I stood at the corner just as I was told to do. It was early morning and the students were arriving on foot, in cars and on buses. I liked being all by myself because I was not yet fully awake. My post allowed me to enjoy the morning sunshine and organize my thoughts without the interruptions of the early risers who always seemed to be so boisterous and happy at an ungodly hour. It had been a last minute request from the principal. He needed to be certain that someone would be watching over the kids from that vantage point and he specifically wanted that person to be me. Luckily I had prepared my classroom for the day’s work the afternoon before so I wasn’t bothered at all by the unusual assignment.
I smiled quietly at the passersby. It was actually fun to watch the neighborhood on parade. It was a poor part of town but the people were vibrant and hopeful that theirs would be the last generation to know poverty. They sent their children to school full of dreams and most of the youngsters were responding well. Sadly gangs had infiltrated the area and often made plays for the same kids that the parents were working so hard to protect. Many of the leaders of those groups were my students. They generally behaved well in the classroom, attempting to fly under the radar lest they find troubles that might interfere with their after school work of plying illegal activities. Now and again one of them would be caught and sent to juvenile detention or even prison depending on age. I got along well with them and often let them know that I worried about them.
On that morning I saw many of them arriving at school as though their lives were totally normal. They waved at me as they passed and I felt secure in the knowledge that they might be safe for the next few hours while they were under our care.
I understood that danger was always a possibility. I had witnessed violent fights in the hallways that ended badly for those who became involved. I had talked students out of pursuing brutal encounters more than once. I knew that most of my kids were good-hearted and willing to defer to my wishes. Sadly they all too often found trouble once they left at the end of the day.
I liked standing at that crossing on that morning. It was a sunny day with almost perfect spring weather. I was in my element, ready to take on the challenges of the day whatever they may be. My time as a sentry was uneventful just as I had expected. I reported back to the secretary to assure her that all had gone well.
She sighed with relief when she heard my peaceful account, revealing that a tipster had alerted the school that a drive by shooting was planned for that corner on that very day. I wasn’t sure how to react to the disturbing news. I was certainly happy that nothing had happened but I wondered why I had not been informed earlier of the possibilities. I was stunned that I had been left all alone on that crossing when there was knowledge that I might witness or be victimized by violence. I laughed weakly as though I didn’t quite believe what she was saying and silently heaved a sigh of relief.
The more I thought about the incident, the more convinced I became that I had perhaps forestalled the plan because it may have been one of my students who had hatched the plot. Perhaps the perpetrator saw me and decided not to get me involved. I was still quite worried to think that such thoughts had ever occurred to anyone even if the entire incident had been nothing more than a prank. Knowing that innocents and I had been so close to danger bothered me for many weeks.
My situation became the subject of dark humor among my colleagues. We had learned to laugh at even the most dire events. It was our way of surviving much like the doctors and nurses of M.A.S.H. teams. One of my coworkers told her husband about what had happened and after that he showed up in his police car every single time I was on duty. He would flip on his siren for a few seconds and tease me about potential crime. I soon enough figured out that he was watching over me without drawing attention to his kindness. We shared that private joke even though I think we both knew that his patrol was deadly serious.
So many of my former students ended up in the penitentiary. I always cried when I learned of their fate. It was such a waste of intellect and talent and basically good souls. I knew that immaturity and a need to belong had most often prompted their thug life. I preferred hearing the stories of those who had managed to find their way out of the maelstrom. There were many who ultimately found success as firefighters, police officers and soldiers in the military. They belonged to new brotherhoods that gave them hope. Some of them came back to tell me of their success. I was moved by the hard work and determination that they had exerted to set themselves free.
I can still envision that morning at that school crossing. I’d like to think that all of our children will always be as protected and safe as they were on that day. Sadly the realities tell me that there are still so many innocents who become victims of poverty, ignorance and warring gangs. In Chicago the problem is so horrible that we have difficulty even knowing what to do to stop the violence. It is an awesome task filled with danger but we have to try.
One of my former students who seemed to be inextricably tangled with local gangs managed to eventually extricate himself. When I asked him how he found the courage to walk away from the ugliness of it all he explained that it was faith that brought him through. The faith that his parents had in him even at the lowest point made him realize that he already belonged to a loving family and he did not need the outside forces that taunted and tempted him. The faith of teachers who saw the positive aspects of his personality and intelligence helped him to understand his own potential. The faith of the members of his family’s church who prayed for him even when he seemed lost convinced him that there was a power greater than the thugs with whom he had allied himself. The faith of an assistant principal who refused to allow him to throw his life away made him see that he had never been alone. Ultimately he felt the power of that faith and began to believe in himself as well. He turned his life around and left the ugliness of the streets for good.
Each of us has a responsibility to our young. Sometimes it begins by being present at a crossing where they begin to learn of the strength that they have within themselves. We cannot simply give up on them because they have made mistakes. It is with the weakest among us that we have the most potential to change the world. Each of us has to try. We never really know how important a simple act of kindness or encouragement may impact a human soul. We need to be there to see them walk safely across.