Outside this room is an ocean of cracked, gray, bumpy, plain, cement waves contained by fence after fence after fence penning my kids in like a prison yard. Just beyond that 3rd chain-linked barrier is a wide open, green, grassy field. A space where these children are not permitted to play because drug lords, gangs, and prostitutes reign.
But inside the box that floats atop this concrete ocean is the seed of some collective being. Twenty-six sets of precious eyes open wide, eager for anything, for everything, for a chance to please, a chance to succeed, a chance to achieve. Four walls screaming rich delight with wild colors–turquoise gems, ruby reds, deep brilliant blues and bright hues. “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose!” “Work hard, get smart, follow your heart!” These chants cling and clamor across that concrete plain and dominate those shadows of pain that plague the park.
With his head bent down, he says in a whisper, “They’re making fun of my skin…’Milk.’ They keep calling me ‘Milk’.” My throat clenches, shoulders stiff, this rhythm, this ba-bump, ba-bump, ba-bump pulsing under my skin–this is the beat of my blood and I respond, “Don’t you see? Don’t you see Malcolm, the beautiful glow of your skin, warm from the sun and thick with the pride of your mother, your father, your grandma, your sister. You are you, and you are the most gloriously beautiful you to walk this humble earth.” His eyes peer into mine, “You look like my mom, you smell like my mom, your face does what hers does when you get mad.” My heart pounds even stronger. This yearning for her return is so tangible I can touch it. “I am not your mom,” I say simply. I squeeze his shoulders tight so he knows I care. But what I really want to do is wrap my arms around his sunken frame and show him she may have abandoned you but I am here. We’ve got mountains to climb. So show me your smile. I’ll watch you rise.
I want to tell them…If only you knew how my heart swells, how my thoughts dwell, drift in, drift out, can’t sleep, can’t eat. One thing on my mind, to see you survive. I explain, “Scholars, listen to me when I speak these words. Because I mean these words. You will not end up on the streets. The only blood that bleeds will be the blood from skinned knees playing on the cracked concrete in a wild kickball game on a slippery overcast day. No bullets, no bottles, no pills, no weed. No, no, no, no, no, no, no,” I plead, “to all the dangerous deeds you see.” But no after no does not suffice. Might I suggest a new device. A “Yes, yep, sure, you got it, well-done, nice.” An “I can, I want, and I will…” You will be somebody someday. You’re already somebody today.
“Listen, this is 95% mental, 5% technical,” my principal tells me from across the table, “Keep your head up.” My friend M.C. reminds me, “Life is cyclical and without the bad, the good would hardly be worth it.” But what exactly do my children need? How do I lead them to succeed? What do I do to put them on the path to their dreams? Especially in the context of other things. Oakland in shambles bearing the weight of the Oscar Grant case. Homeless students. City-wide shootings. But, even four weeks of rough, rough, rough, rough days still cannot dissuade. Because n-o-t-h-i-n-g will beat the sight and sound of 26 voices in unison, smiles wide, singing, “I am a mountain, I am a tall tree, oh, I am a swift wind sweeping the country. I am a river, down in the valley, oh, I am a vision and I can see clearly. If anybody asks you who I am, just stand up tall look ‘em in the face and say: I’m that star up in the sky, I’m that mountain peak up high. Hey, I made it, I’m the world’s greatest. And I’m that little bit of hope when my backs against the ropes, I can feel it, I’m the world’s greatest…”
Flag football victories, book groups making swoops, prayers sung for peers by students in tears, “thankful Thursdays,” eruptions of laughter over the spelling word “joint,” kids that stay after school to help clean because they don’t want to leave, random trivia, tricks, and dance moves so slick taught by kids to me, texts received from students that read “Woohoo! $$ jay $$” after phone calls home for perfect scores, swarms of children ecstatic from the visit of a certain old friend, hip-hop artist Bobby Brackins, and five simple words uttered by Janet on her way out the door to T-day vacation: “I’m going to miss you!” A smile, all I need is one hint of happiness to ignite in me a spark to pass on to you, my students. So we part ways for the next nine days to ponder a maze of appreciations and thanks…