city, is different than painting houses or fixing up porches,” I’d caution the youth groups in my weekly spiel. Most of the teens picked at the carpet or offered apathetic stares.

“You don’t usually get to see the fruit of your labor,” I continued. “There’s no finished product to look back on and say, ‘Look what we’ve accomplished.’ We have to trust that God works on his own schedule. We’re not here to convert anybody; we’re here to serve and to love others without expecting anything in return. This is not about you.”

At first, conveying that message to the youth groups was a battle. Grumpy teens and presumptuous adult leaders tested my patience for a few weeks. But I found favor more quickly with the neighborhood kids. Vinny, a brash, blond skateboarding runt, was thirteen and in the fifth grade. Anthony—“Ant-ny,” they said—was a rail-thin nine-year-old, blind in one eye, and lived with an uncle who wouldn’t let him in the house until dark. Local parents told their kids to stay away from Kujo, the lead bully with a growing criminal record.

I’d never met Ms. Keegan, Kujo’s mother, but I’d overheard the gossip. “That worthless crack head,” the other kids sneered, “how many boyfriends she got now?” Each one of her delinquents—including Kujo, Tuck, and Kaylee—were by different men, and were poster children for troubled youth. They owned the f-word, and easily reduced the typical female youth groupie to tears by calling her fat (or, if there was a group of girls, ranking them “fat” to “fattest”). Churches’ U-Haul trailers became the Keegan kids’ trampolines; they’d steal car antennas, scrawl misspelled obscenities on dusty van windows, or sunbathe on the hoods of youth leaders’ cars. Moreover, they’d egg on the other kids to follow.

“Just ignore them,” I’d console the chaperones, week after week. “They usually get off. They just want our attention.”

“But they’re denting my car!”

All summer the “neighborhoodlums” pummeled the church’s heavy double doors with their fists and heads and smeared their noses down the doors’ narrow windows. We were advised from the start to lock everything and keep unsupervised kids out of the church. It seemed so wrong at first, but they took such drastic measures to get in that we had no choice. They’d wriggle past the bouncers we stationed at each door, then scurry off to hide under sanctuary pews and cunningly unlock stained glass windows for late-night access. Griffin once tossed a firecracker through the front door and Tuck bit one of our staff. One night we found Kujo and Tuck crouched in a dark stairwell just outside the girls’ sleeping quarters.

We tried to channel Kujo’s reckless enthusiasm. He usually led the charge breaking into the church, but we challenged him to chase out his little brother and sister. (Problem solved.) When Kujo stole one of our cell phones, he fulfilled his subsequent pledge to “go find the f----- who did it and take it back.”

At the Thursday night barbecues, Kujo often begged me, “Mister, Mister, let me help grill the burgers!” He stood dutifully in the smoke, juggling tongs and spatula, flipping and prodding the hot dogs and burgers and showing high schoolers his technique. Kujo hauled heaping bowls of salad and trays of cooked meat across the street to the town square, where he yelled at senior citizens for taking more than their share of food.

Other times he’d show up at the door with bloodshot eyes, or pull a thick wad of greenbacks from his pocket with no reasonable response as to why he had so much money.

One morning Kujo sprinted across the square in his pajamas, with a handful of loose papers. “I got this in the mail!” He handed them to me.

I shuffled through them. “Do you remember Erica? She wrote you a letter.” The teenager from Georgia had visited the week before. Until then, I hadn’t seen Kujo smile without a scheme attached. I read him the note as he examined the self-addressed envelopes and photos.

“She’s fat,” he giggled.

Wondering if he’d ever received a letter, I suggested, “You should write her back. She would love that.” He held a bemused smile as he studied the pictures.

* * *

“A cop?” I asked Kujo. “Really? Why’s that?”

“’Cause I know all the spots where they got the drugs, yo. I’d bust ’em all.”

Kaylee rounded the corner. Kujo dropped his bike, and strutted down the street and she followed. Halfway down the block, a tall white man in his twenties approached them. A stocking cap was pulled over his bushy, dark hair. As the man crossed their path, he opened his trenchcoat and drew Kujo in close for a brief second, like a hug, except I discerned some kind of quick transfer. Then the man did the same with Kaylee. Kujo and his little sister cut across the park and into the night. The man kept walking my way and passed as if nothing happened.

The unfairness made me sick. I was born into privilege; they were conceived by rape and raised amid drug deals. I poured my time and energy into these kids, breaking up fights and gently coaxing them down from U-Hauls. Now they deal drugs in front of my face. Were my efforts this futile? If I spent my entire life as a role model or mentor, would it change a single thing?

I slumped, fiddling with a hangnail, when the weight of my own words struck from behind. “You don’t usually get to see the fruit of your labor. There’s no finished product to look back on and say, ‘Look at what you’ve accomplished.’ You’re here to serve and to love others without expecting anything in return. This is not about you.”

That night I stared face to face with my own inadequacy. I don’t have the muscle to pull anyone out of abuse, addiction, or despair. I am a fellow struggler in a world that is often unfair and backwards.

Few things would be more backwards than Kujo Keegan as a law enforcement officer, but I’m pulling for him. That kid would make one tough cop.


Barb said...

Finally, you write. Sobering, deeply thought-provoking. Its power lies in the unknown ending. More, please!

Dan said...

Fantastic...intriguing and insightful!

I had many of the same feelings this year with my students, especially that we don't usually get to see the fruits of our labor.

Karen Dawkins said...

Since you're a once a year blogger, I wait patiently.
It's worth the wait.

Thank you for putting into words what most of us could never articulate.

No matter where Kujo's life leads, you loved him. Deep inside, he will never forget that.

Josie said...

Dave! This is Joe Wallace from Penthouse...I was watching the Red Sox game last night and totally saw you sitting with Rick Sutcliffe when he caught a foul ball! What the heck were you doing on ESPN?! Shoot me an email, it's, I'd love to catch up with you!

Josie said...

Dave! This is Joe Wallace from Penthouse...I was watching the Red Sox game last night and totally saw you sitting with Rick Sutcliffe when he caught a foul ball! What the heck were you doing on ESPN?! Shoot me an email, it's, I'd love to catch up with you!