He sat sprawling low out of his seat with his long legs, while facing me across the large conference table. The eyes looked like shades at half mast on a window, self protective, keeping more in, minimizing the clues which filter out. He was a fairly new resident in NCCF’s high intensity group home and clearly he did not trust any adult in the room. Also, at all costs, he was not going to let himself be vulnerable in front of his peers. The mask was up. The scowls. Tough guy.
Of course, I was challenged by our dynamic. Once again, I had asked twenty adolescents to meet with me to talk about the latest societal controversy….a jury verdict involving the death of a 17-year-old Black male. The boys were puzzled that I wanted to talk about this. I began: Many adults are really involved in intense discussion about this verdict in Florida…there is a media frenzy…..are you aware of the debates? If so, what are you experiencing? What would you like to share? All thoughts and feelings will be respected.
He sat up suddenly, directly capturing my attention, and began to lead the group. Why do you care? He was killed a year ago, anyway. What’s so important about talking about this now?
I thought to myself, how incredibly uninformed I am. How glad I was that I asked! Because I am responsible for your welfare, I said, and I really want to know how all of you are doing. That simple.
The boys then told me about all of the people in their lives who had been killed, for whom there had been no protest or even real upset. A youth said that his cousin was murdered last week and his probation officer would not let him attend the funeral. He was still angry (although I also sensed his relief, too.) A 15 year old said that young people should obey their parents’ rules or they will be killed; he also said that Black males were targeted as a way to control the population. There are too many of them. Still another youth said that his grandmother told him that God decides when you die. We do not have any control over our death. There was agreement that it was normal for a youth to be killed and that adults do not seem to realize this, or do not wish to accept it. At the end of the hour, the boys were pleased that they had an opportunity to talk and exchange their feelings so freely.
Still seated opposite from me, he was smiling now and a positive connection between the two of us was established. His leadership skills were recognized, and therefore he felt rewarded. But I left this session challenged beyond my naive, simple expectations. I was rather stunned, in fact. I realized that no matter their ethnicity or race, all the boys purported that the world is violent, safety is elusive, and their personhood is threatened routinely. It did not matter to them the race of a killer, either. Dead is dead. It has taken me a while to digest this feedback, to let go of my preconceptions, and the tendency to narrow the problem. The real issue: How can the boys grow into healthy men if adults fail to provide them with a secure, protective childhood, no matter their ethnicity or race?