At a round table in a classroom, two 10-year-old boys sit across from me. By just about anyone’s definition, both can be described as at-risk.
I had been asked by a school administrator if I could come to the school and talk to them about their continuous demonstrations of street gang behaviors. Not only do the two of them talk about gangs, but they draw gang graffiti on their notebooks, throw up hand signs, talk about violence and guns, and they have displayed threatening attitudes toward both their fellow classmates and their teachers. They also have shown a mastery of certain four-letter words.
Remember, a 10-year-old is a fifth-grader. The soldiers that these elementary-aged boys imitate are not our heroes serving our nation. Instead the soldiers they want to be like, sooner rather than later, are the self-anointed criminal soldiers of the streets. They follow the names of LaRaza, Gangster Disciples, Latin King and MOB. These are the gangs that follow the lead of the “Thug Life” as described by deceased gangsta rapper Tupac Shakur.
One of the young men sitting across from me is somewhat tall for his age and slender, the other not so tall and stockier. The lean one immediately shows his contempt for even having to be sitting at the table. It is a common response from him. He curls his lip and squints his eyes, barely looking my direction. When I say good afternoon, his practiced response is, “Man, why do I have to be here?” In order to make sure he understands the expectations, I respond with, “I don’t call you boy, you don’t call me man. Do we understand one another?”
“Whatever,” he answers.
The other young man sits quietly, hunched over with both elbows on the table supporting his torso. He eyes me intently as I begin talking. I could not even begin to count the number of times I’ve been asked to talk to students of all ages about the negatives and horrors of kids getting involved in gang life. I’ve learned that talking about a subject that can quickly destroy a young life before it’s ever really had the chance to discover possible opportunities should be direct and never sugar-coated.
It seems that over the years since the days when I served in the role as gang information coordinator when working with adjudicated male juvenile delinquents in the Indiana Department of Correction, the age of those I confront has gotten younger and younger. And for an outsider it might be surprising just how hard two fifth-graders can be.
I learn soon enough that the taller of the two is the more flashier and talkative. At first he has to let me know how indifferent he is to my presence. The other less so, at least to start with. Yet he seems to exude a quiet anger. I’ve learned from the school staff that at the beginning of the school year, although he had gotten into some trouble, he was friendlier and showed little if any interest in anything having to do with street gangs.
But something changed. His mother has expressed her dread as to where her son is taking his life. She is not sure where his interest originated.
At first the two deny doing anything related to gangs in school. I don’t let this divert my focus on what will await them if they continue to act like or eventually become gangbangers. I talk from experience what life will be like for them if they get too deeply involved in the criminal justice system. I tell them that most of those who I dealt with when they were young and who did not turn their backs on the gang lifestyle either end up locked up for most of their lives, drugged up or dead.
I ask them if they live with family members who they love, and both say they do. I inform them that when they hook up with a gang, that they also join their families into the life as well. I show them graphic pictures of gunshot victims. I tell them how most of the homicide victims accounted for last year in Fort Wayne were killed over either gang or drug issues. I have a million stories to tell it seems.
Both now listen intently. They ask me questions. They hold the pictures of the gunshot victims close to their faces, almost solemnly gazing at something they had never taken into consideration.
When I get called just a few hours after leaving the school by the school administrator telling me that both young men continued to yap their gang rhetoric after my departure, I was not surprised. There have been very few times where I actually changed anyone’s life immediately with an hour talk. But I do know they listened, and that is at least a small victory from my perspective.
Unfortunately, the not-so-regular messages they get from educators or the police are not enough to counter-balance the everyday influences they see in their homes, in their neighborhoods or in the media. For many young people, the multiple at-risk influences with which they come into contact daily include broken families, family members or role models with criminal histories, and neighborhoods where crime is prevalent. They are kids who are exposed to extreme violence as a means to deal with conflict, where marijuana is smoked openly and welfare is a lifestyle.
The strong, consistent positive messages are few and far between. But if we deliver those messages from the earliest moments of their lives, they will listen.
Character development is not a part-time endeavor. Meanwhile, the criminal influences are working overtime.