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Connecting : It's the Basic Need to Belong and Be Heard That Can Draw Children Toward Gangs and Violence--or Slowly Turn Them Away

October 30, 1994|P. Alexander Jesseson | P. Alexander Jesseson is the pseudonym of a writer in Los Angeles. Akuyoe of the Spirit Awakening Workshop and Kambon "Oba" Obayani inspired and provided the writings from young people in Juvenile Hall

The man in front of me holds the knife a hand's width from my face. I don't move. For the next 60 seconds, I will use only my eyes and ears. My hands are at my sides. Eight-inch blade, I notice, brown-leather handle, dulled from use. I'm surprised by the thickness of the shank of steel. It must weigh half a pound, I think for no reason. Then I look away, half instinctively, half remembering a presentation at my daughter's high school where the kids were told that if accosted by someone with a weapon, don't focus on the weapon. I look at the man: About 45 years old; 5 feet, 8 inches; 170 pounds, dark coffee-color skin, triangular beard, smiling eyes. He's happy. "That's a knife," he says, satisfied.

I note the mix of street twang and South America in his too-soft voice. Then another voice speaks. It belongs to the boy beside me. "It's not sharp," he says. I can hear his youth in his voice, curious, wanting to challenge, but for all of that, uncertain. The man's eyes open a little, and I notice a spark of light fly out of them. "You think it's not sharp?" he says. "Give me your hand."

"No way," says the boy. He puts a foot of distance between his shoulder and mine, but I can still feel the tension in his body. Then the man speaks again. His voice is even softer than before, his face relaxed, his eyes revealing even more light as he looks right at the boy. "I wouldn't cut you, brother," he tells the boy. "I wouldn't do anything to hurt you at all. Straight up?" No one speaks. Then, "Straight up," says the boy. "For real?" the man checks in. He needs to know the boy believes him. "For real."

The moment is over, but in the room where I volunteer with 12 teen-age gangbangers and kids at risk of becoming one, more than one boy is relieved. Sitting on the sagging couches and chairs of this community center in South-Central Los Angeles, the boys laugh and poke each other to let out the tension. But I can see in their eyes that the man's message has penetrated deeply. More deeply than an eight-inch blade. Someone in their lives has whispered in a voice that demanded to be heard, "I wouldn't do anything to hurt you at all."

And in this room of kids, here because they have been hurt and, in turn, have hurt others--out of fear, anger, poverty, hopelessness and confusion--these are words they haven't heard too often, if ever, before. These are words they can't afford to miss. So even though they may not yet completely trust the man with the knife (a former gangbanger like me who had help turning his life around and hopes to offer the same help for as many of these young ones as he can), and even though they lean back casually against the torn couches with the practiced indifference and nonchalance they feel they need just to get down the street, I can see that something inside of them leans forward, as if to catch a trace of something invisible and rare. Straight up.

I was a boy very much like them. Their faces, their voices, flash and echo a face and voice I recognize as my own. Of course, that was a long time ago in New York City, and my crew and I wouldn't have been caught wearing the saggy-baggy outfits these boys wear. Or the shaved heads! We were more the stiletto type. Tight. Cool. Dress like a blade, you are one--all the danger held coiled inside, ready to spring without warning. But for all of that, as I look at their faces and hear what they are willing to say to the group and what they can't yet say, I see that their feelings are the same as mine were then: The fear behind the strut. The terror and pain of feeling so invisible. The bewildering self-hatred that rises up inside when they ask themselves why they did what they did, and so often come up empty for an answer.

Their words move through me like ghosts of my own young blood as I listen to them and read what young people locked down in Juvenile Hall have written about their lives.

Life, life, you can't be like this. --Jeremy

there's no one that could help you / help you understand what to do / with those starving bones of you --Evan

Once upon a time I had a dream that someday I would be / locked up and they would charge me with murder and it came / true. --Arthur

DESIRE I want / sunlight in / my hands. / I want water / like my mothers / smiles / to cover / me / I want / my arms / from behind / my back --Jesse

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